While the Australian Warlpiri people of Western Australia need to live within the laws and values of the Australian Government, as do all citizens living in Australia, preliminary conclusions show their lives also relate strongly to their community values, which are based on ngurra-kurlu, the ‘five pillars of society’. The Warlpiri people first made contact with non-Aboriginal Australians in the late nineteenth century. By the time they were finally extracted from the bush, the missionaries were being replaced by communities.
(Wikipedia) Most of the Warlpiri people were placed in an Aboriginal settlement called Yuendumu, about 290 km north west of Alice Springs, but because the settlement was becoming overcrowded, in 1948 the Australian Federal Government decided to erect an Aboriginal Reserve at a waterhole 600 km north at Catfish. (Ozoutback. com) Once the road to Catfish was finished, the Welfare ordered 25 Warlpiri people into a truck and took them as far as Hooker Creek where they camped.
Because there was a bore and the water was flowing they decided to stay there instead of at Catfish, which was about 30 km further on and another 400 Warlpiri were transported there. Later, the Hooker Creek dried up, but by then the settlement was already established and a further 150 Warlpiri people were transported there in 1951. (Ozoutback. com) The people were not happy to be taken away from their relatives, their country (land) and its sacred sites, so they all walked the 600 km back to Yuendumu, whereupon they were driven back to Hooker Creek in trucks; they walked back to Yuendumu again and again they were taken back.
This time people stayed and children were born, and they started to call the place home. In the late seventies the Gurindji tribe “handed over” the country and the ‘The Dreaming’ to the Warlpiri and it terminated as a welfare state and renamed Lajamanu. (Ozoutback. com) My friend Pam and I wanted to find out first hand, how life has changed for these people, and how they balance colonial values with their own. So we organized a field trip to outback Western Australia, where we spent a month living within a community of Warlpiri people in a place called Lajamanu.
We engaged in participant observation, in an effort to understand as much as possible about the way in which they lived and gain an emic perspective of the values to which they lived by. Using this method, we were able to maintain detailed fieldnotes and conduct interviews based on open-ended questions. We hired a four wheel drive vehicle in Alice Springs and set out on the Tanami track, which crosses the Tanami desert and seemed to head for the horizon and evaporate into the sky. The road was not sealed – just dirt – red dirt – bellowing behind us like rust colored clouds.
Although travelling in beating heat we were vigilant in our perusal of what was around us: large areas of ‘spinifex’ and ‘mulga’. 3 A number of enormous hawks and eagles were swooping around the carcass of a red kangaroo, a meter long snake slithered into one of the mulga trees, and masses of bits of rubber, stripped from the tyres of cars and trucks were strewn along the side of the track. We could only drive slowly and only able to drive about 80 kilometers a day, camping by the road at night.
On the third day we drove into harsh and rough ground with more vegetation, and although still exceedingly hot the rain started to fall heavily. The car became more difficult to manouvre as water was accumulating in various parts unable to sink into the ground quick enough. Around midday on the fourth day we stopped the car near a small water hole to have something to eat and a cold drink from our ice box, and just as we were about to move on a dark figure with a mop of unruly black and curly hair, wearing nothing but a piece of cloth around his waist came out of nowhere, seemingly from the sky in the distance and walked towards us.
He seemed very friendly but spoke in a strange language that we could not understand. He seemed to be asking or directing us to some place and he appeared to want to jump on board. With the use of gestures, arms and hands, we were able to ascertain that he wanted to ride with us, which was fine with us. The track fell into a dry creek and the sun was glaring all colors of reds and oranges into the sky; brightly colored parrots fluttered up from scrub, and as the sun became lower the rocks and boulders seemed to be on fire, glowing red from the heat.
Flies were everywhere, buzzing around our heads, settling on our arms and legs and crawling into our eyes. It wasn’t long before he started to make directions off on a smaller track and we understood that this must be where he came from. We turned off and it was not too long before we came across a small community. We stopped the car and our new found friend directed us to his house. As we meandered along, we saw nothing but parts of cars left rusting in the heat, houses in disrepair, potholed streets strewn with rubbish and everything covered in red dirt.
