The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 10

I Inherit a Gold Mine

In dealing with the Australian aborigines, it is only too easy for the anthropologist to elaborate a fantasy based on theories and the foreign logics of other native races, and then proceed to build it up in his field work. The Australian follows the line of least resistance with the white man. He will always respond as desired to a leading question, eager to please, whether he understands it or not.

The fist lessons that I learned were never to intrude my own intelligence upon him, and to have patience, the patience that waits for hours and years for the links in the long chain to be pieced together. A casual soul, he knows no urgency. Yesterday and today and tomorrow are all the same to him. Naturalness in white company comes from long familiarity. Only when you are part of the landscape that he knows and loves will he accord you the compliment of living his normal life and taking no notice of you.

His unconscious confidences are by far the most valuable. Most of my data is the gradual compiling of many, many years. Quite often I have chanced upon the clue to problems long after I had given them up. Of unfinished legends begun at Broome and Beagle Bay in the north-west, I have written the finale at Ooldea in the centre. Some of the straying threads of my ethnological study are still in mid-air. I shall perhaps never find their source, nor know their conclusion. Only in God’s good time will you begin to understand the riddle of the native mind. It is the study, not of a year or two of field work, but of a whole lifetime.

Westward and eastward and northward in these northern areas I went, constantly travelling to and fro, and hither and thither by train, or buggy, or horse. I alighted whenever I saw a native and made friends with his little group. I lived their lives, not mine. Whenever I camped with them, they did not trouble about clothing of any kind, innocent and natural as children. Was I not their ancestral grandmother, spirit rather than woman?

Everywhere was evidence of the encroachment of the circumcised groups upon the uncircumcised. I found that the Bibbulmun area had once been far greater, and had gradually narrowed through the centuries, as the first hordes were driven to the coast. From Jurien Bay northward to Ballaballa, along a narrow strip of coastline, were certain isolated uncircumcised groups, each having its own initiation ceremonies, but always adhering to the fundamental totemic and marriage laws. These groups called themselves Ingada, and the Aggardee, or circumcised, tribes bordering them would make contact with the families, and then take the boys away to be circumcised. The Ingada kept their laws, but they gave their boys under compulsion. As civilization went on, their little spaces narrowed, and their marriage laws were no longer possible. I met the derelict members of about forty groups, and each had the same sad story to tell me. The tribes of Geraldton, within twenty years of the white man’s coming had been absorbed, for the second hordes had reached the coast all round them, under the protection of the white settlers.

The four-class marriages between Boorong and Banaka, Kaimera and Paljera, as here they were called, had been completely broken down in both the centre and the central west for centuries. The beginning of the breach was probably when certain young men, tired of waiting for their affianced wives to grow up, had seized their father’s sisters, who were their potential mothers-inlaw, and run away with them into the vast scarcely-occupied areas south and south-east of Nullagine, extending down to near the Nullarbor Plain. There they sat down beside a water-hole and either established a little group, or merged into the nomad tribes they met. The children followed the example of the fathers. Irregularity crept over until there was not one straight marriage among the thousands I encountered. Intercourse was not only promiscuous but incestuous. The old men would speak to me about these things as though I were a native.

Often I came upon a mixture of northern, eastern and south-western families gathered in one group and living amicably together, and, in one instance, a group of Bibbulmun in the centre of the Aggardee. I also found traces of types distinctly Dutch. When Pelsart marooned two white criminals on the mainland of Australia in 1627, these Dutchmen had probably been allowed to live with the natives, and it may, be that they and their progeny journeyed far along the river-highways, for I found these types as far out as the head-waters of the Gascoyne and the Murchison. There was no mistaking the flat heavy Dutch face, curly fair hair, and heavy stocky build.

Baby cannibalism was rife among these central-western peoples, as it is west of the border in Central Australia. In one group, east of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers, every woman who had had a baby had killed and eaten it, dividing it with her sisters, who, in turn, killed their children at birth and returned the gift of food, so that the group had not preserved a single living child for some years. When the frightful hunger for baby meat overcame the mother before or at the birth of the baby, it was killed and cooked regardless of sex. Division was made according to the ancestral food-laws. I cannot remember a case where the mother ate a child she had allowed, at the beginning, to live.

