The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 11

with the Desert Tribes

The end of this pilgrimage in the central west marked the termination of eight years of intensive study and ethnological research for the West Australian Government. I returned to Perth in 1912, and delivered my complete manuscripts to the Registrar–General’s Department. Chapter by chapter, these manuscripts had been submitted to Dr. Andrew Lang in England for his revisions and annotations, which I value highly. There was a change of government at about this time, and the manuscripts and photographs were later presented to me with the right to publish them in book form.

By this time I was a confirmed wanderer, a nomad even as the aborigines. So close had I been in contact with them, that it was now impossible for me to relinquish the work. I realized that they were passing from us. I must make their passing easier. Moreover, all that I knew was little in comparison with all there was yet to learn. I made the decision to dedicate the rest of my life to this fascinating study.

I admit that it was scarcely a sacrifice. Apart from the joy of the work for its own sake, apart from the enlightenments, the surprises, the clues, and the fresh beginnings that were the stimuli of every day, the paths to never-ending high-roads, and byways in a scientific study that was practically virgin country, “the freshness, the freedom, the farness,” meant much more to me now than the life of cities.

A glorious thing it is to live in a tent in the infinite-to waken in the grey of dawn, a good hour before the sun outlines the low ridges of the horizon, and to come out into the bright cool air, and scent the wind blowing across the mulga plains. My first thought would be to probe the ashes of my open fireplace, where hung my primitive cooking-vessels, in the hope that some embers had remained alight. Before I retired at night, I invariably made a good fire and covered the glowing coals with the soft ash of the jilyeli, having watched my compatriots so cover their turf fires in Ireland. I would next readjust the stones of the hob to leeward of the morning wind, and set the old Australian billy to boil, while I tidied my tent, and transformed it from bedroom to breakfast-room.

As the sun came up, it changed that plain white room into the most exquisitely-frescoed pergola, with a patterning far surpassing the best of Grinling Gibbon’s handiwork. In a constant play of leafy light and shadow, I would eat my tea and toast in absolute content, while outside the blue smoke of the fire changed to grey in the bright sunlight.

The mornings were spent in wandering from camp to camp, attending to the bodily needs of the scattered flock. I knew every bush, every pool, every granite boulder, by its age-old prehistoric name, with its legends and dream-time secrets, and its gradual inevitable change. There was no loneliness. One lived with the trees, the rocks, the hills and the valleys, the verdure and the strange living things within and about them. My meals and meditations in the silence and sunlight, the small joys and tiny events of my solitary walks, have been more to me than the voices of the multitude, and the ever-open book of Nature has taught me more of wisdom than is compassed in the libraries of men.

After a brief but pleasant intellectual respite with my own kind in Perth, I pitched my tent again near the Maamba Reserve. There was scarcely the need for it any longer. The indefatigable Ngilgi was still an occasional visitor, and Monnop, noticeably approaching his end, but still hoping vainly to be her suitor. For the rest, a few half-castes and mixtures. Monnop retraced his steps to his own country of New Norcia shortly after, and died there within a year, the last of the dingo-people.

About the same time I made occasional journeys to Rottnest Island native prison, and to New Norcia, a seminary town and an agricultural district of great importance, mother-house of the Benedictines in Australia.

For many years deemed uninhabitable, Rottnest, about 1858, became an aboriginal prison, where native prisoners from the whole State were subsequently herded together in penal servitude. Their offences ranged from the sometimes brutal murder of white colonists to sheep-stealing and cattle-killing, and other breaches of the white man’s law of the enormity of which they were, for the most part, ignorant.

Shipped in batches, sometimes 1,000 miles from the tropic north, to their trial and sentence in Perth, chained in gangs on the island, in the heat and the wet weather and biting cold, they worked in the salt lakes, or at road making, and at tilling a small area for cultivation, the corn being reaped by hand and thrashed by an old-fashioned flail. From the terrible treadmill of a labour quite unnatural to them, they were shepherded at night into the clammy cells of a low-roofed stone gaol, cells filthy and fever-ridden, with walls many inches thick. In these vaults they existed on prison rations. There were no fires. Give a native a fire, and he will survive starvation itself. Feed him and clothe him as much as you like, and deprive him of his fire, and he will die.

