Society and culture

Very little is known of the sociolinguistic situation in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia prior to European contact, although a certain amount of more recent anthropological work has been done in the area. The Yinggarda intermarried with peoples to the north and also with the Wajarri who were generally unfriendly towards the coastal peoples. Wajarri–Yinggarda relations were better than most and the two groups traded ceremonial objects, particularly pearl shells which were worn in initiation ceremonies (see Fink 1960: 59). The extent of the west coast trade routes is hinted at by Daisy Bates (circa 1904, ms:32:II):

The tribes inhabiting the headwaters of the Fortescue, Ashburton, Gascoyne and Murchison districts and the Upper Murchison and Goldfields areas appear to have extensive highways running East and West or N.E. and S.W. in zigzag lines towards pools and camping places.

We can assume then that the Yinggarda had some (at least indirect) contact with people far to the east of their boundaries and perhaps well into the Western Desert areas. Important cultural differences distinguished the Yinggarda from their neighbours. Radcliffe-Brown (1930) describes a number of different cultural groups defined by marriage patterns and the section and totemic systems. The groups to the north of the Gascoyne River were characterised by a four section system and a variation on the Aranda marriage pattern (called the Mardudhunera (Martuthunira) type by Radcliffe-Brown). The Maya were included in this cultural group which Radcliffe-Brown refers to as the Talaindji (Dhalanyji) type.

In the case of the Ingarda tribe to the south of the Gascoyne River it was impossible to determine if they really had or had not a section system. They knew the names of the sections of the Maia and Warienga [Warriyangga] tribes and every man claimed membership of a particular section. … They might once have had such a system which had broken down or they might merely be trying to adapt themselves as well as possible to the social organisation of the neighbouring tribes. (Radcliffe-Brown 1930:213)

Thus, Radcliffe-Brown groups the Yinggarda with tribes to the south, classed as being of the Nanda (Nhanda) type. These tribes appeared not to have sections or moieties although even in 1911 when Radcliffe-Brown collected his data little was remembered of the traditional kinship structure of these groups.

Yinggarda country lies to the west of a line that separates tribes who performed circumcision (to the east) from those that did not (to the west).

Map of circumcision and subincision boundaries (from here)


The northern and southern neighbours of the Yinggarda also did not practice circumcision as an initiation rite (see O’Grady 1959). By contrast, the Wajarri practised initiation by circumcision and subincision. However, the available information suggests that the Wajarri were like members of Radcliffe-Brown’s Nanda type group in having a poorly-defined section system.

From this little information it is clear that the Yinggarda lived in a complex linguistic and cultural context. We can safely suggest that the rate of multilingualism would have been high, given marriages across group boundaries and regular contact with other linguistic groups. Radcliffe-Brown’s comments about Yinggarda knowledge of section names suggests close links with northern groups. The fact that they did not circumcise also suggests that they would have interacted more closely with their northern and southern neighbours in ritual practice than they did with the Wajarri to the east, despite the indications that their relations with the Wajarri were better than for most coastal groups.

The sociolinguistic situation in the Gascoyne region today is drastically different from this and is in a state of flux. The dominant language of the region is English and although some knowledge of traditional languages remains, these are rarely used with fluency in any particular situation. The Maya and Mandhi peoples have effectively disappeared, as has any knowledge of their particular linguistic and cultural heritage. Received knowledge of the relationship between the Maya and Mandhi and neighbouring Bayungu and Yinggarda is vague. Many people living in the Gascoyne region today can confidently identify themselves as, for example, Yinggarda, Bayungu or Tharrgari, despite the fact that knowledge of the traditional languages is sparse at best.

The main Aboriginal population centre in the Gascoyne region, Carnarvon, has most generally been recognised as lying within Yinggarda territory. Perhaps for this reason, rather than because of any happy accident of history, the Yinggarda are recognised as an important group in the area, and people are able to identify themselves as Yinggarda or not, whichever the case may be. Along with this recognition of the role of the Yinggarda comes a recognition of the Yinggarda language. Despite the lack of fluent speakers, there is a wide knowledge, though restricted use, of Yinggarda vocabulary among members of the Carnarvon community. Aboriginal names given to buildings and institutions in the town are usually recognisable as Yinggarda words (for example the Cultural Centre is called “Gwoonwardu Mia” which is made up of guwinywardu, the name of the Gascoyne River at Carnarvon and maya meaning ‘house’). Since the early 1980s there have been attempts to offer instruction in local languages in primary schools in Carnarvon with varied success. There are several Aboriginal organisations in the town which represent the interests of Yinggarda people.

Over the last fifty years, a large community of Wajarri people has grown in Carnarvon and to some extent retains a separate identity within the wider community. The Wajarri brought with them their law and thus the circumcision boundary effectively moved to the coast, with little successful opposition from the original residents (see Gray 1978 for discussion). Since the introduction of Wajarri law to Carnarvon, and largely because of it, the ties between Carnarvon and communities further to the north, who also continue to practice male initiation by circumcision, were strengthened. Like the Wajarri, these communities were more isolated and thus more successfully withstood the worst ravages of European settlement in the region. Awareness and pride in traditional Aboriginal knowledge and belief was probably greatly stimulated through this increased contact, and with it came a new awareness and respect of traditional languages.

In more recent years, Aboriginal people have been able to successfully achieve limited tenure of their traditional lands, and the Wajarri have established small settlements in their own country. Carnarvon is no longer so important a spiritual focus for the Wajarri, and the Yinggarda and Bayungu are reasserting their rights of place.