Warlpiri Religion

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WARLPIRI RELIGION . While the boundaries of Warlpiri territory have moved through time, the central-western part of the Northern Territory has generally been regarded as the heart of Warlpiri country. Until they were forced to sedentarize by the Australian government in the early 1940s, the Warlpiri people led an independent hunting and gathering life in an area spreading over approximately 53,200 square miles (137,800 square kilometers). While mandatory sedentarization deprived Warlpiri men and women of their socioeconomic roles as gatherers and hunters, they sustained what continues to give them their raison d'être: their connections to the land, their cosmology, and their ancestors. The Warlpiri reside mainly in the settlements of Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Ali-Curang, Willowra, and Nyirrpi (and their outstations) and represent the most populous Aboriginal group in central Australia. The fact that most Warlpiri continue to reside on lands they traditionally inhabited accounts in part for the vigor of Warlpiri ritual life.

The Jukurrpa

When discussing their religion, Warlpiri men and women invoke a key concept: the Jukurrpa. The Jukurrpa provides the Warlpiri with links to their ancestral past and land, as well as to their ancestors and to each other, reifying contemporary social relations and articulating omnipresent connections at the core of Warlpiri sense of identity (Dussart, 2000). A thorough grounding in the notion of Jukurrpa in all its iterations and contexts is necessary to understand the richness of Warlpiri ritual life.

Jukurrpa has often been translated in English as "Dreaming," "Dreamtime," or "Ancestral Times" (Mulvaney, Morphy, and Petch, 1997), but these translations obscure rather than explain the richness of Warlpiri cosmology. Jukurrpa, as explained by contemporary Warlpiri, has five related distinct and interrelated usages. Contrary to the simplified definitions appropriated by Western "spiritualists" in the 1990s, Jukurrpa refers first to an ancestral period during which the world was fashioned by Ancestral Beings who instituted social and religious orders for humans. Although Jukurrpa refers to a fictitious past, the Warlpiri maintain that it continues to exist in the present. According to an immutable law, when the Jukurrpa, which has always existed, manifested itself, the ground was flat and shapeless. Mythical heroes and heroines emerged from the earth, traveled around the countryside, performed marvelous acts, and continue to live in the Jukurrpa (Stanner, 1966, p. 266). Their travels transformed the shapeless ground into features (hills, watercourses, trees, and so on) and left behind them "ancestral powers." Features in the landscape readily apparent are proof that the Jukurrpa is true (yijardu ) and that its essence is ever present.

The second usage is to designate the whole category of Ancestral Beings. The actions of these legendary beings, who emerged from the earth, shaped the landscape, and performed marvelous acts, are still reenacted by the Warlpiri in their ritual performances. Every spot visited became a sacred site and every sacred site became part of a specific Jukurrpa itinerary. Some Ancestral Beings remained near their place of emergence, while others traveled through territories that belong to neighboring Aboriginal groups. In their travels, Ancestral Beings left behind "life forces" (Peterson, 1969, p. 27). The Warlpiri identify three main kinds of life forces: kuruwarri, pirlirrpa, and kurruwalpa.

The kuruwarri are the marks, signs, and designs mythical beings left behind, while the unseen aspect of the Jukurrpa is invoked by the use of the word pirlirrpa. Kuruwarri and pirlirrpa are complementary categories, with the former referring to the visible (and the latter to the invisible) traces of the Jukurrpa. Pirlirrpa, however, has a more specific application: to the "spirit" or "essence" of the individual, a spirit that enters via the semen of the father and the egg of the mother and that localizes itself in the two kidneys. Male and female elements are thus found in every individual. The pirlirrpa is believed to imbue people, Dreaming stories, and the ceremonies that invoke the Jukurrpa. It is the potency of pirlirrpa that guarantees the effectiveness of a ritual in the maintenance of the Jukurrpa.