These unfortunates died in appalling numbers. At one time there were 800 of them on the island, and twenty-four deaths were recorded in one day. Few returned to their own country when their sentences had expired. Several made the attempt to swim to the mainland, but fourteen miles of tempestuous seas made the island a fortress, and there is no evidence that one of them succeeded. The supply of fresh prisoners, however, continued unabated for years, until northern gaols were established, at Carnarvon, Roebourne and Broome, which alleviated the position in that, at least, it kept the natives in their own climate.

Rottnest Native Prison was only another tragic mistake of the early colonists in dealing with the original inhabitants of a country so new and strange to them. The island is a tourist’s paradise nowadays. It was still a native prison when I was there in 1911, but I think it was totally abandoned as such soon after. I camped in my tent there, and, when the weather was squally, occupied one of the administration houses. The low-roofed stone gaol was well in evidence, a house of horror of the past. The conditions of the prisoners had infinitely improved, although they were regrettable even then. Just as there was little understanding by the black man of the white man’s law, so there was little by the white man of the black’s. Natives were thrown together in a cell, regardless of group antipathies and evil magics. There I met again Jingooroo and Muri, serving their sentence for the murder of the blood man at Meekatharra. Jingooroo was far gone in consumption, Muri was only slightly infected, being a younger and stronger brother. To add to their woes, a blood totem man arrived at Rottnest, Thuradha, recently sentenced for another murder of a lice man at Meekatharra. The cells accommodated five or six, and Thuradha was shut in with his hereditary energies What to do? The only thing was to have myself locked in with them for some hours at night, and take both magics away, which I did.

The evil accumulated in poor Jingooroo, had, however, taken complete hold. One of my saddest memories is the recollection of my last day at Rottnest. I had been with the dying man throughout the evening, by the light of a lantern which I had given him to hold, by virtue of its warmth. Suddenly he stood up, and laying his hands upon my shoulders, said, “Kabbarli! That blood magic! How strong it was to cross the big water and find me!” A heavy haemorrhage followed, and in a short time Jingooroo’s grave was added to the many hundreds on the island.

Now an opportunity came for me to travel to Eucla, the Great Australian Bight, and fresh fields. From Albany, I took passage on the cargo steamer Eucla. We called at Esperance, Israelite Bay and Point Malcolm, delivering cargoes and stores at the jetties to be carried to stations inland, and throughout the journey I kept a sharp look-out for natives. The original groups had almost gone, trekking north to the gold-fields. At Cape Arid I reached the point where the circumcised groups had encroached upon the uncircumcised. My old friends Dib and Dab were still alive, the last of the Bibbulmun on this borderland.

Ethnological study now became new and difficult, for there were no class-relationships to guide me, and the totemic divisions seemed to be mostly incestuous. Wild cherry men would take wild cherry women to wife, and their children would be wild cherries. They themselves knew that these marriages were wrong, and called their wives ngammin-wuk, unlawful. I found but three living members only of a true cross-cousin marriage group whose area was at Twilight Cove. Other than that the area was purely totemic. There was a continual traffic between all the circumcised natives over immense distances, from Eucla to Balladonia, Fraser Range, and Boundary Dam, but there was also a murderous enmity.

Eucla is nowadays nothing but a name on the map, eight miles west of the South Australian border, a street of ruined houses almost completely engulfed in the sand, just at the point where the majestic cliffs of the Great Australian Bight recede inland for sixty miles, to form the western edge of the vast Nullarbor Plain. In 1877, the telegraph line was constructed round the shores of the Bight, and following the gold discoveries of the ‘nineties, Eucla became a large repeating station. Thirty telegraphists and their families constituted a permanent population of at least sixty or seventy, and thousands passed through on their way to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. The installation of automatic telegraphy and later, the reconstruction of the line in a straight 2,000 miles along the Transcontinental line to avoid coastal atmospheric disturbances, left Eucla the deserted village that overland tourists taking the coast road find in the sand today.

