Sharing country, sharing sovereignty

Reviving the needs of country

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We acknowledge our Yawuru Elders and their organisation we work with and for, who have generously given us permission to share their stories.


WE LIVE IN a country where people talk daily about the spirits that reside here. These spirits can be seen as bulany (serpent-like beings) in the cloud formations that herald the rain. They can appear as rayi, playful and mischievous spirits of unborn children. In places revisited after long absences, they can be heard singing. When people visit country to go hunting, the spirits bring them fish and other bush resources. They both welcome and discourage people, and can be responsible for mishaps. They visit in dreams, sometimes powerfully enough to cause yaman (a state of being where one is unable to move). Visitors to our country, if they are open to them, may also interact with spirits.

There are other, much deeper and more powerful spiritual forces that lie within the country, residing in special sites and forming the songlines and stories that cross the vast Australian landscape. These are more than narratives to be recognised symbolically and celebrated. They are ever-present phenomena that keep country alive, to which people are connected as kin, and which must be respected. As countrymen, Yawuru people are constantly navigating through this non-secular, evolving landscape. The presence of these forces demands patient respect and constant negotiation between people and the country.

The Uluru Statement From the Heart seeks recognition of the Aboriginal presence in what is now known as the Australian nation, and contains strong reference to this spiritual aspect of our connection to country, our sovereignty.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

Despite some archaic use of English, this paragraph summarises the experience and understanding of most, if not all, Aboriginal people – something that we each experience in our own way, but which lies at the heart of what it means to be Aboriginal, regardless of the historical, political and legal realities Aboriginal people have had to deal with since the colonisation of Australia. These universal expressions of attachment in the Uluru Statement help to bridge the gap between Western and Indigenous understandings: both describe an ontological reality, the metaphysical or spiritual dimension of life.

In this article, we seek to explore the notion of the spiritual and what it means to our community, and how Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities work together to share this vision of country as a spiritual, metaphysical landscape that we all care for. We work at Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY), the organisation that represents the Yawuru native title holders of Broome and the surrounding region in the west Kimberley. Our work focuses on the revitalisation of cultural traditions – language, songs, dances, stories – and on preserving and continuing these traditions in order to protect and look after Yawuru country and communities, and to share our story with the rest of the world. On this journey, Yawuru people and their fellow countrymen have withstood hardships, and shared the memories of the even harder sufferings of their Elders; they have fought and won legal battles; they have been resilient and celebrated the lives of their people. They have not always done this single-handedly. Yawuru have sought partnerships with people and organisations that are willing to share their vision.

Our country may look flat but it is full of story, full of spirit. Powerful songlines pass through, connecting across the continent… When I was making the film Bran Nue Dae we met the Chooky Dancers [Djuki Mala from Arnhem Land] – they had the same story of the three sisters as we do. The modern world brings us together so we can see how connected we are, and how we must share responsibility.
We want to engage in science not just to do, say, archaeology to look at a midden, but we want science to help map our story, map our songlines, and to change the way people think about our country.
Jimmy Edgar


THE FOUNDATION OF Yawuru cultural beliefs and understandings and relationship with our country is Bugarrigarra, for which there is no adequate English translation as it embraces the spiritual, non-secular understandings of our world. Patrick Dodson, Yawuru Elder and a senator for Western Australia, explains:

For the Yawuru people of Broome Western Australia, where I was born, our history begins with Bugarrigarra, what most Westerners romantically call…the Dreamtime! The Bugarrigarra encompasses the time well before Western philosophy, religion and laws reached our lands. The Bugarrigarra is associated with events that created our world, deep at the beginning of time, yet it transcends time and space to inform and give meaning to contemporary Yawuru life. For those Yawuru who still hold faith with the customary law, it is the spiritual force that shapes our cultural values and practices, our relationship with our country and the responsibilities and obligations that we have to each other as Yawuru people. The Bugarrigarra is the essence of our native title!

As Lloyd Pigram says: ‘Bugarrigarra has not stopped…it continues.’

