Dreaming, The

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DREAMING, THE . If one asks: Why do you call out before approaching a sacred site? Why do you sweep the paths clean the first time you visit the camping site of a deceased relative? Why do you click your fingers to move rain clouds? Why does the hunter not get the best part of the catch? Why do you never look directly at or speak to your mother-in-law? Why do you marry a classificatory matrilateral cross-cousin? Why do you kill an iguana by hitting it behind the ear? Why is the baby carrier rubbed with red ochre? Why do you always ask a particular relative if you can go to a certain place to hunt or gather? The first answer will most likely be, "because that's the Law," or "that's the Dreaming."

Although Aboriginal beliefs and practices are not consistent across the Australian continent, at the core is the concept of the Dreaming, a moral code that informs and unites all life. The dogma of Dreaming states that all the world is known and can be classified within the taxonomy created by the ancestral heroes whose pioneering travels gave form, shape, and meaning to the land, seas, and skies in a long-ago creative era that W. E. H. Stanner, in his classic 1962 article "Religion, Totemism, and Symbolisim," called the "founding drama" (Stanner, 1979, pp. 113114). Here a rocky outcrop indicates the place where the ancestral dog had her puppies, there a low ridge the sleeping body of the emu; the red streaks on the cliff face recall the blood shed in a territorial dispute; ghost gums stand as mute witness to where the Lightning Brothers flashed angrily at their father Rain; the lush growth of the bush berries is the legacy of prudent care by two old grandmothers; the clear sweet water holes the home of the rainbow serpent. The water holes stay sweet and pure because the Law is followed. Sacred places, imbued with the power of the ancestral heroes, must be approached according to the Law laid down in the Dreamtime. The ritual work necessary to keep the Law alive is often called "business," and those schooled in the Law, "business men" and "business women."

Dreamings, Religion, and Totemism

Tracing the genealogy of the term Dreaming or Dreamtime has been the subject of a spirited exchange between Patrick Wolfe, in "On Being Woken Up: The Dreamtime in Anthropology and in Australian Settler Culture" (1996, pp. 197224) and Howard Morphy in his response, "Empiricism to Metaphysics: In Defence of the Concept of the Dreamtime" (1996, pp. 163189). While it is interesting to ascertain the first documented usage of the term, it is perhaps more important to consider the context within which terms such as Dreaming were being employed.

Ronald Berndt (1987) noted:

The basic indicator of what is (or was traditionally) regarded as sacred, the Dreaming serves to articulate the main components of Aboriginal religion. Variously defined, this concept has its own identifying terms among differing Aboriginal groups: alcheringa (Aranda), djugurba (Western Desert), bugari (La Grange), ungud (Ungarinyin), djumanggani (eastern Kimberley), wongar (northeastern Arnhem Land), and so on. Such words are not necessarily translatable, but nearly all of them refer in one sense to a category of actions and things, mythic beings, natural species and elements, and human or human-type characters of the far distant past, the creative era, or the beginning. In addition, however, they imply a condition of timelessness. They do not refer only to the past as such but to the past in the present and into the futurea past that is believed to be eternally relevant to all living things, including human beings. (pp. 479480)

For the most part, the observers and recorders in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were reluctant to call Aboriginal beliefs and practices "religion." They were more comfortable with concepts of "magic" and "superstition." In his 1962 article (reprinted in 1979) Stanner traced the resistance to the idea that Indigenous Australians had what might properly be called "religion." Skeptical and dogmatic pronouncements held sway. The blindness, he argued, was not that the men would not see but rather that the idea of religion without God, without creed or priests, "was organic with the European mind of the day" (1979, p. 108). In 1915, in The Elementary Form of the Religious Life, Émile Durkheim would write of the profoundly religious character of Aboriginal culture, and it is this notion in part that Stanner explores in his sketch of positive characteristics of Aboriginal religion. First, the world was full of signs of intent; second, at its best religion put a high worth on the human person; third, it magnified the value of life by making its conservation and renewal into a cult; fourth, it privileged the spiritual over that material domain; fifth, it was a discipline that subdued egotistical man to a sacred continuing purpose; sixth, the religious philosophy entailed assent to life's terms; and lastly, the use of symbolism in major cults inculcated a sense of mystery (1979, pp. 113114).

