Our Culture

Jawoyn refers to language, culture, people and country.

It is our parents’ affiliation and knowledge and our connectedness to Jawoyn country that makes us who we are.

The majority of Jawoyn live on or close to Jawoyn traditional lands, with the many living close to Katherine in small communities.

Prior to colonisation, Jawoyn was made up of 43 clans, however many clans have disappeared or combined with others. Today there are 17 distinct clans with responsibilities for specific country.

In the time called Buwurr, which many know as The Dreaming, we were given Lore. It is Lore that guides our beliefs, our traditions and how we care for our country.

Buwurr is not something that just happened in the past, it is as significant today as it was back in the time of our ancestors walked the land.

It encompasses all aspects of life. It is the land, its gorges, its plants and animals, its rocks and rivers, and the people and all living creatures.

During the Dreaming, creative beings gave the land its form and life.

They made the landscape, they put the plants and animals into the land, created the first people that would belong to it and gave the country its language. They laid down the laws and rules people should obey.


Community, culture and country lay at the heart of our work.
Bolung – The Rainbow Serpent

The corridor of stone Nabilil’s water flows are the track of Bolung, also known as the Rainbow Serpent.

Bolung rests in the deep water at the second gorge at Nitmiluk. The spirit being is an important life giving figure but may also act as a destroyer. Bolung can take the form of lighting and may bring monsoonal floods.

Unlike other Jawoyn Dreaming figures which may be addressed for assistance in hunting and foraging, such as Barraya (the Kookaburra), Bolung must not be spoken to and must be left undisturbed.

Our people do not fish in the pools where Bolung sits. When fishing close to these pools, we can take only a small portion of the fish caught and throw-back the rest in order to appease Bolung.

Drinking water must not be taken from these deep pools but rather from the shallow associated waters. Pregnant women and new initiates may not swim in the Katherine River for fear of disturbing Bolung.


Jawoyn land was created by the powerful ancestor Bula, who came from saltwater country to the north.

With his two wives, the Ngalenjilenji, he hunted across the land and in doing so transformed the landscape through his actions.

In a number of places, Bula left his image as paintings in rock shelters.


During the Dreaming, ancestral beings assigned everything in the world – people, animals, plants, places – to either the Dhuwa or Yirritja moiety.

The spirit being from the north, Nagorrko taught Jawoyn behaviour and marriage relationships.

It was through Nagorrko that people were divided into Yirritja and Duwa groups called moieties. Nagorrko also gave us the Law about mowurrwurr, or clan groups and showed us what foods different mowurrwurr could or could not eat.


Everything in the world is assigned a moiety, and it forms one of the most important principles within Jawoyn society.

The moieties Duwa and Yirritja and all the things associated with them bring balance to the natural and cultural world.

Each moiety is associated with particular colour and proportions: Dhuwa colours are darker (red and black) and associated with shortness. Yirritja colours are lighter (yellow and white) and associated with tallness. For example, the black cockatoo is Dhuwa, the white cockatoo is Yirritja, the short neck turtle is Yirritja, and the long neck turtle is Dhuwa.

Through a traditional marriage system, a child’s moiety will be the same as his/her father and opposite to his/her mother. Simply a Dhuwa person should marry a Yirritja person.


Under the moieties, there are a further sixteen social divisions, or “skin”, which is traditionally inherited from the mother and has a cycle which continues through several generations. It provides comparable inherited links between mother and children for other skin groups.

Owners (‘gidjan’) and Custodians (‘junggayi’)

Each skin group has a primary custodial “looking after” relationship with another skin group in the opposite skin group circle.

‘Reciprocal rights and responsibilities relate to land and ceremony and generally Yirritja people will be workers in ceremonies owned by Dhuwa people and vice versa.

The arrangement of choosing a ‘junggayi’ from an opposite moiety but within the same skin group ties families to each other and to ceremony.

In 2018, the Jawoyn Association expanded its ranger program to include the Mangarrayi rangers.

The move came after the rangers called for external support to access much-needed funding and secure their future.

The association will establish a ranger base in early 2019.

The rangers previously operated in association with the Roper River landcare group.

Quality Work

The rangers work with the NT Department of Primary Industry to monitor the salinity, turbidity and water temperature of the Roper River.

They also maintain fish loggers that track around 100 microchipped barramundi.


Jawoyn is the language of the Katherine area, and of country north and east of Katherine.

The languages most similar to Jawoyn, and to which it’s related are those further north and east into Arnhem Land. Jawoyn belongs to a family that has been called ‘Gunwinyguan’, after one of the most widely spoken dialect clusters.

Most people learned and used several languages throughout their lifetimes, and came to have something like equal fluency in most of them. It was characteristic of older Jawoyn speakers that they spoke at least two Arnhem Land languages with equal or near fluency, and many spoke three or more. They understood a number of languages, at least partially, beyond those they spoke.

Most common in the repertoires of people of Katherine, Barunga (Bamyilli) and Beswick (Wugularr) area who spoke Jawoyn natively were Mayali and/or Ngalkbon, and in some instances Rembarrnga. Today, however, multilingualism is not the norm.

Though people have varying degrees of understanding of Jawoyn and other languages, younger people are no longer using Jawoyn actively. It is endangered.

The most vital language of the Katherine and Barunga area is now Mayali, which is not indigenous to this area, but has a large reserve of active speakers extending into Arnhem Land.

There are social and historical reasons for this decline. One is the long-term historical disruption of Aboriginal people in the Katherine region. There were early reductions of Aboriginal populations.

Jawoyn remains, however, the identity of a large number of people of the Katherine and Barunga area who see themselves affiliated to Jawoyn country. For these people, Jawoyn remains the language they consider theirs, to whatever degree of proficiency.

Significant Jawoyn Names & Words

Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge – Cicada place

Leliyn (Edith Falls) – Frill neck lizard

Jodetluk – Left hand rock wallaby

Luk – Place

Yowoyn – Yes, alright

Bobo – Goodbye


Places connected to creation, dreaming and ceremony and sites featuring rock art and are facts are all important to Jawoyn.

They are an important part of our culture and show the long history of Jawoyn people, country and life.

When tourists visit Nitmiluk National Park or Leilyn (Edith Falls) they are already experiencing places that are deeply important to us. They can also see this through the rock art painted at Nitmiluk National Park and along the Jatbula trail. As part of increasing work on country, there has also been significant rediscovery of important cultural sites across remote parts of our lands.

This has lead to significant effort in recording, documenting and preserving knowledge of those places over many years. Senior Elders from Jawoyn and nearby lands have been taken to the sites as part of oral history recording and research into their significance and stories. Many Elders who have been able to reconnect to their special sites. The sites have also played a vital role in educating younger Jawoyn people by Elders and seeing more evidence of pride in history.