Bugarrigarra represents unique manifestations of the total landscape and its seasonal cycles that transcend time, and is central to Yawuru cultural understandings. It represents a world of which people are a part of and carry responsibility to ‘look after’ their country. Even buru, the Yawuru word for ‘country’, similarly encompasses dimensions of both space and time, and people’s place in them. Kōmei Hosokawa, who wrote his doctorate on the Yawuru language, explains the many meanings of buru: ‘It means both time and/or space’, and can refer to ‘country, land, camp site, earth, dirt, mud, time, era, cemetery in town, death (in association with burial), this world and the other world.’

In Yawuru ontology, there is no division between the physical and spiritual world. The physical world is often seen as manifestations of spiritual forces that exist in an astral world that many people interact with. This metaphysical worldview has been held by philosophers as far back as the Bronze Age. Most, if not all, civilisations have expressed their ontological and cosmological beliefs through some form of metaphysics. Despite their many differences, they share a ‘metaphysical awareness’ of all that exists beyond the empirical, physical reality, and as such relate to Indigenous knowledge systems that are centred on the Bugarrigarra. However, these worldviews are contrary to much Western historic and scientific thought, which insists on dichotomies such as natural/cultural values; physical/spiritual dimensions; tangible/intangible culture. These divisions also dominate heritage-conservation praxis.

In parallel to these rigid paradigms, scientists continue to discover examples of interconnectivity in the natural world that reflect Indigenous knowledge. For example, how the underground mycorrhizal network that allows trees to share fungi through their root systems to keep forests healthy; how whales transfer song between the east and west coasts of Australia; or how in Canada, predators such as wolves need to remain at the top of the food chain in order to keep river ecosystems healthy. (The presence of salmon in the river, and bears in the surrounding country, are vital in keeping the forests healthy.) Aboriginal people have been seeing these types of intricate webs of life for aeons. The interconnectedness of things is articulated, for example, in understandings of the seasonal cycle where indicators across the ecosystem work together to mark the changes – a simple example being that when certain trees flower, reef fish are fat, marking the time when Yawuru leave the bay and creeks and head to the reefs. Or how whales breaching in the ocean as they travel south to their feeding grounds ‘wake up’ the hibernating underground species (snakes, lizards) at the end of the cold season.

It may be that one day, the division currently made in the dominant Western disciplines between the spiritual and physical dimensions will no longer be apparent, and we will all be able to see the world as a unity, with a holistic understanding of our environment. Parallels already exist across a range of materially diverse cultures. For example, reflections of the holistic Indigenous worldview can be found in the art and architecture of Giotto and Giorgio de Chirico, or in the linguistic studies of the philosopher Henri Bergson, which encompass holistic concepts of being, knowing, identity, time and space. ‘Bugarrigarra’, ‘metaphysical awareness’ and ‘collective unconscious’ are culturally specific terms that point towards a more profound and complete reality that exists beyond and encompasses the terms themselves. That this spiritual notion of reality is shared across a range of cultures and disciplines is perhaps evidence enough that it should be treated with the utmost respect. As philosopher Morris Berman urges, we would like to pursue the possibility of ‘the re-enchantment of the world, and to stand against secularism…the last bastion of modernism’


AT NBY WE are in the process of expressing these deep philosophical understandings in our everyday work. Our organisation is committed to the revitalisation of cultural traditions, the preservation of knowledge systems and the sound management of country to encompass and respect cultural understandings.

