So far, my association with the natives had been cursory, and purely practical. I had caught nothing but a few stray glimpses, and those through other eyes, of the strange hidden life of this last remnant of palaeolithic man. The next eight months were spent among the Koolarrabulloo tribes of Broome, and it was there that my feat attempts at systematic study of aboriginal beliefs and customs were rewarded with the most unexpected results, results which I have never made public, until now.
Broome was a quaint and prosperous pearling port in the 1900’s with a polygot population living out on the ships and along the foreshore-Chinese, Japanese, Malays, Manilamen, and a score of European races. I believe there was actually an Eskimo among them. The hotels were full of pearldealers from overseas, divers, shell-openers and traders, white and coloured, and night-time was a continuous revelry. At one period, so fast and furious was the racket that I was locked in my room from danger of unpleasantness.
Even in those days the tribes of the place were but a remnant. My interest in the town natives was confined to those in gaol. They were chained to each other by the neck, and there was discussion as to the humanity of this procedure. The natives themselves told me that it gave them more freedom than handcuffs, and that a piece of cloth wrapped round the collar relieved the weight and the heat of the iron, and left their hands free to play cards and deal with the flies and mosquitoes.
From Broome, I took up my residence at Roebuck Plains, the property of Messrs. Streeter and Male, an outlying cattle-station. There was a comfortable homestead with good outbuildings. A housekeeper simplified my domestic problems, so that my time was free. Aju, the Japanese cook, was the only disturbing circumstance. He was an excellent cook, but was not normal, and developed the habit of running amok at unexpected moments. Sometimes, as I sat reading in the garden, his grinning gargoyle of a face would appear out of the foliage, or upside down from the roof of a nearby shed, and following my sudden start of fright, “Missie like a cuppa tea?” he would inquire pleasantly, or “Lunch I been make him quick-time now, you come?”
The black house-women were efficient enough in their lazy way, trailing about the garden and their domestic duties in the bright dresses I made for them, but try as I would, watching them with an eagle eye, I could instil no morality into them so far as Aju was concerned. Within his own tribal laws, the aboriginal is bound hand and foot by tradition; beyond them, he knows no ethics. My only recourse was to frighten Aju with the threat of instant dismissal if any of the girls were found at night near his quarters.
Riding and roaming in the pindan, always accompanied by the boys and women of the station, and any nomad visitors that came along, I would camp out sometimes for days, sharing my food, nursing the babies, gathering vegetable food with the women, and making friends with the old men. Thus I extended and verified my knowledge by gradual degrees until I gained a unique insight into the whole northern aboriginal social system, and its life-story from babyhood to age. Every moment of my spare time was given to this self-imposed and fascinating study. Not a word nor a gesture passed me by without opening up an avenue of inquiry, tactfully and methodically pursued.
I realized that the Australian native was not so much deliberately secretive as inarticulate. He looked upon his “black life” as a life apart from his association with the whites, few of whom had shown any interest in it. I also realized that to glean anything of value, I must think with his mentality and talk in his language. By the wells and the creeks, sitting in the camps in the firelight, on horse-back and on foot, my notebook and pencil were always with me. I began by compiling a Broome dictionary, of several dialects and 2,000 words and sentences, with notes of innumerable legends and myths.
The natives I found at first amused, and then stimulated to further confidence by my obviously eager and sustained interest. I pretended that my native name was Kallower, and that I was a mirruroo-jandu, or magic woman who had been one of the twenty-two wives of Leeberr, a patriarchal or “dreamtime” father. After that, the way was clear. They accepted me as a kindred spirit, and with the utmost patience elucidated the seeming tangle of relationships and class-groups, the marriage laws, the tribal tabus, the traditional songs and dances. They even allowed me free access to the sacred places and the sacred ceremonies of the initiations of men, which their own women must never see under penalty of death.
The abstruse “matronymics” and “patronymics” of native marriage laws as expounded in the hieroglyphics of the anthropologists, through which I have vainly floundered many times before and since with no clear conception of their exact meaning, the natives could simplify for me-definition of the four group classes, and the cross-cousin marriage of paternal aunts’ children to the maternal uncles’ children, the only lawful marriage between the groups.
[In Broome district, these were Pooroongoo, male, fair, and Pannunga, dark; Karrimarra, male, fair, and Parrajer, dark. Pooroongoo man marries Pannunga, and their children are Karrimarra. Pannunga man marries Pooroongoo, and their children are Parrajer; Karrimarra man marries Parrajer, and their children are Pooroongoo; Parrajer man marries Karrimarra and their children are Pannunga, and so on throughout all generations.]
I have found these four groups and relationships, under different names, identical in every tribe in Western Australia, east, north, south and south-west among the great Bibbulmun people of the white cockatoo and crow moieties. Aboriginal genealogies go no further back than grandmother, and the cycle is thus limited to three generations.
I have always been placed in the same class-group, corresponding with that of Pooroongoo, my place in the family being among the father’s sisters, but from this period, right through my thirty-five years of joumeying, and including the twenty years in Central Australia, I was believed to be not so much a woman as an age-old spirit of Yamminga (Broome district term), the dreamtime, and keeper of all the totems.
Once I had grasped their relationships the lives of the natives soon became easier to understand, and the poetry of their ceremonies and legends and rituals an enchanting study. At the men’s hidden corroborees, far from my own people in the heart of the bush, because I showed no quiver of timidity, or of revulsion of feeling, or of levity, because I was thinking with my “black man’s mind,” I have never been a stranger.
