“Birku’ are dangerous one. Big story in this one, we got to treat it right.” Darryl Yatjany
Birku’ are carved clubs that are carried by men and have many uses. They are powerful objects that are only be used by senior law men. As such, the birku’ itself is a symbol of status and power and it is considered inappropriate and dangerous for women or uninitiated men to make, carry or use.
The birku’ is a Yirritja object that is primarily owned by the Wobulkarra clan from Laŋarra (Howard Island), but can be associated with other clans in the Yirritja Manydjikay riŋgitj (clan alliance) depending on the miny’tji (clan design) that is painted on it. The Manydjikay riŋgitj is a group of clans connected through common cultural heritage – connections which are reinforced and embodied in shared songs and ceremonial practices.
There are different types of birku’ that have slightly different styles but have the same general form and uses. This painting shows the Wobulkarra birku’ with latjin (mangrove worm) represented by the interconnecting almond shapes at the head and tail of the birku’. Latjin is a symbol of Wobulkarra law and identity and also a much sought after protein food found in abundance around Laŋarra island. The latjin miny’tji is also associated with other Manydjikay clans and shared Waŋarr (Ancestral Beings) and manikay (ceremonial song cycles). This Birku’ minytji (fighting stick clan design) and the Birku’ manikay (ceremonial song cycle) were passed on to the artist by his father, Timothy Baḻarrkbaḻarrk Miliŋinbilil.
The Birku’ manikay is sung in Yirritja law ceremonies including dhapi (boy’s initiation ceremony), bäpurru (funeral ceremonies) and other ceremonies associated with rom (law) and raypirri (humility and discipline). The dance that accompanies this manikay is also dangerous and must be treated with respect.
Like the maŋal’ (spear-thrower) which is found widely throughout Arnhem land, the birku’ is both a ceremonial and a daily object carried by those who have earned the right to do so. In this way, birku’ is also used in hunting and especially in past times, fighting, and so it is also commonly called a fighting stick. The artist says that in the old times, birku’ were often used by maḏakarritj ḏirramu – dangerous men who had a reputation for being ill-tempered and reckless.