Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land

I hope this finds you well and trust it will bring you joy in these interesting times. (Sen.) Pat Dodson reminds us; ‘As with First Nations peoples elsewhere, Yolŋu people are struggling to keep hold of their culture, laws and languages. This book serves to remind us all that we must share in the struggle to make space for Indigenous languages and culture as part of the collective gift of our priceless cultural inheritance.’ Some of you are cut from this stone.

I would like at this time to present to you the story of one of the volunteers on our wonderful project, Angi Gray, and her journey from Sweden to Elcho Island. Before I do, let me thank again all those wonderful people that helped get this project up and running. If you missed the opportunity to assist or donate during the production stage, some books may be left over to buy.  Do not try donate now, details pending.

To those who are involved, wow, outstanding, but wait until you see what I mean. Wait till you see the book and website. OMB. Your book is coming to you now so check your mail. Please enjoy this story from Angi about her journey to help save YSL with us.

The volunteer project on Galiwin’ku
It was hard to imagine what was awaiting as I got on the night train that would take me away from the snow-covered Swedish landscape on the fourteenth of March 2018. Suddenly I found myself there, three months later, in biting sun and dusty red soil among some of the world’s most untouched landscapes. I had been given the opportunity of participating in a volunteer project aimed on documenting an extremely endangered sign language called Yolngu Sign Language (YSL) on an island off the north-east coast of Australia, today populated by some of the largest and most remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory region. This invitation came from one of the project’s photographers Therese Ritchie, who was a good friend of my father before he moved from Australia thirty years ago.

Good to know:
• The island’s original name is Galiwin’ku, but it is also known under the European name
Elcho Island.
• Today, about two thousand people live on the island.
• Ninety-nine percent of the population are Yolngu, which is a collective name for
Australia’s indigenous people living in the northeastern parts of Arnhem Land.
• Eight different languages and twenty-two dialects are used on Galiwin’ku.
• All languages spoken on the island are part of the language group Yolngu-matha, which
translates into “human tongue.”
• Galiwin’ku has been under colonial rule as long as the rest of Australia, however, the
island’s isolated location and lack of natural resources have resulted in it remaining
relatively untouched by western influences in comparison to other parts of the country.
On Friday the twenty-fifth of May I stepped out of Galiwinku’s Airport with Therese and David Hancock, both of whom had been photographers during a similar project on the island about twenty years ago. Well outside we were met by a tall man wearing an emblem-covered shirt, introducing himself as Dr. Bentley James: anthropologist and linguist. Next to him stood an elderly Aboriginal woman who looked from him to us, and then started a conversation in a language I did not understand. Dr. James started talking to her and she nodded after a while as to show that she had accepted us.
Shortly after that we sat in Dr. James’ car and he drove us over swirling dust, pointed at one of the valleys and spontaneously began to tell us the ancient story of how this came to be according to the Yolngu people’s faith. Still unaware of what my role would be during the project, I could only pull out my camera in an attempt to capture the intense drive. Dr. James told us that he has worked side by side with Yolngu people for twenty-five years and knows two of the local languages: Dhuwal and Yan-nhangu.


After just a few minutes we arrived at the little house that would be our home for the next seven days. When I was about to take my shoes off in the combined kitchen and living room, I heard Dr. James say: “I’d keep them on if I were you. The floors are covered in dog shit.” The smell of raw fish was thick and he excitedly revealed that our dinner would be the latest catch he had caught with a traditional fishing line called raki. We ate dinner out on the veranda, accompanied by chanting and singing echoing in the distance – a funeral ceremony, Dr. James explained.
Later that evening my task was revealed: to film the signs which the Yolngu people on the island would demonstrate to us, with the goal of creating material for an app that new generations of Yolngu can use. Therese would photograph each character while Dr. James translated them from Yolngu-matha into English. Therese will then design a book which will be donated to the island’s school, Sheperdson College, and to various libraries around Australia, with the purpose of enabling future generations of Yolngu to learn and use YSL.


