Yiwara


Yiwara - Foragers of the Australian Desert Richard A Gould Published by Collins London - Sydney 1969 1 Chapter 1 Page 3 A Day with the Desert People December 28, 1966 The summer heat has reached its full strength, and the sandhills near Partjar seem to be enveloped in a shimmering pink haze. The thermometer I am carrying registers 118 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Nothing moves except the flies, yet the sandhills seem to bob and dance as oven-hot air slides over them. I can feel the heat penetrating the soles of my tennis shoes, and drawing a deep breath causes my tongue to dry out like a potato chip. Clearly it was a mistake to go exploring around at > br>midday, and I think it best now to follow the advice of Noel >Yiwbr>Coward ('Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun') and return to camp. The Aborigines are still snoozing under whatever shade they can find. A couple of little girls, Page 4 Nyaputja and Manyi, are splashing in the shallow water of the drowned creekbed. Thcv look like slippery brown eels playing in the mud, but there is no doubt that they have found the coolest place around. This is a good time to sit down, catch up on my note-taking, and await further developments. Partjar is a veritable oasis in the remote sandhill country. It consists of a series of billabongs or standing pools of water in an otherwise dry creekbed that winds through and out of the Clutterbuck Hills in the heart of the Gibson Desert about 150 miles northwest of the Warburton Ranges. The billabongs here hold water for most of the year. Even when the water on the surface evaporates, water can still be reached by digging into the soft mud at the bottom of the creekbed. In the summer and during times of drought individual families of Aborigines fall back on Partjar as a dependable watering place and a base from which to hunt and forage. The Clutterbuck Hills lie almost on a line between the Rawlinson Range and the Alfred and Marie Range, so the explorer Ernest Giles must have passed close to this place on his final push to the west from Circus Water in 1874. How much misery he would have been spared had he known about this series of waterholes. Living in the desert with a nomadic family group of thirteen Nyatunyatjara people has given me a fine opportunity to observe many of the things I came here to study; tool—making, hunting and butchering of game, social relationships, and other activities pertinent to my research. My personal reasons for being here, however, go beyond these research objectives. I know now that what I really wanted was to experience the tempo and detail of the hunting and foraging way of life. Societies in which people live entirely by hunting and foraging are rare today, and the few that remain — for example, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Des- ert in South Africa, the Forest Pygmies of the Congo, and the des- ert Aborigines of Australia — are being subjected to contact with Europeans that will soon change them. Human history was tied up with this kind of economy from the time of Australopithecus and the fossil hominids of Olduvai Gorge in East Africa over a million and a half years ago until the beginnings of agriculture within the last nine or ten thousand years. With the spread of agri- Page 5 culture, only a few societies continued to live by hunting and foraging, and these mainly in climates inhospitable to farming. Some, such as the Arctic Eskimo, the Paiute lxnliaiis of western North America, and a few Yahgan and Alacaluf lndians on the coast of Tierra del Fuego, managed to cling to their traditional economy until the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. But with current trends in world history, hunting and gathering as a full-time means of livelihood seems doomed to disappear from the world during the later decades of the twen- tieth century. Thus the few anthropologists who are currently studying living hunter-gatherers will be among the last people on earth actually to observe this way of life first hand. These few years, seen in terms of the whole range of human history, comprise an extraordinary moment in time. lt is still possible for people with a nuclear technology to catch a final glimpse of this traditional mode of life. There is so much to learn and feel before the time is irrevocably past. This is the reason that I came to the Gibson Desert, and that some of my colleagues are in the tropical forests of the Congo and the desert scrublands of the Kalahari. For us, living and sharing experiences with these nomadic peoples is exhilarating but carries with it an inescapable feeling of loss, as if we were watching the last redwood or the last bison disappear. This is how it feels to be an anthropologist living with the Aborigines in the Gibson Desert of Australia on December 28, 1966. Foraging and Hunting Action at the camp begins with the first faint glow of sun- rise. It will still be dark for another half hour, but while the air is cool and there is no wind the birds do most of their singing, and there is conversation and joking in camp. Children are given wooden bowls and sent to fetch water. They have done this so often in the last month that there is now a narrow little trail running from the camp to the waterhole. When they return everyone has a drink and takes a few bites from the seedcakes Page 6 that the women prepared yesterday. The flies are not very active yet, so this is the most comfortable part of the day and a good time to make plans. The senior member of the group is Mitapuyi, a man about forty-five years old. There are three adult women: Nyurapaya, Mitapuyi's wife; Tjanangu, a widow; Mitapuyi's younger sister; and Katapi, wife of Walanya, the other adult male in the group and Mitapuyi's brother-in-law (l*); as well as a girl about fifteen years old, Tjukapati. Mitapuyi's eldest and as yet unmarried daughter. The children include Yuma (aged about ten), only son of Mitapuyi and Nyurapaya, and Nyaputja, their younger daughter (about six); Manyi, Tjanangu's only daughter (about twelve); and Katapi's four children by her first husband, now deceased: Tanara (daughter, about thirteen), Tana (son, about eleven), Nuni (son, about eight), and Ngampakatju (son, about four). These individuals, all related, comprise a group