makarrata: is it really better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick?


Along with the proposed referendum for an aboriginal voice, the word ‘makarrata’ – a Yolngu word – has become a noticeable feature in the proposed three stage process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.

But as with the voice, confusion surrounds the notion of makarrata. What it is and how it will work, should makarrata along with the voice enter Australia’s legislative framework, remain unanswered. Will the result of the process be good law making or the anthesis of it?

An internet search yields a myriad of meanings to explain makarrata:

“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle,” says the 2017 Uluru statement…

“Makarrata literally means a spear penetrating, usually the thigh, of a person that has done wrong… so that they cannot hunt anymore, that they cannot walk properly, that they cannot run properly; to maim them, to settle them down, to calm them — that’s Makarrata.”


“The Yolngu concept of Makarrata captures the idea of two parties coming together after a struggle, healing the divisions of the past. It is about acknowledging that something has been done wrong, and it seeks to make things right”. (Noel Pearson)


At its core, makarrata is a reconciliation process; a matter of settling our differences and moving forward together as one’.


Makarrata is a word in the Yolngu language meaning ‘the resumption of normal relations after a period of hostilities’. Some people have preferred the word Makarrata because they felt the word treaty was too divisive and more often describes agreements between countries rather than within countries between different parts of the population’.


An Aboriginal ceremonial ritual symbolizing the restoration of peace after a dispute…”a peace making event; to bring about reconciliation; peace and harmony” (Galarrwuy Yunupingu)…A makarrata ceremony would traditionally involve the infliction of pain on a person who had committed a wrong. Once blood was shed, the dispute was resolved and the healing process could begin. It was only in the last century that the word was used interchangeably with the word ‘treaty”.

Of these various explanations for what makarrata is the prevalent definition and the one taken up by governments, media and commentators is ‘treaty’. The wordsmith Kel Richards concurred with this view on Credlin on Sky (9/8/23) that ‘treaty’ is a valid meaning of the term.

But while treaty may express some of the characteristics of makarrata, from those definitions much more is encompassed by the latter word than is envisaged by the former term.

Of course it is true that over time all words evolve; even words taken in from other languages can evolve their meaning the longer they spend in the recipient language. Changes to language matters little if all the speakers understand the change in the same way because they speak the same first language. Consequently, any definitional artefact carried into the new language from the old would be moderated because of the lack of personal experience of the term by its adopted speakers.

But is this the same process – can the process be said to be similarly benign – if a term enters another language through the speakers of the original language who themselves still retain their mother tongue, including a large part of the original cultural understanding? And what if at its entry into the inheritor language or quickly thereafter, this “new” word became a legal instrument and central to a negotiation between two parties, only one of whom has the understanding of the original language’s nuance and milieu? Any negotiation under such circumstances would have the potential to undermine one side and their interests.

Makarrata is just such a term. Introduced into Australian English in a top-down approach by government, academia and aboriginal activists, makarrata has little if any word recognition or commensurate understanding within the wider Australian population. It is easy to see that for that population they would miss the word’s nuances and expect that it’s supposed English counterpart – treaty – would cover all that it is.

But the various explanations listed above show that makarrata in the Yolngu language/culture means much more than treaty. To restore/improve relationships by inflicting actual and permanent physical injury on the adjudged guilty party is what occurs during a makarrata ceremony. There is no corresponding concept – much less that scenario, as an expression of treaty – in a western liberal democracy, such as Australia.

Treaty, however, is a full resolution by way of ‘an agreement or arrangement made by negotiationa contract in writing between two or more political authorities (such as states or sovereigns) formally signed by representatives duly authorized and usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of the state’. So treaty brings about the resolution of all negotiated matters.

In the Australian legal system, the most obvious comparison with makarrata is in the criminal justice system and in the concept of a custodial sentence. Though even then the Australian legal system understands that once a sentence is completed the guilty party is restored fully to society. In makarrata, that full restoration is unknown and unavailable. Makarrata is permanent and is a ongoing reminder of the transgression and the consequences for others if they too err. The injury stands as a permanent witness to the continuing “wrongness” of one side in the dispute, despite the supposed ability of the two sides to be restored to each other as equals.

