Australian Indigenous Religions: An Overview
AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS RELIGIONS: AN OVERVIEW
The opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games began at dusk on September 15, 2000, with a fanfare of charging Aussie stockmen, dignitaries, flags, and anthems. Then the floor of the huge stadium was cleared.
The sound of gulls signaled sea's edge. A golden-haired girl in pink beach dress skipped into the stadium, placed a beach towel down on the sand, and laid back. The Australian television commentator explained: "The opening ceremony tonight is designed to encapsulate the evolution of Australia from its ancient Indigenous origins to a modern twenty-first century society. A wide brown land linked inextricably to the sea. It is now, and always has been, a land of dreams."
Giant marine creatures floated into the stadium. Suddenly and dramatically the "dream girl" rose, swimming her way to the surface many meters above the stadium floor. Stadium Australia was transformed into an ocean in which a deep-sea choreography was performed against the background of a rich symphonic score. The giant screen declared this segment of the opening ceremony to be:
"Réve des profoundeurs oceans. Deep Sea Dreaming."
As the last notes of the deep-sea score were conducted, a deep male voice addressed the audience from the dais. He addressed the world in a language incomprehensible to most. Clap sticks and didgeridoo accompanied his address. The man, his body clad in loin covering and white clay, was unambiguously Aboriginal. Around his neck hung a clear signifier of his power as an Indigenous man. With the spotlight focusing on him the stadium was grounded once more. The giant screen announced this segment of the four-hour opening ceremony: "Awakening."
The young Australian girl who swam in the heights of the stadium and dived to resurface on its sea floor was Nikki Webster, a thirteen-year-old actor and singer born and bred in Sydney. The tall Indigenous performer on the dais was Djakapurra Munyarryun, born in the "remote" settlement of Yirrkala and brought up in the "Top End" region of Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory. Presented in the "Awakening" segment of the Sydney 2000 opening ceremony were many of the themes taken up in this overview article. They will be used to signpost the discussion.
Understanding Indigenous religions in Australia must take relations between people, territory, and history as its starting point. The first major section of this article will outline themes for a continent-wide understanding of Australian Indigenous religions. The discussion will be broad, teasing out underlying themes that resonate but are not necessarily the same in Australia's hundreds of Indigenous religious traditions. Then the article will travel west to the central region of Australia via the Olympic performance of a section of the Seven Sisters Dreaming by Central Desert women. The article will pause to explore a particular example of Central Desert culture: the Warlpiri people. Then the article will track north, as the opening ceremony did, to the Yolngu people, whose homelands are in the north of Australia, in Arnhem Land. From there the article will go south to examine the contested religious heritage of the Ngarrindjeri people, whose homelands are near the capital city of South Australia, Adelaide.
In his introduction to the "Awakening" segment of the Sydney Opening Ceremony, Ernie Dingo continued: "Over forty thousand years of culture with six hundred Indigenous nations. Over two hundred Aboriginal groups representing over 250,000 Indigenous Australians. This is an awakening."
Indigenous peoples' roots on the continent reach back at least forty to sixty thousand years and possibly longer. The British active colonization of the continent dates back only to 1788. Though the categories and numbers stated by Dingo might be contested in their precise detail by a variety of experts, the sentiment he expressed is important. There is no single Indigenous religion in Australia. There are many. There is no single Australian Indigenous experience. There are many.
Australia is an island continent. It stretches across thirty degrees of latitude in the Southern Hemisphere. The "Top End" of Australia reaches toward Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and is subject to monsoon weather patterns. In the south of the continent the climate is temperate and includes alpine regions that are snow-covered each winter. The center of the continent is a vast area of arid desert subject to extreme heat in the summer months and freezing overnight temperatures in the winter.
Although they belong to many specific cultural groups, Indigenous people in Australia are often described collectively as "Aboriginal" (referring generally to Indigenous people from the mainland and the southern island of Tasmania) or "Torres Strait Islander" (referring to those Indigenous people coming from the hundreds of islands between the tip of the mainland and Papua New Guinea). It has become customary to refer to Indigenous Australians associated with the mainland as Aboriginal people with a capital A as a mark of respect for their "proper" status as a group of people. Before the 1970s the term Aboriginal was not accorded the status of a proper noun in Australian usage. Since the mid-1990s the referent "Indigenous Australians" has become popular.
The federal, or commonwealth, government has developed (since the late 1960s) an administrative definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by reference to their descent, identification, and community acceptance. Under this definition an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is someone "of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who; identifies as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin and who is; accepted as such by the community with which the person associates."
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are a minority group in Australia. In the 1996 census people identifying themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders comprised 2.1 percent of the total population. Only in the Northern Territory, which arguably was the last outpost of the colonial frontier, did Indigenous people make up a significant proportion of the population as a whole, 27 percent. It is in the Northern Territory and in the more remote or "outback" areas of the states of Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland that "traditional" practices are understood to continue to underpin everyday life. In the longer-settled "fertile fringe" of the continent, around cities towns and cultivated lands, Indigenous traditional practices are popularly understood to have been disrupted if not destroyed. This sets up a broad "primitivist" dichotomy in popular Australian discourse between remote-traditional societies and settled-nontraditional Indigenous peoples and areas. In reality the circumstances of all Indigenous people in Australia have been transforming since before 1788 in a continuum of history and experience.
National statistics also give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a number of dubious distinctions that reflect their experiences of colonizing processes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a group have worryingly low life expectancies and high levels of illness and disease. They suffer high levels of violence and crime. They are disproportionately imprisoned. They have relatively low educational and employment levels. They have low income levels. And as the High Court of Australia noted in the landmark Mabo native title judgment, the homelands of most Aboriginal people in Australia have been alienated from them "parcel by parcel."
Prior to colonization there were probably, as Max Charlesworth suggests in his review of the literature on Aboriginal religion in Religious Inventions (1998), around five hundred distinct Aboriginal groups in Australia using more than two hundred distinguishable languages. Each of these groups had its own territory or "country." Each had a specific social system and laws. Each spoke a particular language or dialects of a larger language group. Before European colonization began in 1788, Indigenous people lived as members of hundreds of different cultural and landholding groups across the continent. At the start of the twenty-first century most of Australia's population is urban and most towns and cities can be found in the more fertile coastal fringe of the continent. Indigenous people continue to live across the continent, but many of their traditional homelands have been alienated, and many more Indigenous Australians live in towns and cities than live in the homelands of their ancestors.
It is generally accepted that prior to colonization most Indigenous people on the mainland of Australia were hunter-gatherers. Small groups of relatives, often between five and fifty people or more in the most fertile regions of the continent, moved as extended families, hunting, gathering, and camping in their territories. In rich ecosystems, population densities were higher, and it seems that there Indigenous people were able to be more sedentary, at times moving between winter and summer camps. The area now called Sydney includes such rich cultural and natural areas. In the Torres Strait Islands, Indigenous people were more like their northern Melanesian neighbors and interacted with them in their everyday lives. In arid areas, particularly the inland deserts, population densities were lower, and Indigenous people moved around their territories and, with permission, crossed into those of their neighbors. They hunted with tools made from resources in their local environments or traded in from other groups.
As hunter-gatherers there was little need for complex built structures. Their kin-based society did not give rise to hierarchical political structures. Australia's Indigenous people built simple shelters to sleep under. They camped behind natural windbreaks. Men hunted with simple but sophisticated tools like boomerangs and spears with specialized launchers. They traveled over the water in bark canoes. They netted, trapped, and speared fish. Women were by and large gatherers, harvesting grasses, berries and fruit, small reptiles, insects, mussels, and shellfish. Grinding stones, wooden dishes, and digging sticks were among their key tools across the continent. Sophisticated stone tools were keys to many tasks, including the making of other specialized tools.
Aboriginal people did not hoe and cultivate the land as European settlers came to do. Australia's hunter-gatherers moved lightly over their lands and waters. Though it is a matter of live debate, some scholars are of the view that in many parts of the continent Indigenous people nurtured the productivity of their homelands with incipient "farming" practices. They managed the country with selective burning referred to as "fire stick farming," cultivated practices to nurture the growth of plants for harvesting; engaged in "fish farming" with the construction of eel traps and fishponds; and used dams and weirs to increase natural productivity.
In the "Top End" of the Northern Territory, Yolngu people in Arnhem Land had long-term relations with Macassans from what is now part of Indonesia, probably from the sixteenth century forward. The situation in the Torres Strait Islands was also somewhat different, their practices revealing extensive links with Melanesian peoples. Torres Strait Islanders, by contrast with most mainland Aboriginal peoples, were not predominantly hunter-gatherers. They owned and cultivated gardens and harvested marine life in designated fishing grounds.
Indigenous life in local groups was a complex, intertwined whole. Religion could not be separated from facets of their lives like land ownership and subsistence, or their interactions with others in marriage, trade, and warfare, or their understandings of the cosmos. Each of these facets, now given English-language names, underpinned the rich fabric of people's lives in ways that did not divide them from others.
Central to their existence were people's connections to specific territory. In contemporary times the English term country is frequently used to refer to Indigenous territories. Countries included both land and waters (inland and sea). A pivotal idea shared by most if not all Indigenous traditions is that "country" is sacred and imbued with the powerful and immanent spirits of ancestors. "Country" was, before the disruptions of colonization and "settlement," vested in groups of varying sizes and territorial range: clans, tribes, and nations with their own specific understandings of the world, practices, and ways of being.
The Australian continent was crisscrossed by a complex web of religious, marriage, and trading relationships that highlighted and managed the differences between particular peoples, boundaries, beliefs, and practices. Some trade routes moved resources, including the religious resources of myth and ritual, between disparate groups. Other trading relationships operated in much more localized regions.