Stanner's article also explored the notion of "totemism." He argued:

What is meant by Totemism in Aboriginal Australia is always a mystical connection, expressed by symbolic devices and maintained by rules, between living persons, whether as individuals or as groups or as stocks, and other existentstheir "totems"within an ontology of life that in Aboriginal understanding depends for order and continuity on maintaining the identities ad associations which exemplify the connection. (1979, p. 128)

In 1933 A. P. Elkin proposed a threefold classification of individual totem, social totem, and cult totem. Stanner looked at four modes of acquiring a totemdream, conceptual, augury, and descent-affiliative, but admitted that there was no satisfactory classification and much research was yet to be done.

The Ngarrindjeri of the lower Murray River translate their word ngatji as totem and explain its significance as "friend, countryman, and protector." Ngatji bring messages and reassurance that the land is indeed alive and "full of signs of intent." In central Australia ceremonial participants refer to ritual paraphernalia representing sacred places and Dreamings by kin terms. In this region Aborigines trace their relationship to the land through both mother's father and father's father. Other considerations are also important. Some are specific and individualistic, such as the place where one's forebears are buried and the place where one was born and conceived. The latter is usually reckoned by the first sensation of movement felt by the mother-to-be, the quickening around the sixteenth week of pregnancy. Both birth and conception sites are open to a degree of manipulation in that one can plan to be in a particular area when a birth is imminent, or one can choose not to acknowledge a pregnancy until near a site with which one would like to have one's child associated. Other considerations are more general and community based, centering on ties of kinship and ritual sharing or exchange. People also have sentimental ties to the places where they worked and lived. These are the places they know, and in Aboriginal society it is only with knowledge of the ways of the land that one may assert a right to use that land and tell the stories of the Dreaming.

Bearing Witness

It is only since the late 1970s, with the presentation of evidence from Aboriginal witnesses in land claims brought under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, 1976, the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984, and the Native Title Act, 1993, that Aboriginal voices have been given primacy in defining their relationships to land and their Dreamings. However, the constraints of the Australian law that seeks to "recognize" traditional ties to land specifies that to be granted title to the land of their ancestors, the claimants must meet the criteria of traditional ownership enshrined in legislation. What has happened is that a once-dynamic, negotiable, accommodating, and integrative set of beliefs and practices has been rendered static by statute. The assertion by indigenous Australians that their Law remains unchanged has been taken as a lived reality by Anglo law, and those who cannot measure up to early written records are deemed to have "lost" their culture or to have fabricated it. For a number of reason, accounts of the Dreaming were not recorded by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century observers and when recorded were presented as myths and "just so" stories rather than understood as religion.

In a central Australian land claim brought by the Kaytej, Warlpiri, and Warlmanpa in 1981, three women, Nampijinpa, Napurrula, and Nungarrayi, cooperated in explaining about their Dreamings, or Yawakayi (meaning bush berry), in the country of Waake and Wakulpu, southwest of Tennant Creek (Transcript of Evidence, pp. 175191). The witnesses were careful to locate the Dreamings in place and in relationship to each other and to themselves. Their conversational style draws the audience into this account of the founding drama, and the repetition underscores the moral lessons being imparted. They were there to bear witness to the fact that none had ventured onto the territory or knowledge of another. Although the narrators mention secrets of the Dreamings, the story has been told in a public context and may be shared with persons not bound by the Law.

