Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995

Fire: Emotion and politics: A Yanyuwa case study

John J Bradley
Faculty of Arts, NTU

In this paper I wish to briefly discuss some other issues, some other responses which are associated with the use of fire by indigenous people. I wish to move away from the concepts of fire as a tool by which people care for country, and of the biological implications associated with this burning, and seek to explore some of the responses associated with the burning of country, as people observe smoke rising in the distance or as they seek to prepare for the coming burning season. In some instances the responses are quite evocative, while at other times, depending upon circumstances, the responses to the burning of country and burned ground are highly charged with political argument and accusation.

The literature on the indigenous use of fire contains little which speaks of personal and group response to the burning of country except in passing, and yet fire is a social and cultural power as well as a biological and physical power.

This paper is a case study of the Yanyuwa people, who inhabit country in the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria, including the islands of the Sir Edward Pellew Group. Today most of the Yanyuwa people live in and around the town of Borroloola on the McArthur River.

Emotion: the individual response

During times when I have been travelling over the coastal and mainland country of the Yanyuwa people, they will give resonance to the country by recalling past events which have occurred on that country. Once when camped on Kangaroo Island, which is formed by the delta of the McArthur River, smoke was observed rising from the islands which lay to the north, and one of the elderly women present spoke in raptured and passionate tones concerning the viewing of the smoke rising in the distance. She stood up, and looking north to the billowing smoke, she exclaimed, partly to us, and partly as her own personal commentary:

Oh, all of the islands, they would once be burning, from north, south and east and west, they would be burning, the smoke would be rising upwards for days, oh it was good, you could see the smoke rising from here and also from Borroloola, you knew where all the families were, it was really good, in the times when the old people were alive. (Ida Ninganga 1986)

Smoke provides for people a way of seeing that the land is still being cared for, it tells people that there are other people who are moving over the landscape and that by the use of fire they are maintaining the integrity of the landscape and the people associated with it. As Jones (1975, 25) comments in his work with the Gidjingali who live on the northern coast of Arnhem Land:

...far out to the southeast, the horizon would sometimes fill with smoke haze, and people would point to it and remark that Djinang men or even the further Ritarrngu were moving across their countries.

In 1992 the sight of burning country managed to draw peoples' attention and arouse comment which was derived from a pure emotion. The following comment came during the concluding moments of a land claim held over the Sir Edward Pellew Group, during which the Yanyuwa had travelled to the islands and burnt the country as they travelled from island to island. On the final day a woman stood up in the boat in which she was travelling, and with the assistance of two other women the following statement was exclaimed to the others travelling with them:

Look all around, this is Yanyuwa country, these islands and this sea it is Yanyuwa country. Look! All of you, look to the distance, look north, look east, look west, the islands are burning, this is how it should be, this is how it was when the old people were alive, look this country is burning it has been lifted up, we have embraced it again. (Dinah Norman Marrngawi, with Annie Karrakayn and Bella Charlie Marrajabu)

The above two examples highlight that for the Yanyuwa, the often 'taken-for-granted' fire, smoke and burning of country can arouse emotion, set memories in motion, memories of the past and of long dead people. At the same time fire, smoke and burning provide an important symbol of continuity, that the country can be, and is still being burnt.

The Yanyuwa possess a number of words to describe certain types of fire and smoke. Some of them are listed below:

As part of their tradition of oral literature the Yanyuwa have and still continue to compose short songs, which I have called song-poetry. They are short glimpses of past and present human activity and thought, of events which are of the everyday and mundane which at the time of their occurrence had moved people to compose them. One such song was composed some 60 years ago, by a woman whose boyfriend had travelled to the mainland to attend a ceremony. Later in the day she looked south, to the mainland, and saw smoke billowing up from the savanna grassland which had been set alight by the people gathering together for the ceremony. She composed this song:

Oh, I wish that I were a bird,
And I would fly,
And maybe see you,
at the fire,
burning there in the south.