somewhat larger and including more different kinds of relatives than the average American family, fairly typical of the small family aggre- gates of Aborigines which set up camps at more or less permanent waterholes and forage together during dry seasons. The talk about the activities for the day goes on for a long time. From time to time a person takes a drink of water or a bit of food or retires to micturate. The women and girls gen- erally go off a few yards into the bush for this function, but the men often urinate right where they sit, in camp. The men have decided to hunt emus, so the discussion centers around what the women will do. Nyurapaya has decided that her bark sandals are worn out and need to be replaced. During the day the sand be- comes too hot to walk around on comfortably barefoot, so these sandals (called palykanpa) get lots of use. Sandals are made from the green bark of taliwanti, a plant which grows in the sandhills. Nyurapaya knows where to find some of these plants, but the place lies in a different direction from the area where the women have lately been looking for edible plants. Should they take a chance that they will come across some edible seeds or fruit on the way to the taliwanti-place? Or should they stick with a sure thing and manage with their worn-out sandals for another day? Nyurapaya wants new sandals, but she is shy and hates to Notes 1* Walanya is the only member of this group to have lived for very long at the Warburton Ranges Mission. His name is the native rendering of Wallace (the suffix -nya denotes a proper name; in all other cases I have simplified by omitting the suffix). Walanya is Nyurapaya's elder brother, who Mitapuyi addresses as makunta. But the real 'glue' which keeps these two families together is the close affection which Nyurapaya and Katapi have for each other. They are inseparable and camp and forage together when- ever they can. Page 7 assert herself in discussions, and Tjanangu feels the same way. Katapi, on the other hand, is both intelligent and forceful in ex- pressing her views. She thinks it would be better to finish collect- ing seeds at their established place and wait a few days for the sandals. She is cautious and would rather make full use of the resources at hand than go off to a new and untried area. Nyura— paya and Tjanangu have made their wishes known and are re- luctant to press the matter further. In situations like this, Katapi’s views are usually accepted, and this time is no exception. Nyura- paya sighs and wiggles a finger through one of the holes in the more worn of her two sandals. She sees the sense in what Katapi says and will go along, but she would still like new sandals. These sandals are important to me, however, since they have been reported only twice before from any Aboriginal group in Australia? I am determined not to let this opportunity slip by, since I very much want to see how the sandals are made. I tell the women that I will give them some plugs of chewing tobacco in exchange for their old sandals and any extra new ones they might make. Ordinarily the desert Aborigines collect supplies of wild tobacco (mingkulpa or tjuntiwari — both species of true Ni- cotiana) which they sun—dry and chew, often mixed with ashes, but lately neither kind has been available near Partjar. Thus my offer is attractive, and discussion begins anew. As usual, it is Katapi who solves the problem and makes the decision. She re- members a sandy flat beyond the taliwanti-place where she thinks they may find some ripe ngaru (fruit of the shrub Solanum ere- morphilum). Her opinion is that the other women should proceed to the taliwanti place while she goes on ahead to look for ngaru. If she is successful, she will send up a smoke signal, and the oth- ers can follow. Otherwise, she will rejoin them. Her view is immediately accepted by the others, and they decide to start at once, since they will have a long walk across many sandhills. Mitapuyi and Walanya decide to proceed in the opposite direction, into the Clutterbuck Hills, to a spot along the creek- bed where they have set up a brush blind. They will wait there for emus. Since they plan to hunt from concealment (the pre- ferred method for hunting kangaroos and emus in the desert country north of the Warburton Ranges), they decide to let the Page 8 women take the dogs. The group has six dingoes, all scrawny- looking but treated with affection by their owners. The dogs are not trained in any way and would only interfere with the hunt- ers and frighten away the game with their barking. The two men pick up their spears and spearthrowers and head south to- ward the gap in the hills where the hunting blind lies. Mitapuyi has killed five emus in this area in the last three months — an exceptionally good record — and today he hopes to spear another of these big birds. Meanwhile the women gather up digging-sticks and four large wooden bowls. These fine deep bowls, called ngunma, are intended to carry enough drinking water for the trip out. One bowl even has a spinifex-resin spout fashioned at one end to make it easier to drink from. Each bowl is filled with water, and a twisted piece of grass is placed in the water to reduce the slosh- ing. Each woman has a little doughnut—shaped loop of human hair-string which she places on her head to cushion and steady the load, and with this in place, the filled bowls are hoisted up and put in position. After a bit of hip—and-shoulder wriggling the loads are set, and the women start off, with the children and dogs. They head northward, directly toward the sandhills. Just as they are leaving camp, Katapi rushes back to get a lighted firestick, a piece of smoldering mulga wood which she carries with her. Campfires are left burning, and odd pieces of seedcake and other food are placed in a wooden bowl up in a tree. In addition to the firestick and the load on her head, Katapi carries her little son Ngamapakatju on one hip, steadying him with her free arm. By six o’clock the camp is empty. One nice thing about getting away from camp is there are fewer flies about. Offal tends to accumulate around a campsite, providing the main fare for the dogs. Animal bones, after they have been shattered for marrow, are tossed out at random and accumulate literally a 'bone’s throw' from the living