The words Sovereignty and Treaty immediately conjure up associations with Melbourne’s feisty Senator Lydia Thorpe. But in Arnhemland, there’s a Yolngu elder with a far more developed set of demands for those parts of the Uluru Statement, and he has the advantage of being able to link them to Yolngu Madayin Rom – the law that has governed his people for millennia.

The Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra from Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island now has a film portrait to carry his message – ‘Luku Ngarra – Law of the Land’. The young non-Indigenous Sinem Saban has been following him for a decade of disappointment as he witnesses the “demonic anarchy” of a world in which Balanda education has separated his people from their clan roots, where even the Church – he’s a Methodist Moderator – has used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify Terra Nullius and the replacement of the Yolngu Madayin ritual, and where the first independent Yolngu MP in the NT parliament, supported by Gondarra’s Arnhem Land Progress Association has been left off the Territory’s parliamentary committee to progress a treaty.

Whereas Senator Thorpe has to throw herself in front of police vehicles to make her case heard, Gondarra quietly persists, his face ever-deeper lined from sleepless nights, even when 40 years of work were destroyed by the Howard government Intervention. For he had successfully opened negotiations with the Australian Federal Police to consider his Mawul Rom – a Yolngu form of dispute resolution – when the Intervention arrived with soldiers overnight, and the AFP withdrew.

It’s the clarity with which Gondarra makes his case for the treaty once promised by Bob Hawke at Barunga. For him, it’s the only way that white Australia will recognise his Yolngu Law and his explanation opened up for me an understanding of the potential value of treaties. For it’s the casual way he drops key elements of Yolngu belief systems – such as its founding by the Djang’kawu or Wagilag Sisters bearing the sacred women’s dilly bag – the dulmu mulka – that carried the law – which allowed me to realise how deep his gurrutju is. This is the link that establishes Gondarra’s relationship to all people, to earth and sky, to water, animals and trees.

In the film we see hints of the ceremonies that underline these ancient connections, though sadly not the famous flag dance that heralded the arrival of Makassan traders to work with the entrepreneurial Yolngu – coming for centuries but banned in 1901 under the new Federation’s White Australia policy. That for Gondarra was the beginning of the fall, replacing useful work with ‘sit-down money’ and necessarily assimilation into that White Australia.

Nothing is shouted, and perhaps the film goes on just a little too long. But ‘Law of the Land’ is quietly provocative and worth pursuing as it appears sporadically at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in July, the Garma and Darwin International Film Festivals in August and heads for London in September.

And good news, Law of the Land is now available to wach online – at