Honorary Doctorate celebrations in Yirrkala join Macquarie University and the Department of Geography and Planning with North East Arnhem Land: Two worlds coming together in recognition of deep knowledge and achievement

Sandie Suchet-Pearson reflects on an amazing ceremonial space and time for LakLak Burarrwanga’s achivements:

Laklak before the wapitja is revealed - Sandie
Laklak Burarrwanga before the wapitja is revealed. Credit: Sandie Sauchet-Pearson

Two worlds coming together. As Djawa, Laklak’s son explained to us the night before, thousands of generations of knowledge, thousands of generations of teachers, thousands of generations of the land – past, present and future … all in one place, one special place, in Yirrkala to celebrate one special woman – Laklak Burarrwanga. Two ceremonies coming together – a Yolŋu cleansing ceremony following Laklak’s brain surgery last year, a very, very important ceremony. Family flew in on three charter planes and spent two weeks, working from dawn until late at night, carefully crafting a sacred object for Laklak, a wapitja, a digging stick – to become a sacred family heirloom. The wapitja is in recognition of Laklak’s deep knowledge, her knowledge of Rom – Yolŋu Law, Yolŋu knowledge of the land. The wapitja is the first of its kind made for a long, long time.

The second ceremony – Macquarie University’s recognition of Laklak as a senior knowledge holder and acknowledgement of her contribution to research and leadership through the awarding of an Honorary Doctorate. Recognition of the incredible role Laklak has played in leading an award-winning collaboration with Kate Lloyd and myself from the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, and Sarah Wright from the University of Newcastle. The Honorary Doctorate will be conferred during Macquarie’s September Graduation Ceremony, but on Friday July 29 in Yirrkala, Richie Howitt, Professor of Geography and University Council member, represented Macquarie University during the community’s celebrations to acknowledge and recognise Laklak’s significant achievements.

An afternoon of being painted up, enveloping Laklak in her Yolŋu cloak of white gapan clay and red ochre colours. Then clap sticks and deep resonant chanting to enable what Merrki describes as ‘the invisible doors’ to open and the revealing of the wapitja. From the cliff tops, chanting overlooking the ocean, the journey starts where the sunrises.

The procession making its way to the Buku Art Centre - Sandie
The procession making its way to the Buku Art Centre. Credit: Sandie Sauchet-Pearson

Richie cloaked up in his academic dress – its maroon colours the perfect complement to the Datiwuy clan colours – walking next to the passenger seat of Merrki’s car and chaperoning Laklak as the procession makes its way down the hill to where the sun sets at the Buku Art Centre. Leading the procession were the men, singing life into being, through the road, through the air. The women following, swaying, dancing and becoming life. Down through the gathered friends and family, sitting under the trees on the sandy mounds which form an amphitheatre around the Art Centre stage with its stunning cut-art aluminium framing.

Richie speaking - Sandie
Richie Howitt speaking. Credit: Sandie Sauchet-Pearson

Richie speaking first to acknowledge Laklak’s Honorary Doctorate and presenting Laklak with the University bonnet and stole and a painting by Kerrie Kenton:

 “In celebrating Mrs Burarrwanga, we recognise her distinguished record of contributing to research, higher education and the wider community. Macquarie University acknowledges the national and international significance of her contribution … As a generous and empowering research leader and mentor, Mrs Burarrwanga encourages deeper learning about Yolŋu knowledge and enables people to envisage shared futures … Her work explores the complex historical, cultural and political challenges Yolŋu face while bringing to life the strength and pride of the Yolŋu people … Please join with me in honouring Mrs Burarrwanga and thanking her for her work in guiding us towards wisdom and action.”

The MQ crew with the painting given to Laklak from Kerrie Kenton - Stuart
The MQ crew with the painting given to Laklak from Kerrie Kenton. Credit: Stuart Mclean

Laklak responding with humour and grace:

 10 years ago I started my study and research working on the book ‘Weaving lives together at Bawaka’, then came ‘Welcome to My Country’ and I’m looking forward to the next book ‘Our Songlines’. These books tell the story of people and family coming together and living in Harmony. We would not be here if I didn’t jump off the raft and swim ashore saving the others. That water was dangerous. I was meant to live. I am fortunate to work with amazing people who have been with me through thick and thin, these people are Doctors themselves, thank you Sarah Wright, Kate Lloyd and Sandie Suchet-Pearson. I thank Macquarie University for your support and direction, I thank you for your belief, recognition and respect for Yolŋu knowledge. This is for you, I am telling you to stand firm, to stand strong, learn the sacred designs of my paintings, the songs, the dances, the stories, keep them safe in your hearts.

Laklak giving her speech - Sandie
Laklak giving her speech. Credit: Sandie Sauchet-Pearson

An incredibly moving, memorable and significant moment celebrating the Yolŋu community’s honouring of Laklak’s deep knowledge together with Macquarie University’s recognition of an important Indigenous knowledge holder and her contributions to knowledge and understanding.

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