Therefore, can it be reasonably argued that the makarrata resolves the dispute? Given that the injury is permanent and despite the avenging clan/tribe taking in the maimed and caring for him/her, none of this remotely defines ‘treaty’ in the western tradition, which includes Australia.

In my internet search for a definition of makarrata I came across another understanding of the word. In the journal, Oceania (1987) and the article ‘Treaty, Compact, Makarrata…??’ by L. R. Hiatt. Here, makarrata is described as a penalty to be extracted by one party from another party, and speaks of retaliation and vengeance, not reconciliation and amity. From this understanding of makarrata, in no sense is there any completion of matters and return to accord:

‘...makarrata means a pay-back (i.e. revenge) and does not necessarily imply forgiveness or the end of a quarrel’. Hiatt, L. R. (1987). Treaty, Compact, Makarrata . . .?? Oceania, 58(2), 140–144.

Hiatt reports (p.140) that the Australian Government had previously rejected the idea of a treaty as being impossible between different groups of citizens – aborigines were no different to any other Australians. Consequently, the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), wanting to further discussions with the government, proposed makarrata after receiving permission to use the term from the elders at Yirrakala in Arnhem Land.

According to Hiatt, in 1981, the Yirrakala elders advised the Australian Senate’s Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, which at the time was inquiring into a compact with aborigines, that makarrata ‘…was a completely inappropriate choice [because] the word means a pay-back (i.e. revenge)’. The elders further advised that makarrata does not ‘necessarily imply forgiveness or the end of a quarrel’ and went on to say that they were wrong to have given the NAC permission to use the term. Hiatt reports that Senator Missen, one of the senators on the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, noted that ‘…the use of a vernacular term [makarrata] aroused suspicion in communities speaking other languages.’

The Prime Minister’s support for the three stage process of Voice, Treaty, Truth, shows that if the referendum gets up the country will have a long way to go to “achieve” what is being promised. To date we have gone through Kevin Rudd’s apology, the annual National Sorry Days, NAIDOC weeks, endless WtCs, and the ongoing re-naming of Australian sites. If true to its definition makarrata will not be the end of the quarrel. If makarrata does enter the Australian legal system through a “yes” vote it will be only the beginning of much worse to come.

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Robert Sewell
August 15, 2023 7:29 am

The voice is typical Leftist argument – agree to something that has defined terms in our society, then after the signing, we find out there are many other definitions, most of which negate what we originally agreed to.
E.g. Gay Marriage which now opens the door for “Minor Attracted Persons” to demand ‘their’ perversions be allowed – even venerated.
We cannot trust them – they lie.

Vicki
Vicki
August 15, 2023 7:37 am

Well done, Bar Beach Swimmer! This is a consummate exploration of the term that is assuming quite a significant role in the controversy.

I think your reference to the explanation of L.H. Hiatt, a very respected anthropologist, is very relevant. The involvement of “payback” is impossible to ignore in the use of the term makarrata. While I don’t necessarily think this aspect was central to the ambitions of The Voice, it really is impossible to dismiss. It is also clear, as you suggest in the final paragraph, that punitive and other decisions overriding our historical decisions (eg place renaming) seem to be increasing.

It grieves me to say that I agree we are approaching a period in which we will have to fight back mightily to retain the massive achievements that proceeded from the British settlement, and consequent multi-national, development of this wonderful country.

Rosie
Rosie
August 15, 2023 8:12 am

A spear in the thigh sounds like a punishment culminating in a slow death.
In this case the slow death of Australia as we know it.

Rosie
Rosie
August 15, 2023 8:14 am

I believe the poke in the eye with a blunt stick was reserved for women, to make them unattractive to other men.

Rosie
Rosie
August 15, 2023 8:20 am
Christine
Christine
August 15, 2023 9:05 am

We’ll be hearing more of the word”makarrata”; it would be considered more mysteriously exotic-Aboriginal.

lotocoti
lotocoti
August 15, 2023 9:12 am

Lopping off a recalcitrant’s foot before marooning them
was a death sentence that wasn’t immediately fatal too.
But I can’t imagine anyone trying to sell that cruelty as
some sort of restorative process.

Roger
Roger
August 15, 2023 9:18 am

So it’s a treaty they want, eh?

A treaty is a binding agreement recognised in international law that imposes obligations on the signatories.