Ceremonies and rituals brought people together in larger groups when the season or time was ripe. The extended families that were the general basis of Indigenous hunting-gathering life came together usually in the seasons of plenty to undertake larger affairs. These periods might bring hundreds of people together for periods of several weeks. Thus various configurations of landholding groups were usually well represented at these gatherings and indeed needed to be so that the "business" being celebrated would have an "owner," "managers," and "visitors" present to ensure its accuracy and efficacy. Indigenous people undertook rituals to maintain the fertility of country and all the living beings it supported. They performed rites of passage that made people more human and gave them insights into the nature of their world and what it is to be human. In the context of large ceremonial gatherings, marriages were arranged, disputes settled, and valuables traded.
Many Indigenous people were multilingual, understanding as many as a score of languages. Yet no Indigenous person understood or even knew about the many more hundreds of languages beyond that of their homeland and regional neighbors. By the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics about a hundred Indigenous languages remained in everyday use in Australia. Of these only around twenty had a sufficiently large and concentrated "community of speakers" to make it possible for children to learn them as their first languages. Yolngu Matha, the language in which Djakapurra Munyarryun addressed a global audience in the Sydney "Awakening" ceremony, is one he learned in his own "Top End" homeland. It is among the diminishing number of Indigenous languages that remain strong and vital.
The composition of the "Awakening" segment points to the diversity of Indigenous religious and cultural experience in Australia. Some performers were from the long-settled fertile northern rivers region of New South Wales (the host state commonly abbreviated as NSW); others were from Sydney, the host city. Others, such as women from the Central Desert regions that cross the states of South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory, the Yolngu people from Arnhem Land, and the Torres Strait Islanders continue to live everyday lives, albeit under conditions different from that of their forebears, through which they maintain a strong connection to their ancestors, their country, and their traditions.
But such locally founded identity is not the experience of most Indigenous people. Australian Bureau of Statistics census figures suggest that in 1996 only 29.1 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "identif[y] with [a] clan, tribal or language group," and only 31 percent live in their "homelands/traditional country." Most Australian Indigenous people live in cities, towns, and "settled regions." In remote areas the lives of many so-called traditional people are now centered on remote settlements—former mission stations, now small townships with residents from a number of different Indigenous groups and territories. Some of these settlements were established early in the colonial period; others were established after World War II. The focal position of such settlements persists despite a constellation of homeland settlements established when people moved away from service-providing townships to create smaller settlements (often called "outstations") on their homelands in a movement dating from the 1970s. Indigenous settlements and towns provide the basic infrastructure of government services: schools, transport nodes, power, water, sewerage management, water services, and in some communities, television stations and museums. Indigenous Australians in longer and more intensively settled parts of Australia predominantly live in the suburbs of towns and cities. A minority live in "fringe camps" on the peripheries of towns and cities.
Grounds of Being
From the spotlight on Djakapurra Munyarryun addressing the audience on the stadium's dais, attention shifted back to the stadium floor. Nikki Webster in her pink beach dress was again visible as a huddled group of white ochre-daubed dancers parted to make space for her to move. These performers were also recognizably Indigenous. They seemed to pursue the golden-haired girl toward the dais. They moved beside and behind her with their heads down and torsos bent low, clasping their hands behind their backs.
Nikki Webster glanced back at her pursuers with evident uncertainty and concern. Finally the young Australian girl climbed the stairs toward the tall Aboriginal man and was picked up by performers and placed beside him on the dais. She knelt. Looking. Learning. The scene was punctuated by a white cloud as the Aboriginal man clapped his ochre-filled hands above her. The voice of Indigenous commentator Ernie Dingo elaborated: "The deep-sea dream of young Australia is transformed by an undeniable call from an ancient heritage by the Dreamtime spirits of another age, but a culture very much alive."
Ernie Dingo's statement of ancient Indigenous roots and contemporary vitality was significant. So too were references to an ancient heritage of Dreamtime spirits. In this Dingo pointed the audience to what has become the key concept for understanding most Australian Indigenous religious traditions. These concepts link the religious lives of Indigenous people from the forty thousand and more years before the continent's settlement by non-Indigenous people and the two hundred and more years since.
The idea of Dreaming, the Dreamtime, and Dreamtime Spirits has wide usage, is key to understanding Australian Indigenous Religions, and the words are not restricted to Indigenous or non-Indigenous speakers. Though these terms have become general in their usage, they had their origins in the translation of a specific term by a specific group by researchers working in the late eighteenth century.
The concept of the Dreaming can be understood as that transcendent aspect of power through which all key elements of the cosmos—material and immaterial—have their origins and remain connected. The essence of the Dreaming is in the Indigenous principles of formation, order, and knowledge.
Most Indigenous traditions in Australia share basic ideas about the place of Aboriginal people in their cultural world, and it is the "business" of contemporary Indigenous people to continue these ideas in order to maintain that world. Across the continent Indigenous people take as the bedrock of their being (or believe that their ancestors did so in the past) deep ideas of transcendent form and relatedness and the enduring entailments of these connections.
The terms Dreaming, or Dreamtime, mentioned in the Olympic "Awakening" ceremony are used to refer to the "the ancient past" in which all Indigenous life was founded. For many it endures from its ancient formational time into the present and future. The anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner, in White Man Got No Dreaming (1979), called it "the everywhen."
As Howard Morphy has suggested in "Empiricism to Metaphysics: In Defense of the Concept of the Dreamtime" (1995), Dreaming is part of a group of related terms that can be found in most if not all Australian Indigenous languages. Such sets of terms refer to ancestral figures, their actions and powers, and sacred things and doings that connect living beings to them.
The ideas behind such sets of terms are thoroughly grounded in the premise that people properly belong to specific areas or "countries" that were created by their own ancestral spirits. Indeed "country" itself was formed long ago as these powerful transcendent beings moved across the landscape or stayed as forms within it. Ancestors left tracks and sometimes their own bodies in the areas through which they moved. These tracks gave the land and waters a form that endures in the early twenty-first century. Thus in some Indigenous traditions mountains are the shelters that ancestors left behind as they traveled. A bend in a river may be a Dreaming figure's elbow or knee or the sweep of a giant ancestral fish. Sand dunes are the kinetic tracks of women who danced in the "Dreamtime" or the windbreaks behind which they camped. Islands are the ossified remains of ancestors or the objects they carried. Ancestors created or were the natural species that fill the land and waters.
Dreamings in the broadest sense then are power-filled landforms, stories, spirits, stars and natural species as well as natural forces like rain, sun, whirlwinds, and waters. They initiated relationships. Contemporary human beings are the descendents of these powerful beings with all the responsibilities of relatedness and enduring connection. Countries are sacred and have particularly sacred places because of their ancestral connections. Specific natural species are kindred: totemic protectors and friends.
Deborah Bird Rose put it this way in Nourishing Terrains (1996):
The Australian continent is criss-crossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: walking, slithering, crawling, flying, chasing, hunting, weeping, dying, giving birth. Performing rituals, distributing the plants, making landforms and water, establishing things in their own places, and making relationships between one place and another. Leaving parts or essences of themselves, looking back in sorrow; and still travelling, changing languages, changing songs, changing skin. They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal and human again, becoming ancestral to particular animals and particular humans. Through their creative actions they demarcated a whole world of difference and a whole world of relationships which cross-cut difference. (Rose, 1996, p. 35)
Dreaming stories, countries, people, and all living things are differentiated. Although the idea of the Dreaming founds all life, particular people and particular groups of people have rights and responsibilities for specific segments of stories, tracks, movements, and the sacred: dances, designs, and sacred objects. A single person will generally have relationships and therefore responsibilities to a number of specific ancestral figures and tracks. People make those parts of the Dreaming for which they have responsibility manifest in the organization and performance of ritual and the realization of the powers of their "everywhen" in sand, on rock, on bodies, and on canvases. They sing them into power and dance their presence. In doing so they continue the Dreaming and carry out their responsibilities for its endurance.
Living human beings keep particular segments of the Dreaming alive: by keeping the rules of practice laid down by the founding beings, dancing the segments to which they have rights, repeating their actions and their tracks in the landscape, "singing" the country in a language that the spirits of the dead can hear, dancing and re-creating the ancestors and their actions, living in ways that nurture continued life, and guarding the propriety with which others do so.
Social orders were also established in the foundational "everywhen" of the Dreaming, including clans, "skins" (subsections), totems, and other groupings of identity, relationship, and regulation. Particular human groups are allied with natural species or forces and given responsibilities for their vitality and endurance. Religious action is predicated on the cooperation of different groups of people who have different roles in performance and in many regions a critical distinction is made between the "owners" of ritual and the "managers" who must survey proceedings and ensure that things are properly done.
In Indigenous social orders gender is a fundamental point of differentiation as well as cooperation. Males and females have mutually entailed knowledge, roles, and responsibilities in the world. These things were established in the foundational orders of the Dreaming.
Critical stages in human life too were established in formational times and events as well as the rites for human passage: they included in some societies birth rituals, initiation, and mortuary ceremonies. In some traditions human conception was animated as spirits entered a woman in particular places (often those associated with water), enlivening a fetus within her. Such places come to be regarded as the person's "conception place." These connections gave rise to special relationships, rights, and responsibilities. Rituals for maintaining the fertility of country and species more generally were also given to human beings from foundational actions. In this way too laws of living were established and punishments and rewards set down for tradition.
Complex processes of concealment and revelation are pivotal in the life of many Indigenous traditions and practices. Some practices are open and public. Others are restricted. Knowledge, practice, and power in such traditions are frequently layered and segmented. With the pioneering work of Phyllis Kaberry, Catherine Berndt, and Diane Bell has come a deeper understanding of the positions and roles of Indigenous women in their societies. Many Indigenous traditions are organized around age and gender-based divisions of religious cooperation, knowledge, and work. Some matters were restricted to women, some to older women, some to women with several children. These matters and responsibilities are now often referred to as "women's business." Others were restricted to men and are referred to as "men's business." Both sides of business required the complementary participation of the other and entailed negotiations of who knew what story and who could claim knowledge. The balance as to who takes the lead depends on the purpose of the ceremony and varies across the continent.