areas. Scraps of food, feces, and other litter also accumulate nearby, and be- fore long the area swarms with flies. Though remarkably healthy in most other respects, the nomadic Aborigines suffer from boils and eye ailments, all occasioned by the flies and dust. Intestinal problems can also arise this way. For the anthropologist living Page 9 in or alongside an Aboriginal camp these factors constitute an ever—present occupational hazard. Nyurapaya and her little daughter Nyaputja are both suffering from painful eye infections, and Katapi has a large boil on one foot. The quest for food must go on, however, so such painful ailments are generally borne with an outward display of good cheer. Only Nyaputja com- plains, but the others admit she is still a child and has not yet learned discipline. My stores of simple remedies like aspirin and ointments are probably the most welcome aspect of my presence here. Mitapuyi and Walanya do not have far to go today. The circular brush blind (manngu) is only a little over a mile from camp, in a shallow rocky glen next to the creekbed. The blind is about six feet in diameter with sides about thirty inches high, and it lies on the bank three feet above the floor of the creek- bed. Choosing a dry spot in the gravelly creekbed the hunters dig a small hole, continuing their digging until the hole fills with water seeping in from just below the surface. The small soakhole lies only about twenty feet from the blind. Here the two men lie quietly, hoping that the emus will not find some other route by which to approach the big billabongs farther downstream. They have seen fresh tracks in the creekbed, indicating that the big birds have passed this way recently. A small mulga tree shades the blind, which is fortunate, since the morning heat builds up rapidly. Both men chew plugs of tobacco that they have stored behind their ears. The tobacco acts as a mild narcotic, and it also helps moisten their mouths against the hot dry air. The hours creep by as the men wait motionless. It takes intense discipline to keep from fidgeting in a situation like this, particularly with the flies all around. Around eleven o’clock their vigil is rewarded by a low booming note from just around an upstream bend. This is a sure sign that an emu is approaching, and both men quietly engage their spears to the spearthrowers. As Mitapuyi lies poised with his spearthrower, the emu appears about a hundred feet away, walking slowly and looking from side to side. It approaches the water slowly, stopping and cau- tiously looking before moving closer. By now the excitement in Page 10 the blind is almost too much to bear, and, finally, with the bird about thirty feet away, Mitapuyi rises smoothly to his feet and lifts his spearthrower. Although Walanya is ready beside him, both men know there will be a chance for only one shot. As the spear is thrown, there is a loud snap. The force of Mitapuyi's throw has caused the spearshaft to break, and the broken spear misses. Now the alerted emu wastes no time in dashing away. The fault lay with the new spear Mitapuyi was using. The shaft was made from a mulga branch collected only a short time ago. Mulga generally is poor wood for making spears, especially when collected during a dry season. It tends to be brittle and can snap unexpectedly, as this shaft just did. Mitapuyi and Walanya decide to make some better spears at the earliest oppor- tunity. They try to laugh the whole thing off, but there is no doubt that they are disappointed. Realizing that no more emus are likely to come now, the two men start the walk back to camp. Along the way, Walanya picks up the fresh tracks of kurkati, a kind of goanna not often seen at this place. The two men speedily follow out the trail Sketch of Emu hunting at Partjar in the Clutterbuck Hills. Page 11 as it winds and twists between clumps of spinifex, reaching the hole after about ten minutes of tracking. By peering into the hole they can see what direction the lizard has taken inside the bur- row. Walanya stamps on the ground about three feet from the burrow, to crush the lizard's tunnel and trap him close to the entrance. Meanwhile, Mitapuyi grabs a stick from the ground nearby and uses it to dig into the burrow. Kurkati is always easy to catch. This one was only about a foot underground, and Mitapuyi grabs it by the tail and pulls it out within a minute of starting to dig. The lizard is quickly killed with a blow on its head with the stick, and Mitapuyi tucks it into his hair-string belt to carry it back to camp. This is a small lizard, weighing only three pounds, but in other parts of the desert these lizards can grow much larger. This small catch has redeemed the hunt- ing trip, and Mitapuyi is extremely pleased. The men arrive back in camp a little before noon. The women have much farther to go. They walk erect, with an easy grace that is difficult to describe because it is so unlike the way Americans and Europeans move. Their movements are flowing, and they seem hardly to exert themselves at all. Yet for all my struggling I can barely keep up with them. I notice they do not dig the soles of their feet into the ground as they walk, the way I do, but place their feet down fairly flat. Only Katapi digs in her heel, and I can see she is favoring her sore foot. There is a lot of talk and laughter along the way, some of it directed at me. No doubt they find my slow and jerky movements in the sand quite comical. The children are having a grand time, racing ahead or off to the side, chasing tiny lizards that dart out from under the spinifex. Little Ngampakatju is running alongside now, racing after lizards with the others. De- spite his small size, he has no trouble keeping up. The dogs, too, go racing after these tiny lizards, devouring them whole when- ever they catch them. The children catch a few, which they give to the dogs. We have come a long way. So far the ground has been sandy but perfectly level. The Clutterbuck Hills are now faintly visible as a thin horizontal stripe of pale purple on the southern horizon. Just as we approach the first sandhill there is a shout from off Page 12 Sketch of The 'mountain devil' lizard (ngiyari), formidable looking but harmless to one side, and Nuni runs up, clutching a small lizard he has caught. This is ngiyari, a