The town was in its decline when I was there in 1912. I pitched my tent two miles from the settlement, near the beach. From a hollow in the sandhills, I could look out upon the great sweeping billows of the Southern Ocean rolling in in thunder, sometimes a single wave two miles in length.

About thirty natives were camped in the vicinity, but only one of the Eucla tribe, whose ancestral ground, jinyila, had been taken for the telegraph station, was still living. There were a few whose connections had been Eucla people, the last holder of the two true totems, [The native word for totem was also the word for home, hearth, fire-wamoo] the wild currant (ngoora), and nala (the edible bark of the root of a species of mallee).

The currant-bushes were about three feet high, covered with small red gluey fruit in their season, and a diverting sight it was to see the wild-currant men sitting round bush after bush until they had cleaned up the berry harvest. The turkey totem belonged to the outlying country adjoining. The turkeys fed on berries, and the natives fed on both, and so became what scientists might call “associated totem groups.”

Cannibalism had been rife for centuries in these regions and for a thousand miles north and east of them. When I made inquiries regarding the murder of Baxter (who accompanied Eyre in 1843) by the two Port Lincoln boys who stole the stores and fled back to their own country, I was told that they did not get very far before they themselves were killed and eaten. While these blacks had been under the protection of the whites, they were safe enough, but the moment they left them, they were descended upon and killed. Some years before my arrival, two white men, Fairey and Woolley, had mysteriously disappeared in this country, but of this comparatively recent affair, the natives would give me no information. I did hear of one instance of cannibalism at the white man’s expense, a shepherd whose name is known to me, found dead in the country to westward, with his thigh cut away.

Between Eucla and Eyre a group of six-fingered and six-toed natives existed. They had been seen by Helms as late as the ‘sixties, and though they were extinct in my time, I learned both from the natives at Eucla and from Mr. Chichester Beadon, that they had come from the Petermann Ranges, and had intermarried with the five-fingered groups. These six-fingered men were believed to transmit their peculiarity to their off-spring, as were the left-handed groups that I have myself often encountered.

The last manhood ceremony of Eucla was held in 1913, when Gooradoo, a boy of the turkey totem, was initiated at Jeegala Creek, some sixteen miles north. A great crowd of natives straggled in by degrees, remnants from all round the plain’s edge, from Fraser Range, Boundary Dam, Israelite Bay, as far east as Penong, and as far north as Ayer’s Rock, in the very heart of Australia, 700 miles and more of foot-travelling. There were numbers of women among them, as in all these gatherings an exchange of women is an important part of the ceremony. For the ceremony there must have been more than 200 assembled.

In physique these border natives were fine sturdy fellows. In their own country they were cannibals to a man. “We are Koogurda,” they told me, and frankly admitted the hunting and sharing of kangaroo and human meat as frequent y as, that of kangaroo and emu. The Baduwonga of Boundary Dam drank the blood of those they had killed. The Kaalurwonga, cast of the Badu, were a fierce arrogant tribe who pursued fat men, women and girls, and cooked the dead by making a deep hole in the sand, trussing the body and there roasting it, and tossing it about until it cooled sufficient for them to divide it. Another group would cut off hand and foot, and partake of these first, to prevent the ghost from following and spearing them spiritually.

Although they camped about me for many days, I was sufficiently acquainted with their disposition and their custom to know that my own position was secure. All knew of kabbarli and her grandmotherly magic, and I look upon this exciting period at Eucla as one of the most illuminating contacts with this primitive race that I have ever made.

At about this time, I sold my pastoral properties in the Ophthalmia Ranges, and so could provide liberal flour, sugar and tea for the forthcoming celebrations.

