TS-CRC Student project - 'Li-Yanyuwa li-nhanawaya li-murndangumara ’ - Yanyuwa Women, Land Rights and Relations to Country

University of Queensland

Kathryn Seton

Fieldwork with Yanyuwa Elders (L-R: Jemima Miller (behind) Rosie Noble, Thelma Douglas, Dinah Norman, Kathy Seton and daughter Tulli. Photo: Steve Johnson

Summary | Rationale | Supervisors |


My thesis pivots on an investigation of the epistemological issues surrounding cultural frontier interactions in management arenas, with a particular view to ethnographically grounding Yanyuwa women’s management choices and their implications for management action. The activity of turtle-hunting by Yanyuwa women provides the back drop to explanations of Yanyuwa relations to country, kin and Dreamings. Through an exploration of turtle-hunting activity I will unpack Yanyuwa women’s knowledge of country and species to demonstrate a number of key issues:

  • Yanyuwa women have a vast (but largely untapped by Western science) knowledge of savannah landscapes and riparian environments – predominantly their hunting/gathering grounds;
  • Yanyuwa knowledge of country and its resources cannot be easily broken down into neat categories like ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ and ‘resource management strategies’, as ecology, resources, strategies and knowledges are interconnected in complex ways;
  • Yanyuwa women’s knowledge and strategies (economic, ceremonial, political, everyday, etc) are culturally embedded choices, legitimate in Yanyuwa milieus but less accepted in ‘cultural frontier’ situations; and
  • The consideration of gender constructs in different societies adds a further dimension to management endeavours and strategies.

By exploring Yanyuwa women’s relations to (and with) country – through discussing the interconnectedness of ceremonial activity, hunting activity, politics, gender roles, etc – I in turn relate these issues to the larger picture of current land management initiatives in the Borroloola area. We move here from the micro-scale (Yanyuwa people and culture) to the larger macro-scale analysis (no neat dichotomy) of Yanyuwa interactions with country and management initiatives which impact on these interactions. I will argue that current endeavours in management arenas must work to understand the cultural embeddedness of Yanyuwa women’s management choices and why these may differ to Western scientific choices. Without an adequate understanding of these issues, Aboriginal knowledges will remain negatively labelled as ‘anecdotal’ by Western scientists and Aboriginal management strategies will continue to be seen as static and unyielding.

The title on my thesis does not specify co-management or joint management, instead I have used the term ‘land rights’ to reflect a further underlying premise of my thesis; that is, Yanyuwa people’s current (sceptical) attitude towards working collaboratively with Western science/scientists is largely underpinned by their more recent experiences with land claims (of course, all contact has had a impact and will be drawn out briefly but my own thesis will concentrate on developments since land claims began). Whilst land claims, and Yanyuwa experiences of and outcomes from these claims, was the initial area for exploration in my thesis, fieldwork has informed the growth of my topic to a more pressing issue – the management of country.

I will explore this growth in what has been called the ‘new land rights era’ – indigenous involvement in the management of their country and resources – unpacking the issues at stake and the epistemological hiccups likely along the way. It will be argued that Yanyuwa management knowledge and strategies are integrated at a fundamental level - ‘resource management’ cannot be separated from the ‘management of humans’, the ‘management of the spiritual world’, the ‘management of the environment” etc in Yanyuwa ontology and epistemology. I extend this argument to explore what barriers exist in current co-management initiatives with Indigenous people and why these barriers may exist (by extension I hope to pose some solutions to these problems).


This investigation is underpinned by the belief that whilst Indigenous people aren’t necessarily “natural conservationists”, their relations with country have proven to be more sustainable and holistic than current Western practices, and that Indigenous knowledges are equally as valid as scientific knowledges when it comes to understanding cultural and ecological interactions. Merely explaining that things differ between cultures doesn’t solve the problems faced in inter-cultural exchanges, the reality of everyday life for Yanyuwa people. I wish to extend my discussions, through the active voice of Yanyuwa people, to demonstrate the potential solutions Yanyuwa people (particularly women) themselves pose for inter-cultural exchange problems, as well as delineate both theoretical considerations and practical measures for consideration in future management endeavours with Indigenous people.

Through joint work with Dr John Bradley and Mr Steve Johnson of the University of Queensland and the TS-CRC, my study will contribute to redressing gaps in our current management analyses and interpretations and provides benefits to both the Yanyuwa community and professionals/individuals by advancing our knowledge of what factors and processes intersect when Aboriginal management strategies and relationships with country are interpreted in development and management arenas.

I have previously noted that contestation exists when discussing how best to integrate Indigenous resource management knowledge, and associated traditions and techniques, into effective and useful national management, development and conservation endeavours involving sustainable resource management and protection (Seton 1999). By developing a greater understanding of how such processes affect Indigenous communities, we have a base from which to start working towards better negotiation between stakeholders and the differing cultural attributes at play when discussing notions of healthy savanna landscapes in this region.


John Bradley UQ
Dr David Hyndman UQ
Mr Peter Cooke NLC
Dr Barbara Hocking UQ 


Ms Kathryn Seton
Anthopology Projects
Tel: 07 3348 7631

Mobile: 0409 926 377

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