fantastically fierce—looking little animal covered with sharp spines and brightly colored in a mottled pat- tern of reddish—brown, yellow, and black. Because of its appear- ance, white Australians call it the 'mountain devil', though in fact it is altogether harmless. Nuni is totally delighted with his new plaything and places it on his head. The animal quickly burrows into his long hair and settles down while Nuni runs off after more lizards. I am not a good judge of distances, but it feels as if we have walked about five or six miles. A shrill, falsetto shout, “Puyi!” from Nyurapaya indicates that she has found taliwanti plants on top of a large sandhill. There is nothing spectacular about these plants. They are fairly straight—stemmed, with a pale whit- ish—green color to the bark and leaves, and stand only about two or three feet high. The women pull off the leaves and remove long strips of bark. VVhile this collecting goes on, Katapi con- tinues to the north, disappearing rapidly over the next sandhill, on her way to look for ngaru. She is still carrying her lighted firestick. The women take only as much bark as they plan to use, leaving many taliwanti plants in the area untouched. After about twenty minutes of collecting they stop and drink from one of the wooden bowls. When the bowl is about two—thirds empty, they wad the bark together into bundles and place it in the bowl, then put the bowl in the shade of a small bush. This keeps the bark moist and supple. Then we all sit down together under a Page 13 ridiculously small tree, taking advantage of what little shade there is to be had. Nuni gives his new pet to Ngampakatju, and the two children play with it for a while, letting it run back and forth between their legs. They seem like small children at play anywhere in the world. Suddenly Nuni seizes the live lizard and tears off a leg. Ngampakatju grabs it and does the same, and for a few moments the two children giggle with delight as they tear the animal to pieces. Their mothers and the other children find this hilarious. I smile weakly but admit to myself that I will probably never become accustomed to such sudden manifestations of cruelty among these otherwise gentle people. There is nothing unusual about small children anywhere treating animals in this way, but it is disconcerting to see adults take such delight in it, too. 'Puyu nyaratja [Smoke over there, in the distance]' We have all been looking to the north, but it is Nuni who sees the smoke first. It appears as a translucent wisp of blue-gray just above the tops of the sandhills. Soon it rises higher, but by this time we are all on our way again, following Katapi’s tracks in the sand. A situation like this explains some popular misunderstand- ings about Aboriginal smoke signals. I have heard individuals describe complex and detailed messages that they have seen transmitted in this way, and they sometimes expressed surprise or awe at the amount of information a simple puff of smoke could convey. Of course, what usually happens is just what hap- pened today - the sender and receiver agree beforehand on what the signal will mean. If an outsider were to appear now and ask one of the women what the smoke meant, he would probably be told something like: 'That’s Katapi. She says she has found some ripe ngaru, and we should come and gather it.' This would naturally impress an observer who had not been present when the meaning of the signal was agreed on. The sandhills here are laced with the tracks of small animals, and the children draw me off incessantly to point out the tracks and tell me what animal made them. Sometimes one can have too much of a good thing, and this is my plight right now. I cannot stop to take notes, and I have left my handbook of snakes and lizards in camp, so I cannot make identifications, yet Page 14 I am interested in what the children have to say. They are proud of their knowledge. Before long Nyurapaya and Tjanangu, not to be outdone, also start showing me tracks and telling me names. By the time we meet Katapi again I feel as if I have been figura- tively drowned in a deluge of names for every animal that crawls or hops across the sandhills in the Gibson Desert. Katapi has done very well indeed. Not only has she located a fine patch of ripe ngaru, but she has also found some bushes containing dried kampurarpa fruit. When they are ripe, the fruits of both kampurarpa and ngaru look like diminutive green toma- toes. Ngaru generally has a more tart flavor, but both are staples for the desert people. They ripen at opposite times of year: ngaru around December-January and kampurarpa around July-August. However, under dry conditions, kampurarpa fruits do not rot but dry out in the hot sun until they acquire the appearance of large raisins hanging on the bush. This is how they look now, and in this desiccated state they are edible and highly prized. Before the heavy work of collecting gets under way, every- one takes a long drink, emptying all the wooden bowls as well as the two—gallon waterbag I have brought with me. Then the three women and Tjukapati fan out into the bushes to collect the fruit. Ngaru is simply picked ripe from the bush, but for the dry kampurarpa it is easier to shake the bush until the fruit drops onto the ground beneath, then gently pull the fruit together into a pile and scoop it into a bowl. As the wooden bowls are filled, the sides are built up with bunches of grass and sticks, almost doubling the capacity of each vessel. During this time the chil- dren continue their play, chasing lizards and now and then pick- ing some fruit, either in play or helping their mothers. Little Ngampakatju is particularly keen on this, returning time after time with armloads of ngaru, even after his mothers bowl is completely full. Katapi acts delighted, giving him encouragement to collect more, even though she will have to leave most of it behind. Nyurapaya brings out a small stick which she has been carry- ing in her hair. Katapi does the same. The sticks are about six inches long, flat, sharp, and shiny from use. They are called pa- ngara, and they are used with a single deft wrist motion to split the husk of each ngaru fruit and remove the seeds. Only the thin Page 15 outer husk of ngaru is eaten. The children eat some while wait- ing for the women