What obligations could be imposed upon the indigenous signatories?

And what penalties would be applied for failing to meet them?

For a start we could have benchmarks set for all aboriginal welfare programs.

Katzenjammer
Katzenjammer
August 15, 2023 9:25 am

Those definitions sound like the ritual Aboriginals used to call “settling up”. Typically, when friends turn up for a funeral they’re slapped in the face by a relative of the deceased, to settle up any bad feelings or insults that hadn’t been resolved during the deceased’s lifetime. It’s not a punishment – it’s to release the deceased from ties to others through unresolved tensions or conflicts. That’s a mild example. The example of the speared leg isn’t a punishment or blood payment – it’s to free the spear thrower from their own ties to whatever was the conflict event.

Tom
Tom
August 15, 2023 9:28 am

You can take it to the bank that in the 21st century, tyranny always start with attempts to introduce new words. “Makarrata” is yet another effort to gaslight the public that primitive nomads possess mystical wisdom.

The Voice is built on a midden-shell mound of lies. Elbow and has gang are hoping you’ll fall for it.

Speedbox
August 15, 2023 9:45 am

Great post BBS. Thanks for the research.

I had heard the reference to spearing recently and was also suspicious when Albo seemed to be using the word frequently. l thought ‘ok, somethings up – using a word that’s unknown to 98% of the population.’

This Voice is a gigantic con that will end up costing the nation dearly.

Dot
Dot
August 15, 2023 9:50 am

The tone of the demands from the Aboriginal lobby is inflammatory to the point of being very stupid: they are a small minority.

The Voice is built on a midden-shell mound of lies. Elbow and has gang are hoping you’ll fall for it.

If you actually read what the Voice will be in the proposed s 129 of the Constitution, it will be a plaything of whomever the current government is, if they can bribe the cross bench in the Senate.

How any of this will actually help Aborigines is a mystery.

Speedbox
August 15, 2023 9:54 am

Almost a snap Tom. It was the new word that also set of even more alarm bells.

Vicki
Vicki
August 15, 2023 10:16 am

Typically, when friends turn up for a funeral they’re slapped in the face by a relative of the deceased, to settle up any bad feelings or insults that hadn’t been resolved during the deceased’s lifetime. It’s not a punishment – it’s to release the deceased from ties to others through unresolved tensions or conflicts. That’s a mild example. The example of the speared leg isn’t a punishment or blood payment – it’s to free the spear thrower from their own ties to whatever was the conflict event.

Yes. These are all rituals of traditional life. The thinking behind it is instructive, & should be a warning to all.

The Beer whisperer
The Beer whisperer
August 15, 2023 10:44 am

Struggle?

Serious Hitler vibes.

Alamak!
August 15, 2023 10:57 am

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Orwell knew it so long ago, how modern revolutions would be executed via language and ideas first, then law.

Alamak!
August 15, 2023 10:58 am

Bar Beach Swimmer> Thanks, this is one of the better threads on this site in recent times.

Boambee John
Boambee John
August 15, 2023 11:21 am

Makaratta equals payback? Fine, spear AnAl in the thigh (or the dick) and let’s get on with life.

Robert Sewell
August 15, 2023 11:23 am

Rosie

Aug 15, 2023 8:14 AM
I believe the poke in the eye with a blunt stick was reserved for women, to make them unattractive to other men.

Another is a burning branch forced into a nagging wife’s mouth, and held there.
Had one treated at Laverton, then flown out a week later after hubby stole all the antibiotics and Panadeine Forte. Wasn’t allowed to come to the clinic until infection set in, RFDS took her to Perth. I don’t know what happened to her.

billie
billie
August 15, 2023 11:28 am

The aboriginal industry interpretation of Reconcilliation, is Reparation$, that’s what is constantly sold to them by activists and do gooders.

A lot of their anger is their realisation that our interpretation is not the same.

Makkarata will be what they thought Reconcilliation would be, but with more cowbell, more threats and more authority for revenge and reparations (much more reparation$).

Hence the threats from the Yes side, the name calling, the gaslighting and conspiracy theories arising. E.g. PM Albo now saying evil AI being used by the No campaign.

Labor, Albo is determined to split the community with hate, accusing others of exactly what they are doing. He’s been in that swim lane so long he probably believes everyone hates as much as he does.