A few days before the celebrations a curious ceremony took place on the arrival of a contingent from the cast. No fires of welcome had been lighted. Because there were so many factions tension grew and grew until one day I found a raging crowd, with spears and spear-throwers and clubs, ready to fall upon each other. I had gone over to choose those who would see to the damper-making for the day, and penetrated right to the centre of the angry mob-a delicate moment!

I looked round. “All you boggli (grandsons) bring your spears to me,” I said quietly. “I will sit down and take care of them, and then you can go little way and have a good fight, and come back for food.”

To my astonishment, old Ngarralea and Dhalja and other totemists of the loudest voices and most belligerent attitudes put down their spears beside me. The others followed. I carefully arranged every spear in order of tribal eldership in its right totem-group. Then I said, “Now go and have plenty talk and little clubbing. I will wait.” They went a little way only, and I could hear the shouted grievances and antipathies in a wild medley of argument and accusation. Then without rancour, they came back, ready for a meal.

The strangers came down in a line, and stood on the slope near my fire. The men from the other camps gathered in an orderly throng five deep, and approached the new arrivals at a trot, their women like camp followers behind. As they advanced, they now and then stopped, formed into a dense round mass, and gave a deep throaty shout. All were fully armed.

When they were within twenty paces, they suddenly turned towards their own camp, and ran round in a great circle to behind the strangers. This was repeated again and again-a meeting of armed neutrality, a temporary truce. The men then approached the camps of the newcomers, where bartering took place.

From them I discovered an avenue of inquiry of considerable scientific interest, for the new arrivals, I learned, were the men of the Wanji-wanji travel dance.

A great aboriginal trade route circles the continent. As already I had found evidence of a stone-age barter, pearl shell of the north treasured as magic in the deserts of the south, red ochre and flint knives traded across many hundreds of miles, I now learned that this barter includes all exchangeable articles, and is continent wide. Notwithstanding the hostility of groups and tribes, barter went on all the year round along this great highway, which abutted directly on the north and south coasts, and branched off to the eastern and western coasts so that no groups were isolated. All along the main road were by-roads and branch-roads. Every group in Australia, except those of the coast, had four roads of exit and entry, east, west, south and north, where they could send their local products and obtain other desired goods. Spears made of certain hard and durable woods, spearheads of varied stone for various uses, fur-string belts and forehead bands, curiously shaped meteorites, little white tail-tips of the tail of the rabbit bandicoot, clubs made from strong roots, Murchison ornamented shields-all found their way for immense distances along this great recognized continental route, prized for their good or evil magic, or their usefulness, and increasing in antiquity and value as they travelled farther and farther. [Bull-roarers, the most sacred Central Australian objects, were bought by the Bibbulmun, whose children whirled them in play. An invitation of the Malay kris, made on the north coast, was bartered as far south as Cooper’s Creek. A ground (Neolithic) axe from East Kimberley reached the Perth Tribes.]

The great continental trade-route probably originated with the second horde that arrived in Australia. Century by century, generation after generation, they penetrated farther south and east and west, buying and selling, bartering their women and girls for boys, whom they adopted and reared and initiated. Saleable goods and human possessions were not the only traffic.

Two great dramatic performances travelled with them, the Wanji-wanji, and the Molong-go. The Wanji-wanji came down along the river-heads, and the Molong-go travelled south from a point east or south-east of Darwin. These dances took one or two generations to traverse the continent. The Wanji-wanji was an ancient dream dance, a dramatic rendering of the arrival of the second horde into Australia. It had reached the Bibbulmun long before white settlement in the south-west, and was known there as the wanna-wa. There were only a few old Bibbulmun who had been able to tell me about it, and according to them it came from the man-eating groups on their north-eastern border.