Rituals, objects, and designs commonly have many meanings in these traditions. Revelation and knowledge of spiritual matters were graduated. Some sacred matters were more narrowly restricted within gendered knowledge. It is not uncommon, for example, for novices in initiation to have less-restricted knowledge about stories or the nature of practices, designs, or the sacred revealed to them while the adepts who bring this knowledge withhold other "inside" meanings. As ritual experience and adeptness is gained, so too is inside knowledge.
But it is also crucial to recognize that knowledge has power in such societies. It is not given away freely. For this reason Eric Michaels, in "Constraints on Knowledge in an Economy of Oral Information" (1985), has written of such systems as forming an "economy of knowledge." Founding practices in which gender, age, ritual status, and divisions of esoteric knowledge were laid down also established the basis of different rights and obligations in these economies of knowledge: to come into and see special sacred places or to turn one's back and stay away, to tell and reenact specific ancestral actions in ritual, to sing but not to dance, to dance but not to sing, to paint bodies or to be painted, to see and hear restricted knowledge, to oversee specific performances by others, to participate in action and constructions but not to gain rights to repeat them in any way.
Another broad feature of Indigenous traditions is an insistence as ideology that things that have come from the Dreaming are unchangingly "everywhen": that the Dreaming and its consequences are not subject to innovation and that "things have been this way for forty thousand years." Yet many traditions also admit the possibility of "rediscovering" things temporarily lost or the gaining of new insight or elaboration in the inspired dreams of living humans. The ambiguity of layered systems of knowledge also makes space for new understandings and sometimes in turn new practices. It is also clear that new rituals, performances, and objects move between groups from time to time and probably that they have long done so. And clearly the Dreaming has also found new ways of life: in the expression of Dreaming designs in paintings on canvas using acrylic paints, for example, and in performances like those at the Olympics, where new groupings of Aboriginal people are linked into an overarching performance message before different and radically enlarged audiences and with performances adjusted for this unprecedented context.
The "Awakening" segment of the Sydney opening ceremony, with its three to four billion viewers worldwide, brought together seven different Indigenous groups and performers from all corners of the Australian continent in an innovative performance of different traditions lasting just over eleven minutes. These different performances were linked to create an innovative "story."
This was far from the first time Indigenous cultural productions went global, though clearly this was Indigenous Australians' largest and most widely based global audience. Australian Indigenous art, based in artists' own Dreamings, had moved out of ethnographic museums into art galleries by the 1980s. Public institutions commission Indigenous art to hang on walls in public view. When Australia's new Parliament House opened in 1988, it featured a commanding forecourt paved with a mosaic by the Western Desert artist Michael Nelson Tjakamarra. The same year the Asia Society in New York hosted the exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. Australian Indigenous art now sells widely and commands high prices in global art markets. Exhibitions of Indigenous art tour the world.
Indigenous cultural performance has also gone global. The Bangara Dance Theatre, whose director, Stephen Page, was codirector of the "Awakening" segment of the Sydney 2000 opening ceremony, has been presenting contemporary Indigenous dance to international and Australian audiences since 1989. The Arnhem Land rock group Yonthu Yindi sings Yolngu messages that are broadcast to large audiences, and Yolngu elders invite influential outsiders to come and learn from them at Garma festivals held in their homelands.
Traditional religious acts and performances, ordinarily set in the country made by Dreamings, have also gone international. Often they are part of the opening of exhibitions of Indigenous art. In "Culture-Making: Performing Aboriginality at the Asia Society Gallery" (1994), Fred Myers has documented the complex negotiations and performances through which sandpaintings were constructed in New York as part of the opening of the 1988 Dreamings exhibition. Men from the small and remote Aboriginal community of Papunya, 160 miles from Alice Springs, traced sandpaintings ordinarily grounded in their remote homelands, albeit adapted to this particular and peculiar audience and context.
In January 2000 Warlpiri people from the Central Desert presented a "One Family corroboree" at the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Melbourne in which they painted strong Warlpiri iconographs on their bodies for their performance of a "Christian purlapa " (Christian public ceremony). As Ivan Jordan documents in Their Way (2003), the designs they painted on their bodies and the songs and dances they performed were "dreamed" into being in small Central Desert communities.
Indeed as many as 75 percent of the nation's Indigenous people call themselves Christian. Some might be said to have converted from the religious life of their ancestors to Christianity. For many others Christian ideas sit side by side in a now enlarged cosmology in which the forces that founded Indigenous countries and for which human beings have responsibilities include ancestral figures as well as God and Jesus Christ. And understandings about the nature of the human condition are told in stories about the formational actions and powers of Dreaming figures as well as with those drawn from the Bible.
The concept of the Dreaming or Dreamtime has had a central place in Indigenous and popular Australian parlance for many years. It has long been a central though sometimes contested concept in academic analyses of Indigenous religion. The use of these English-language terms originated from a translation of a particular term in a particular Indigenous language group (the Aranda or Arrente) in the late eighteenth century. Their contemporary use carries the danger of homogenization: of concealing cultural difference between the hundreds of Indigenous groups in Australia. This issue will be addressed in the following sections.
But the strength of the English terms' usage, as Morphy has shown, is that these concepts overlap semantic fields or sets of related terms in most if not all Aboriginal languages. Morphy has suggested that the term "signifies a semantic field in Aboriginal languages, the significance of which became relevant in the context of postcolonial Aboriginal discourse. The term fitted a lexical gap in Aboriginal languages, a lexical gap the colonial conditions made it more necessary to fill. It was an anthropological term that was adopted by Aboriginal people because of its salience to them" (Morphy, 1995, p. 178).
If the term Dreaming can be traced back to early attempts to understand the terms of Aranda-Arrente religious life, it should be kept in mind, as Morton has noted, that:
Mythological and ceremonial knowledge … has undoubtedly in some sense diminished since the turn of the century: yet initiation continues, dreamings are transmitted and enhanced, and old stories and songs now sit side-by-side with new stories and songs about Jesus and Mary, God and Satan, and Adam and Eve…. Some Western Aranda men are now very prominent in the Lutheran Church, but they have not thereby forsaken their countries or their dreamings or their kinsmen. This would quite simply be unthinkable. (Morton 1991, p. 54)
The Australian Politics of Indigenous Religions
Nikki Webster, the young Australian star of the opening ceremony, was pursued by clay-daubed "awakening spirits" along the stadium toward the stairs of the dais from which Dkakapurra Munyarryun spoke. She joined him on the dais. Ernie Dingo said: "The young Australian girl is now part of the land's ancient culture, for her too to share. First of all to understand the origins of where it all came from."
Dingo's call was understood by many Australians in the audience to address political debates from the years running up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The peak national Indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (disbanded by the Australian government in 2004), said of the Indigenous performance:
The Sydney Olympics will help shine a spotlight on Aboriginal culture and its historical plight. The attention should prove uncomfortable to the Australian government. The nation has made great strides on the racial front in recent decades, but it is showing some distressing signs of weariness from the progress, and a resistance to march onward. In recent months, the Australian government has ceased cooperating with United Nations human rights monitors looking into the status of Aborigines and has opposed calls for an official apology for past wrongs.
The 1990s began with hope for acknowledgment and reconciliation. A wide-ranging national inquiry of the executive government (the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) listened carefully to bereaved Indigenous people as well as a range of other witnesses. The inquiry found that fundamental disadvantage underlay the disproportionate incarceration rates (and consequent high death rates) of Indigenous people in Australia. It recommended systemic change in legal and social institutions and practices. This gave some Indigenous Australians hope for their children's future. It suggested that "reconciliation" between Indigenous and settler Australians might be possible.
Indigenous hopes were raised too in 1992, when the High Court of Australia recognized the prior ownership and native title of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait in the Mabo case. The following year an act of the commonwealth (federal) parliament gave Indigenous claimants across the country a right to have their native title claims tested and declared by the federal court (the Native Title Act of 1993). In overturning the doctrine of terra nullius (that the continent at settlement was a land without owners and therefore open to be legally taken and colonized), the High Court of Australia noted in its judgment that "Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation."
The new legislation gave Indigenous people the opportunity to claim native title on crown land—land whose title had not been sold or transferred to others in legal contracts but was still held by "the crown." The primary questions before the courts in native title claims is whether Indigenous claimants were owners of crown land through their own system of custom and law (which would have to be demonstrated) and whether they have maintained their connection with the land they claim. The Native Title Act promised limited access to native title rights and recognition across the nation.
It was the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976 that put Australian Indigenous religions squarely on the agenda of public debate in Australia. That act, which was limited in its operation to the Northern Territory, put Aboriginal peoples' religious lives at the heart of their claims to land. A key test in land claims turned on Aboriginal peoples' spiritual affiliation with the land. According to the legislation, it was "Traditional Aboriginal owners" who could make claims for land. But the claimants had to constitute "a local descent group of Aboriginals who have common spiritual affiliations to a site on the land, being affiliations that place the group under a primary spiritual responsibility for that site and for the land, and are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over that land" (emphasis added).
Ideas about Indigenous beliefs and traditions later underpinned the federal "safety net" heritage act, which offered Indigenous people a way to protect areas or objects of significance to their tradition from destruction or desecration when all other means had been exhausted. In the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act of 1984, "Aboriginal tradition" means the body of traditions, observances, customs, and beliefs of Aboriginals generally or of a particular community or group of Aboriginals and includes any such traditions, observances, customs, or beliefs relating to particular persons, areas, objects, or relationships. A critical question then becomes: Who defines tradition and according to what criteria?
Thus, Australian Indigenous religions have been made to count in a number of facets of Australian affairs. This has brought Australian Indigenous religions into a spotlight of controversy and contestation. Indigenous people became by the mid-1990s a target of political skepticism. Some have been accused of fabricating traditions and beliefs they sought to have acknowledged as significant under Australian law. In this context the commentary that "the young Australian girl is now part of the land's ancient culture, for her too to share" had a particular salience.
Particularities: Person and Identity
As Nikki Webster joined Djakapurr Munyarryun on the dais, the Yolngu man continued to sing and address the audience in his own language. Ernie Dingo explained again to television viewers: "Djakapurra, the song man, calls the visitors to listen to the sounds of the earth, to meet an ancient past and awaken the spirits within."