I obtained a photograph of this group unexpectedly. I was camped among the Meekatharra tribes, some distance from the township, devoting myself to the aged and the ailing, engaged mostly in compiling dialects and map-making, with the aid of the natives. (The map-making method was simple. I gathered the men of the different groups about me, and with a sheet of brown paper and a pencil, constructed an early history of their home waters and wanderings. I would start from a given point-Meekatharra, Peak Hill or Wiluna-plan out the district according to its natural features, mark off the waters, put down the tracks to and from fathers’ camps and grandfathers’ camps, denoting localities with their native names by means of elementary questions as to where they “sat down.” Distances were calculated from “how many sleeps?” allowing so many miles to a day’s journey. I have many of these maps in my possession, an intensive geography covering hundreds of square miles, and invaluable in marking the tribes and groups and countries and permanent and other waters of the west of West Australia before it was peopled by whites.)

One evening, an hour or so after dusk, I sensed something moving in the low scrub to northward. Without appearing to take any notice, I perceived a number of native men approaching quietly, all decorated, and carrying their spears and spear-throwers. I looked over to the Meekatharra camp, which had become strangely silent. The fires were banked and covered with sand, and there was no stir of life-sure sign of fear of the stranger. I went quietly on making my toast and tea.

The men came slowly closer, still hiding behind the trees. They stopped at some little distance. Without looking up, I called, “Come on, boggali! (grandchildren). Come to the fire You must be cold!” At last eight men came into the clearing, and very sheepishly approached, saying nothing.

“Sit down and have some food,” I invited them. “Where are your women?” They gave a short call, as one would call a dog. Several women came out of the bushes. My supper had, of course, to go by the board. Bringing out flour and water, I started them making dampers, and with a casual question or two learned that they had just come from far beyond Peak Hill to see me. Bush telegraph had sent the news of my arrival at Meekatharra, and they had walked over ninety miles, with little food on the way, to see kabbarli.

Next morning I took them over to the camp and made the introductions. There was armed neutrality for a while, every man with his spear in readiness, and indeed there were, after I had left them, a few thigh-spearings in revenge for the unlawful appropriation of a woman at one time or the other, but no serious trouble.

In this comparatively desolate country, the totems were entirely different from the brotherhood with nature and the food-totems of the Bibbulmun. Kangaroo, emu, and dingo-totems are common throughout Australia, and here, among them, I met men of the moolaiongoo, or wombat snake, and the goorara or prickly acacia. The goorara provided the best bamburu sticks and also the wood for the best come-back boomerangs.

The age-old feud of the blood and lice totem groups was told to me in the Leonora and Laverton areas. Kooloo-lice totem men-sent lice sores to the ngooba-blood totem group-and when a blood totem man or woman died, blood magic was sent back to claim a victim among the lice men. As far as I could ascertain, the blood totem groups were tubercular, and, a gruesome and curious fact, this was one of the few totems that might be “passed on” regardless of heredity. When I first visited this group area, Muri and Jinguroo, two lice men, had been arrested for the murder of a blood man and sent to Rottnest Island prison. At that time there were very few of either group living. The blood totem men had been more successful in passing on their magic than the lice men. The area of the groups was in the broken country north-west of Laverton. None of these natives had been in contact with any white people until the end of the twentieth century. I found one lice woman near Meekatharra far north-west of her home ground. She had escaped the blood magic, but all her fathers and brothers had died of it.

These two groups are typical of the group systems of the circumcised people, which maintains armed neutrality except during the assemblies for initiations and other ceremonies. Tales came to me of one group completely annihilating another with its magic, but I found only one instance of annexation of a group area whose owners had been killed by their more powerful neighbouring group. An area bereft of its owners is “orphaned” land and no neighbouring group would think of annexing it, but when the last Meekatharra man died a Lake Way native, strong in his magic, annexed that group area, while still keeping his hold on his own Lake Way ground.

One evening, as we sat round the camp-fire, this native, Jaal, by a weird aboriginal sleight of hand, apparently from his stomach produced an initiation knife, and with it a piece of dark stone shot through with veins of galena-or was it gold? I did not know. He gave them to me. “This,” he said in his own language, “is what the white man likes, but we don’t let him come for it. The knife is from Maiamba, and it is my totem, ‘jeemarri.’”

I questioned him further, and found that the jeemarri group was the most important in the widest area that I could compass there. Jeemarri knives were peculiar to the region, of a hard dark flint. The shrine Maiamba was a secret and sacred place visited only by the older men, who are possessed of the magic of extracting these initiation knives from their stomachs. The surroundings of the shrine possessed a peculiarly Scottish name, Munro, and the area was called Yarnder. The jeemarri found there were bartered south and west and north to the confines of the continent. They were so hard and strong, and having come from the stomachs of the old men, their magic was so potent that they could be sold for “spears and spears and spears,” making the group a rich one and of outstanding importance.

