Blame and responsibility: The case study [Part two]

[This is the second in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. You can find part one here.]

The setting for this case study is a remote island community in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. The population of the community is approximately 2,124. This is one five larger central communities in a region characterised by networks of significantly smaller remote Aboriginal Homeland communities.


‘There had been gossip for some months that Gaymarani, who is married with twin boys (around six years old), had been running around with a secret lover. Gaymarani’s wife, Gayit, had been jealousing and arguing him about the rumours for months. Despite Gaymarani insisting that there was no truth to these claims, the rumours persisted and gained currency.

On this particular morning Gayit crossed paths with Gaymarani’s alleged lover, Ḻäwuk, out on one of the well-worn community streets. There was a heated verbal exchange between the two women, witnessed by the ever-public community of kin. The story was and the word spread that Ḻäwuk had called Gayit a ‘skinny’ woman. Gaymarani did not want Gayit anymore, Ḻäwuk claimed, and was going to throw her in the rubbish. She – that is, Ḻäwuk – was his rumbal (true, torso, trunk) woman. The situation was dhukun-mirri (spoiled, soiled, a mess’d).

Gaymarani was not far away, setting up a mortuary shelter with a number of close male kin. Gayit arrived in a flight of rage with a few close female kin following at a distance behind her. Gaymarani and Gayit argued one another, shouting injustice and disaffection. Gaymarani continued to deny the claims but Gayit would not be assuaged. She stormed off down the street, casually grabbed a length of rope from someone’s yard, and marched off purposefully into the surrounding bushland. Such public threats of estrangement through self harm, while often cause for worry and concern, are not uncommon; they are an extreme way to at once threaten and invoke the value of being and behaving like kin and the value and import of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (one state or sense of feeling).

Gaymarani, now the sole focus of the ever-public community of kin, demanded his own hearing. He raged up and down one of the community streets, proclaiming his innocence, demanding compassion.

“I am not a rubbish man! I do not possess a lover! What am I here!? Am I without kin?! Do I belong to no-one?!”

Gaymarani broke away from the gathering crowd and within a moment managed to unhitch the fuel tank from a dinghy outside one of the community houses and douse himself with petrol. Now truly commanding the focus of the jural community of kin, he fumbled for a cigarette lighter in his pocket and threatened to set himself alight, all the while continuing to proclaim his innocence.

Emotions were high and a few people being ‘witness’ started arguing one other while others feigned disinterest and ‘casually strolled past’ to get a glimpse of the unfolding drama. In the midst of all this, came a decisive act. Gaymarani’s close younger brother, Ḏikarr, intervened. Ḏikarr rushed forward and grabbed the lighter off Gaymarani. At this point the focus of the drama was spontaneously and almost seamlessly displaced. Ḏikarr’s older brothers started arguing him, which escalated and ended with Ḏikarr taking more than a few physical blows, which he suffered without struggle or incident. Then and from then on Ḏikarr was considered responsible for much of the drama. The story was and the word spread that Ḏikarr had ganydjarr wekaŋala (given the strength, power) to Gaymarani.

The following morning there was an announcement over the community loud-speaker – a megaphone attached to a flag pole in the centre of town. Gaymarani’s mother, Batjikali, called for a meeting to ‘sort things out.’ (The expression for sorting things out is mittji djarr’yun, literally ‘to choose or select a collective or group.’) The meeting took place that afternoon. In the meantime, however, there was another incident in which Ḻäwuk was physically beaten by her close older sisters out on one of the community streets. They argued her, dragged her by the hair, tore her clothing and left her to pick herself up. The story was and the word spread that Ḻäwuk had gora wekaŋala (given [the state or sense of] shame) to her close kin and her bäpurru.

Come evening a crowd had gathered for the meeting outside the house where Batjikali’s older brother, Rawala, lives with ten to fifteen other close kin. Rawala is Gaymarani’s mother’s brother and a senior ceremonial man. Before the meeting began in earnest it was established that no one wanted to put Ḻäwuk’s husband in the mess’d, to drag him any further into the soiled or messy state of relations. Formal Yolŋu meetings are generally characterised by indirect waves of talk, which ebb and flow and peak intermittently with formal speeches by (usually male) senior figures from the bäpurru involved. At this particular meeting, however, it was Gaymarani mother, Batjikali, who held the veranda first. She told the crowd that people weren’t going to put her son in the mess’d.

“Gaymarani is married to Gayit,” she said. “She is in our bones and flesh. We allowed Gaymarani to marry Gayit. He is her husband, not Ḻäwuk’s.”

Ḻäwuk was sitting cross-legged with her head down among her own close kin, clearly feeling terribly shamed.

“Gaymarani and Ḻäwuk have to gulk-thurra (cut, sever [the relationship])”, Batjikali went on. “Our families are connected by the string and this mess’d is breaking the line. I already lost one child,” she said (a reference to her late daughter), “and I’m not going to let something happen so my boy will lose his life. This time I burnt you with my words, next time I will be coming for the fight.”

Batjikali’s conclusion was carried over into a wave of talk upon which Rawala took to the veranda. He spoke in a much more circumspect way, characteristic of senior figures when they are genuinely trying to sort things out. Rawala’s speech carried over into indirect waves of discussion between respective parties, which eventually carried over into the ebb of an agreed close.

A few days after later, when we were back in camp on the Homelands, Rawala telephoned Batjikali to raypirri gurrupan (lit. give her discipline). Batjikali, it was said, had not dhukarr nhäma ŋäthili (first looked to see the path) or malthun ŋayi raki’-nha (followed up the string, rope). She had just yurru-yun (spat [out]). Rawala told her that she was not to speak in public at the community again. (This was the only time that I know of Batjikali having been disciplined, being quite a senior figure herself in many ways.)

In the aftermath of all this Gaymarani, Gayit and their two twin boys came to stay in camp on the Homeland for an extended period, in the proprietorial shade of kinship away from the intensive sociality of the larger community. As a promising young ceremony man, however, Gaymarani was required at a ceremony only a week or so later. He flew out, and back, accompanied by an unusual number of close, female kin.

“That rubbish woman might be walking around,” I heard Batjikali mumble, which suggested to me that the entourage was not coincidental nor the issue completely at rest.’


What was it, in this case, that determined who is responsible and for what reprehensible act? How did people decide who was to blame, who should be held accountable, who should be punished and by whom? To elucidate these questions I will work back through the anatomy of events using the Wiener’s framework for ‘the responsibility process’ – who was rebuked or punished? Who was considered blameworthy? And finally, what did people determine was the cause of the event that triggered reparatory action in the first place?


– to come, in part three!