PM Albo, we’re not your hated “tories”, we’re Australians and this is still a democracy. If the Yes campaign gets up, it won’t be. Mate, get over the hate!

The Beer whisperer
The Beer whisperer
August 15, 2023 12:30 pm

The aboriginal industry interpretation of Reconcilliation, is Reparation$, that’s what is constantly sold to them by activists and do gooders.

Back in the 70s, Aboriginal violence didn’t precede activists arriving, it followed it, usually while activists were still high fiving themselves on their good deeds.

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
August 15, 2023 12:35 pm

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda

Is that anything like a final solution?

Nah couldn’t possibly be. Meanwhile the Voice will now fix aboriginal domestic violence.

Indigenous women in the Northern Territory are being killed at 13 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women, inquest hears (Sky News, 15 Aug)

She said the rates of domestic violence homicide in the Northern Territory was seven times higher than in any other Australian jurisdiction and Aboriginal women were 13 times more likely to die at the hands of a violent partner.

Ok, no, I just made that up. The Voice will not fix aboriginal domestic violence. But someone will claim that, betcha.

Viva
Viva
August 15, 2023 1:14 pm

With calls to cut back on welcomes to country and audits of how billions are being spent with little progress to show for it perhaps indigenous leaders may begin to regret poking the bear

Vicki
Vicki
August 15, 2023 3:56 pm

That the senator noted that other language groups were suspicious of makarrata – and one can see why from its definition – upholds the idea that there is an absence of genuine agreement in makarrata.

They rarely agree on anything!

However, there are obviously many Aborigines – full blood (am I allowed to use that term???) and of Aboriginal descent – who are suspicious of the Voice. But the hard heads are determined to keep that from view.

Robert Sewell
August 15, 2023 4:02 pm

Vicki:

However, there are obviously many Aborigines – full blood (am I allowed to use that term???) and of Aboriginal descent – who are suspicious of the Voice. But the hard heads are determined to keep that from view.

You are allowed to use whatever term you feel comfortable with.
We didn’t start this shitfight, Elbow did. Now it’s time for payback.

Vicki
Vicki
August 15, 2023 4:02 pm

Another is a burning branch forced into a nagging wife’s mouth, and held there.
Had one treated at Laverton, then flown out a week later after hubby stole all the antibiotics and Panadeine Forte. Wasn’t allowed to come to the clinic until infection set in, RFDS took her to Perth. I don’t know what happened to her.

The horrific treatment of women, which is endemic in Aboriginal society and really IS part of the culture, is absolutely ignored by Leftie women. This is one of the things that eats me up about the do-gooders who want to elevate the entire culture into something it was not.

thefrollickingmole
thefrollickingmole
August 15, 2023 5:28 pm

Reconciliation, original title of the book “ never ending story”.

johanna
johanna
August 15, 2023 5:41 pm

If the objective is to metaphorically spear every Australian who doesn’t have a 1/164 connection to Aborigines, it is not only doomed, but it is the product of an unhealthy and absurd mindset.

Thanks, BBS, Excellent post.

Mak Siccar
Mak Siccar
August 16, 2023 8:25 am

But we know the pr1ck lies and can’t be trusted …. From The Oz.

Anthony Albanese has ruled out legislating a voice to parliament if the referendum is defeated this year, pledging that he will honour a No vote and the decision of the Australian people.

In his most definitive comments to date on the issue, the Prime Minister said that simply legislating a voice, rather than enshrining the advisory body in the Constitution, also was not the outcome Indigenous leaders had asked of the Australian people.

“The Australian people – we are giving them a say,” he told an extended podcast with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell. “The idea that the Australian people vote ‘no’ and I say, ‘well, that’s OK, thanks very much for participating in the referendum, we are going to do it anyway’. No. I won’t do that.”

Mr Albanese made clear there was no point legislating a voice that could not be enshrined in the Constitution because “that is not what they (Indigenous Australians) have asked for”.

Robert Sewell
August 16, 2023 9:11 am

Mak Siccar:

‘well, that’s OK, thanks very much for participating in the referendum, we are going to do it anyway’. No. I won’t do that.”

Of course he won’t – his mates in power in the States will do it for him.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 9:45 am

Were there consequences in pre or early European contact indigenous society for false accusations of witchcraft?