to finish collecting. The three big bowls are completely filled in less than an hour, with a total of between thirty—five and forty pounds of fruit. The journey back to camp begins immediately. Now the children are less playful, for the sun is hotter and they are tired. The women are tired, too, and talk much less on the return trip. But they continue to move rapidly and smoothly across the sand and do not once stop to rest. Ngampakatju wants his mother to carry him, but this she cannot do because of the large and shaky load on her head. He must learn to walk with the rest of the children. Back by the tree where we sat earlier, Tjukapati re- trieves the bowl full of taliwanti bark and then races to catch up with the rest of the group. At first I do not understand the need for haste, but Katapi enlightens me by explaining; 'Piriya kuli pitja—pungkula—witjama [The hot wind is coming with force- keep moving quickly].' Speaking in this way implies real urgency, and even now I can see a few spinifex tassels start to wave as the first breeze hits them. I have already experienced the fierce drying heat of the midday wind off the sandhills and know what she means. No one says very much now, for all are intent on quickly getting back to camp where there is a bit of shade and shelter from the wind. We arrive soon after noon, with the wind at our backs but in time to avoid its worst effects, and everyone is glad to take a long drink of water and lie in the shade for a while. The men, who have been back nearly an hour, are roast- ing the goanna in the coals of a small fire. Mitapuyi talks ex- citedly about the emu that got away. We are all tired and even irritable after the long hot trek. Ngampakatju feeds for a while from Katapi's breast. Aborigine children are indulged to an extreme degree, and sometimes con- tinue to suckle until they are four or five years old. Physical punishment for a child is almost unheard of. But today Nga- mpakatju goes too far. After nursing he races over to where the other children are playing and goes into a tantrum. He is ignored until he starts throwing sand in everyone’s eyes. At this point Katapi takes the almost unprecedented action of cuffing Nga- mpakatju across the face. She then sits him down beside her, where she can keep an eye on him. Everyone is glad that she has done Page 16 this, for Aborigine adults generally hate to discipline children, and will avoid this unpleasant task whenever possible. As on most days, the hunt has been poor, but the collecting has been successful. Over fifty percent of the diet of these people is regularly made up of vegetable foods drawn mainly from a list of at least eight staples, like ngaru and kampurarpa, which ripen and become available at different times of year and in different places. In addition, there are other plant foods, such as the yarnguli berry (Santalum lanceolatum) and wama, sugar from the sweet and succulent yellow flower of the shrub (Grevillea eriostachya, which supplement and add variety to the basic fare. In the sand- hill country meat is generally hard to get. The recent successes in emu hunting are not likely to be repeated for several years, and even in unusually good years large game such as kangaroo and emu constitutes only a small part of the overall diet. Small game is more important as a source of protein, and heading the list are lizards - goannas and the common blue—tongue (lungata) - as well as some edible grubs and, since Europeans reached Aus- tralia, rabbits and feral cats. Lizards are so important to these desert Aborigines that one Australian popular writer has referred to the people as 'lizard eaters'. Mitapuyi and Walanya allow the goanna to roast until the coals have cooled. This basic procedure is followed in cooking all meat, regardless of size, though for larger game such as kan- garoo, euro ( an animal similar to the kangaroo), and emu a shallow trench is dug in the ground, the animal is placed inside on its back, and the hot coals are heaped over it. The coals gen- erally take forty to fifty minutes to cool. This means that small game like goanna tends to be well—done, but larger animals remain exceedingly rare - almost raw by European standards. After being roasted, the animal, regardless of size, is divided and shared. There are complicated rules governing the sharing of meat and other food among various classes of relatives. The basic rule is that each animal is divided into a fixed number of named por- tions which are offered to the various classes of the hunter’s kin present at the division. There is no way of storing meat, so it must be shared as widely as possible and eaten soon before it rots. Certain kinds of kin, such as fathers—in-law and brothers-in-law, Page 17 Sketch - How to divide a kangaroo into shares. The dotted lines indicate the pieces into which the animal is divided immediately after it is killed. have first choice from among the portions, followed then by other classes of kin, like elder and younger brothers, and, last of all, by the hunter himself. These shares in turn are divided by each sharer among his own parents, wives, and children. At first glance this system of sharing seems unfair to the hunter, who after all got the meat in the first place. Looked at through the eyes of the Aborigines, however, this arrangement actually doubles the rewards to the hunter by giving him both social prestige as a good kinsman and meat, when, according to the same set of rules, he takes his share from someone else’s catch. When the goanna is cooked, Mitapuyi pulls it from the fire and breaks it into two halves; kultu (foresection, including head, forelegs, and about half of the body) and karilypa ( hindquarters, including the rest of the body, hindlegs, and tail). These he lays on the ground, and Walanya, by virtue of his in—law relationship to Mitapuyi, selects the hindquarters portion. lt is interesting to watch these two men in situations where they are sharing food or goods. Walanya has selected the hindquarters, the portion which general opinion regards as the better of the two. He has the right to do this, and his temperament is such that he nearly Page 18 always asserts his rights when the opportunity arises. He tends almost to be 'touchy' about his rights and claims, and, speaking subjectively, this trait