The Wanji-wanji I saw at Eucla coincided with the initiation ceremonies. It had come by its old traditional inland road from the north, along the Fortescue, Gascoyne, Ashburton and Murchison Rivers, east of the goldfields, then south. It lasted about a fortnight, and there were three performances daily, at 4 a.m., 2 pm. and at about 8 p.m. Day after day, the same songs and motions were demonstrated and practised until the participants became perfect. I attended every performance, right to the close, when the sacred and secret parts of the dance, forbidden to women and girls, were enacted at a spot five miles from my camp. Neither those who brought the dance, nor those who watched it, could interpret the words or the actions, but they had a fine quick ear, and reproduced them perfectly. The Wanji-wanji finished its last grand tour at Eucla, for although the mixed groups gathered there took it on to Tarcoola and Kalgoorlie, these great traditional dances demand a large number of performers and audience, and for lack of them, petered out.

Old Tharnduriri, who was over 70 years old, remembered parts of the dance, which he had seen at Ayer’s Rock in boyhood.

A few still remain who remember the Wanji-wanji, and I had but to sing the opening stanza —

Warri wan-gan-ye,
Koogunarri wanji-wanji,
Warri wan-gan-ye,

and they would remember, and join in exact time and tune and words.

When the ceremonies of initiation were about to begin, an interesting incident occurred. The boy initiate, Gooradoo, was taken out on a fishing excursion by the white telegraphists one day in a dinghy. A north wind blew up suddenly at Eucla, and Gooradoo’s father entertained grave fears for his boy’s safety. His panic was such that he cursed and stormed impartially at the whole assembled camp until Gooradoo returned. Reassured and full of contrition, the father immediately set out to walk fifteen or twenty miles to bring a turkey to the group totem people, an edible totem being the customary peace offering after injustice or rage.

The initiation corroborees began at Jeegala Creek. Night after night the orgies continued in excitement so intense that one man, having danced himself into a frenzy of heat and passion, lay on the damp ground, was seized with paralysis, and died. He was of the edible bark (nala tree) totem. My camp was beside a nala tree, and when I came back from his grave, and was about to set my fire for tea, I looked up and perceived what I thought was rain falling from out of the branches. Rain-water being infinitely precious. I ran for my bucket, to see that the sky was clear. Yet water, beyond all doubt, was falling from the leaves of the nala tree!

I called Dhalja, one of the old men of the totem.

“Dhalja, you look! What for that water come from those tree leaves?”

Dahlja looked closely for some moments at both me and the tree. Then he pointed to the ground. “Nala man dead,” he said.

I have never been able to find a logical explanation of this singular occurrence of leaves dripping water from one branch only. When the period of mourning was over, and they were allowed once more to eat of the totem, Dhalja brought me a wooden scoop filled with this edible bark, telling me that as the tree had shown it, I belonged to his totem. The bark was sweet and not unpalatable, and I returned the compliment in sugar, which he found sweeter still.

When the initiation and the Wanji-wanji were over, the times came for the grand finale of these ceremonies, the introduction of new members into the totems, and the addition of new boards to the sacred store. It was then that I myself was initiated into the freedom of all the totems, in a purely religious ceremony intensely impressive.

All natives who could claim connection with the remnants of the Eucla totem groups had gradually assembled in the vicinity of my camp-mallee-hen, curlew, native cat, wild currant, kangaroo and emu and dingo, edible bark, turkey and many others. The elders of the various groups brought me portions of their traditional totem foods, all cooked except the water-roots, and presented on a bark scoop. Very early one morning I was awakened by the insistent clicking of boomerangs outside my tent. I went out to find a long file of more than fifty men forming a half-circle. All carried spears, and, all were naked except for their decorations-crazy stripes of red ochre and white pipe-clay, crests of cockatoo feathers, hair-belts and tassels reddened with blood, and waist-belts with a tuft of emu-feather behind. The camp was silent, for the women and children had been sent some miles away.