Sitting in a neighbouring creek-bed, or boiling the billy by an old tank out on the plain, the men would gather round me, taking infinite pains to tutor me in the rippling inflexions and the difficult double vowels of their language-a series of vocal gymnastics quite impossible to the average white linguist, and which, I am perfectly sure, in all my years of juggling with them, have altered the formation of my larynx. They explained in detail the purpose of all their weapons and implements, why the boomerang and the shield and the spear-thrower were curved or hooked just so; they let me watch their making and the chipping of stone tools, and told me the half-legendary stories of their origin. Dances and songs were explained to me at symbolic and play-corroborees, and so we progressed naturally from the world of actuality to the dream world. At last, with the utmost simplicity and frankness the old men disclosed to me little by little their most secret rites and initiations, without fear of ridicule or objection, just as they disclosed the mythologies and allegories of the mind of the primeval black man as mystical in their beauty as the sagas of the old Norse gods.
Unique in Australia, I believe, and perhaps unique in the world, is the legend of the dream-child, ngargalulla, as told me by the Broome tribes, comparable only with Maeterlinck’s delightful fantasy, The Kingdom of the Futture, and its parallel in many respects.
Whereas the general aboriginal belief is that children are dreamed by the mother, made pregnant by a spirit baby from the rocks and springs and other traditional haunts of the baby spirits of birth and re-birth, among the Koolarrabulloo it was the father who dreamed the child that was to be born to him. They believed that below the surface of the ground, and at the bottom of the sea, was a country called Jimbin, home of the spirit babies of the unborn, and the young of all the totems. In Jimbin there was never a shadow of trouble or strife or toil, or death, only the happy laughter of the little people at play. Sometimes these spirit babies were to be seen by the jalngangooroo-the witch-doctors-in the dancing spray and sunlight of the beaches, under the guardianship of old Koolibal, the mother-turtle, or tumbling and somersaulting in the blue waters with Pajjalburra, the porpoise.
When the time came for a ngargalulla to be a human baby, it appeared not to its mother, but to its father. Perhaps a Karrimarra man had fished and eaten his catch, and settled in the shade to sleep. Then would the ngargalulla baby appear to him, with all the signs of its own ground and its own totem, calling upon him in the name of eebala, father. That might it entered the body of his wife. The ngargalulla is seen only by the men, and only by those men, I learned, who possess a “ranji,” a subconscious spiritual gift, a spirit, or mind as far as I could make out, corresponding to a soul. The woman is sometimes told that her husband has dreamed the ngargalulla. She does not know until she is conscious of it within her.
The ngargalulla has its booroo, or ground, which is always beneath the surface of its father’s ground, but it is not a reincarnation of any who may be buried in that ground, or of any dead ancestor, even of those who went into the ground in Yamminga, the dreamtime. Their disappearance is marked by some unusual feature, red cliff, stone emblem, etc. The live totems go back to the sea and the land of Jimbin when their season is over, but the spirits of the human dead are carried away to the island of Loomurn, which lies over the western sea. The man is so familiar with every feature of creek and rock and tree in his country that he can immediately locate the ground of his dream, and no matter where the baby is born, that dreamed ground is its ngargalulla country. Its individual totems are those ngargalulla totems which appeared with it, its inherited totems are those of its father.
So firm was the belief in the ngargalulla that no man who had not seen it in his sleeping hours would claim the paternity of a child born to him. In one case that came under my observation, a man who had been absent for nearly five years in Perth proudly acknowledged a child born in his absence, because he had seen the ngargalulla, and in another, though husband and wife had been separated not a day, the man refused absolutely to admit paternity. He had not dreamed the ngargalulla. Should a boy arrive when a girl came in the dream, or should the ngargalulla not have appeared to its rightful father, the mother must find the man who has dreamed it correctly, and he is ever after deemed to be the father of that child.
The ngargalulla is still a spirit in the first months of its existence, but when it begins to laugh and cry, to touch and talk, and to manifest its personality as a little human being, its links with the dream world is gone, and it becomes coba-jeera-in other words, a normal baby. Thenceforward, through its whole life, the fathers who have dreamed its existence are the controllers of its destinies, within the relentless circle of tribal law. There is no glorification of maternity, no reverence of woman as woman in the dark mind of the aboriginal. Apart from the natural affection between mother and son, sister and brother, and apart from her physical fulfilment of certain dominant needs, a woman is less than the dust. Her inferiority is recognized by the very youngest of the tribe. Many a time I have seen a toddler throw sand in his mother’s eyes, and jeer at her and injure her, should she attempt to control him. The secrets of life, the laws of life, are in the hands of men.
As soon as I began living among the natives I came up against those weird rituals of the initiations of the Australian aborigine, unchanged through thousands of years, the novitiate of youth to manhood-a sacrament of sex, a communion of blood, and a Black Mass of witchcraft and savagery, yet instinct with a pure poetry of symbolism that goes back to the blind beginnings of all religions, and throbs with the beating pulse of the primeval.
Each successive initiation marks a vital stage in a man’s development, and the rites connected therewith are age-old and uncanny. No white man has ever seen them as I have seen them, because I have attended them day-long and night-long, camped sometimes for weeks alone with the natives in the bush, through the whole western half of Australia, among the circumcised and the uncircumcised, and through the centre of South Australia, where the old marriage laws have totally declined in the passing centuries.
So important are these initiation rites towards an understanding of life and belief in those primitive lands and for appreciation of what follows that some account of them is essential.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48