perhaps makes him a less appealing per- sonality than Mitapuyi, who is always looking for ways to en- hance his reputation as a generous kinsman and a good provider. However, Walanya never pushes his claims so far as to make him liable to accusations of being a wati manyu-manyu (a greedy man) - a really serious insult. The two men then do something I have never seen before. Mitapuyi gets a large, more or less flat cobble from the creek- bed, along with a small one just the right size to hold in one hand. They take their respective shares of the goanna and each in turn lays his share on the large cobble. Finally, using the hand- held stone as a pounder, they mash their shares into pulpy masses, with bone, meat, and skin all shredded together. Only the innards (except for the intestines, which are thrown away) are eaten separately, by Mitapuyi. This is always the hunter’s due, and sometimes it is all he gets for his share. This kind of goanna, unlike ngintaka, another species inhabiting the region, has a cartilaginous skeleton which can be mashed in this way and eaten along with the meat. Each man hands out a portion of shredded meat and bone to every member of his family. On this occasion, the individual portions are very small, barely a mouth- ful in fact, but nothing is wasted. All fleshy foods are called kuka by these people, while vege- able and nonfleshy foods are classed as mirka. Kuka is always preferred over mirka, but on most days, as with today, mirka is actually more important in the total diet. Since it is the women who collect and prepare most of the mirka, they are thus the mainstay of the economy. For all their talk about this or that kan- garoo they once killed, or the pros and cons of a particular spot for hunting, the men contribute relatively little to the subsistence of the group. One consequence of the preponderance of vegetable over meat foods is a tendency toward an unbalanced diet. There is usually enough to eat, but generally the emphasis is on particular staples, one or two at a time. Thus while the people are strong and basically quite healthy, they sometimes do show signs of Page 19 deficiencies. This is particularly the case with the children. All the children in this group have strikingly swollen bellies. I can- not offer an expert diagnosis of their condition, but in other parts of the world this symptom can indicate protein deficien- cies in the diet. After observing the relatively low protein intake of this group, I am inclined to think this may be the case here, though, alternatively, the condition may be merely swelling caused by the large amount of roughage eaten by children. Whatever the causes, the condition is so common that all desert Aborigines re- gard it as a normal part of childhood. The condition is called nungkumunu (unfilled), and it often leaves stretch—scars which remain throughout adult life. People sometimes proudly point out their scars to me as evidence of the rigors of their childhood. By now the sun has passed its zenith, and it is the hottest part of the day. The wind is blowing hard, sending up local- ized whirlwinds (called willy—willys by many Australians and kupi—kupi by the desert people), like the 'dust-devils' of Ameri- can deserts. It is a time to conserve one’s strength, to take a nap or just lie in the shade. At times like this the small shade—shelters (wiltja) here provide more protection from the sun than do the desert trees. There are three of these shelters, Walanya and his family use one, Mitapuyi and his family another, and Tjanangu shares the third with Manyi. These shelters, five or six feet in diameter and constructed in a roughly semicircular plan, take very little time to build. One man can make one in a couple of hours. Branches of mulga are set into dug holes, with the brushy ends upward. The tops of the branches arch over to meet, mak- ing what white Australians sometimes call a 'humpy'. The frame- work of boughs is given an outer covering of grass, and, as a final step, the interior floor is scooped out to a depth of three or four inches. Simple as the shelters are, the winter camp is an even less complicated affair. During cold weather, all that is needed is a brush windbreak placed around hearths where the people sleep. About 4:30 the wind suddenly falls off, and the day begins to get cooler. On some days, if the collecting has not been suc- cessful, the women go out again at this time to look for food. Page 20 But today they decide to stay in camp and prepare the fruits they have collected. Each woman has a stone hand-grinder and a flat rock grinding slab for preparing seeds and berries, and the loads of ngaru and kampurarpa are placed on these in piles. Katapi goes to work on the kampurarpa, while Nyurapaya, Tjanangu, and Tjukapati process ngaru. The desiccated kampurarpa fruits are placed on the grinding slab and a small amount of water is poured over them. Then Katapi takes the hand grinder and, with a powerful thrusting motion, proceeds to mash the fruit into a paste. The paste is dark reddish—brown in color and is filled with seeds and grit. While it is still moist, she packs the paste together into a ball which grows larger and larger as she grinds and adds more fruits. The com- pleted balls of paste are about ten inches in diameter, and the outer surface congeals and hardens quickly in the dry heat. Prepared in this way, the paste will keep almost indefinitely. It is put into wooden bowls to be kept until wanted. Some of the ngaru fruit is eaten fresh, but most of it is cleaned and the husks placed in the coals of a small fire. As an alternative to this kind of parching, Tjukapati shows me how ngaru can be sun—dried, by placing the husks on a stick which makes it look like pieces of shish kebab on a skewer. Prepared either way, the ngaru dry to about the consistency of corn flakes. Parched or sun—dried ngaru is eaten after it has been dipped in water and allowed to soften and swell. As a true dehydrated food, it is lightweight and storable and for these reasons is some- times placed in tree-caches out in the bush for hunters who may have to walk long distances away from camp in search of game. In camp, however, it is usually mixed with water, ground into a paste, and packed into balls in the same manner as kampurarpa fruit, it is considered