The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 4

The Beginning of Initiation

The tribes of Australia may roughly be classed as circumcised and uncircumcised. So far as their origin is concerned, that, too, belongs to the dreamtime. I am doubtful that it will ever be established, except in theory. I do not regard them as a race apart, but as a mixture, a nomad people picking up scraps of racial character in their different environments, and at last, in primitive Australia, gravitating to the primitive life that they have led here for centuries.

I can follow only a boomerang clue of these wanderings, a geographical curve back to Egypt, cradle of the human race-from Thebes, where the boomerang is to be found in mural paintings and carvings, to Kattywar in India, on to Celebes, and a step across to Australia. In the very heart of this continent, and among the Bibbulmun of the South–West, I have traced the Kas, Egyptian spirit of the newly dead, and the Central Australian aboriginal cry of mourning, a word identical in meaning and pronunciation, the graves that ever face the rising sun, and the Serpent Cult of all groups.

Certain it is that all tribes came from northward, and that the uncircumcised were the first hordes, later driven down south, east or west by the encroachment of the circumcised. So rapid was this encroachment of recent years that the whole of black Australia would have been circumcised. Thirty years ago the practice embraced the north and centre of Western Australia, save for a narrow irregular line from Balla–Balla to Geraldton, skirting the sea, and thence a line cutting off the south-west in a triangle to Cape Arid, on the rim of the Great Australian Bight. Even with my own later experience, some of these outlying tribes were drawn in, in the course of a few years, by inter-marriage and association.

The tribes of Broome were, therefore, among the circumcised, and still are, unless contaminated by Asiatic influences and by the influx of the whites, as I believe they have been. In the sequence of the ceremonies here described, I adhere rigidly to their practices and use the words of their language, but the initiations are similar, throughout the circumcised groups of Western Australia and the Centre.

The aborigine serves his apprenticeship to manhood from early childhood to old age, and the degrees through which he must pass before he is entitled to marry occupy many years. We left the newly-arrived ngargalulla on the threshold of its babyhood sleeping in the bush shelter of his own father and mother, playing with other camp-babies, never smacked and rarely scolded, with a rotund little stomach so visibly swelling in girth that, to a white man’s inexperienced eye, it flouts the possibility of digestion. However, a few years of quick growth solve the problem, and at the age of about eight years or so comes the first step in the march of manhood, the separation of the sexes.

As nimma-nimma, the boy then joins the camp of the younger men, bachelors all, in various stages of initiation, their quarters being generally in front of the married men’s huts, and a little to leeward. There follows what is probably the happiest period in the boy’s life. He goes out with his young companions, honey-seeking and hunting for small game. Toy spears and boomerangs and shields are made for him, and he is taught their manufacture and their use. He learns to dance in the play-corroborees and begins to sense the significance of the totems; in short, he goes to school. His elder brothers in a tribal sense are his monitors, his guardians being father and his father’s brothers and his grandfathers. From the outset, an older-man known as the yagoo is appointed to his especial charge. The yagoo is usually a brother-inlaw to be, a man to whom the tribal elders have betrothed one of his sisters, who may still be an infant, or as yet unborn. He will be playfully decorated, each decoration being explained to him in a childish way easy of understanding.

When the time comes for him to enter upon the first definite stage of initiation, usually when he is eleven or twelve years old, plans and preparations are made. The women are sent far afield to collect quantities of vegetable food while the old men inspect the sacred ceremonial and totem boards, in their place of hiding, the beegardainngooroo, or beega. This is usually a bush-shelter, rock-hole or large shady hollow tree. Should women or children intrude upon this secret place, either intentionally or unintentionally, they are immediately killed. Should they unknowningly walk beneath the shade of its tree, it is believed that they will lose the use of their limbs. The sacred boards must never be disclosed to the eyes of women. I know of one instance, on a north-west station, where a white girl visitor came into possession of these boards, presented to her as a curio by a white man who had found them. One afternoon she carelessly exhibited them to some friends in the presence of three of the natives, two women and a little girl. All three were dead by the end of the week. If the boards should be eaten by white ants, or damaged beyond repair, they are burnt or buried and new ones made.

The second stage of initiation is nimma-mu, the nose piercing. The yagoo takes the boy apart, fashions a string of opossum fur and places it about his waist, then sits him in a cleared space some distance from the camp, with meat, fish and vegetable food piled beside him. The men sit round in a circle while the yagoo puts one of the smaller bones from the forepaw of a kangaroo through the septum, leaving it there through the night. Foods are then shared. Next morning a turkey bone replaces the kangaroo bone. Strict avoidance of all women and girls begins from this period. Nimma-mu extends for some months, from autumn to spring. At the beginning of the summer wet season, secret preparations are made for the fourth and one of the most vital stages of initiation-balleli, the circumcision itself.

