Warlpiri people

The Warlpiri, sometimes referred to as Yapa, are a group of Indigenous Australians, many of whom speak the Warlpiri language. There are 5,000–6,000 Warlpiri, living mostly in a few towns and settlements scattered through their traditional land in Australia's Northern Territory, north and west of Alice Springs. About 3,000 still speak the Warlpiri language. The word "Warlpiri" has also been romanised as Walpiri, Walbiri, Elpira, Ilpara, and Wailbri.


The Warlpiri language is a member of the Ngumpin-Yapa subgroup of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages.[1] The name Yapa comes from the word for "person",[2] and is also used by the Warlpiri people to refer to themselves, as Indigenous people rather than "kardiya" (non-Indigenous).[3][lower-alpha 1]

The closest relative to Warlpiri is Warlmanpa. It has four main dialects, (1)Yuendumu Warlpiri, in the south-west; (2)Willowra Walpiri, in the central area, around the Lander River; (3)the northern dialect, Lajamanu Warlpiri; and (4) the eastern dialect of Wakirti Warlpiri, spoken on the Hanson River.[4] Most Warlpiri-speakers are bilingual or multilingual, English being their second, or perhaps third, fourth or fifth language. Many also speak other languages, such as Arrernte, Jaru, Western Desert Language, Warumungu. Indigenous sign language is also an important component of Warlpiri communication, as many of 600 distinct signs being used.[5]

Thus a sentence like ga (present tense) na (1) jani (am going) (2) jadidjara (3) (the north) gura (4) (towards binga (a long way)(5)-dju. (6) (emphatic)

Can be said with the same syntax, in gestures: '(1)touch chest/(2) move right index finger/(3)point north/(4)with lips/(5)click fingers (6)towards north.[6]

Kenneth Hale, an American linguist, mastered Warlpiri and was adopted by the tribe, who knew him as Jabanungga. On returning to the United States, he raised his twin sons, Caleb and Ezra, in the Warlpiri tongue, and Ezra delivered the eulogy at Hale's funeral in that language.[7]


Warlpiri country is located in the Tanami Desert, east of the NT-WA border, west of the Stuart Highway and Tennant Creek, and northwest of Alice Springs. The main communities in Warlpiri country are: Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, and Willowra. Many Warlpiri live in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and the smaller towns of Central Australia Their largest communities are at Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, Yuendumu, Alekarenge and Wirlyajarrayi/Willowra.[1][4] Many also live in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine.

Warlpiri traditional territory was resource-poor to white eyes, and lay a considerable distance away from the main telegraph routes and highway infrastructure built by Europeans, a fact which meant they conserved unlike many tribes affected by these intrusive developments, relatively intact and flourishing, unlike the Anmatyerre, the Kaytetye, Warumungu, Warlmanpa, Mudbura and Djingili. One consequence has been that they have now expanded, moving into the lands of the Anmatyerre, as the latter's population dropped.[8]

History of contact and study

Mervyn Meggitt was sent by his teacher A. P. Elkin to study the Warlpiri, and he stayed with them for over 18 months from 1953 to 1958. His research into their social system, Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Australia, was published in 1962.[9] In the mid 1970s, Diane Bell undertook detailed work of the lives of Warlpiri women, summed up in her Daughters of the Dreaming (1982).[10] Liam Campbell, in his Darby: One hundred years of life in a changing culture, (2006) recorded the autobiography of one Warlpiri man, Darby Jampijinpa Ross, a centenarian who lived through the profound changes affecting his people throughout the 20th century, including the death of family in the Coniston massacre.[11] In 2000, the French anthropologist Françoise Dussart published a major study of the interplay of gender roles in the ritual maintenance and transmission by yampurru, holders of both sexes of the big secrets, regarding the tales and ceremonies concerning the Warrlpiri Dreaming (Jukurrpa).[12][13]


Warlpiri are famous for their tribal dances. A number of Warlpiri have toured England, Japan, and most recently Russia, performing their dances. Many indigenous artists, particularly in the Papunya Tula organization, are of Warlpiri descent. The Warnayaka Art and Cultural Aboriginal Association - also known as Warnayaka Art Centre - is a cultural hub for traditional art- and artifact-making, as well as supporting younger generations of Warlpiri artists across a range of traditional and contemporary art mediums.[14]


Matrimoiety 1 (M1) Matrimoiety 2 (M2)
M1a M1b M1c M1d M2a M2b M2c M2d
P1a P2a P3a P4a P1b P2b P3b P4b
Semi-patrimoiety 1 (P1) Semi-patrimoiety 2 (P2) Semi-patrimoiety 3 (P3) Semi-patrimoiety 4 (P4)
P1a P1b P2a P2b P3a P3b P4a P4b
M1a M2a M1b M2b M1c M2c M1d M2d

Warlpiris divide their relatives, and by extension the entire population, into eight named groups or subsections. These subsections are related to kinship, and determine one's family rights and obligations. The following is a brief sketch of how the subsection system relates to genealogy.

The subsections are divided into four semi-patrimoieties, each consisting of two subsections. One always belongs to the same semi-patrimoiety as one's father, but to the opposite subsection, so that men in a patriline will alternate between those two subsections.

The subsections are also divided into two matrimoieties, each consisting of four subsections. One always belongs to the same matrimoiety as one's mother, and women in a matriline will cycle through the four subsections of that matrimoiety.

The two subsections in a semi-patrimoiety always belong to opposite matrimoieties, and similarly, the four subsections of each matrimoiety are distributed among the four semi-patrimoieties. Each subsection is uniquely determined by which semi-patrimoiety and which matrimoiety it belongs to.