In my sober Edwardian coat and skirt, a sailor hat with fly-veil, and neat high-heeled shoes, I took up my position in the centre. We must have made a quaint assembly indeed. We took a track beside the receding cliffs for some miles as the totem shrine was at a spot called Beera, some five miles or so west of the Telegraph Station. Two natives of Willilambi (Twilight Cove), Wirrgain and Karnduing, of the eaglehawk and sacred spear totems, ran on either side of us, sometimes covering their mouths with their hands and emitting long blood-curdling tremolo “eaglehawk” screams that echoed eerily along the cliffs. Every now and again, we came to places along our road where fires had been lighted, tended by other men who beat upon the fires with fresh green branches, and solemnly steeped us, one and all, in the dense smoke that arose.

At length we reached a wide totem road, with cleared spaces some fifty yards in diameter at either end. A great fire was lighted in the centre of this. At a given signal, we each gathered a mallee branch to hold in the right hand, and spread out in a wide-flung half-moon, of which I still held the centre, all sitting in a semicircle and facing the road.

On a shrill, high note, with the branches beating the ground, began the song of the totems, native cat, curlew, eaglehawk, kangaroo, wallaby, emu, mallee-hen, and so on through the whole gamut of those assembled.

“Yudu!” came a shout from one of the elders. (“Shut your eyes!”) With bowed heads, in a tense silence and with closed eyes, the great crowd of squatting natives bent to the ground. I ventured to watch.

At the other end of the road, in the cleared ground that was, as it were, the altar, or sanctuary, appeared an ancient tribal father, an extremely tall and imposing figure with a long black beard, Wardunda. He was holding before him a totem board at least fifteen feet high, a koondain, the father of all totem boards, deeply-grooved and painted in red ochre and white pipe-clay with the sacred markings of Maalu, the kangaroo. Arriving at the centre of the cleared ground, he turned to face the prostrate circle, and lifted the koondain in the same manner and to the same hushed reverence as the elevation of the Host in the Roman Catholic Church, or as Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness.

At a whispered word the natives raised their eyes. Immediately a frenzied chanting arose, the song of the kangaroo, ringing and echoing from men’s throats in that lonely place to the rhythm of beating branches, while man and board remained absolutely motionless. The board was then slowly lowered, and as it lay flat on the ground, Wardunda prostrated himself upon it, then rose and reverently carried it out as the singing died away. A smaller kangaroo board, about four feet long, was silently placed in my lap from behind.

Again “Yudu!” was the cry, and a second long totem was exhibited. Again a smaller board, with its special markings, was given to me in the same way, until I held twenty or thirty boards of groups living and dead, identical with the large ones, long seasoned with age and weather, bearing the concentric circles, diamonds, squares, and transverse markings and crude drawings signifying birds and animals. These totems have their sacred significance back in the dreamtime, and hold the mystery of life. No native knows more than that.

We now rose to our feet. The natives, still in single file, twice made the circuit of the ground, then all stood with their spears, in fighting position while Jilburnda came towards me. Taking the boards, which I held in my arms, he touched me with every one of them, upon breast, back, shoulders and knees, finally laying them at my feet.

The young men who were witnessing this ceremony for the first time stood at either end of the semicircle, and these were now motioned to come forward to the fire. This they did, trembling. The songs of their totems were sung, and they also were touched, with their own sacred boards, on back, breast, shoulders and knees. Jilburnda signalled me to rise and approach the fire, where I was touched again with the boards, which were then laid at my feet.

Once more “Yudu!” was called, and there followed a second exposition of Maalu the Kangaroo, and the singing of its song.

I was then asked by Jilburnda and Ngailgulla to carry the boards to the storehouse. I walked in the centre of the totem road, accompanied by the men, who formed a file at each side. I was told that the little storehouse of mallee branches, cunningly hidden, was but a temporary shelter, the cave that had been their resting-place through generations having once been entered by white men, who carried off as souvenirs and museum pieces the sacred objects they found therein. I placed the boards on a bed of fresh mallee-leaves, the opening was carefully covered, and we turned southward without retreading the sacred ground.

With smoke signals to tell the camp of our return, we hastened back in the growing darkness.

As keeper of the totems, I had now free access to the place, and it was my duty to grease and freshen these boards occasionally, and to hide the place of their storage from white men.

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