The yagoo anoints the boy’s body all over with charcoal and grease, places a band of opossum string on his head, and the boy becomes balgai. This is the third stage. Amongst the Beagle Bay people, the two upper front teeth are knocked out at this time, but this is not often done by the Koolarrabullbo of Broome. Early in the afternoon, the boy (now balgai) starts on a journey, accompanied by his yagoo and other guardians, to collect relatives and friends within a certain radius to assist at initiation. They travel in one direction only, north, south, or east, at the rate of about ten miles a day, and may cover 130 miles or so in the full Journey. If there are two or three balgai boys, each one travels in a different direction. Among the primitive people with no mathematics, there is a very ingenious method of regulating days and distances by means of the finger-joints, the right hand for the outward journey, the left for the return.

The boy is a great favourite wherever he, goes, and as he approaches a camp is greeted from afar, with shouts of “Balgai! Balgai!” There is singing and dancing to celebrate his arrival. On the return journey each camp sends its representatives to the coming ceremony, with gifts of vegetables and meat food, until, nearing home, the gathering swells to a very large one, heavily burdened with food and presents in anticipation of the feast.

The balgai is now placed in charge of those who are to take the chief part in his circumcision ceremonial, the waiung-arree, chosen from among his principal relatives in all surrounding camps, with perhaps a newly-selected yagoo. Escorted balgais from every direction approach the appointed spot. The assembled party makes a halt some distance from the home-camp to decorate. Here the balgai is ceremonially painted by his vagoo with fat, charcoal, and an insignia red ochre on forehead, cheeks and chest.

At last the great day dawns. A wallang-arree, or double circle, is cleared some distance from the boy’s camp. Among the visitors are usually a number of young men in later stages of apprenticeship, who have come to undergo certain other initiations. Every man taking part in these is distinguished from the balgai group by having his legs covered with blood. No youth is ever allowed to be present at an initiation higher than that he himself has reached. The balgai have no blood sprinkled upon them, nor have any of the group in charge of them, their decorations being red ochre, white pipeclay, charcoal and dark yellow ochre.

The afternoon is the time of the balgai’s expected arrival in camp. No sooner is the sun below the meridian than the fathers take their place in the centre of the wallang-arree, and with their boomerangs raised in welcome await the visitors. As the first group approaches, there is a ringing shout of “Aie! Kaie! Kaie! R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r!”

The balgai is brought to the circle. The yagoo takes hold of the boy’s hands from behind, and shows him first to his father’s uncles, and then to his female relatives, who may look upon him only from a distance, and through a veil of their hair. The boy is then held aloft and shown to all his people assembled, while those standing within the circle sing the following song with their faces turned to the northeast:

Waiung-arree ngow, waiung-arree ngow,
jandoo ngarrie ngaice
Waiung-arree ngow!

This song continues while the waiung-arree leader takes his men round the inner circle.

All of the waiung-arree dancers are fully armed with spear and spear-thrower. They wear the insignia of their various stages of initiation, and faces and bodies are painted in highly original and symbolic design that lend them an aspect fiendish and fantastic. Entering from the right, they make a circuit of the wallang-arree and depart from the left, taking the balgai with them and leaving room for the others, the groups of the various balgai at last forming coils without intermingling. Then all groups join together and arrange themselves in several broken concentric circles, each alternate group rotating in a different direction-a maze of painted black bodies that stamp and wheel and swing to a strident accompaniment of loud shrill singing. The women keep their own circle on the outskirts, and must never come near enough to touch the men.

When the dance is ended, a double row of men lies flat on the ground with their heads in opposite directions. Another double row lies on top of them and another, and another, until they become a human stack several feet high which, with the balgai seated aloft in the centre, begins to rock and sway from side to side. At a given signal, the men spring to their feet, and the balgai falls gently in the midst of them.

Each row, catching hands, swings again into the wallang-arree alternate rows going in opposite directions, the boys and the old men always in the centre. This ceremony is called moorooboyn, and is accompanied throughout by a spirited high chanting and a stamping of feet. At the close of it, the boy is taken out of the circle for a brief respite, then brought back into it on the shoulders of his yagoo. As soon as he reaches the centre, he throws himself backwards into the arms of his mothers’ brothers, and, clasping his hands behind his head and stiffening his legs, is thrown into the air again and again by four or five men. The yagoo takes charge of the balgai and all adjourn for supper.

At this time all licence is allowed, and the laws relating to persons who at other times are forbidden to look at each other are suspended. Mothers-inlaw may even approach or address their sons-inlaw, and at the supper, the thaloo, as the mother-inlaw is called, makes the best of it. A whole year of grievances is stored up, and the son-inlaw has no right of reply. She can touch him, taunt him, pull away his weapons and decorations, and make him a public mockery. Her delight is to worry and annoy, and he must keep a poker face through it all, unaware, as it were, of her presence.