Yawakayi comes from Waake and went to visit his brother as Wakulpu, the other one comes from Yanganpali [Wauchope]. He stopped at the soakages along the way at Warnku, he was just sitting in the shade There is a creek there Then he got up and went straight to Wakulpu The one from Waake, he stopped at Jajilpernange, Wulpuje. His brother at Wakulpu told him to go straight back. There was one Yawakayi who was sitting by himself at Wakulpu. He was sitting by himself. His name was Amberanger. He was the oldest brother. That is his secret name. That is the Dreaming's own name. The other Yawakayi came and was asking this one. "Nambinyindu?" which means, "What name are you?" "I am food, I am vegetable food. What about you?" He refused to answer. He made a sign which means, "I don't know. I don't want to let on." "I said mine. I'm hungry." What they were doing [Napurrula explained], is calling each other's secret names. Another name was Yarrirnti. "You can be Yarrirnti," he answered. "What about you?" He then said, "I am Wakuwarlpa" which is a fruit like yawakayi. These two Yawakayi were asking each's secret names and also for secret places that they held [Napurrula explained]. That is all, and then he went backthe one who was visiting from Wakulpu to Waake back to Waake. The one who was at Wakulpu stayed living there permanently. He stayed there and that is it and the one who came from Wauchope he was staying there, where that house, that hotel at Wauchope is. He went from there, from Wauchope, he went to Warnku from Wauchope. He went from Warnku where there is a swamp and he slept there, at Wirlilunku. That is the name of the swamp where the Dreaming camped then he went in at Wakuplu for ever. He entered the ground. The soakages of Wakulpu, Kirlartakurlangu. Wirlilunku, a swamp, Jarnapajinijini, Amarralungku, Martunkunya, Kungku, Alajiyte, Kunanyirre, all Yawakayi places.

The women continued to name the places the Dreaming visited, but as they neared the boundary of their country, one said, "Stop there. We're getting too close to someone else's country."

What were the responsibilities of these women as the descendents of these Dreamings? Nungarrayi explained:

We do that yawulyu for Wakulpu all the time. We make the country good for fruit. So it will grow up well, so we can make it green, so that we can hold the Law forever. My father told me to hold it always this way. So I go on holding yawulyu for the country. Sometime we dance, man and women together For Wakulpu. So we can "catch him up," "hold him up."

Knowledge of the Dreamings is passed down the generations through song, ceremony, and ritual designs and through being in the country of one's ancestors. When it is shared, the correct people must be present to make sure the Law is followed and to bear witness should any challenge as to the propriety of ceremonies arise.

Dreamings and Art

It is partly through the growing popularity of Aboriginal art and endeavors such as the exhibit entitled Dreamings at the Asia Society in New York in 1987 that the concept of the Dreamings has reached an international audience. There is a long tradition of illustrating Aboriginal Dreamtime stories for a popular audience such as The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings by Ainslie Roberts with text by Charles P. Mountford. This and similar collections of "myths and legends" pandered to Anglo sensibilities rather than reflecting Indigenous storytelling modes. But now Indigenous artists are speaking directly to their audiences. In Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors Dreaming stories referring to more than two hundred sites are presented in Warlpiri and English. The 1983 project involved five artists painting thirty doors at the Yuendumu settlement school with Dreaming designs. They negotiated the content with other Warlpiri men and women who also collectively owned the designs. Their goal was to teach their children, but the doors, now unhinged, are owned by the South Australian Museum and have traveled widely.

Change and Continuity

The Law is inscribed on the land and encoded in relationships that are testimony to the continuance of the Law. The Law binds people, flora, fauna, and natural phenomena into one enormous interfunctional world. It is the responsibility of the living to give form and substance to this heritage in their daily routines and their ceremonial practices; to keep the Law, to visit the sites, to use the country, and to enjoy its bounty. It is in the living out of the Dreamtime heritage, particularly in the ceremonial domain, that we see how the past is negotiated in the present, how men and women position themselves vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the Law. The common core of knowledge of the Dreamtime concerns knowledge of ancestral activities (the major sites and their Dreaming affiliations), the rights of the living descendents, and the responsibilities of the ritual bosses of the particular business. It is a structural grid onto which people, place, and relatedness are mapped.