Djakapurra Munyarryun, the key Indigenous performer in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, is an Aboriginal man. More particularly he is a Yolngu man. Yolngu is the term six thousand people in Arnhem Land use to identify themselves to others as Indigenous people.
Djakapurra Munyarryun is a member of a specific Yolngu clan reported to be the Wan'gurri clan. The homelands of the Wan'gurri are Dhalinbuy, inland and roughly southwest of the township of Yirrkala and the Nhulunbuy-Gove area (the site of a large bauxite mine and its associated township).
Yolngu clans like the Wan'gurri are made up of people related to each other through their fathers. They are a group because they share a common ancestor (usually about five generations distant) through their patriline (father's line), but also because they are linked by being created on land by a particular Dreaming ancestral figure and as part of a particular story of creation. Clan members, led by elders, are custodians of specific tracts of country for which they have particular responsibilities. Each clan claims and looks after particular tracts of country (land in coastal areas, the sea) and have a specific set of sacred objects, songs, dances, and designs that are underwritten by the activities of particular ancestral figures.
The Wan'gurri clan of which Djakapurra Munyarryun is a member belongs to the Yirritja moiety. Other Yolngu clans belong to the opposite and complementary Dhuwa moiety. Everything in the Yolngu world is part of one moiety or the other. Yolngu people become a member of their father's moiety at birth (and are such prior to birth in a dead-spirit-to-newborn continuum). In Yolngu tradition they must marry a member of their mother's moiety, for it would be incestuous to marry into the moiety they share with their father. Many Yolngu religious obligations can be discharged only in cooperation with people and clans of the opposite moiety. They require particular ceremonial events to be conducted in the presence of members of both moieties. For example, some dances and designs held by one clan are only to be used under the supervision of members of another clan belonging to the opposite moiety. This is often described as the yothu-yindi (child-mother) relationship between an individual's own clan and his or her mother's clan. Thus the duty to observe and supervise the activities of another clan is akin to the responsibility of a mother providing advice and guidance to her child.
When Yolngu people refer to themselves, they frequently use specific terms that identify them with a narrower group of people, such as a specific clan group, that possesses its own language dialect which is associated with one or more homelands and that shares ancestral totems, songs, and designs associated with and bestowed upon them by particular Dreaming ancestors responsible for the creation of their clan lands. More narrowly still Yolngu clan members identify themselves as belonging to a family or particular patriline (which since mission times have come to be identified by distinct surnames). Djakapurra's second name, Munyarryun, is such a name.
In 1991 Djakapurra Munyarryun moved as a young man to Sydney to become a performer and cultural consultant for the Bangarra Dance Theatre. He remained a full-time member of the company until 2002. As a member of Bangarra, Djakapurra Munyarryun embodied long-standing links between the dance company and Yolngu peoples in Arnhem Land, where members of the company traveled, viewed dance in its ceremonial context, and held contemporary dance workshops in local venues. As the Bangarra Dance Theatre web page notes: "Djakapurra contributes far more than dancing, singing and didjeridu playing. He is a creative consultant, linking traditional past and contemporary present as he moves between his remote community, Sydney and international tours that have taken him around the world" (www.bangarra.com.au).
Particularities: The Seven Sisters
The "Awakening Spirits" dance that moved Nikki Webster to join Djakapurra Munyarryun on the podium finished with a puff of dry ochre (a dry white clay powder). As Nikki Webster knelt watching and learning beside the song man, the high pitch of many women's singing voices turned viewers' attention to the other end of the stadium. Television viewers saw from overhead three hundred women proceeding in a pendulous elongated group up the stadium. At ground level the women could be seen entering the stadium with their hands clasped behind their backs. Then, as they hastened down the stadium, they brought their arms to their sides, with elbows bent in a stylized movement. The women wore only black skirts and red headbands. Their breasts were painted with lined designs of white, yellow, and red.
"This, inma kunga rapaba, " Ernie Dingo announced, "a dance from central Australia. Dance of the seven emu sisters." At about two-thirds of the way down the length the women stopped their forward movement and bunched into circle, their arms raised in the air, hands cupped and waving above them.
These women, members of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, and Yunkunyatjara (or NPY) Women's Council, came to Sydney from homelands in three Australian states, South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. They are members of a cultural region sometimes referred to in the ethnographic literature as the "Western Desert" block. Their languages, though distinct, are generally comprehensible to each other. They call themselves by the common term anangu (human beings).
The NPY Women's Council has been an important force in local, regional, state, and national politics since it was formed in 1980. The words of a senior member of the council were translated and appeared as subtitles in the film Minymaku Way. They read:
There are many of us living across a huge area of country [in fact the area is 350,000 square kilometers of the interstate desert areas]. Our country belongs to us Anangu people and we have our own ways, our own language and we women want to keep these ways alive, especially while there is so much tragedy in our lives. That is why we formed the Women's Council.
Minymaku Way tells the story of the council's first twenty years. It tells of how the council was formed in 1980 during the fight for land rights, a fight from which women—despite their business and traditions—were silenced and excluded. It tells also of contemporary programs arising out of "worry for families," as the non-Anangu worker Maggie Kavanagh put it. Prominent among Women's Council programs are care for the aged, disability services, domestic violence, nutrition programs, and substance abuse (alcohol, marijuana, and petrol sniffing).
Minymaku Way also tells that a major item on the agenda of the twenty-year anniversary general meeting of the council held at Kanpi (about a seven-hour drive from Alice Springs) was to decide on one song, dance, and body painting for their performance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a context for them to showcase their strength and culture "for all the world to see." The meeting at Kanpi celebrated the roots of the Women's Council in the singing of the "Land Rights Song" that appeared as subtitles on-screen as the women sang in their own language:
It is our grandfathers' and our grandmothers' country from a long time ago. Listen everybody! This is our sacred land. This is a really true story. Why don't you listen to us? Listen everybody! Listen everybody! This is our land, our beautiful land.
The decision about what they would perform at the Olympics was a difficult one. Many women from different communities would perform. The audience would primarily be those with no ordinary right to see or hear the performance. It would include men, women, and children. Other Aboriginal people, including some from their own communities, might tune in. One Anangu woman talked about the dilemmas on film: "We have to make a proper choice. Making our songs so public is unusual because normally we keep our songs so private, hidden and separate. We have to consider and discuss which non-fun song, which serious and important song we can present to the people of the world."
The group narrowed their decision down to two possibilities. In the end the decision was made to perform a section of the Seven Sisters story. The other song and dance considered was deemed to be too restricted and sacred to perform for the world.
Maggie Kavanagh sent a message on camera to Stephen Page, the co–artistic director of the "Awakenings" segment of the Olympics opening. She spoke about the negotiations and decisions about which inma (song-dance-design relating to a segment of a Dreaming) the women would perform in Sydney. She spoke to the camera in English:
They have decided on the Seven Sisters and they practiced three parts of the Seven Sisters inma. Looks like the one [localized section] they'll agree on is the kanpi. … Kanpi means fat. It is emu fat. The Seven Sisters are traveling [she moved her hands up one after the other in a flowing movement as if to grasp something in the air, bending her elbows in a stylized way as she did so]. You'll see them trying to get the emu fat [with their hands], that's a really prized part of the emu. And it's actually not far from where we are [referring to the inma's specific section of country or locale at Kanpi]. The women liked the song, for that particular Seven Sisters song and also the movement. They like the movements. They think it's really good moving-movement for what you want in Sydney.
The Kanpi inma of the Seven Sisters Dreaming was taped by David Page and his colleagues from Sydney as the women performed it in song and dance in the landscape to which it referred. Minymaku Way showed the women singing the songs relating to the designs they painted on their bodies (though taking out the black so the designs would show better as they danced before a world audience). In the country of the song they danced in a clearing, keeping their forefeet in the sand, marking the country with the story once again and grasping for the emu fat unseen in front of them while others sat beating time with bottles, shoes, and clapping sticks. It was the sounds of their singing that day, clarified in a Sydney studio, that were broadcast for the Sydney performance.
There are many stories and many story lines about the Seven Sisters among Indigenous Australians. These stories concern the Pleiades constellation. Aboriginal people sometimes refer to the stars of the constellation as the "many women or sisters." The "Seven Sisters" is a common usage. This constellation rises and falls in the sky seasonally. Christine Watson is the most recent scholar to canvass the travels and adventures of the Seven Sisters. Spurred by work she did on women's art and ceremony from Balgo in northeastern Western Australia, she describes, in Piercing the Ground (2003), how those women's Dreamings are part of a "web of Seven Sisters narratives which traverse mainland Australia, the Torres Strait, and Tasmania, through South Australia to New South Wales and Victoria, parts of them belonging to men's and parts to women's ceremonial practice among the different groups holding the mythology" (Watson, 2003, p. 194).
In the temperate eastern states of Australia documentation from the nineteenth century suggests that the Seven Sisters story was associated with winter and frosts. R. H. Mathews recorded in 1904 that all the stars and star clusters in the sky are named and known in Aboriginal tradition. The stars, he said, are like human beings arranged into kinship systems. Of the Seven Sisters constellation in particular, he wrote, in nineteenth-century parlance:
The aborigines of the Clarence River have a story that the Pleiades when they set with the sun go away to bring winter; and that when these stars reappear early in the evening in the eastern sky, they are ushering in the warm weather. They are supposed to be a family of young women, whose name was War-ring-garai, and who belonged to the section Wirrakan. … Among the Ngeumba blacks, in the cold weather of mid-winter, when the Pleiades rise about three or four o'clock in the morning, the old men take some glowing coals on bark shovels, and cast them towards this constellation as soon as it is visible. This is done to prevent the spirit women, whom these stars represent, from making the morning too cold. The women in the camp are not permitted to look at all at the Pleiades in winter nights, because such conduct would increase the severity of the frost. If a woman transgresses this law, her eyes will become bleary, and she will suffer from uterine troubles. (Mathews, 1904, pp. 279–280)
It is not clear whether all stories across the continent are parts of a wide-ranging whole. It is clear, however, that such Dreamings crossed boundaries and connected a number of different groups. It is more likely that some if not most of the Seven Sisters stories that track around the arid inland, in and out of Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, are related and connecting Dreaming stories. Certainly contemporary women make the assertion that this Dreaming connects them to many others across the continent. Most of the reported segments or versions in the cross-border desert regions contain common themes. They tell of a group of women who travel widely, camping, dancing, eating, and spending much of their time trying to escape from the unwelcome and usually illicit advances of a lustful man (and sometimes more). Sometimes the main pursuer has a son.