That is what is happening here: On behalf of Australian aboriginals, non-Aboriginal citizens are having a curse placed upon them, so the former can rise in status and affluence within broader society on the tail of the latters’ misfortune (the outcomes of the curse).

We’re having ‘the bone’ pointed at us, so that our neighbours can loot our house while we are weakened (as sometimes happens in the wake of natural disasters).

Cowardly, but effective.

calli
calli
August 16, 2023 3:08 pm

A savage term for a primitive, savage practice.

Surely 2023 Australia is better than this? Why would we want this grotesque sh*t enshrined in our Constitution?

calli
calli
August 16, 2023 3:09 pm

I’ve seen how “payback” works in PNG. Ultimately ends up with body parts of the weakest packed into a coffee sack and left at the front door.

No thanks.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 5:07 pm

If there were not potential benefits in this slinky* proposal for a new, largely non-indigenous Consultant Class, would it be receiving the corporate, media, sporting, and other support it has been?

Again, this is NOT about Australian Aborigines. They are the tools. If the issue was about redressing past wrongs, I would argue that Australians of Chinese heritage would have almost as much standing to demand reparations, especially if their ancestors were here in the 19th Century.

I think we are letting ourselves become too distracted with the indigenous side of the debate, which is just what our opponents have planned. Minimise references to indigeneity [word?] (dampen the emotional aspect) and focus on the mechanism that responsibility and guilt from multiple generations ago are being attached to individuals (present and future Australian taxpayers) as proxies for The Crown.

* As in the childhood toy.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 5:08 pm

Sorry, Dover. I mistyped my email address.

If there were not potential benefits in this slinky* proposal for a new, largely non-indigenous Consultant Class, would it be receiving the corporate, media, sporting, and other support it has been?

Again, this is NOT about Australian Aborigines. They are the tools. If the issue was about redressing past wrongs, I would argue that Australians of Chinese heritage would have almost as much standing to demand reparations, especially if their ancestors were here in the 19th Century.

I think we are letting ourselves become too distracted with the indigenous side of the debate, which is just what our opponents have planned. Minimise references to indigeneity [word?] (dampen the emotional aspect) and focus on the mechanism that responsibility and guilt from multiple generations ago are being attached to individuals (present and future Australian taxpayers) as proxies for The Crown.

* As in the childhood toy.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 5:20 pm

Will our makarrata scars be recorded in our new digital identities as an indicator of our social and economic status in the new feudal order?

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 5:26 pm

Emotional blackmail.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 5:40 pm

“that is not what they (Indigenous Australians) have asked for”.

I’m confused.
To ask for something, you need to express that, right? Either verbally or in writing?
If indigenous Australians have no voice, how do we know they asked for something?
How is it that the whole nation knows what they voicelessly asked for?
Surely it must take a loud, extremely well-resourced non-voice (expressed by the elite of perhaps 5% of the population), to demand the remaining 95% of the population shut up and pay up?

(Yes, I realise I’m contradicting my statement above about minimising the emotional indigenous content of the issue. I’m simply waffling to myself while I’m still permitted to; before my makarrata-mark reverses my free speech to fee speech).

*Sorry, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you have a large makarrata hanging from your left nostril.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 9:03 pm

This is setting the foundation for a future overlapping, failed state (4 decades from now? Sooner?).

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 10:02 pm

Sadly, I think it’s inevitable, regardless of the outcome of the inVoice. Once a voter drops the ballot into the ballot box, they become invisible and insignificant until approximately one week prior to the next election. Most people have short memories anyway.

There have no repercussions to the Lords and Ladies of Fire (“Burn the witches!”) of Covidiocy; there will be none for installing a new feudal privileged class by legislation.

Muddy
Muddy
August 16, 2023 10:09 pm

*been*

Katzenjammer
Katzenjammer
August 17, 2023 10:40 am

The spear in the thigh renders the recipient unable to walk properly or run properly – they can not hunt – to maim them, to settle them down. That is a permanent punishment.

The purpose isn’t punishment. The purpose is to release the spear thrower from ties to the other generated by the harm they caused. The success of seeing them limp away is the sign of the success of that release. It’s not payback – it’s settling up.

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