Word watch: makarrata

In the recent Uluru Statement from the Heart, the First Nations National Constitutional Convention called for a Makarrata Commission, as Australian National Dictionary editor Dr Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 explains.

The word makarrata has become increasingly prominent in the media in recent years.

It is a word used in Yolngu languages that has come into Australian English, and it means ‘a ceremonial ritual that aims to restore peace after a dispute; a ceremony that symbolises such a restoration; an agreement’.

The first recorded evidence of the term dates to 1937 when an Adelaide Advertiser newspaper report observed that Indigenous peoples around Arnhem Land had ‘a very curious ceremony of truce and peace-making … known as Makarrata’ (14 August). Early evidence for the term in Australian English tends to be from sources recounting aspects of Arnhem Land Indigenous culture, but from the 1980s we see the term begin to be used in the context of Indigenous politics.

In 1980 The Canberra Times recorded that a National Aboriginal Conference had organised a subcommittee on makarrata, which they described as ‘a coming together after a struggle’. One of the members of the subcommittee was Peter Minyipirrwuy from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land.

From this time, we have increasingly seen the term being used in national politics around Indigenous issues. Some Indigenous activists have suggested makarrata is a term that works better than the more divisive treaty, and reflects the desire to come to a kind of ‘agreement’ between Australia’s First Nations and the Federal Government.

The Uluru Statement, released in May 2017, calls for a ‘First Nations voice’ in Federal Parliament. It also calls for a Makarrata Commission ‘to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.

Noel Pearson wrote in The Australian: ‘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.’ (27 May 2017). He also argued that makarrata was ‘the right language for the reform sought in the Uluru Statement’; it is a means to achieve ‘meaningful recognition’ and reform rather than ‘empty symbolism’.

While not everyone agrees on the form that constitutional recognition might take, and there is still much work to be done towards reconciliation, the increasing use and understanding of makarrata is indicative of important developments in our political culture.*Makarrata is an entry in the Australian National Dictionary. A number of words relating to Indigenous politics such as Makarrata Commission, recognition and Uluru Statement will be considered for the next edition. I would like to acknowledge the helpful guide to the Uluru Statement on the Australian Parliamentary Library website, written by ANU School of History graduate Daniel McKay.