As with other Dreamings, these women's presence can be seen in the early twenty-first century in the sandhills they used as windbreaks or those they formed as tracks when they danced with their feet in the sand. Particular vegetation marks food they ate or with which the lustful "lover boy" sought to tempt them. Caves point to places where they were raped. In some versions of the myth the women have dogs that protect them and fight off the lecherous man or men. The women move between earth and sky, rising and falling with the seasons as the Pleiades. The lustful man is still to be seen in the sky as Orion or in other traditions the moon. At various points this Dreaming crosses and interacts with other Dreaming tracks.
In her Nukunu Dictionary (1992) Luise Hercus recorded an account of the story from a South Australian Nukunu informant, Harry Bramfield. This account makes clear the relationship between events in the story, the stars, and terrestrial landmarks. In Bramfield's account the Seven Sisters
ran from the east and they came across to Yartnamalka [in the Flinders Ranges], where the Yartnamalka lady is, where the big chunk of clay is in the hills. They ran away from the east and they went west. One of them got crook [ill] at the hill at Yartnamalka, and that is where she stayed, so there is only six of them up there (in the sky) now. The seventh is there at Yartnamalka, that is the landmark. And of course the three brothers—they only had three brothers, they took after them to find them, they traveled and traveled and they too went up into the sky so there is the three brothers chasing the six sisters. (Hercus, 1992)
The Seven Sisters Dreaming is a context for ritual and indeed political cooperation among different groups. Arguably this Dreaming is progressively more celebrated by Aboriginal people in the contemporary context where their special claims have been under a variety of political threats. Whether such issues were at the forefront of decisions made by the women themselves and the ceremony organizers, the dancing of the Seven Sisters at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics was in many ways a particularly apt choice, for the Seven Sisters is a Dreaming story that links Indigenous groups across the continent and through all of Australia's mainland states.
Particularities: The Warlpiri of the Central Desert
What the Sydney Olympic organizers referred to as "Central Desert" Aboriginal people and attributed to the NPY Women's Council includes a large number of distinct Indigenous groups—the Alyawarra (Alywarr), Kaytej (Kaytetye), Pintupi, Ngaanyatjarra, Pintjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Warlpiri, and Warumungu. Their homelands can be found in the remote regions of three different states of Australia: Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. To complicate matters, scholars have sometimes distinguished between the Central Desert and Western Desert cultural regions. In this schema Pintupi, Ngaanyatjarra, Pintjantjatjara, and Yunkunytjatjara are groups from the "Western Desert cultural bloc," and Alyawarra (Alywarr), Kaytej (Kaytetye), Warlpiri, and Waramungu are from the so-called Central Desert bloc. In reality these "blocs" are crumbling somewhat. Nowadays people from these regions live in settlements and small townships like Ali Kurang (formerly Warrabri), Yendemu, Lajamanu (once known as Hooker Creek), and Balgo, now known as Wirrimanu.
When Diane Bell worked at the Aboriginal community of Warrabri (Ali Kurang), it comprised Kaytej, Alyawarra, Warlpiri, and Warumungu-Warlmanpa people but was located on Kaytej country, a place associated with dog Dreaming. The community of Yuendumu began its life in 1946, when the government established a "ration depot" near a soak of that name. The depot was situated near several Warlpiri ceremonial sites and came to be used by mainly Warlpiri people but also by Pintupi and Anmatyerre.
Both Bell, in Daughters of the Dreaming (1983), and Françoise Dussart, in The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement (2000), provide a sense of how Aboriginal life "maps" on to these communities. Their accounts differ in important ways and point up the fact that difference is important for understanding the religious life of Indigenous people in Central Australia. The central part of Warrabri, as Bell experienced it in 1976 to 1978, included a built-up area with an airstrip, powerhouse (for generating electricity), police station, store, sports field, council offices, hospital, and houses surround by a number of camps, each oriented to the "country" of its traditional owners. There were also initiation grounds, "Sorry" camps (for the bereaved), and a number of jilimi, or independent women's camps. During Dussart's stay in Yuendumu from 1983 to 1985, that community likewise included the built structures of a remote Australian town: airstrip, powerhouse, council buildings, school, sports facilities, and store as well as a hall, a video-television station building (under construction at the time), a church, a recreation center, a clinic, a morgue, an adult education center, and separate men's and women's museums. Surrounding these "permanently" built structures were the six Aboriginal "camps" with their men's and women's ritual areas. She too found jilimi as well as yampirri, the quarters of unmarried men, and yapukarra, the quarters of married couples.
But these are also communities that keep their Dreamings alive and frequently perform ritual, as the substantial ethnography from this area demonstrates. The languages of these complex settlements refer to the Dreaming similarly: as Jukurrpa. Each member of these communities has particular connections to specific Jukurrpa as stories, relationships, objects, designs, places, and actions. People sing their Dreamings. They dance them. They draw their designs in the sand. They paint the marks of the Dreaming on their bodies. They recognize their marks on ritual objects. They move about the landscape with its forces, powers, and essences always in mind and with them as guides of where to go and where they must lower their eyes and turn their backs. Aboriginal people are mindful of the rules and laws set down. And for some decades now they have painted their Dreamings onto canvases and sung them as they did so.
All the critical moments in an individual's life are "made manifest" in ritual. Conflicts resolved, lovers are attracted and repelled. Dussart tried to convey the force of ceremony: "In reenacting a Dreaming, ritual performers follow in the footsteps (spiritually and physically) of their Jukurrpa Ancestral Beings" (Dussart, 2000, p. 47).
The Aboriginal groups of the Central Desert regions have extraordinarily intricate systems for specifying membership of a number of groups of relations and orienting one's future marriage preferences. These webs of relatedness are founded in connections to specific tracts of land and through them to specific Dreaming ensembles. Groups of people also have special relationships with natural species, which are often referred to in English as their "totems" or "Dreaming."
Rights and responsibilities to Dreamings are shared by groups of relatives related in specific ways to it. Kirda are those related to a particular place, "country," or Dreaming on their "father's" side, from their father and grandfather. They must dance for the country and wear the designs for the Dreamings and places in the country. Kudrungurlu are those who are related to the same places, "countries," or Dreaming on the "mothers' father's" side. As Bell notes in Daughters of the Dreaming (1983), "they had to sing, paint the kirda, and ensure that the Law was correctly followed." Members of each group must be present for ritual performances to be proper. Both must be present and sign off on acrylic paintings of Dreaming segments. In their action one to the other and in respect of the Dreamings for which they hold complementary responsibility, kirda and kurungurlu help each other carry out their responsibilities.
But all people who are related as kirda and kurungurlu are not the same. There are two further distinctions that are essential to consider in respect of Central Desert religious life: gender and the restrictions that could be called those of adeptness.
The Warlpiri continue to conduct male initiation ceremonies. Though these are "men's business," women play important roles in this ritual process. Women too have ritual responsibilities.
In Daughters of the Dreaming, Diane Bell describes a yawulyu ceremony she witnessed in 1976. On average, she said, she saw one such ceremony a week during her stay. These rituals are "women's business" and continue to be a feature of Warlpiri life. Women gather for yawalyu in the afternoon and prepare ritual objects and designs. A fire is kept burning throughout the ceremony, and the ashes will be raked over and reused in subsequent rituals.
In Bell's account the first stage entailed the gathering of women and painting of women's bodies and of the sacred boards they hold. While this work goes on, women sing of the Jukurrpa ancestors who formed their country and its institutions. When their preparations were finished, "the assembled group had sung for the country where the ochres were quarried; they had sung for the ancestors who were to be celebrated in the dancing; they had provided ritual instruction for those women who were being groomed as future leaders, and they had offered brief guidance regarding the structure of their activities" (Bell, 1983, pp. 12–13).
As the sun was nearly setting, seven women moved some distance from the group of singers. With this the singers emphasized the rhythm of their songs with cupped hand clapping. The song grew stronger, and women from all groups and "countries" were called to attend. When the broader group had gathered, the singers recounted the travels of the ancestors depicted in the painted designs. Then, dancing in a straight line from the northwest came women wearing red and white designs on their bodies.
They represented the activities of the diamond dove that travelled from Kurinji country through the desert lands…. As they neared the seated singers they held aloft the painted boards bearing ideational maps of the sites visited by the diamond dove in its trek south. The songs told of each site, of how the dove tired of travelling, of how the dove cried out for seed. On approaching the claypan known as Pawurrinji, the dove sighted the willy-wagtail, who was feasting on a small marsupial mouse. Women of the black and white designs of the wagtail danced forward to meet the travelling dove people; who then wove in and out of the wagtail ranks, flanking them before joining them in one circle. From where I sat I could see that the patterns traced in the red desert sand by the dancer's feet echoed those on the sacred boards. (Bell, 1983, p.13)
Bell describes how all the dancers then united in a tight circle in front of the seated singers. They presented the painted boards to them. With this the spirits of the birds entered the ground. This was the climax of the performance.
General gaiety followed. Singers were paid for their ritual work, and nonparticipants paid for having seen the ceremony. And singing again of the country, the women began the task of "rubbing down" the boards: "The designs had to be removed and the power with which they were infused during the dancing, absorbed and neutralized" (Bell, 1983, p. 14).