Female lines of descent in the two matrimoieties cycle through the semi-patrimoieties in opposite directions. The result is that one's mother's father's mother's father (MFMF) is of the same subection as oneself.

Siblings always belong to the same subsection.

It follows from these rules that one must choose one's spouse from a particular subsection, and traditional Warlpiri disapprove of marriages that break this constraint. The correct subsection to marry from is that of one's maternal grandfather (though of course one seeks a spouse closer to one's own age).

The subsection system underlies all of traditional Warlpiri society, determining how Warlpiris address and regard each other. Two members of the same subsection refer to each other as siblings, whether or not they actually have the same parent. Men in the same subsection as one's father (for example, one's father's male siblings) are called "father", and this practice is often followed even when Warlpiris speak English. In the same way, most of the kinship terms in the Warlpiri language actually refer to subsection (or classificatory) relationships, not to literal genetic relationships.

Traditionally, the first thing one Warlpiri wants to know about another is their subsection. Warlpiris often address each other by subsection name rather than by personal name, and incorporate their subsection name into their English one, usually as a middle name. When Warlpiris marry Europeans, they tend to extend the subsection system to their inlaws, starting with the assumption that the European spouse is of the correct subsection. Rather distant European relatives may find themselves classified as honorary uncles, nieces, grandparents, and so on. Warlpiris will then try to make sure that further marriages with related Europeans will adhere to the marriage constraint.

The traditional taboo against familiarity between a man and his mother-in-law extends automatically to any man and woman whose subsections are those of man and mother-in-law.

The subsection system automatically prevents incest between siblings and any relatives closer than cousins. Cousins that are children of classificatory siblings (who may, by definition, also happen to be true siblings) of the same sex are themselves classificatory siblings, and may not marry; but children of classificatory siblings of the opposite sex are of the appropriate subsections for marriage, and marriage between so-called cross cousins is actually encouraged in traditional society. Where a couple are not merely classificatory cross-cousins but are true cross-cousins (i.e. their parents are actual siblings), marriage is generally frowned upon.

The eight subsections are interrelated in a pattern known in group theory as the order 8 dihedral group, D4.

If a Warlpiri has a second choice marriage, then any children they have take on two skin names: first, the skin name they would have adopted had the marriage been first choice; second, the skin name the second choice marriage implied. When asked what their skin name is, they often reply with the former, but may also additionally use the latter. (Observation made from a discussion with a young 'Japananga-Jupurulla'.)

The world fails to realize that the Warlpiri people are civilized and progressive, widows are not forced to remarry and are a very important part of the society which is a common misconception.[15] The Warlpiri have created a amazing culture and want to be able to enter Australian culture in ways that respect their culture.[16]


The Warlpiri people have had a hard time finding employment much like other native people in Australia. This has proven to be a major issue for the Warlpiri people because they could not connect to other Australians. The Australian government has created training programs originally to help the economy to prevent welfare dependent indigenous people. By doing that they have taken away parts of their culture.[17] The Warlpiri are known for their self reliance and their close knit society. They have their own radio show that not only connects the spread out people but connects them to the outside world. This radio station also allows the youth and women to have a voice.[18]

Famous Warlpiri

Alternative names

  • Walbiri, Waljpiri, Waljbiri, Walpari, Wolperi
  • Walbri, Wolpirra, Warrabri
  • Ilpira. (Anmatjera and Aranda exonym).
  • Alpira,Elpira, Alpiri (Iliaura exonym)
  • Ilpirra, Ulperra, Ilpara (Aranda exonym)
  • Albura (Jangkundjara exonym).
  • Wailbri. (post-1945 European schooling orthography)
  • Walbrai
  • Nambulatji. (Ngalia exonym)
  • Njambalatji. (Djaru exonym)
  • Ilpir(r)a
  • Waringari. (exonym insinuating they are cannibals)
  • Walmala
  • Walmanba
  • Wanaeka. (Ngardi exonym)
  • Wanajaka/Wanajeka. (Djaru exonym)
  • Waneiga
  • Wanajaga[19]


  1. yapa means 'black Aboriginal person' now, as opposed to kardiya, white man.


  1. Hoogenraad 2009, p. 1165.
  2. Napaljarri & Cataldi 2003, p. xx.
  3. Yuendumu 2015.
  4. Simpson 2012, p. xvi.
  5. Kendon 1988, p. 94.
  6. Meggitt 1954, p. 3.
  7. Baarda 2012, p. 36.
  8. Kendon 1988, p. 81.
  9. Beckett 2002, p. 116.
  10. Bell 2002, p. xi.
  11. Campbell 2006.
  12. Dussart 2000.
  13. Poirier 2002, pp. 273–275.
  14. http://warnayaka.com/.
  15. Dussart 1992, p. 337.
  16. Holmes 2008, pp. 23–25.
  17. Lawrence 2005, pp. 40–48.
  18. Hinkson 2004, pp. 143–162.
  19. Tindale 1974, p. 237.


Further reading

  • Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu, Wanta Jampijinpa (aka Steven Jampijinpa Patrick); Holmes, Miles; Box, Lance Alan (2008). Ngurra-kurlu: A way of working with Warlpiri people (PDF). Report 41. Desert Knowledge CRC. ISBN 1741580889. ISSN 1832-6684. Ngurra-kurlu is a representation of the five key elements of Warlpiri culture: Land (also called Country), Law, Language, Ceremony, and Skin (also called Kinship).
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