chapter  9
18 Pages

A Place to Rest: Dying, Residence and Community Stability in Remote Arnhem Land

ByMarcus Barber

The old men who provide the ethnographic core of this chapter are all are closely connected to Yilpara and GanGan, two of the largest remote homelands1 in Blue Mud Bay in north-east Arnhem Land. Each homeland population is dominated by a patrilineal group or clan,2 who own the country on which it is sited. Yilpara has a stable population of approximately 100, GanGan a population of approximately 70. The men I discuss are related to each other as fathers, brothers and sons. My primary focus is Yilpara, which in some ways is typical of many remote indigenous communities; its residents are poor, lack formal schooling, are accommodated in overcrowded housing with limited infrastructure, and are predominantly welfare dependent, with art sales and minor royalty payments providing the only nongovernment income. Such facts would accord with many people’s expectations of remote Aboriginal settlements. Yet another fact would not, particularly given recent media attention on violence and drug misuse in such remote places. In 18 months of fieldwork and numerous subsequent visits to Yilpara, I have not witnessed a single act of violence, and have heard reports of only a small number. Yilpara is alcohol-free, partly because of its remoteness but predominantly because its residents insist such a ban is important. Petrol sniffing is also non-existent, despite its presence at larger nearby settlements such as Gapuwiyak and Groote Eylandt.3 I highlight these more unusual characteristics precisely because of their relevance


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to what follows. My argument is that the slow, measured deaths described here are not just a consequence of this relatively peaceful situation; they are partly responsible for generating it.