Guidance for a successful community visit
If you have never travelled to an Aboriginal community before it can be quite a daunting experience. Please take the time to read this as it will help you when you travel.
To travel into Aboriginal communities you need a permit. If travelling with ALPA staff this has been arranged for you. If not travelling with ALPA staff you need to organise your own permits through the respective land councils.
Even if you have a permit to travel into communities, from time to time the community may be closed at short notice. This may be due to a death or for cultural reasons. It is always wise to check at the last moment to ensure things are okay.
When in any community do not wander unless you are with a community member who has invited you to go somewhere or to see something. Seek advice if there are any restricted areas that you may not enter. There may be a ceremony or funeral happening, or it may be a sacred site. Wandering into any such event is not acceptable and would be highly offensive and possibly dangerous.
Make sure you obey local laws. Most communities in the top end prohibit alcohol and it is illegal to take alcohol into them. Fines are extremely high and can also include forfeiture of the vehicles that are used to carry the illegal substance in. This includes cars and aeroplanes.
Yolŋu, unlike the majority of Australians, speak several languages including English. When talking to them do so as you would normally talk. Do not talk ‘down’ or use baby talk. This can be very embarrassing for both parties. Most importantly do not swear or use profanities as this is offensive.
Sign and body language is very strong in Yolŋu communities and it is not unusual to see people having long distance conversations, using body movement and hand signals. It is complex but very effective.
When talking to an Aboriginal person you may find that they are not looking at you and appear to be uninterested in what you are saying. In reality this is quite the opposite; they are in fact listening carefully to what you are saying and taking it all in. Whereas Balanda talk eyeball to eyeball, Yolŋu do not generally "eye ball" when talking to you particularly if you are a stranger, Eye balling can be seen as provocative or aggressive in some circumstances. It is not a sign of insincerity.
If you wish to take photographs or film seek permission first. In most cases younger people love to have their photos taken but the older people can be less enthusiastic. Stop and think about it - would you like strangers in your street snapping photos of you, your family and home? If in doubt seek permission first.
In Yolŋu groups (Bapuru or Clans) there is a very strong and complex social structure. This results in all types of confusion for those people who do not understand it, but works very well for the people themselves. Children, for example, have several mothers and fathers besides their biological parents. This ensures that the children are generally always under supervision and care. Some relationships are called 'avoidance' relationships, which means exactly what it says. A good example is mother to son-in-law. This is a total avoidance relationship and means that the two parties cannot speak directly to one another or even be in the same room as one another. This can sometimes create problems at meetings and a particular person who you want to attend will not come in to the room or the meeting place. If this happens do not question it, as the people concerned will generally sort it out and come up with a solution.
Climatic conditions in the Top End of Australia can be very harsh and unforgiving. It is most important that you have adequate clothing, sunscreen and hat. However the most important thing is to keep up your fluid intake. It is very easy to dehydrate in a very short space of time. Make sure you drink plenty of water whilst travelling. If staying overnight, make sure you have adequate clothing and insect repellent.
General dress standards in communities are loose fitting, comfortable clothing. Shorts and an open neck, cool shirt or polo is acceptable. You will not impress anyone with your dress sense; instead dress comfortably. For females, short skirts and shorts are not really acceptable. Generally women wear longer skirts, dresses, jeans or long pants. We also advise enclosed footwear.
Gathering information in communities at times can be very frustrating and confusing. It often depends how you phrase a question as to whether you get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. In most cases, if the person does not fully understand the question, to avoid embarrassment they will simply say yes or agree with you.
In general terms, Aboriginal people are very shy. Although always polite they will quite often not speak when first met or questioned. If this is the case you will find it easier to talk through a third party. This is someone who they trust, such as the ALPA store manager. Communicating back and forth through a third party is quite acceptable.
If you are having a conversation be prepared to wait for a response - we call it the ‘two minute rule’. In Balanda culture, they listen and start to form a response before the speaker is finished, thus answering almost immediately. Yolŋu are much more polite. They listen carefully to the full dhawu (story), think about it and then respond (if authorised to speak on that subject), so that full consideration is given to your information or question.
Please note it is not advisable to touch a person that does not know you well. While Yolŋu do touch from time to time in a humorous moment or if they want to tell you something in confidence, it is not advisable that you touch a person until you become well known to them as it can be taken the wrong way.
In conclusion we hope that you find this information helpful. If you have any questions that may have not been covered then please give us a call or if travelling with one of our staff ask them. It may save some embarrassment at a later date.
Above all relax and enjoy a truly unique part of Australia, while meeting the traditional Aboriginal people of North East Arnhemland. Most Australians will never see this beautiful part of Australia.