The essence of the Jukurrpa, called kurruwalpa, is associated exclusively with the act of conception. Whereas the pirlirrpa is linked physically to the individual wherever that individual may be, the essence or spirits associated with conception are all site-specific. While a mother is walking along, a kurruwalpa will penetrate herthrough the womb, foot, or navelin a fashion that animates the fetus. When the kurruwalpa emerges, that particular site becomes known as the conception site of the soon-to-be-born child. Later on, the child will have special rights and ritual obligations over the site and the Ancestral Beings associated with it.

Even though it is often argued in anthropological literature that ancestors (i.e., deceased humans) and Ancestral Beings are fused indistinguishably, the actual relationships between ancestors (nyurnupatu ) and Ancestral Beings (Jukurrpa ) are far more complex. It is true that, while telling a Jukurrpa story, a Warlpiri person may refer to his or her deceased father as, say, "an Ancestral Emu" (Yankirri ), implying the Jukurrpa Ancestral Being of that name. Such reference is particularly common when the cosmologically constituted connection to that Being can strengthen the narrator's ceremonial and territorial rights associated with the myth of a particular Ancestral Emu. This does not mean, however, that the deceased is instantly folded into, or immediately becomes one with, some larger cosmological force situated in the Jukurrpa. In point of fact, further interrogation reveals that at least two generational levels must exist between the deceased and a speaker for the former to merge fully with the Jukurrpa, a process of genealogical amnesia that transforms humans into Ancestral Beings.

The third sense of the Jukurrpa employs the term to denote specific narratives or Dreaming storiesas, for example, in the myth of an Ancestral Rain Beingsuch that not only the Being, but also the ngurrara (homes) it created in its travels are referred to as Ngapa Jukurrpa (Ancestral Rain Dreaming, or Rain Dreaming). Before returning to their site of emergence, Ancestral Beings may travel far, traversing many other homes (each portion of which represents a particular portion of the itinerary and a particular story) and many other countries owned and overseen by different kin groups, including many who are not Warlpiri. Other Ancestral Beings do not stray far from their site of emergence.

The fourth usage refers to a specific segment of an ancestral itinerary at a given site and its vicinity. One or several songs, designs, and dance sequences are associated with a segment of a Dreaming, which are enacted during ritual ceremonies. The same basic elements of designs, songs, and dances performed by men and women are stylistically arranged according to age and gender that characterize a specific ritual activity.

Finally, Jukurrpa is used to refer to nocturnal dreams. When asleep, dreamers may have a dream in which they "see and hear" Ancestral Beings. If the dreamers can remember song(s) sung by the Ancestral Beings as they wake, their dreams, after thorough examination by Jukurrpa experts, are usually integrated within an existing Jukurrpa itinerary. It is through such dreams that the Warlpiri have learned about (and continue to learn about) the Jukurrpa. The Warlpiri maintain that nothing is new, but simply forgotten. The Jukurrpa is believed to be immutable, whereas the reality of life is that cosmology and religious order are dynamic.

Ritual Management

While the Jukurrpa has and will always be, humans in specific kin formations have the responsibility to reproduce and maintain it by enacting Dreaming stories in ritual performances as prescribed by the Ancestral Beings. Through the performance of ceremonies, the Warlpiri reaffirm their ties to the land, the Jukurrpa, and to one another. This is achieved following specific patterns of kinshippatterns that have been modified since sedentarization. Before being forced to settle, the Warlpiri lived a seminomadic life traveling in small groups of up to thirty relatives and in-laws (like most central Australian Aborigines). They camped for short or long periods of time with either spouse's families, and they would gather in great numbers with other central desert Aborigines for ceremonial purposes. Ritual activities such as initiations and betrothals usually took place at specific sites along the itinerary evoked in performances orchestrated by groups of kin responsible for the area and the associated Jukurrpa. Since sedentarization, ceremonial performances tend to be performed near settlements.