It is through ceremonial activity that men and women give form to their distinctive interpretation of the heritage. Thus, although the dogma of Dreaming states that the Law continues unchanged and immutable, the living shape and negotiate beliefs and practices. In most parts of Australia there is a taboo on calling the names of the dead. When an important ceremonial leader dies, songs, designs, place names, and ritual paraphernalia associated with him or her will also become taboo. This knowledge will eventually come back into circulation through the dream of a person who stands in the right relationship to the songs, dances, and places to be able to carry on the Law.

In an oral culture the Law can be given meaning only through the expressions of the living. As long as one has contact with the land and control over sacred sites, the Dreamtime, as an ever present, all-encompassing Law, can be asserted to be a reality. But land, as the central tablet, the sacred text, is no longer under Aboriginal control across the country. Accounts of the Dreaming reflect these altered circumstances, and in the accounts of contact with the colonizers and the changing use of land, Indigenous Australians have attempted to contain the changes, to assimilate the intruders, and thus make them amenable to their law. The narratives of travels through the country of the ancestors, of family, and of outsiders now meld details of the ruptures in relations to the Dreamings and to country with those of continuing connectedness asserted with the past.

Although each song, dance, and design bears the stamp of its finder, the dogma of Dreaming that entails this necessary and continuous process of reinvention ensures that only one person may claim to be an individually inspired creator: Living persons may only assert and reaffirm the law and act as the custodians of knowledge of the Dreaming. The process of reinvention is necessary because of the taboos on a person's property at death. It is continuous because the Dreamings must be shown to have continuity and people to have access to that power. Renewal depends on access to country. Over the generations a song that referred to a specific incident will become shrouded in oblique references, intelligible only to the contemporaries of the person depicted in the song or design. However, once the reference is no longer to a particular person but to a subsection, the song becomes part of a more general repertoire of ancestral activity in the area. Ultimately, it will concern the ancestors themselves. In Daughters of the Dreaming Diane Bell traces the way in which a song that began as a reference to a specific event becomes assimilated into the general body of Dreaming activity (2002, pp. 9294).

Fred Myers (1986, pp. 6468), writing of the Pintupi of central Australia, describes the process of deductive reasoning by which landscape is assimilated to narrative structure and the underlying impulse to find explanations within the framework of known stories for anomalous formations is satisfied. Ian Keen (1994, pp. 296297), writing of the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, a people whose stories have become the standard references in the study of religion, points out, "Yolngu assimilated introduced ritual forms to their own mythology and interpreted old forms in terms of mythologised newcomers." Robert Tonkinson, writing of the religious life of the Mardudjara of the Western Desert, identifies "four related aspects of its internal dynamism" (1978, p. 113).

In the southeast, where ties to land have been disrupted and knowledge of ancestral activity has been challenged, people still validate Stanner's 1962 edict: "Aborgines thought the world full of signs to men: they transformed the signs into assurances of mystical providence; and they conceived life's design as fixed by the founding drama" (1979, pp. 113114). For the Ngarrindjeri the land is still alive with signs of intent, foreboding, and significance. The ngatji (totems), such as Ritjuruki, the little willy wagtail bird, and Nori, the pelican, bring messages. The past is constantly being refound and reincorporated into the present, albeit a radically altered one.

As Keen (1994) argued, rather that trying to record changes to a "traditional" order, we should "trace trajectories of transformation in relations, powers, trends, events, and the forms into which people try to shape their worlds" (p. 297).

History and Dreamings

One debate concerning the relationship between history and myth has been pursued with some vigor by Steven Hemming in "River Murray Histories" (1995) and Philip Clarke in "Myth as History?" (1995) with reference to the Ngurunderi exhibit in the South Australia museum in the mid-1990s. To be sure, some narratives are grounded in history. For example one of the major creative heroes of the Lower Murray River, Ngurunderi, is said to have called out in the voice of thunder to his escaping wives. As they ran into the Southern Ocean, the seas rose and separated the land from the nearby islands. The bodies of the fleeing wives can be seen as the rocky islands known as The Pages. If this is to read as history, the story recalls events of 6,000 to 10,000 bce when Kangaroo Island was cut off from the mainland and the sea rose to near present levels.