Now she tempts him with a hollow scoop of vegetable food —“You hungry? Here is food. If you don’t take it, I will hit you. All right, watch me eat it!”— and she snatches it away. She tears off his arm-band, head-band and other ornaments, and knocks his boomerang out of his grasp. As provider for the family, he pays the price of his betrothal in meat food, and she has much to say about this. “This meat no good!” she tells him,” why don’t you bring up a tadpole?” or, “Watch me, everybody, I’m going to kill a fish,” and she snatches his spear and aims it dangerously near him. The wallang-arree is the crowded hour of glorious life for the mother-inlaw, and the whole tribe, with the exception of the son-inlaw, enjoys her sallies to the full.

In the early dawn, the men rise from their camps and go again to the circle. If the mothers-inlaw are awake, they throw insults after injuries as their sons-inlaw go by. The older men sit in the centre of the circle and sing. When the sun is high overhead, the balgai is placed a little apart. A spear is stuck into the ground in front of him and the men return to the circle. The women now approach the boy with weeping. He holds the spear with both hands, and looks upon his mothers and sisters, but he may not speak to them. A mute farewell, and they are hurried away.

The yagoo appears, a fearsome figure, painted with jet-black charcoal with stripes of yellow ochre down the front of face and body, red ochre across forehead, nose and chin, feathers on arms and head, and hair hanging loose below the hair-belt. He takes the boy to the forbidden ground. The waiung-arree men approach, and again form a circle. The yagoo presses the boy close to his breast for a moment, then turns him with his back facing him, and holds him in a vice-like grip. An older brother-inlaw, with a small stone knife, swiftly performs the operation of circumcision. The flow of blood is stopped with warm ashes.

The boy, who is now balleli, is seated on the ground. A small fire may be lighted close between his thighs, supposedly to lessen the pain and dry the flow of blood. His yagoo immediately takes off the head-ring and other balgai decorations, replacing them with a flat forehead band and a chignon made of human hair or opossum fur-string, a belt, and a tassel, or perhaps two or three attached to it. Fresh red ochre is put across his forehead, nose and cheeks, and then his fathers, uncles, and brothers pay him a visit of congratulation. His true father brings to him a little vegetable food, that has been specially prepared by his mother. The ceremony is over, and the whole camp settles down to a feast, with usually a fight or two to follow, the avenging of grievances new or old, rarely with fatal effects. Later the visitors return to their own country.

The balleli, if there is only one, remains apart, his brothers feeding him and attending to him. He may walk about, but not within the sight of the women. If there is more than one, the seclusion is not so trying. The period is fixed by the older men. When it is over, the boy’s own mother, his father’s sisters, and his own elder sister, make a bark bed near the camp, upon which he is placed. His closest female relatives may not touch him but they place vegetable food on the bark bed. The boy now takes his place among the young men, sharing their quarrels and joining in their evening songs, but he is kept entirely apart from the women, as are all of the other young men who have passed through various higher initiations. Should any woman, wilfully or accidentally, follow their tracks at that time, she is killed. One child, Nganga-gooroo, thus followed a boy, who threw his spear and killed her. The tracks were carefully examined by the old men, who, finding that the boy had not allowed the girl to approach, exonerated him and praised him. It is the law.

While they are in the bush, the youths subsist on flesh food only, and their faces and bodies are coloured with charcoal, so that any woman-may see them from afar and know that they are “forbidden.” A fire is lighted, upon which thick green boughs are placed, causing a thick smoke and the young men, arming themselves with hunting weapons go by relays into the middle of the smoke, to smoke the magic of the ceremonies from their bodies and restore their strength. Weapons are frequently smoked to ensure success in hunting, and make their aim true. In my many years among the blacks, I myself have been smoked by my thoughtful friends more than once. During this process the smoke song is repeated till the last man has trodden it, and the smoke dies away.

When the morning star rises, they sing the Morning Star song, and the song of the Kingfisher, which belongs to young initiates only.

A little later, a meeting is appointed with the old men, in the cleared space at the foot of a big gooneroo, a species of gum tree. When all are arrived, the boys climb the tree, using no native tomahawks but only their hands and toes, and swing on the branches. Then a man in an advanced stage of initiation-maam-boongana-sits close to the foot of the tree with his legs at either side of the trunk. An old man comes close and hits the tree with a club, whereupon the young men slide down one by one and fall into the lap of the maam-boongana man, making a pile of human bodies. The old man cries, “Aie! Aie!” and the maam-boongana slides from under the heap, the rest separating in the same manner.

This little ceremony, it was disclosed to me, harks back in its turn to the dream-time, when men were birds and when birds were men. The songs sung throughout the stages emphasize this dreamtime belief.

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