Under the original Australian Yolngu law, nobody should do anything to kill anyone else. This includes giving someone poison or medicine, or using a weapon, which are all classed as murder. Euthanasia has become very topical in the Northern Territory recently. When it was briefly legalised during the mid-1990s, Dr Philip Nitschke was the doctor advocating for it and performing the lethal injections. Significantly, one of the words for ‘sorcery’ in Arnhem land, is ‘ṉyinyṉyiny’, which sounds a lot like ‘nitch nitch’ in English. So to Yolngu people, the idea of euthanasia is bound up with Dr Philip Nitschke or Dr Nitch nitch, the sorcerer.
Contrary to mainstream opinion, sorcery is a part of Aboriginal culture, but it is part of illegal Aboriginal culture. It is totally illegal under the original Madayin system of law, despite it being a fact of life, just like life and death are facts. There is a lot of confusion around it now though because some contemporary Indigenous people think it’s an active part of their law. Some even play games saying they’re going to blow didgeridoos against a football club or something under the guise of sorcery, but that is not traditional law; it’s what the Balanda white settlers named Aboriginal culture in their own English terminology.
Yolngu however, do have a form of euthanasia that is self-controlled, called dhä-mukmaram, to ‘close your mouth to food and water’. After declaring this, a person will start to meditate, and start to get themself ready to cross over to the other side. There are many versions of crossing over and death in Aboriginal society, just as in western society, and every clan has their own stories. People will spend their lives, if they’re wise and sensible, learning to live, but also learning to die. And if someone is critically ill, they will call their family together – which consists of at least five clans across their mother’s mother’s people, right down to grandchildren and their clan. This big group of people are the protective citizens around that individual. When ready, the individual will make a statement to them: “ŋarra dhu dhä-mukmaram”, I am going to close my mouth to water and food and go into a form of meditation. This is not something that their family does or a doctor signs off on, or anyone else can control; it is entirely led by them.
If someone does this, they are only going to live for about 3 or 4 more days, but they spend that time getting ready for the crossover, in meditation and prayer, talking to people and sorting things out with them. They might even do this before their dhä-mukmaram, going around and saying to people, “look we’ve had some problems, but can you and I put it behind us?” In this way they sort out all the legal issues so their inheritance is passed on to the right people and so on.
This is why Yolngu and many Indigenous people hate being locked up in hospital – they see it as being imprisoned in a jail, when doctors and others take it upon themselves to think that ‘we’re helping this person die.’ They think, ‘this person is dying of cancer, so we definitely cannot let them go home; they should die here in hospital where we can look after them.’ But they don’t want to stay there, they want to go home to sort out all these legal issues, and to be able to do the transition to the other side, in their own way. No member of their own family, whether they’re medical, or legal is allowed to intervene and take the rights off that patient if they say, “ŋarra dhu dhä-mukmaram”, I am going to close my mouth to water and food. Everybody respects it and everybody comes together, spending the last few days with that person until they pass away.
Medical staff who are not trained in this cultural practice will intervene in it sometimes. They will come down to see an old Yolngu person who is sick and is dying, and ask their family, ‘have they eaten this morning?’ And the family would say truthfully, ‘no, no they haven’t.’ The medical person might then get upset with them and try to feed the sick person. To which the sick person gets extremely angry because they’ve broken their meditation preparation and they have to start it all over again. Medical staff will then become upset and ask, ‘why is this patient angry with me?’ And it’s simply because of cultural incompetence. Many mainstream people in Australia don’t understand how some people wish to die, and the reality of the other half which is not the western half of society.
So euthanasia, if it comes back to the Northern Territory, must acknowledge the original Australian law and practices. Where patients, whether coming from a western or Indigenous cultural standpoint, have total right (unless they are not sound of mind, but in those cases hopefully they had a plan on how to end their last days). Being able to say ‘this is where I’m heading and this is the next chapter in my life now. I will get myself ready to transition to the other side because I’m ready to go there’. If that happens, then people should respect that crossover, and nobody should stop that process.
To listen to our Q&A on this subject click here.