It was dusk and people were sitting around open fires; children were running around wearing very little if anything but happily playing in the dirt with the fire lighting up their faces; women were sitting around the fire openly breast feeding their babies or nursing them in their laps, lulling them to sleep. An extremely tall and thin man stood up from the circle around the fire and with open arms, smiled and much to our surprise said “How yer going whitefellas? Me Benny Jangala. ” After setting up camp we were invited to eat and one of the women produced what seemed like a small crocodile but we were told it was a ‘goanna.
’ She placed it on the fire and kept turning it with a stick until it was cooked. She then broke the animal in pieces with her hands and handed some to us. Other delicacies, such as witchety grubs, snake and kangaroo were thrown onto the fire and cooked. These were served with an assortment of different berries and leaves. We later found out that they know over a hundred different species of flora and fauna, all of which are used for either food, medicine or in ceremonies. They keep everything they think they could use, such as animal sinews for binding weapons, bones for implements and feathers for ceremonial use.
(Broom, 1983, p. 12) As night progressed we were shown to a small humpy that was to be our home for the next few weeks. We were impatient to start fieldwork and the very next day we started getting accustomed with our new surroundings and lifestyle, and observing how these aboriginals lived. We hired Benny as our guide and interpreter and he was very willing to assist us whenever needed. We found out that we were living with a small community of Warlpiri people in a place called Lajamanu.
They spoke the Warlpiri language and tracked their ancestry to the country around the ‘granites’4 or had bonds to that same country through different family dreamings. These linkages by ancestry and dreamings entitled them to hunt in that area and required them to take care of its sacred places. Children often liked to visit us and they would usually come in to our humpy unannounced, rummage among our supplies and survey the room. They seemed to have no concept of privacy and seemed to consider our humpy open and available to all.
One time two older girls were looking through each other’s hair for lice and invited Pam to sit with them so that they could search her hair. After a few days Pam was given the name Napangardi and I was given the name Jungarrayi, because Napangardi is normally married to Jungarrayi. After we were given these new names the children would call us by those names. At first, one small girl started laughing and flapping her arms around in the air, then she ran over to Pam and put her arms around her waist, screaming “Napangardi!
you are my daughter! ” The girl’s skin name was Nangala, which made her Pam’s mother, because Nangalas were mothers of Napangardis. This also made her my mother-in-law, to whom I was not allowed to talk to, according to Warlpiri taboo. (Ways of Thinking, p. 3 and 8) Later we were able to find out more about skin names. A group of Aboriginal people were sitting together talking as one mother was pointing to various people in the group; she was teaching her little girl their skin names.
She told us that every Warlpiri person has a skin name and that name ordains how that person relates to every other person in the community. Everyone is born into the skin group related to their parents. There are eight skin groups and men’s skin names begin with J and women’s with N. The skin system is part of a more intricate kin system and they both relate the Warlpiri people to the sky, desert, trees, rocks, animals, plants and to the law, the dreaming, the rituals and a body of knowledge.
(Ways of thinking, p. 4) One morning Benny introduced us to one of the tribe elders and we asked him about the different names they used; he told us that a Warlpiri person can have several names which include the relevant skin name, a bush name and a ‘whitefella’ first name. A Warlpiri person may be referred to as “X’s son/daughter”, which can sometimes cause confusion if “X” has more than one son or daughter, because each one could be referred to in the same way.
As a child grows older they may also be given a nickname derived from a physical characteristic or some specific incident or mishap. (Smith, 2008, p3. 5) He also told us about a tribal law that does not allow a woman to speak directly to her son-in-law, nor the son-in-law to her. They must ask another person in the Warlpiri kin system, to speak for them. There is also what is referred to as ‘mother-in-law’ language, which is a kind of secret language which son-in-laws can use when speaking in ear-shot of their mother-in-law. (Ways of thinking, p. 4)