Saturday, December 06, 2008


Songline fades for Treaty man Mandawuy Yunupingu

Natasha Robinson, The Australian,

December 06, 2008

TO millions of Australians, he was a guitar-wielding force of nature straight out of Arnhem Land, singing of a treaty in a tongue that seemed to pulse with the rhythm of an optimistic nation.

It was 1991, at the crest of the Aboriginal reconciliation movement, and Mandawuy Yunupingu was singing of the "truer Australia", where the citizenship of his Yolngu people was complete.

Now, as he lies under white blankets in the brightly lit, sterile Nightcliff Renal Unit in Darwin, Yunupingu is fighting a quieter battle.

The kidney disease that has plagued him for years has finally reached its end stage.

The gentle songman is no longer looking to Canberra to settle the colonial score. Three days a week, as his toxic blood is fed into a dialysis machine that spins and filters and sends it back cleansed, Yunupingu is thinking of his mother, and his father, the great Yolngu leader Mungurrawuy Yunupingu. "If my time comes, they will come and keep me," Yunupingu says. "And I'll come back next time. Come back to my people to live with them again."

For Yunupingu, a teacher and university graduate, and his equally famous brother, Galarrwuy, a veteran of tactical political warfare, decades of activism and community leadership have left both men drained. Born to the same mother (their father had 12 wives), they are two of the most important ceremonial leaders in Arnhem Land.

Both have lost their brittle faith in politicians, and turned their gazes inward, fearful at the splintering social fabric of northeast Arnhem Land, struggling to nourish and preserve the precarious languages and stories that make up their Yolngu culture.

Today, ministers and bureaucrats zip across the Northern Territory in a constant stream of charter jets, rolling out policy after policy, holding up the glittering dream of a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for remote-living people. Governments promise to stitch the great wounds left by dispossession, alcohol and passive welfarism; the wounds that governments call the "gap". Amid the trauma, the ritual sanctity of ceremony looms more important than ever in Arnhem Land.

Here, the "gap" is not a life-expectancy statistic. For Mandawuy, the voice behind one of Australia's most recognised songs, the 1991 international hit Treaty, a collaboration between Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly and Yolngu musicians, it means advanced renal failure at the age of 52. For Galarrwuy, it means losing loved ones, seemingly at random, to suicide.

And so the brothers turn their focus homeward. Galarrwuy, to his homeland of Dhanaya and his community of Gunyangara, or Ski Beach, where a bark hut has been set up in readiness for the young men, who will gather there to talk of suicide and how they might bolster their collective mental defence. "We've come to the closing of a chapter in politics, and it hasn't worked," Galarrwuy says in a profile published today in The Weekend Australian Magazine.

"I aim from now on to commit myself to my immediate family: that's what I can do - that's all I can do."

Mandawuy, a father of five daughters, looks not to the future but turns his mind to the past, mentally cataloguing his rich knowledge of Gumatj stories and dances that he races against time to pass down to his five grandsons.

"In the Yolngu world, education is to be able to sing the land, sing the people," Mandawuy says. "And dance. Dance all of those things. That is what I am trying to tell my grandsons about, and teach them my language so we can keep it alive. So that my grandsons can make the ends meet and be happy."

It is a late November day in Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land, a community of grassy hills surrounded by stringybark forest and the muddy aqua of the choppy northern Australian seas.

Mandawuy lies on a mattress on the back porch of his home, dreaming of caviar. Trips home are rare and lightning-quick. They must be made on one of the four days of the week he is free from the dialysis machine. The former rock star has been receiving haemodialysis for a year.

As he breathes in the briny air that blows up the hill from the Gulf of Carpentaria, Mandawuy talks of his love of the tropical build-up season. "This is the time of the season when men are carrying two spears, three or four spears, walking along the beach, standing waiting for the fish to come along," he says. "Those fish, they have the caviar inside. It's a delicacy for the Yolngu one. You can stand on the rock all day waiting for the fish to come."

With his wife, Yalmay, Mandawuy has been training for months to use a dialysis machine at home. He hopes he will have a machine in Yirrkala by Christmas.

"I keep thinking of that Pink Floyd song, 'welcome, my son, welcome to the machine'," he says, laughing.

The following week, back in the renal unit in Darwin, Mandawuy speaks of his childhood. Tom Djambayang Bakamana Yunupingu was born at a homeland near Yirrkala, by the river where stingrays breed, on September 17, 1956. His skin name was Gudjuk, which means hawk. His name was changed to Mandawuy in line with Yolngu custom when a community member with the same name died.

Mandawuy went to school at the Yirrkala Methodist mission; his father sent his sons to Sunday school and took Christianity to heart. The Yolngu loved the Christian parables, Mandawuy says. His favourite was David and Goliath, a story that seems appropriate given his struggles in life.
He is optimistic he may one day receive a kidney transplant. But he admits to being afraid of dying. "I am sad," he says. "I keep thinking, 'Why me? Why me?"'

In his rock star days, Mandawuy was a heavy drinker. During a relapse earlier this year, he stopped dialysis treatment and almost died. "I've finished drinking," he says now. "I've turned a new page." If a transplant is not forthcoming, Mandawuy seems resigned to the fact that he may die without having seen the longed-for settlement between white and black Australia.

"I'm still waiting for that treaty to come along, for my grandsons," he says. "Even if it's not there in the days that I am living, it might come in the days that I am not living. I know a treaty will change things, my grandsons will have a different view, a much more positive view, a luckier view. Luckier in that they feel part of Australia, you know.

"They don't have to fight to become recognised. I have had to fight to get Australians to recognise my past. I can't keep fighting for what is Australian."