tastier this way. While it is common for Aborigine women to prepare wild vegetable foods by grinding, baking, parching, and in other ways, they cannot be said to have recipes of any kind. The grinding is hard work and occupies the women almost until dark. There is no fixed mealtime. When food is ready, it is generally shared and eaten, and now the children come and devour handfuls of kampurarpa and ngaru paste. Meanwhile, the Page 21 men have retired in the bush to a spot about a quarter—mile from camp. Here there is a small mulga tree which serves as a cache for sacred objects. Women and children are not permitted near this cache, and to warn them off there are sticks placed horizon- tally in the branches of the trees and several rows of upright rock slabs nearby. Such warning signs are called ngulu (fear, danger); it is thought that sight of or contact with sacred objects can bring instant physical illness or insanity to a woman or an uninitiated male. Mitapuyi's Magic Mitapuyi, in addition to his talents as hunter and kinsman, has a reputation as a powerful sorcerer (mapantjara). Among the desert Aborigines, a sorcerer may direct his magic toward either beneficial or harmful purposes, as the situation demands. Each sorcerer has a 'kit' or bundle of small objects mapanpa) which he regards as having potent magical powers. These ob— jects may include natural items like bits of pearl shell, quartz crystals, or tektites (round or dumbbell-shaped glassy objects thought by scientists to be of extraterrestrial origin), or man- made items like old eyeglass lenses acquired somehow from white men. These objects are widely used in curing diseases and in driving away night spirits (mamu), both beneficial forms of magic regularly conducted by sorcerers like Mitapuyi. However, on this occasion, it is clear that Mitapuyi intends his magic to be harmful, and I fear that too many direct questions about his in- tentions will cause him to exclude me from his activities. He approaches the mulga tree and takes down a flat, double— pointed board about thirty inches long and three inches wide, carved from a slab of mulga wood, which had been stored in a kind of shelf of boughs and twigs. On both sides of this board there is fine carving; concentric circles with connecting lines on one side and a series of intricate interlocking and rectangular hatched designs on the other side. The craftsmanship is ex- tremely good, and the carvings are about three—quarters com- Page 22 pleted. Mitapuyi must have been working on this object for weeks, yet this is the first time I have seen it. I realize now that on at least some occasions when he and Walanya said they had gone hunting they had been carving this object instead, The others know nothing about it. The carved board is called yirilmari. It looks like any of a number of different kinds of sacred boards which I have seen in the course of preparations for various ceremonies. It, too, I am told, is a sacred board in the same sense as those I have seen al- ready, but it has an important extra use, and that is what con- cerns Mitapuyi and Walanya now. They are not anticipating any ceremonies. Instead, they plan to use this carved board as a pointing instrument, for magically projecting sickness and death over a long distance to a victim they have selected. Some an- thropologists and popular writers have called this kind of activity 'pointing the bone', and, indeed, the desert Aborigines often do use for such purposes carved, pointed bones, as well as large pieces of pointed pearlshell or pointed instruments of steatite or some other stone which can be carved in this way. Most of these instruments are considered so potent that the owner of one purposely avoids pointing it at anyone but his in- tended victim. Accidental pointing can be dangerous, even to one’s relatives and friends. Since sorcery of this kind invites retalia- tion, the sorcerer generally keeps his preparation secret. Ob- viously Mitapuyi and Walanya have discussed whether or not to let me see even this much, and I realize that they must trust in my promise not to tell any other Aborigines I meet about their present activities. Although they will not answer questions about the identity of the intended victim or the reason this dire magic is being directed at him, they do not mind talking about sorcery in general or about the way this board works. The sorcerer who operates the magical weapon sings a short song as he points it in the direction of the victim’s camp. The malignant power from the weapon flies through the air and enters the victim through one of his body openings. Ideally, pointing is done at close range, while the victim is alone and can be seen, for example at night while he is asleep or when he goes into the bush to defecate. Page 23 Sketch - The two sides of Mitapuyi's lethal yirilmari board (approximately one-fourth actual size) Page 24 But it is said to work over long distances, too. The victim will soon sicken and may even die. Mitapuyi is still carving the board, using a stone-tipped en- graving tool called pitjuru-pitjuru. The wooden handle of this tool is about fifteen inches long, with a spinifex-resin haft at one end for the stone tip and another blob of resin at the other end as a thumb rest. The pitjuru-pitjuru is used only for incising magical and sacred designs, otherwise it too is kept concealed. While Mitapuyi does the carving, using sharp jabbing motions or heavy pressure toward himself to incise the decorative pat- terns on the surface of the yirilmari, Walanya steadies it for him. The stone tip of the engraving tool is quickly dulled by this hard use, and every two or three minutes Mitapuyi must resharpen it with his teeth. The technique of biting to sharpen a hafted stone flake is widespread among the Aborigines of the Gibson Desert but is not reported from anywhere else in the world to- day. It will be several days at least before the board is finished, and, given the secrecy surrounding such operations, I doubt that I shall be allowed to watch the actual pointing and 'sing- ing' when they take place. Certain clues, however, lead me to suspect who the victim may be and why he merits such punishment. Several months ago, when the families were living at the Warburton Ranges Mission, a Ngatatjara man who has lived around