Dreaming stories, sites, and associated rituals are owned and managed along complex lines of subsection and kinship association. The Warlpiri have an Arandic system of kin classification (first identified by Mervin J. Meggitt [1962]). The Warlpiri divide the world into two groups of people: those they are related to and those who are not their relatives. Relationships with kin may be actual (when both parents are shared), close (when they share one relative, even distant), or "classificatory" (when kinship ties are established through land and daily life). The basic egocentric distinctions of the Arandic system are grouped into a set of sociocentric terms known as subsections, which in turn are further grouped into patrilineal, matrilineal, and generational moieties. Each descent group is associated with one or other of the four patri-subsection couples used to identify patterns of land-ownership.

The basic structure of landownership, and by implication ritual transmission and social organization, is constituted along lines of patrilineal descent. A person's patrimoiety is referred to as kirda, while the opposite patrimoiety is referred to as kurdungurlu. The real significance of kirda and kurdungurlu in the organization of religious life and land tenure derives from the more specific uses and the rights associated with them. Generally, a man or a woman inherit rights as kirda to more than one country and associated Jukurrpa. A kurdungurlu is a person who has inherited responsibilities through a matrilaterally traced interest. So each Warlpiri person has rights and responsibilities over countries and Dreamings as kirda and as kurdungurlu. However, acquisition of knowledge and responsibilities to act as kirda or kurdungurlu for sites and Jukurrpa acquired through classificatory kin associations is common and the result of residential alliances developed since forced sedentarization.

A kirda is often referred to in Aboriginal English as the "owner" of a Jukurrpa and its associated sites. Owners are responsible for the maintenance of the well-being of the land and its people by performing ritual ceremonies. The kurdungurlu is like a "manager" of a kirda 's Dreamings and associated sites and ritual performances. Reenactment of a Jukurrpa by kirda requires the surveillance and advice of kurdungurlu. The kirda-kurdungurlu relationship is, in theory, reciprocal, but in practice (and since sedentarization) this relationship is more often based on alliance rather than on descent.

In all their discussions of landownership, Jukurrpa, and ceremonial responsibilities and rights, Warlpiri men and women explain how transmission lines to obtain and pass on religious knowledge in no way restrict the role of either gender in the inheritance or performance of that knowledge. While men and women are identified as kirda or as kurdungurlu for specific Dreamings and related sites, certain segments along the Jukurrpa geospecific itinerary may be shared by both genders, while others are exclusively enacted in men- or women-only performances.


The Jukurrpa is primarily maintained through the singing, dancing, and painting performed during land-based ceremonies. By enacting their Dreaming stories, Warlpiri men and women resolve conflicts, maintain and restore the health of the land and all that live on it, and uphold their ties to the land, to their ancestors, and to one another. In theory, kirda and kurdungurlu should never be negligent. If they do not enact their Jukurrpa correctly (junga ) not only the land may become ill, but the people, animals, flora, and resources attached to it are put at risk as well. As one important Yuendumu ritual leader, who passed away and thus cannot be named, explained "if you do not care for country, that country will simply die. We cannot forget our Jukurrpa [and our obligations to it]."

Colonial and postcolonial forces have irrevocably changed Warlpiri ritual activities. A number of ceremonies have disappeared, and others have been altered. Regardless, initiation ceremonies with plural motivessuch as male circumcision and betrothal, men- and women-only ceremonies, ceremonial cycles performed by both men and women, and rituals surrounding conception, death, love songs, and curingnow form the core of Warlpiri religious activity.

Some of these performances may last weeks, while others are performed in less than half a day. Ritual cycles tend to occur during a specific time of the year, such as during the wet season, which also coincides with Western-style holidays; adults and children are able to participate in these long initiation ceremonies. Other ceremonies, such as women-only performances called yawulyu, may occur throughout the year.

Three main distinctions are generally made when identifying who can participate, orchestrate, and witness ritual activities. These distinctions are defined by three ceremonial events: tarruku, wiri, and warraja.

Tarruku events are considered dangerous, potent, and powerful. Only the most senior persons knowledgeable in the specific segments of a Jukurrpa can orchestrate tarruku performances. Tarruku events associated with male initiation cannot be witnessed by women, though senior women are aware of their content and purposes. Others, such as wiri, can take place during ceremonies orchestrated by initiated men and enacted by both men and women. Wiri performances are considered potent but not as dangerous as tarruku events.