It is kurdungurlu who introduce the country with songs. It is they who collect the kirda for the ceremony. Both kirda and kurdungurlu dance. Both sing. But as Bell notes, "they do not sing for themselves."
In Their Way (2003) Ivan Jordan describes how, following attempts by missionaries to develop meaningful symbols for their church teaching, Warlpiri Christians came to present Christian symbols and develop Warlpiri Christian rituals. Jordan describes how boards were painted with Warlpiri Christian iconographs, new songs were developed, and finally the first "Christian purlapa " (public ceremony) was performed. He describes how in 1977 the Lajamanu and Yuendumu churches met:
Then it happened. For many days, as daylight disappeared into darkness "big mobs" of people gathered to sing this new corroboree. Often someone came to the door to tell us they were ready to start…. As with all traditional corroboree singing, each song had just a few words, maybe five or six, and these words were repeated many times—at least thirty or forty…. When it finally happened, the dancing was truly exciting. Firstly, the appropriate symbolism for the body paintings had to be agreed on…. Preparation always took hours…. Having finished the painting, the right starting positions and dances and gestures were agreed upon after a good deal of group interaction…. I can still see those first dancers; dust flying, calloused black feet thudding the ground in perfect timing and harmony with the rising and falling chants of the singers and the echoing clicking of the boomerangs, Japanangka and Napurrula, husband and wife church leaders, were Mary and Joseph. At the appropriate time a suitable baby wrapped in a blanket and lying on a coolamon [wooden carrying dish] was produced from the crowd. … At the conclusion of the purlapa, it was usual for the men to begin rubbing the decoration from their bodies, the women quickly don bras, and blouses while Jerry Jangala [a church leader] stood and talked briefly about the story. Jangala would then conclude by praying. After this the people would disappear into the darkness happy and excited that they had not just heard God's story but they had actually danced and sung it. They had danced and sung God's "Business." (Jordan, 2003, pp. 119–121)
Jordan's account resonates in interesting and significant ways with Bell's description of Warlpiri ritual performance.
Particularities: Koori Kids Embracing Culture and Coming to Know
About two-thirds of the way down the stadium the Seven Sisters dancers ceased their forward gait (which we can see, in retrospect, as signifying at some level their pursuit of emu fat). They formed a circle, dancing, swaying on the spot with their cupped hands in the air. The Awakening spirits moved in close to surround the older desert women. Ernie Dingo explained to viewers that the claydaubed Awakening Spirits dancers came back from the podium to which they had followed the young girl and encircled the tightly bunched performers from the center of Australia. He announced their intent:
To perform, to take to the heart of Australia the ancient art, the ancient stories of the past and to be embraced by the young Aboriginal culture of today and to share in its history and acceptance without questioning. They are preparing for an awakening, a welcome, and a rebirth in unity, so we can all be as one mob, the youth of today and the ancient culture of years gone by.
The cameras moved from the circled Central Desert women and koori kids to Djakapurra Munyarryun and Nikki Webster on the dais. Dingo continued: "The rebirth has started."
The "Awakening" spirit dancers who "embraced" the desert women were young, Sydney-based Koori performers covered in white clay. "Koori" is a term now widely understood as a collective referent for Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Victoria. Those children were learning about Australian Indigenous culture from this experience. Their dance was choreographed. Until their participation in the Sydney Olympics, many of the koori clan performers of the "Awakening" segment shared with Stephen Page a childhood in which they "had no exposure to our traditional culture."
The Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (SOCOG) media guide to the opening ceremony described the group brought together for the occasion as the "NSW Nationskoori clan." The SOCOG media guide described this group as one hundred men and women "from seventeen high schools and dance groups, [who] represent the Sydney language groups and the East coast of NSW language groups such as Biripi, Geawegal, Wiradjuri, Bundjalung, Gidbal, Awagakul Dunghutti and Gumbainggir" (SOCOG, p. 27). These Indigenous performers are Aboriginal people whose cultural lives and traditions are generally understood to have been sorely tested and disrupted by the colonial process in which their homelands were "settled" by non-Indigenous Australians.
The "NSW Nationskoori clans," or "Koori clans," as the creative team appears more commonly to have referred to them in film footage, performed dances especially choreographed for the opening ceremony. They performed themes that are emerging as general Indigenous religious ideas across the nation: the complex of ideas that the land and people hold within them the spirit of the land to which, despite disruption, their own spirit remains tied. These are connections they might respect and in performances like this rekindle and nurture. Matthew Doyle, described as the koori clan choreographer, said on camera: "What we were trying to do is represent young Aboriginal people from New South Wales from quite a few different areas." Describing his choreographic process, he continued: "I'm just looking at a couple of different styles of dance, you know, a mixture of some traditional-type movement and some modern and contemporary."
Djakapurra Munyarryun has pointed to the cultural "awakening" of these koori kids in The Awakenings film: "When I was watching the kids during the ceremonies … they were learning something. Learning something not new, but old" (Roger, 2001).
What was it they were learning? Michael Cohen, a participant-observer of the ceremony and preparations, reported that, "having taught performers the stooped torso and soft lifting of feet involved in the 'spirit dance,' Page constantly reminded the performers of the sacredness of their movements: 'Yes we're gonna do the low [dances]. The ones that hurt. [You've] gotta stay low. [The movements] are circular to keep the spirit internal.'"
The Awakenings shows Stephen Page directing the performers in rehearsal. He told them to move "Like spirits coming through." Page is also reported by Cohen to have told performers in practice, "[Awakening] Spirits, that was good—keeping your hands close to your sacred chests. But now just one problem: you have to try to move fast and still keep the spirit low. You have to try and combine these two energies" (Cohen, p. 166).
As far as one can tell from the available material, the Koori kids were presented with generalized Indigenous ideas about sacredness and spirits in their dancing. They mastered movements the choreographers presented to them with these generalized ideas.
In the film The Awakenings, Rhoda Roberts says:
I think for the North coast group it's a very brave thing to dance in front of traditional people [for whom] ceremony is an everyday part of their lives. And I think we have in some way given a spirit and a soul and about what culture is what they didn't have before they started this little journey for the Olympics. And I think that makes me very proud to see that they are actually proud of their culture. (Roger, 2001)
Cohen reports that Rhoda Roberts told the Awakening spirits performers that the Central Desert women "dance inma. They dance bare-breasted. They paint each other. They're sistas [sisters]. I'm asking you to pay respect. I want you to understand. Those other segments [of the opening ceremony]—they've got props, they've got gizmos. But we don't need that cos we've got land. We've got spirit."
It is unlikely that the koori kids were told much detail of the Kanpi section of the Seven Sisters myth, whose dance and body paint the desert women displayed but did not fully reveal to the world. But it is clear that the kids learned about spirits and land and their own power as Indigenous people. In The Awakenings, Stephen Page calls on performers exhausted by rehearsal: "Wake up now. We're gunna go and meet the respected mother spirit from the Central Desert. Three hundred and thirty women represent one mother earth. We as young children got to respect that. Open our door. Got to welcome. We go and get them when they come. All their paint. We're very lucky" (Roger, 2001). The Koori performers were asked to respect the desert women who represented "mother earth," a concept of Indigenous relationships to land that has been gaining cross-continental currency among Indigenous people who have been distanced from their own local traditions.
But it was not their loss that seems to have been emphasized to these young performers. Rather, organizers emphasized what they had gained by participating and coming in contact with people from remote communities. By the end of their journey some of the koori performers saw the relationship as a two-way exchange. One boy from the Northern Rivers region of NSW put it this way in The Awakenings: "They're learning. They can back up what they learned down here and we what we learned here take back [to] where we came from. Show the people there what we learned, people we met" (Roger, 2001). If some Indigenous Dreamings remain embedded and enduring in local contexts, a new sense of general spiritual connection that respects the sacredness of the earth is also developing among Indigenous people in all corners of the nation.
The encircling of desert women by koori kids dominated the stadium until the spotlights traced a large oblique cross on the red sands of the stadium floor. Attention turned to colorful dancers with flags emerging from the four corners. They danced into center stage to the sound of didgeridoo and song. Ernie Dingo elaborated for the television audience:
The wonderful voice of Don Nundihirribala singing the Dhumbala which is the flag song. Flags represented [the relationship] with the Aboriginal community of the top end, of Arnhem Land, when the Macassan traders used to come over four thousand years ago to trade shellfish with cloth and tobacco. Representation of the Numbulwar, Yirrkala, Ramingining, and Maningrida people from Arnhem Land.
In the tropical "Top End" of Australia the country of the Yolngu juts out into the Arafura Sea, and its eastern coast forms one edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Yolngu country is rich in resources. Its coastline includes rich mangrove estuaries as well as sandy beaches. Inland the mighty Arnhem Land escarpment juts out of the resource-rich plains and littoral belt. There are three main settlements of Yolngu people in northeast Arnhem Land: Milingimbi, founded in 1922; Yirrkala, founded in 1935; and Elcho Island, founded in 1942. These settlements began their lives as mission stations. Before the establishment of these settlements Yolngu clans were dispersed throughout northeast Arnhem Land. As Morphy has noted in Ancestral Connections (1991): "Although the size and structure of communities varied seasonally, for much of the year people lived in bands of around thirty to forty individuals" (Morphy, 1991, p. 40). By the 1970s an "outstation movement" was under way and many people were returning to their ancestral homelands.