white settle- ments for a number of years took Katapi’s daughter, Tanara, into the bush for a few days. Sex experience comes early to Aborigine youngsters, and I suspect she went willingly, but at that time she was betrothed to another man. If such sexual episodes are conducted discreetly, they do not attract much attention, but this one was far too flagrant to be ignored. Tanara’s relatives were furious but found that for various reasons they could do little directly. Though feelings ran high at the time - the affair nearly precipitated a spear fight, the man went unpunished and now lives near the Warburton Ranges Mission. Katapi was particu- larly upset. Since Tanara is only Walanya's step-daughter, and since this couple does not appear to have any particularly close bond of affection such as exists between Mitapuyi and Nyura- paya, I suspect that Katapi may have had to talk Walanya into Page 25 doing something to redress the grievance over Tanara. I further suspect that it was his decision to use sorcery and to call on Mitapuyi's abilities to this end. Mitapuyi and his family had been encountered by an oil- exploration party at Tika-tika, a waterhole about forty miles from Partjar, in April 1965 and brought to the Warburton Ranges Mission. Katapi, her first husband, and their children were brought in by a Government patrol in September 1965, after being contacted in the same general area in April. For both families, this was the first direct contact with whites. They did not remain long in civilization, however. The death of Katapi’s husband was an unsettling experience, which was followed, after Katapi's remarriage, by Tanara’s involvement. In the con- flicts that followed the latter event, it became apparent that there was little support for the newcomers. Also, the families were finding it hard to get enough food at the Mission. So in September 1966 the whole group left Warburton and walked back up to the country around Partjar and Tika—tika. At the Mis- sion they had had few dealings with whites, since much of their time had been spent foraging in the desert country about forty miles to the north. By the time I joined them in the desert at Partjar, they had completely readapted to their traditional econ- omy. Now, in the seclusion of the sandhill country, Mitapuyi and Walanya appear to have decided to avenge by sorcery the injustices they encountered at the Mission. When I look at the exquisitely carved designs on the yirilmari being fashioned by Mitapuyi, I find it hard to believe that these two men consider this board a weapon as lethal as a gun. This attitude, inciden- tally, explains why desert Aborigines who have been given their first rifles sometimes fail to take ammunition with them. When they see an animal they raise the rifle and call out, 'Pa! Pa!'. The weapon seems to them to be another kind of magical point- ing instrument. When they had seen whites using rifles they heard the report and saw the animal fall but they had explained this in terms of the magic they already understood. A few fail- ures usually suffice to show them that something more is needed, and soon they learn about bullets. Page 26 Evening Just before dark Mitapuyi and Walanya put the board back in its tree-cache and return to camp. During all this time the women have been grinding ngaru and kampurarpa. These tasks are nearly finished now, and Nyurapaya is impatient to make a new pair of sandals for herself. The taliwanti bark has been soaking in a wooden bowl ever since it was collected this morning, and it is now flexible enough to work with. Making a large loop by tying several strips of the bark together, Nyurapaya sits down inside the loop and anchors one end around her big toe and the other end behind her back. Then she draws the section in front of her together with a crosspiece of bark strip laced back and forth, until she has formed a sole pad about four inches wide and ten inches long. Finally, she cuts the loop which anchored it be- hind her, leaving two free strands, each about fifteen inches long, to serve as laces. When the sandals are worn, these laces are brought up from behind the heel through the long toe—loop, back around the ankle, and through the toe—loop again on the other side, where they are knotted under. It takes Nyurapaya only about half an hour to fashion a new pair of sandals. She is pleased to have new footwear and also with the tobacco I have given her for her old sandals. The other women have been gathering some firewood and now build up the fires. It remains hot at night, the temperature hovering around IOO degrees, so the fires cannot be for warmth, and there is no more meat to be cooked. I am on the point of asking about this when one of the dogs, for no apparent reason, starts barking. Mitapuyi mutters, 'Mamu pini nyaratja tjinguru (There are lots of night spirits out there perhaps]', and puts an- other piece of wood on his fire. I remember now having been told once that only dogs and sorcercrs can see mamu and that fires will frighten them away. There are conflicting accounts of what a mamu can do, but in general there is agreement that they are spirits of the dead which hover in the darkness, sometimes making Sketch - Making bark sandals for summer footwear. a whistling noise, waiting to seize anyone out alone at night. They are said to be cannibalistic. One of the most frequently voiced reasons for keeping dogs is the warning they give of mamu. Be- sides mamu, any person abroad at night is assumed to have evil intentions - perhaps to be intent on sorcery. Only the children are much worried by the thought of a mamu lurking about; for Page 28 the adults,the dogs, the fires, and Mitapuyi's abilities as a sorcerer impart a strong feeling of security. Conversation continues until about 7:30, then, one by one, children and adults start to drop off to sleep. Like women every- where, Nyurapaya, Katapi, and Tjanangu keep on talking among themselves, long after everyone else is silent. Eventually, though, even their conversation stops. In the quiet, the only movements to be seen are flashes of brilliant meteors across the clear night sky.
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Extracted from Yiwara, Foragers of the Australian Desert by Richard A Gould


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