Yawuru country is now overlaid by many land tenures and titles. Native title has helped to provide recognition of Yawuru’s underlying cultural relationship to their country, but falls well short of full recognition of traditional ownership. As a condition of the agreements negotiated with the state of Western Australia, the Yawuru native title holders were required to develop a cultural management plan for the proposed Yawuru Conservation Estate (YCE), which would be jointly managed by Yawuru and the state government agency responsible for conservation management. However, rather than focus only on the tenured areas specified as part of the YCE, the plan identified the values in the whole of Yawuru country. The Walyjala-jala buru jayida jarringun buru Nyamba Yawuru ngan-ga mirli mirli (‘Planning for the Future: Yawuru Cultural Management Plan’) expresses the deep relationship between country and people. It presents a holistic view of country and respects Yawuru cultural protocols and the interconnectedness of the land and seascapes, which are expressed through traditional knowledge systems of habitat and seasonal change, as well as acknowledging the rights and responsibility of Yawuru people to look after them. By presenting this relationship of the Yawuru people to their country as paramount, the Yawuru Cultural Management Plan (YCMP) ensures that joint management will be an evolving partnership between the government and Yawuru people. In this way, the YCMP represents a paradigm shift from the normal style of government conservation and management plans that separate cultural and natural values, and then further separate values into particular features that require protection and management. The role of the traditional owners of country is similarly separated and usually appears in the final pages of most conventional conservation area management plans in connection with the protection of social or cultural values. In contrast, the YCMP identifies the relationship of Yawuru people to their country as its core value rather than as a response, articulated through management strategies, to a set of unconnected cultural, social and ecological values.

Our cultural values stem from the relationship that we as Yawuru have with our country. Like the country itself, they arise from Bugarrigarra, which gave form to the landscape, determined our laws and gave Yawuru the responsibility for looking after our country.

Thus, the Yawuru people’s vision for the management of their country is ‘Mabu liyan, mabu buru, mabu ngarrungunil’, meaning ‘good liyan [roughly translated as wellbeing], healthy country, strong community’. It expresses how people feel about country, and is a simple yet profound statement about how people and country are linked. Good liyan comes from ensuring that there is a strong connection of Yawuru people to their country, their ancestors and spirits, their way of life and sense of belonging to Yawuru society, and is an expression of emotional strength, dignity and pride. The YCMP states: ‘The guiding principle for good management of Yawuru country is that we as Yawuru maintain good, clear liyan with the country within the modern, ever-changing world’. It is about maintaining a balance between the past, the present and the future.

This vision now informs each of the draft joint-management plans for the Yawuru Conservation Estate, and underpins all the cultural heritage work of the Nyamba Buru Yawuru. It signifies a shift in heritage management and protection. By focusing on the relationship of people with country, rather than just the isolated natural, social, scientific or aesthetic values of the country, these values create a holistic management model that encompasses the cultural and the natural, the physical and the metaphysical, and focuses on the wellbeing of a society as a key management outcome.

In 2012, the YCMP won the AILA Australian Medal for Landscape Architecture. The judges said:

[The plan] expresses past, present and future; it offers discussions about Culture, Country, Community and liyan…that transcend other reports of this kind, that record and map values. This Cultural Management Plan will and should respectfully drive conservation plans, land management decisions and design activities in marine and terrestrial areas Australia-wide, such is its generous and visionary approach.
It is more than a conversation, more than a listening and recording, more than walking and seeing the land; it is all of these things, but most importantly, it is none of these, but the land and its people.

The YCMP provides a blueprint for the management and protection of Yawuru culture and country, to be nurtured and passed on to future generations.


IN HIS FIRST parliamentary speech in 2016, Senator Patrick Dodson said that he wished to work towards an Australia where all people ‘have a life influenced by mabu liyan – a healthy spirit with the good feelings and sense of worth that comes from mutual respect and balance’. Mabu liyan can be expressed in simple ceremonies, such as smoking ceremonies that burn the leaves of healing plants like the conkerberry or the paperbark. This is a practice of welcoming; it is not hard to imagine the sense of wellbeing that young babies must experience as they are gently passed around a circle of women Elders, embraced and gently caressed by the smoke and warm hands. These ceremonies create lifelong bonds between new generations and their people, as well as with the country. Similarly, visitors to Yawuru country are now introduced by being smoked; it is a cherished way of making people feel welcome and part of their community.