Yolngu call their ancestral figures or Dreamings wangarr. They tell of them and their formative actions in myths. As Morphy has eloquently shown, Yolngu people live
in a world that includes both European and Aboriginal institutions, systems of knowledge, languages: they are influenced by both. Yolngu clans have taken on functions and arguably a constitution that they did not have before, and those new functions are going to affect the trajectory the clans have over time. The process is a two-way one, and European institutions in northern Australia must sometimes take account of Aboriginal practices and institutions. (Morphy, 1991, p. 4)
Yolngu openness to other cultures and cultural exchange is not new. The flag dance performed at the opening ceremony relates to the annual visits of Macassans from what is now Suluwasi in Indonesia. They came annually to Arnhem Land on the winds of the northwest monsoon, sailing in praus. They set up camp on Yolngu beaches, gathering and processing bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) until stopped by government officials in 1907. Ian Keen has noted:
Many Yolngu religious traditions reflected their relations with the Macassans. … Ceremonies represented the practices of Macassans, including their rituals. The subjects of these songs and ceremonies were not merely historical or typical figures but wangarr ancestors of the human Macassans. … Through the exchange of personal names Macassan names entered the Yolngu lexicon, along with other words. Some Macassan place names [continue to have currency] … for the Macassans applied their own names to the landscape of north-east Arnhem Land and declared certain rocks sacred, as sites for offerings to sea spirits. (Keen, 1994, pp. 23–24)
Ian McIntosh suggests that Macassans caused some turbulence in Yolngu life. Memories of interactions between Yolngu and Macassans also focus on the creational being Birrinydji. In "Sacred Memory and Living Tradition" (2000) McIntosh suggests, "Belief in Birrindyji empowers the listener-viewer to transform the nature of relations between the cultural groups and to regain what was deemed to have been lost at the 'beginning of time'" (McIntosh, 2000, p. 144). When a replica of a Macassan prau returned to Yolngu shores in 1988, hundreds of Yolngu performed the ceremonies of Birrinydji for their arrival. McIntosh also notes two kinds of depictions of Macassan themes: some "inside" some "outside" designs. He continues:
Depictions of praus (sailing craft), trepang-processing sites, the goods obtained through trade with the visitors, the mistreatment or abduction of women by Macassans, or the slaughter of Aboriginal men by firing squad, are "outside." Images such as golden-skinned women working on weaving looms, the performance of corroborees in honour of Allah, and an Arnhem Land creational being who directs Aboriginal men in the making of iron kilns are "inside." "Outside" art deals with specific historical episodes; "inside" art refers implicitly or explicitly with Birrinydji. (McIntosh, 2000, p. 144)
The idea of "inside" and "outside"—open and restricted knowledge and practice—is a fundamental feature of Yolngu religious life. As Keen notes in Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion (1994), "Age, gender, group identity, and kin relation to a group were important determinants of who could impart information about elements of ceremonies, especially secret meanings, and to whom" (Keen, 1994, p. 244). Yet as Annette Hamilton shows, one does not find in Arnhem Land a context in which gender separation is as marked as it is in the desert regions. Rather, she says, "we find a complex conundrum of arrivals and departures, presences and absences, in which women are fully involved. It is sometimes said that women are made present by their absences. This is a neat expression of a much more complex set of connections" (Hamilton, 2000, p. 71).
Yolngu conceived of wangarr ancestors as beings with human form, but having some of the properties of the beings or entities whose names they took, such as Rock or Honeybee, and as having extraordinary powers. They were active long, long ago in "far off" times. They camped, foraged, made love, quarreled and fought, and bore children, somewhat like humans, but they were involved in extraordinary events and were transformed by them, perhaps into species such as jabirus or entities such as the moon. Some wangarr engendered the ancestors of human groups. These were a group's gulu'kulungu ancestors. (Keen, 1994, p. 45)
Yolngu views of reproduction include a connection between wangarr ancestors, reproductive processes (such as the ancestral spirit menstruating into waters), and the conception of children's spirits. In this understanding of human conception, a child's "image" (mali) enters the woman from such waters. The father might then "find" the spirit of his child in a dream or strange experience (Keen, 1994, p. 106). Thus Keen says that in Yolngu belief "the person was, in a sense, born of the wangarr ancestor and the waters" (Keen, 1994, p. 107).
Keen notes too that, "from a Yolngu point of view … land was not mere dirt; land and waters consisted in part of the bodily substance of the wangarr ancestors." Keen has drawn out the connection between country (Wa:nga ), ancestors (wangarr ), sacred objects (rangga, which were "placed in the country by the ancestors and which were the ngaraka, 'bones,' of the ancestor"), and ceremonial grounds (where sacred objects are revealed to novices) (Keen, 1994, pp. 102–103).
All these things and beings implied links between people, living and dead, country, ancestors, and the ceremonies which followed them. The individual, group, and country were all identified with the bodies and mali' ("image," "spirit") of the wangarr ancestors. In ceremony a rangga sacred object which represented the transformation of a wangarr ancestor or a part of an ancestor was its bone and flesh. The "bone country" (ngaraka wa:nga ) contained the transformed substance as well as the powers of the ancestors. The individual gained both his or her being and powers from the wangarr. At a person's death the spirit was believed to return to the waters on his or her country, the domain of the wangarr ancestor, and/or to a land of the dead over the sea, and/or to heaven, the spirit home of [the Christian] "God wangarr." But if people performed disinterment and reburial rites the body of the dead was reincorporated with the country and body of the ancestor in its manifestation as a hollow-log coffin. (Keen, 1994, p. 103)
Despite the apparent remoteness of their countries, Yolngu people were subject to alienation from their lands like Indigenous people across the nation. In the 1960s the federal government of Australia granted a mining lease and property rights to a French aluminum company over a large part of northeast Arnhem Land. In 1963 Yolngu people from Yirrkala sent a petition to the federal parliament in Canberra. The Yolngu petitioners demanded that their rights in land be recognized and protected. They sought to be consulted about such developments in their homelands. Significantly the protesting Yolngu did not present their petition to the federal parliament as a mass of signed pages, the traditional form by which Australian parliaments are petitioned. Instead, the Yolngu petition, as Morphy notes, "was attached to a bark painting bordered with designs belonging to the clans whose lands were most immediately threatened by the mining" (Morphy, p. 18). A federal inquiry and a court case followed. Their findings were sympathetic to the Arnhem Landers's plight. Morphy notes, "In the short term the Yolngu had completely failed, but in the process they had helped to create the political environment for granting Aboriginal land rights" (Morphy, p. 31). This case laid the foundation for the passage in 1974 of land rights legislation in the then commonwealth-administered Northern Territory.
Particularities: The Ngarrindjeri and a Contested Seven Sisters Story
Veronica Brodie, a woman of Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna descent, says in My Side of the Bridge (2002): "You know there's a beautiful Dreaming story that goes with Hindmarsh Island, and that's The Seven Sisters." It is in this area, Brodie says, that the Seven Sisters rise and descend seasonally to the sky world.
One side of Ngarrindjeri country lies where the land of the lower Murray and Coorong Rivers meets the Southern Ocean. This coastal and lakes region forms an area with huge horizons. The land and waters of Ngarrindjeri country fill only the bottom of everyday vistas. On a clear night the sky, punctuated by stars and the soft clouds of the Milky Way, comes down to meet the horizon. In this country it is not a great leap to imagine ancestral figures moving between sky, sea, and land.
South Australia was colonized in 1836. The lands of the Ngarrindjeri people, within a hundred or so miles of Adelaide, the new colony's capital, were settled soon after. Gradually the land was taken, parcel by parcel. Even so many Ngarrindjeri families remained in or near their homelands in the mission established in 1859 at Point McLeay or in fringe camps throughout the region. Some continue to live on their country. Others have moved to major centers and live in homes that blend easily with those of their suburban neighbors.
A century after the colonization period had begun, researchers of Indigenous life, such as Norman Tindale and more briefly Ronald Berndt, undertook work with Ngarrindjeri people. They documented the endurance of significant cultural knowledge a century or so after the process of settlement had begun in earnest. Both researchers recorded myths about the formation of the landscape and of Ngarrindjeri law. Both documented their informants' knowledge of Ngarrindjeri life prior to the arrival of white settlers.
The action of the Murray River dominates the life of the area. As Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt put it:
The great River Murray that dominated the Narrinyeri [Ngarrindjeri] people was significant not only because of the Ngurunderi myth which was known all over its territory…. [T]he River was like a lifeline, an immense artery of a living "body" consisting of the Lakes and the bush hinterland that stretched across towards the Adelaide Hills and over the southern plains and undulating land. This "body" also included the country to the east…. Its "legs" spread south-eastwards along the Coorong and south-westwards along Encounter Bay and beyond. The "body," symbolic of Ngurunderi himself, embraced five different environments which merged into one another: salt-water country, riverine, Lakes, bush (scrub) and desert plains (on the east)—a combination that had particular relevance to the socio-economic life of the people. (Berndt and Berndt, 1993, p. 13)
Several versions of this myth have been recorded. This is thought to reflect the orientation of different clans to the story and to the section of it relating to their homelands. The myth tells of the great ancestor Ngurunderi, who traveled in search of two wives who had run away from him. At first a giant cod (pondi ) traveled before him. The sweep of its tail widened the river in parts. Elsewhere it darted away from him when he threw his spear to create long straight stretches of the river. Other actions of the pair gave form to the swamps, shoals, and wetlands along the way and formed the great lakes at the river's end. When the cod reached Lake Alexandrina, Ngurunderi sought the aid of another ancestral figure, his wives' brother Nepeli. Ngurunderi caught the cod and cut it up with a stone knife. From pieces of pondi's body came other fish: boney bream, perch, callop, and mudfish. Ngurunderi made camp but while he was there smelled cooking fish and knew his wives were near. He left his camp to renew his pursuit, but his huts remained as two hills, and his bark canoe rose into the sky to form the Milky Way. More forms came into being in his tracks and wake. The story ends with the drowning deaths of the two wives whose bodies became islands known as the Pages. Eventually Ngurunderi himself entered the spirit world on Kangaroo Island. He dived into the sea and rose to become a star in the Milky Way.
In the late 1980s, by then 150 years after settlement, the South Australian Museum framed an exhibition of Ngarrindjeri culture around the Ngurunderi myth. On display too was a dramatization of the myth by contemporary Ngarrindjeri people. Though knowledge of the Ngurunderi myth was no longer widespread, it had persisted in the memories of a small handful of Ngarrindjeri people. The processes of negotiating the exhibition and its subsequent popularity revived and revitalized existing knowledge of the myth across the Ngarrindjeri nation.