Several Dreamings are associated with the opening on the Murray River mouth to the sea. In one, Thukapi, a pregnant turtle, looking for a place to lay her eggs, drags her swollen body to the sea and pushes open a channel for the river waters to flow into the sea. In another complex of stories, the creative hero Ngurunderi creates the landscape. The actual location of the Murray mouth does shift, silt up, and change shape. The multiplicity of myths reflects the changing nature of the land itself.

At one level the Dreaming is an era shrouded in the mists of time from which people claim to be descended without actually tracing the links. Information concerning past generations is difficult to locate on a chronological scale because there is a taboo on calling the names of the dead. This is often given as a reason for the shallowness of genealogies, patrilines, matrilines, and so on. Such an explanation is tautological. It is more pertinent to recognize that the remembering of a unique name and exact dates adds little to Aboriginal understanding and perceptions of the past. What is stressed when identifying a person, alive or dead, is their relationship to others, their Dreaming affiliations, and their ritual associations. In this way it is possible to locate every person as a unique individual: no two persons share exactly the same social rituals and kin field. Siblings are perhaps the closest. To say "our grandparents were siblings" is sufficient to bind two people as sharing the same Dreaming, rights, and responsibilities.

The shallowness of genealogical memory is not a form of cultural amnesia but rather a way of focusing on the basis of all relationshipsthat is, the Dreaming and relationships to the land. By not naming deceased relatives, people are able to stress a relationship directly to the Dreaming. It is not necessary to trace back through many generations to a founding ancestor to make a claim. By stating that a person is of a certain country, usually by reference to a grandparent who was from the area, the identity of a person is known.

Relations to country that underpin relationships between people are evident also in the way people refer to ritual objects. During a ceremony it is not unusual to hear participants refer to a sacred object that represents a particular ancestor, Dreaming track, or sacred site as "mother," father," or "aunty."

At another level the Dreaming is only two generations behind the present generation, moving concurrently with the present, its heritage entrusted to the "old people," to the deceased grandparents. It is this aspect of the Dreaming that makes any attempt to establish an ethnographic baseline an uneasy enterprise. The Dreaming is not a long dead and fixed point of reference. It is a living and accessible force in the lives of people today, just as it was in the past. Here, then, is the structural potential for change, the Indigenous mode of incorporating change within their cosmos.

Those who give form and substance to the Dreaming live increasingly divergent lifestyles from those envisaged as correct in the Dreaming of a century or two ago. People no longer live in small mobile bands but on large settlements and outstations, in towns and fringe camps, on cattle stations (ranches), and in the cities. They no longer subsist by hunting and gathering but have become members of the cash economy. People are no longer independent producers but rely on wage labor and social security. New items have been accommodated in the ceremonies that bring forth the Dreamings. Wooden digging sticks are now metal crowbars, car springs are used as adzes. These incorporations are seamless. Other resources can be brought under the control of the Dreaming law by classifying them within the subsection system. Thus, one's car may be known as a particular relative and be painted for ceremony with Dreaming motifs. Even residence in a new territory can eventually be legitimated once evidence is found of Dreamtime activity in the locality. Being born on the country, even if it is not that of one's grandparents, confers some rights that will strengthen over several generations of residence, births, and burials in an area. The Law is not challenged by certain changes, but others such as alcohol present significant problems.

The twin notions of an ideologically fixed universe and a structural potential for change through actual behavior are not irreconcilable rather; they allow one to maintain a secure position known to be underpinned by the Law while leaving room to respond within particular constraints. Stanner (1966, p. 169) put it well when he wrote, "They attained stability but avoided inertia." It is possible to establish how life ought to be lived and to be relatively certain that in these values there is continuity with the past. It is somewhat more difficult to determine what is or was the actual behavioral content of the Law as applied or acted upon in any given situation, unless one has actual documented observations.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article; Ecology and Religion, article on Ecology and Indigenous Traditions; Law and Religion, article on Law and Religion in Indigenous Cultures.


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Diane Bell (2005)