Achieving and maintaining mabu liyan is a primary focus of all NBY’s social, legal, economic, cultural and environmental projects. Recently, Australian National University researcher Dr Mandy Yap worked with the Yawuru community to develop culturally relevant indicators of wellbeing for Indigenous people. Yap interviewed more than one-hundred and fifty people to statistically examine the three tenets of the YCMP vision listed above: mabu liyan, mabu buru, mabu ngarrungunil. She concluded that ‘mabu liyan is in essence a balance of all the emotions and is achieved when one is in balance with one’s self, one’s relationship with others and one’s relationship to country’. To her Yawuru interviewees, mabu liyan is dependent on a strong sense of connectedness with country and culture, requiring access and the ability to enjoy one’s country in culturally appropriate ways; on having autonomy to make decisions; on recognition of the past, particularly the colonial past, to embrace the future; and on receiving respect from the wider community. In essence, it is about achieving balance so that there is no disconnect between the past, present and future, so that as Yawuru face and negotiate the various pressures of development and modernity they are able to maintain their way of living, being and doing as Yawuru. Mabu liyan is a blueprint drawn on the principles of respect, and Indigenous participation and decision-making.

Placing culture at the heart of the organisation is one of the key factors to achieving mabu liyan, and is now central to NBY’s strategic planning. NBY now has many projects dedicated to the revitalisation and enhancement of cultural traditions, as well as acknowledging the trauma of Australia’s colonial past. NBY now runs cross-generational language programs throughout the community. Younger Yawuru people are relearning old skills, acquiring country-management skills and reconnecting with their law under the guidance of their Elders. NBY now has a dedicated system for collecting and preserving knowledge and story. Recent building and landscape projects incorporate Yawuru art in their design. And, importantly, NBY works collaboratively within the wider community to promote the Yawuru story in all its complexity and meaning.

Through this work, NBY has garnered many partnerships with non-Indigenous organisations and is beginning to bring the Yawuru cultural story into the Broome community and landscape. Yawuru are seeking to put their story and names back in the country and to renew old traditions, such as the art of carving pearl shell.

Through these acts we keep in touch with our spiritual world. It is important that others understand how we connect to a place, how we feel when we grow up in our country, how we belong in a deep sense. We always identify ourselves. Let country know who we are. We have a responsibility to protect our country. We also want to share our knowledge. We want your help to do this, and we can only do this if we keep things in balance. In the discussions about Makarrata and the Uluru Statement we asked for a sharing of knowledge, of responsibilities, that respects our ancient traditions.
Lloyd Pigram


THE YAWURU VIEW of understanding, living in and managing country is holistic and based on the connection of people to country, and to all the things that are within the country, as well as their links to the spiritual domain. The interconnectedness of things is constantly being explored by artists, scientists, ecologists and philosophers who share similar understandings. For example, performance artist Marina Abramovic, who challenges our deepest emotions and fears and forces us to pay attention to what we do and how we are with one another, says:

The whole trick is to see that you are connected to everything else. If we understand the connectedness we would never do to the planet what we are doing now.

Far from being exclusive, the Aboriginal spiritual notion of the relationship and responsibility of people to country is a universal one. Everyone who lives on the planet lives in a community, in a landscape, and is attached to part of that landscape and shares a responsibility to look after that place. This is a shared responsibility, but one that should respect the deep and ancient knowledge that has been passed down by our Elders across this continent.

As Senator Dodson, explains:

Our connectivity with our local communities and its values and our landscapes are central to our wellbeing and happiness… Yawuru people’s connection to country and joy of celebrating our culture and society is fundamental to having good liyan. When we feel disrespected or abused our liyan represents life which can be disjointed, unintelligible and unattractive. This can be corrosive for both the individual and the community if not reconciled…
This is one of many values we share, as is our struggle to nurture and assert them within a world where Western philosophic thought underpinning modernity dominates us… Our challenge is to extricate ourselves from this framework and into one of our own making based upon our wisdom, values and practices.

Thus, Yawuru’s aim should be to create mabu liyan, for the country and the people of north-western Australia, and in so doing to develop the best model for protecting the rich heritage of the country together with the people who live there; that is, to be inclusive of Indigenous cultural heritage as well as the heritage of those who colonised Yawuru country. This is one way to respect Yawuru sovereignty, and to share in Yawuru knowledge for the betterment of the nation. As the challenges of climate change and other environmental disasters loom, we need to work together to ensure that we protect our planet, our countries, our places.

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About the author

Jimmy Edgar

Jimmy Edgar is a Yawuru Elder and current chair of the Yawuru Cultural Reference Group.

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