The mighty Murray River winds its way through three states of Australia as it makes its way from the east to the south of the continent. At the end of its journey it spills slowly into one of Australia's great lakes, Lake Alexandrina. Despite barrages and irrigation, the waters of the Murray flow on, channeling out of the lake and around a low-lying island called Kumerangk, or Hindmarsh Island, in the Goolwa Channel. The Murray edges past the small river town of Goolwa. At a place known as the mouth the breakers of the Great South Ocean run onto a sandbar, where a channel ordinarily gives course for the ocean and the fresh water to finally meet.
In May 1995 a group of thirty-five or so Ngarrindjeri women met with an appointee of the national minister responsible for Indigenous affairs. The developer of a marina complex had sought to start building a bridge between Hindmarsh Island and the township of Goolwa. Ngarrindjeri people sought protection of their heritage, which they said would be damaged or destroyed if the bridge work went ahead. The state minister accepted that damage and destruction was entailed in building the bridge but, in the context of a complex web of preexisting obligations, authorized the work to proceed under an act the aim of which was the protection of Aboriginal heritage in South Australia. Ngarrindjeri people petitioned the federal minister to exercise his powers under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act of 1984.
The minister had been informed that in Ngarrindjeri culture the "meeting of the waters" around Kumerangk (Hindmarsh) Island was vital to the fertility and life of ngatji, Ngarrindjeri totems. He had also been advised that the area had significance to women in Ngarrindjeri tradition but that the nature of that significance was part of "secret-sacred" traditions.
On a cold day in May 1995 women who were petitioning the federal minister for the protection of their heritage formed a circle on the beach of Kumerangk at the mouth of the river. There with them was the woman appointed to report to the minister. They said this place was important to their fertility and to the survival of their culture. Many wept. Women hugged and held each other. Some said that though they had not known the significance of this place in their tradition before these meetings, they could now feel the significance of the place and felt assured of the rightness of what they were doing. Doreen Kartinyeri, a key figure in their application to the minister, looked out at the mouth and said, "For all the mothers that was, for all the mothers that are, for all the mothers that will be," indicating why she was undertaking this task.
Kartinyeri was later elected the group's spokesperson, authorized to disclose restricted knowledge that underpinned her opposition to the building of the bridge to the minister's reporter. Her disclosures did not occur without immediate opposition. Some Ngarrindjeri women in the group took the position that Ngarrindjeri people should not disclose restricted knowledge to people not entitled by tradition to receive it. Despite the difficult debate about the propriety of divulging restricted traditions, the group of women ultimately authorized Kartinyeri to disclose the restricted knowledge to the minister's reporter. She in turn agreed that she would do her best to protect against its further disclosure. The minister acted to ban the building of a bridge for twenty-five years: the years that would cover perhaps another generation of Ngarrindjeri people.
But that was not the end of the matter. The developers whose bridge and marina project was stymied by this decision sought legal review. Nearly a year later, in May 1995, another group of Ngarrindjeri women went public with claims that the knowledge had been fabricated. Most said simply that they did not have this knowledge themselves and on that basis doubted its veracity. One said she believed she was witness to an insinuation by Ngarrindjeri men that the area of the lower Murray represented "a women's privates" and that this suggestion was the beginning of a process of fabrication. These claims split Ngarrindjeri people and Ngarrindjeri families. They split anthropological opinion. They split opinion across the nation.
The South Australian government called a royal commission into the claims of fabrication. Veronica Brodie reports in My Side of the Bridge that the claimant women declined on the first day of hearings to participate in the royal commission's enquiry. Instead, they wrote to Royal Commissioner Iris Stevens as follows:
We are deeply offended that a Government in this day and age has the audacity to order an inquiry into our secret, sacred, spiritual beliefs. Never before have any group of people had their spiritual beliefs scrutinized in this way. It is our responsibility as custodians of this knowledge to protect it. Not only from men, but also from those not entitled to this knowledge. We have a duty to keep Aboriginal law in this country. Women's business does exist, has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist where there are Aboriginal women who are able to practice their culture. (Brodie, 2002, p. 151)
The Stevens Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission found in December 1995 that "the whole of the 'women's business' was a fabrication" intended to prevent the construction of a bridge between the township of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island.
In 1998 Brodie, with the support of other Ngarrindjeri women, gave Diane Bell permission to publish (in Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin ) the following limited account of her knowledge of the Seven Sisters story and its relevance to the issue of building a bridge to Hindmarsh Island:
It begins with Ngurunderi's cave which is situated … [at Goolwa]. From the cave he looked across to the island. Ngurunderi felt it was his responsibility to look after the sky, the bird life, the waters, because he made the environment and the island. He was the god of the Ngarrindjeri. His connection with the Seven Sisters was that he sent a young man, Orion, after the Seven Sisters to chase them and bring them back. They didn't want to be caught so they headed up to the sky, up and up and over the Milky Way and hid and there became the Seven Sisters. When they want to come back to see their Mum, who is still in the waters—near where the ferry crosses, just a little over towards the mouth, to the south—there has to be a clear way, so they can return and they'll be returning shortly, when it gets cold, that's when they disappear from the sky. Then they come back down and go under the water to be with their mother. Their mother belonged to the Warrior Women of the Island. (Bell, 1998, p. x)
In 1997 the commonwealth government legislated to exclude this area from the protections offered by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. Ngarrindjeri claimants made appeal to the High Court of Australia, arguing among other things that the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act breached the Australian constitution and the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. In April 1998 the High Court ruled to the contrary. The Hindmarsh Island bridge was built. It opened to traffic in March 2001. It has become a curiosity stopover on Australian tourist routes.
Legal questions relating to the matter have now been pursued through a number of state and commonwealth courts in a number of separate cases. In August 2001, after a long-running civil suit for damages, Federal Court judge John Von Doussa found that he was not convinced that the claims of the claimant women were fabricated.
Meanwhile the phrases "secret women's business" and "secret men's business" have entered popular Australian speech. They are used to refer to gender-specific contexts, especially those carrying sexual overtones. Racing boats have these names. Prewedding parties are referred to with these terms. These usages indicate how easily Indigenous religious claims that are brought to bear in Australian law or public life can be disrespected. In the early twenty-first century the controversy and the public skepticism of Aboriginal claims it fuels continue. So too do Ngarrindjeri people endure.
This overview of Australian Indigenous religion has traced connections, responses, contestation, and endurance to explore themes that underlie many Indigenous traditions. It has surveyed a range of Australian Indigenous societies and their contexts.
The "Awakening" segment of the Sydney Olympic opening ceremony has provided touchstones for this discussion. This article has moved between specific Dreamings grounded in local places, where they are constantly enlivened in human action, to more diffuse expressions of emerging Pan-Australian Indigenous expressions and beliefs. But the finale of the Olympic journey is still to come.
The Yolngu flag dancers moved into lines running down the stadium. Overhead cameras showed the performers on the stadium floor forming into a colorful design: two separated lines leading like a pathway into a circle open to meet it.
A conch shell heralded the arrival of another group of performers. Drums and rattles beat out an aggressive rhythm. Headdressed and painted dancers in colorful grass skirts formed a phalanx and proceeded, full of rhythmic vitality, in a low hopping and skipping movement down the stadium toward the patterning presences on the floor. Ernie Dingo responded to the energy of the performance: "Ah, this'll get ya' blood boiling. To the Torres Strait. Welcoming the Torres Strait Islanders, brothers and sisters from the north of Queensland and the admulla, the rhythm dance to celebrate the energy of the Torres Strait Islands from far north Queensland." The Torres Strait Islanders moved to position themselves kneeling, though still performing, as additional lines in a "pathway" to the circle.
Then a new sound was heard. Jean-clad dancers entered the stadium covered in silver paint. They held boomerangs out from their bodies as they danced. "The red Kangaroo dance welcoming the koori people of New South Wales, the host nation. Welcoming them as the last to come on to the site and [to] dance with the rest of the nation and prepare the unity from the ancient culture to the modern youth of today."
On the dais smoke rose from wooden vessels held high by dancers from the Bangarra Dance Theatre. With Djakapurra Munyarryun they descended the stairs to the stadium floor. The ground pattern broke up. "The smoking ceremony is set up to cleanse the air of all ailment; to cleanse the air of all negativity; to cleanse this meeting place in preparation for rejoicement."
Smoke rose now from forty-four-gallon drums on the stadium floor. Djakkapurra Munyarrun sang again, beating time with his clap sticks.
"Once the cleansing has happened, the spirits are awakened, called by the song man."
On high stilts, spiky headdressed "mimi spirits" loped through and above the smoke billowing from the stadium floor. Ernie Dingo introduced the finale.
"The Bradshaw paintings depicted … are the helpers of the Wandjina, the great spirit from the Kimberlies in Western Australia. When the people are one, they'll call the spirits of creation to awaken the spirit, to lead them to a future they want to be."
Then a huge golden fabric was raised. Outlined on it in black was a great fringed head with big black eyes and nose, a Wandjina figure. The figure was raised to form an enormous backdrop. The Wandjina rippled gently in the breeze.
"The great Wandjina spirit who comes from the Kimberley. The eyes. The nose. And no mouth to pass judgment will awaken the spirits around and [give] the people the chance of rejoicement."
The Indigenous performers now mixed together on the floor waving their hands above their heads before the Wandjina. Stilted spirits stepped high among them. The background music rose to a crescendo. Then a barrage of fireworks pierced the night and shot sparks around the stadium. The great Wandjina figure was animated in the light and breeze.
The "Awakening" segment was ending and "Fire" beginning. Ernie Dingo explained: "The rebirthing has started. The land now needs to prepare for a new life. A new life comes in the form of a bush fire, controlled fire which allowed the Aboriginal people [to rid] the land of unwanted life."
The Awakenings film showed Stephen Page, codirector of the segment, on camera high in a control room enjoying the finale. "That's what you call a ceremony!" he said. "Can't have a ceremony without culture" (Roger, 2001).
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"Australian Indigenous Religions: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/australian-indigenous-religions-overview
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