Randy Yibarbuk is a designated future elder of his clan in the Yolgnu nation in west Arnhem Land.
Before he was 10 he was sent for two years to “walk” with his father and elders, and ancestors, in the bush, learning “men’s business” – traditional ways and the skills that would help him start the deep layering of knowledge of the Earth and her ways.
For several months he’s been working with Lirrwi Tourism based in Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land’s east, where he is a guide on a relatively new tourism project that allows small groups of tourists to live for some days on traditional Yolgnu homelands.
The plan for Randy is to stay with the group for three years and pick up enough of the skills needed to help his father’s tourism business as a ranger and guide to the rock art in the area around Maningrida.
Unfortunately those plans may now be in abeyance, temporarily or permanently, after the venture was placed in special administration in January this year.
- See our story How an Aboriginal tourism venture wooed the corporate world (and now needs a rescue plan)
But when we meet it’s at the peak of hopes for this exciting tourism venture.
For this interview we’re talking in the early morning on the beach at Bukudal, one of the homelands that partners with Lirrwi. Randy has agreed to speak on the record because he’s deeply keen to spread the message of the Yolgnu nation and the way his people understand the land. He wants to share the rich culture of connection to the Earth, the sea, its animals and plants, he says.
Randy believes the future for his own children and that of his people lies in building strength in both Western and traditional ways.
“The reason I’m doing this with Lirrwi is because I have four children and I have to do it for my kids to show I am a role model.
“In this world I have to show them both ways. They have to go to school to learn more English and when home, teach them more our side, how we connect to all Yolgnu people.
“Yolgnu people don’t see ourselves as small, but very wide.
“My father is on the west side [of Arnhem Land] and my mother is on the east side – so for me I have to balance my father’s nature and my mother’s nature.”
It’s the same with English and Yolgnu, he says. A balance.
“And if I can do it then I think other young men can do it.”
I tell him his manager Matt Grooby says people like Randy are hard to find.
“That’s true,” he says. “For me, I’m an open hearted person and I can share and join and share and be happy. I have to make you guys comfortable, make sure you are safe… it’s very important to be a guardian.
“There are guys I know [who could do the same]… hopefully they will realise that later somehow they can fight for their rights and fight for their people and speak up and be in the front.”
I tell him the sense of a strongly bonded community at Bukadal is impressive, with young and old, all at one, it seems.
“That’s how we live and that’s how we work,” Randy says.
The kids grow up to “sing and dance for themselves”.
“It’s very important in our culture to be proud of what they are doing. To share our knowledge and for you guys to share with us.”
I ask about the pull of Western culture from school and in the towns clashing with traditional ways.
In the homelands, he says, the kids go to school during term but they come back to the community when there are visitors and for ceremonies.
“They go to school and learn English and then they come home and they are full on speaking Yolgnu and the more they speak with leaders and old ladies [the more they absorb the culture] because the leaders are the powerful ones, they know the knowledge and they see the Milky Way and the stars and they know the story of the sky and the sun…
“At school, they are learning as well. It’s pretty amazing that in this world our kids have got that connection too for later in their future.”
Randy says his English is not very good because for two years he didn’t go to school, and instead went walking with his father and elders in the bush to learn the culture and the language of the land.
“I didn’t see my mum for two years. I didn’t go to school. I was out in the bush.
“Sometimes it gets very hard for me, English, because I’ve gone through that ceremony.”
The experience, he says, shaped his identity.
“It’s very powerful and has layers and layers. It goes deeper and deeper. Our power and our law. We call it Rom,” he says, spelling it out, “R – O – M”, and tracing the letter in the sand. “You call it law”.
“This is where I am living, with this Rom, today. I have all the knowledge and power my people gave me before they died. All the grandfathers and grandmothers who put me here.”
To understand nature you have to “feel the land… respect the spirit of this land, you have to feel the land… connect to you.
“For that you need to stop listening too much to political power. You need to stop and concentrate, have an open heart and feel the power and feel the spirit.
“The land will talk to you.
“We don’t own Earth. Nature, Mother Earth, owns us.”
Randy tells us the dancing is all about the animals. The foot thumping is to better connect with the spirit of the land.
“There’s a songline for every species in the sea – the corals themselves, the water and currents – we’ve got a songline for that. We’re connected to the currents, to the land, the trees, the flowers and all the plants.
“Flowers tell the season for hunting animals or oysters and crabs.”
Randy has more than one name. He is Rumbaa on his mother side, meaning hunter or warrior, and on his father’s side he
has Jarrawalla, meaning powerful man.
His father, he says, is a “very high person” and he’s learnt from him and from his grandfather to carry leadership responsibilities.
His grandfather was a healer.
“My grandfather had special power to play the yiraki [didgeridoo] to heal another person, a person whose soul is sad; he will play and it will wash away the sadness.”
It’s a power that is passed on, he says. “It will come when it’s ready.
“I was chosen because I see all my ancestors’ spirits that came and talked to me and gave me that strength. It’s pretty amazing… when I was younger, at the age of 15. Today I’m 34.
“But sometimes my son – three years old – can do it. To heal another person if they are sick or sad. It’s really pretty strong and powerful.”
All of it comes, he says, from the land and the spirit.
“We feel that land we feel the spirit. That’s how we are connected.
“When we go in the boat to the sea we feel that water, we feel that current and the animals we need to hunt.”
Keeping the kids engaged in the culture is high on Randy’s priority list of concern and I suggest it’s a big contrast to the ways of the West.
“For me, the Western world, what they brought here is poison – no good to the world. They don’t realise they think they own the Earth, they don’t. Mother nature owns us. And they go and destroy.
“I see it that way. Not good.”
It’s hard to keep the young people focused though, especially when they stay in the towns.
“Every homeland I feel… is welcoming, open and free. No one tells me what to do. I feel the land and feel very safe.
“I feel sad for people living in the community [in towns] and not going back to the homeland… to feel the strength and community.”
Balance and sharing
Randy wants to see a more balanced combination between the West and traditional ways.
That’s why the owners of this land have shared it for a few days, so we can learn and share in that sense of those connections that extend to us all.
When we leave, he says, our prints will remain behind.
“I wish your prints will be here and that you will share and tell others [that the homelands are very important for Yolgnu nation] and that it’s the spirit we live and power we feel. You can pass that message when you get back and one day bring more to this paradise place.”