(Harriet Johnson Mambalwarrka, in Bradley 1994, 61)

For the Yanyuwa the burning of country is an important way of demonstrating a continuity with the people who have died, their ancestors, or li-wankala, 'the old people'. The spirits of these people are said still to inhabit the landscape; they still hunt, sing, dance and are said even to still burn the country. Indeed it is spoken by the contemporary old people that before the coming of the white people, the spirits of the deceased kin would set fire to the country themselves for hunting, and up until quite recently, country that was burnt was left for several days so the spirits of the deceased could hunt first. The spirits of the deceased are considered 'cheeky', they are cantankerous, and can respond to the living in ways which are not always benign.

Country that has not been burnt for a long time is described as being 'shut up'. Visually this can be seen by the increase in the understorey vegetation, and on the islands by the increase of choking vine thickets. The Yanyuwa say it is the 'old people' who close up the country. They close up the country because they are angered by the living people who have been remiss in their responsibility towards the firing of the country.

In contemporary times tourists, pastoralists and other non-indigenous people who own country are also described as shutting up country, and not just because the Yanyuwa cannot fulfil their obligations towards their country. The country is described as getting poor because the old people have 'shut it up'. Thus new land uses are seen to be altering the landscape in radical ways. Conversely the burning of country by people who are not Yanyuwa is seen to be wrong. The country may be burnt, but the people who are burning it are seen to lack the sensibilities required to do it in a manner which will not offend the spirits which inhabit the landscape and the living people responsible for the country. There is an almost implicit belief that living people, too, will become 'weak' if the country is not burnt in a proper manner.

As one old Yanyuwa man has commented, 'This is the most important thing, to burn the country, to burn the bones of the animals we catch on the country... to make the smoke come up, so we smell it and they smell it' (Mussolini Harvey, pers comm, 1994). The use of the pronoun 'they' in this comment relates to the spirits of the deceased. The sense of smell would appear to be important to the Yanyuwa in regard to the burning of country. In Yanyuwa the term for smell is wurrungkayarra. It is an intransitive verb; it is the object under discussion which offers its smell, not the observer smelling it. Country that is burning well offers a pleasing scent to the people and the spirits of the deceased. If the country that is burning also burns offensive matters such as garbage left on country by tourists or other travellers across Yanyuwa country, and the resulting smell is offensive, then the country may indeed close in on itself. The country shuts itself up so that people will not find any food on it. An example was when a fire that had been burning well reached the wreck of a car and the air began to fill with the acrid smell of burning rubber from the tyres. People became concerned that the 'country was smelling', and the 'old people' would not like it. A number of women who had planned to go hunting that day decided it would be useless because they would not get anything as the country would have shut itself up because of the polluting smell.

Even at death the issues associated with the burning of country become important. It is said that one part of a person's spirit leaves the body and travels to the spirit land in the east. As the spirit comes closer to the spirit land it is approached by a number of crows with long sharp digging sticks who intend to kill the spirit by piercing it many times. These crows call out to the spirit, 'Go away from here, when you were alive you called us the eaters of faeces, and you chased us from your camp!' As the crows get closer, the 'followers of the fires over country', the hawks and falcons, come forward with their fighting sticks. Shouting out, they fight off the crows, calling out, 'Leave that spirit, when it was a living person, it burnt the country for us, it enabled us to eat.' The hawks and falcons thereby achieve for the spirit its entry into the spirit world. Thus even at death the obligations incumbent on people to burn country become a focus.

Politics: the rules for burning country

Jungkayi that's the one has to say yes to burn, he has to do it or give permission to do it... otherwise big argument. (Annie Karrakayn, pers comm)

Burning country is visual evidence that an area of land is being utilised, or is most likely soon to be utilised by a group of hunters. If country is seen to be burning, and ownership of the fire cannot be ascertained, people will endeavour to find out who has lit the fire. If an owner cannot be found for the fire then people will pursue the event until an owner is found, and if found the lighter of the fire will be challenged in relation to that individual's right to burn the country or use the resources that may be gathered off the burnt ground.