Jaal told me that he was the last man of his group, and to me he left this shrine Maiamba, from which he and his people had headed off the white man who had come many times looking for gold. I was not to take anyone there until all of the natives who belonged to it were dead and gone, and Maiamba an orphan water. Jaal said he would go with me to Maiamba, but soon after this episode he was taken to Bernier Island. I showed the stone with its rich content to an assayer. He was deeply interested.

“An excellent specimen, Mrs. Bates,” he told me. “Seventeen ounces to the ton. Where did it come from?”

“I am not sure of the white name of the place,” I evaded. “A native brought it in.” Jaal’s country and its Maiamba shrine lay east of Meekatharra at Lake Way, now the extensive gold mines of Wiluna, to which by right of bequest, I am the hereditary heiress, for the jeemarri area is mine, by deed of gift of my last grandson there.

Along way from Peak Hill, and near a pool called Jilguna, I “sat down” with a large group, among which were many elders, and one old patriarch, Ngargala. Ngargala was nearing his end, and it was he who gave to me the magic bamburu which has been my passport among all the central circumcised tribes through the years. I shall never forget the ceremony of the presentation.

The dying man reclined upon a little slope, and I sat beside him, with the group chanting in low tones. From a bundle beside him he brought out a package of emu feathers and human hair, from which he drew a magic bamburu of fine light yellow acacia wood, exquisitely curved and etched, with the crude form of a woman its centrepiece.

He pointed to the figure and said, “That is you, kabbarli, dhoogoor kabbarli (woman of the dream-time).”

I replied quietly, “I know that, boggali (grandson),” and handed it back.

“I am old,” said Ngargala. “I give you my magic and you will keep it with your bamburu.”

As he said these words, he placed his hands upon my breast, and I placed mine on his. Then he placed the bamburu between us, with its blunted ends pressed against our bodies, and with his black hands gathered the magic of his heart and stomach, drew it slowly and firmly along the bamburu, with one closed hand at the other end to catch it and impregnate it into my breast.

At last I said, “That is all, boggali. Now I have your magic and mine. We two are strong for all time. This bamburu will never leave me. It will sit down with me daytime and night-time.”

I rose from my cramped position, and, emptying my bag of rations, left the group in silence.

I never saw Ngargala again, but those of the groups who were then present would always know me, and many a time have repeated softly by way of greeting and recognition the chant that they sang during the transfer of the old man’s magic bamburu.

Always, wherever it happened to be, and without referring to the matter, I would go over and take their hands in mine and they knew I was a “mason.”

Now the heiress of an undiscovered gold mine and a repository of dream-time magic, there was yet another inheritance that came my way before I left this district. While I was at Cue, one of the natives, a man of the red ochre totem, wished to show me his home-ground, where there was still a motley little group of many families. We obtained a passage to a place called Mindoola, eighty miles away, in a dray carrying provisions to a few old miners. It was a long and arduous journey, for most of the way I tried to make myself comfortable sitting on a sewing machine to be delivered at some outpost station.

On the way we passed a beautiful pool full of pelicans, and then entered the ranges. I had previously learned from the natives of a “stone man lying down,” a dark scoriated heap of stone boulders that, from one aspect, appeared to be a gigantic recumbent figure. Should strangers approach the place, according to native belief, the stone man rose in anger, and they died, for the stone sleeper was Barlieri, a legendary father.

As we approached this, I gazed upon it intently. “You see,” I said in an undertone to the native at my side, “Barlieri knows me. He knows I am coming. He is glad. He does not rise against me.” I felt the native gradually edging closer.

I was wearing, I remember, a cream holland coat and skirt. When we came to Wilgamia, the red ochre deposits, I left the man with the dray, and with my native guide went up the hill and into the hill, cut about in rough excavations.

In and out and up and down through greasy haematite we went, sometimes seeing the remains of a tiny fire. This hill has been a source of much-valued red ochre for perhaps centuries, for far away in the north I had seen this greasy haematite from Wilgamia in the south.

Everywhere the black fellow crawled I followed, until we came to the place they had been digging for the last two or three hundred years. There, with a piece of flint, he cut me a piece, marking his own forehead with it before he gave it to me. “When I finish, all finish,” he said. “Your Wilgamia now.”

I came out a Woman in Red. There was not an inch of me that had not been ochred all over, even my face and hands were smeared with the greasy stuff.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31