In Dr. James’ living room we built a small studio in which the air was loaded with enthusiasm, curiosity and appreciation. On the third day we met our first volunteer: the Yolngu-woman Doris Yethun, who has worked with Dr. James through various projects over the span of twenty years.
Other volunteers that joined us were Michael, Daisy, Fred and Shannelle. When we weren’t documenting we sat out on the veranda, drank (huge amounts of) tea and shared our lives with each other. I’ve come to know people whose lives are the direct opposite of mine, but who I came to connect with through the universal, human language. Michael was completely deaf but always filled the room with heartfelt laughter through to the humor and dynamics he had when signing.


I also got to know the exceptional life story of Doris Yethun. She told me that she was born in the mangroves on an island far from Galiwin’ku and that her parents wrapped her in paperbark to keep her warm at night. A few years later, Doris and her family travelled to Galiwin’ku by canoe – including her father’s seven wives and her twelve siblings. On the island she married the man she’d been promised to by her parents and they now have three children.

Today, Doris works as a teacher and for the Strong Women’s Association on the island. She also does volunteer work for the Family Violence Group. Doris’ passion is to teach the children on the island about their culture, language and traditions. A quote from her is: “What is most important are the stories of the country. (…) It is a network of links to our ancestors and their stories and their creations that make us all one people.”


During that week, it became clear to me what an essential connection the signs have to the life and world view of the Yolngu people. The signs spoke about the animals and the seasons, about hunting and marriage, about life and death. We also documented a series of idioms – characters that show one thing to symbolise something else. Newer words such as iPad, computer and Facebook were also included. What makes YSL so unique is that it’s also used as an alternative mode of communication in situations where it is not appropriate to speak, for example, when on holy land or when performing certain rituals. Therefore, YSL is not only a sign language but also an alternative communication method used in the rites and traditions of the Yolngu people.


At the turn of the century, the Australian government began to invest less in bilingual education in the Northern Territory, which made it more difficult for new generations of Yolngu to maintain their native languages as well as their traditional sign languages. For example, a law was introduced in 2009 where school children were only allowed to speak English during the first four hours of school each day in the Northern Territory, where most of Australia’s indigenous population live. In addition, nine municipal schools and a number of private schools began to teach only through English. A national study called the National Assessment Program (NAPLAN) from the following year showed that literacy fell dramatically in several of these schools, which indicates that the students performed better when they were taught through their native tongues first, and then through English.
To enable future generations of Yolngu to share their ancestor’s languages and traditions, the Learning on Country project has been established on Galiwin’ku. Today, the project is run by Dr. James and Doris Yethun among other knowledge-keepers on the island. I got to participate in one of the learning opportunities when a school class was taken to an incredible rock beach to learn about building traditional fish traps – a technique that has been around for at least five thousand years. In addition, the children were taught different words connected to the building process as well as its spiritual significance. The construction of the fish traps is an example of an activity where one should not speak – this is not to upset the good spirits at the place which can help the hunter to attract the fish.


In addition to the fish traps, the children have learned about the essential ties that their ancestors have to different places on the island. Something that surprised me was just how important the names were for the different places and how all of them are linked to a specific creation story, which could be incredibly complex. According to the Yolngu people’s faith, Dr. James explained, the stories of the spirits and songs have created the world. These spirits continue to coexist with us so that the world is treated with respect and in harmony with the traditions. In short, the Yolngu people believe that each place, human and language are linked to each other in a kin-based social universe. Additionally, I learned that each language has a unique way of explaining each of
these places. In this way, the languages are the key to Yolngu’s worldview and spirituality.



Thus, a language is not just a way of communicating – it’s part of our identity and is deeply rooted in our world view. Whether it is a spoken or signed language, they carry on an ancient connection and understanding between people. If a language disappears, so will the knowledge and the essential ties passed through it. Some of the last words that Doris Yethun said to me were, “Do not forget us. And we will not forget you.” I’ll never forget the people at Galiwin’ku, even if their struggle continues on the other side of the world. This trip made me realise more clearly than ever that we are all human beings. If a culture disappears for someone, it disappears for all of us.
– Angie Gray, 21.07.2018
Dr. Bentley James. 2018. URL:
Mark Schliebs, The Australian. Published at 12:00 AM on November 16, 2010.

URL: https://
The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation. 2018.