Towards the end of the wet season, people begin to turn their thoughts towards the burning of country. As soon as the tall spear grass can be burnt, people begin to approach the people who are related to various tracts of country through their mothers, to seek permission to burn. At a very simple level these people are called jungkayi, which can be loosely translated as guardian. They have the right to burn country, or to give permission to others to burn the country for them. The rights to burn country and to receive a share of what has been gathered from the burnt country are still jealously guarded. Even if a jungkayi cannot travel to the land of his or her mother, they will often ask those who are travelling their 'mothers country' to burn it for them to 'make it good'.

Smoke from country that is burning tells the observer that everything is good, the people on that land are well and doing what is required of them. Country that is not burning, especially where it is known that people are present, is not good. It means that something may be worrying and people should go and visit. This view is remarkably different from European-origin culture where smoke seen in the distance or the lighting of fire is seen as a signal of distress.

The infringement of such manners as who can hunt on burnt country or who has the right to burn country can still arouse arguments and fierce passions. Comments such as, 'They have no shame, they just went like a thief and burnt that ground, they hunted on it and we never saw any blue tongue and goanna from that country' are typical of the beginning responses when an infringement has occurred. Postures of feigned or real anger still occur, people still issue challenges using digging sticks and crowbars as weapons, to people who have hunted on land without permission. People who have not been associated with the burning of country must be invited to hunt on the country. The burning of country requires method, not just in relation to when and how the country will be burnt, but also in relation to who will burn, hunt and gather.

Some country is burnt and left, and is not hunted over. This is especially the case with sites where Spirit Ancestors may reside, or at burial places. The country is burnt and left because at such places the presence of the old people is most powerfully felt, and the country is burnt for the spirits of the dead. If such country is to be hunted on, only the most senior male jungkayi may do it, and only they may eat the food. On other country a widower or widow may not light country that belonged to their spouse, and the country is said not to burn well because it is too sad. Only after the country has been 'smoked' or burnt after one or two years of being left alone would such people consider interacting with the country again.

Concluding comments

It is important to note that burning country is not just fire, smoke and blackened vegetation. Firing country involves people who have ways of interpreting their place within the environment where they live, on the country they call home. Their relationship with fire at its most basic is as a tool, but fire is also related to events associated with the past and the future, events which to the outsider may not be considered that important, but to the indigenous community are very important. Fire, then, can be seen to be a part of an ecology of internal relations; no event occurs which stands alone. An event such as the lighting of country is a synthesis of relationships to other events. Fire is but one event which is related to many others.

  1. This paper would not have been possible without the support of the Yanyuwa community over the last 15 years. In particular the following people have been very important in regard to the information recorded in this paper: Eileen McDinny Manankurrmara, Dinah Norman Marrngawi, Roddy Harvey Bayuma, Jemima Miller Wuwarlu, Annie Karrakayn, Mussolini Harvey Bangkarrinu, Pyro Dirdiyalma, Dinny McDinny Nyilba, Steve Johnson and Johnson Timothy Rakawurlma. The following people are now deceased and I record their names not to offend, but in memory of the work that we did together and of their prodigious knowledge about their country and Law: Ida Ninganga, Nora Jaldirduma, Bella Charlie Marrajabu, Don Miller Manarra, Old Tim Rakawurlma.
  2. The statements have been translated from Yanyuwa; a number were reconstructed for me by the speakers just after the event, while others were written down immediately in the field and others have come from taped interviews.


Bradley JJ, 1988. Yanyuwa Country: The Yanyuwa people of Borroloola tell the history of their land, Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, Australia.

Bradley JJ, 1994. Some Yanyuwa Songs, in Duwell M & Dixon RMW (eds), Little Eva at Moonlight Creek and other Aboriginal Song Poems, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.

Jones R, 1975. The Neolithic, Palaeolithic and the Hunting Gardener: Man and Land in the Antipodes, in Suggate RP & Cresswell MM (eds), Quaternary Studies, The Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

Lewis H, 1986. Fire Technology and Resource Management in Aboriginal North America and Australia, in Williams N & Hunn E (eds), Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-Gatherers, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 45–67.