Senior Warlpiri men and women use the term warraja to refer to ritual events open to all: initiated, noninitiated, non-Warlpiri, and non-Aboriginal people. Warraja events are public but remain imbued with the potency of the Jukurrpa. These events may be performed by men or women or both.

As in all typologies, the ones for tarruku, wiri, and warraja are at best truncated. Explanations of ritual activities and terms employed to categorize them are done by specific persons for a specific audience. For example, a person who has not been given the rights to sing and dance in ritual activities because of his or her age could use tarruku to designate all ceremonies performed by the senior Aborigines. In brief, many religious Warlpiri terms, such as tarruku, wiri, and warraja, are imbued with supplemental meanings according to the ritual status, age, and gender of who uses them and in front of whom they are used.

Even though Warlpiri men and women unfailingly maintain that the Jukurrpa has not changed, they readily admit that their ritual repertoire has undergone transformation since forced sedentarization. Biomedical Western practices have reduced the frequency of birth and health-curing rituals. The performances of love and sorcery rituals, which increased in the early years of sedentarization, are now in decline. While certain ritual activities have faded away, some have been modified and others added to the religious repertoire. Inter-Aboriginal ceremonial cycles described as tarruku and wiri (which cannot be described here) and warraja have been organized since settled life. Creolized ceremonies blending elements of Christianity and Warlpiri religion have emerged and have had a measured impact on Warlpiri ritual life as a whole). Regardless, even though ritual repertoires may be smaller and the duration of performative events are shorter, the vitality of and the importance of the Jukurrpa has retained its intensity.

Initiation and conflict-resolution rituals continue to be regularly performed, as they play crucial roles in the production of Warlpiri identity in neocolonial Australia. These ceremonies are usually enacted during school breaks and near settlements to maximize participation and valorize the importance of such events.

Ritual Performances

There are two main groups of ceremonial performances. The first set is associated with rites of passage (initiation, betrothal, and death), and the second includes performances outside elemental ones connected to the cosmological construction of Warlpiri identity.

The main ritual cycle linked to initiation is called kurdiji. This is a ritual in which men and women perform gender-specific and joint ceremonies and that marks the first stage of a boy's initiation into manhood through the act of circumcision. Warlpiri boys have to undergo this procedure, which is restricted to men when they are between twelve and fifteen years old. It is during kurdiji that preferred marital associations are sealed between the initiand's family and the future spouse's family, whether the future wife is born or not. After the circumcision of their first son, mothers, if they wish, will be able to begin their ritual career. Mothers give away their sons; sisters dance so their brothers enter manhood; fathers, mothers' brothers, and future in-laws seal their newly articulated kin and spiritual responsibilities. After kurdiji ceremonies, both male and female participants have acquired sets of kinship obligations as well as spiritual responsibilities.

The young circumcised men, aided by their relatives, will have to go through other initiation ceremonies to be able to participate fully in their thirties in the ritual life of their settlement. The second stage of initiation is called kajirri and kankarlu, or "high school" in Aboriginal English (Meggitt, 1966; Peterson, 1970). Kajirri is associated with a set of Dreaming itineraries and kankarlu with others. Young men will be initiated in one or both of these cycles. Their participation will be predicated on their associations with the Jukurrpa itineraries evoked, the timing of the events, and their availability. Kajirri and kankarlu require planning on a grand scale because they demand the participation of Aboriginal people outside Warlpiri territory. They are usually performed only once every few years, and young men in their late teens are strongly encouraged to participate to further their understanding of their Jukurrpa and their responsibilities to the land and their ancestors, and to undergo other genital transformation. Young men who have undergone the initiation ceremonies of kurdiji and kajirri (or its variant, kankarlu ) can be subincised, a highly restricted surgical intervention. Senior men and women active in ritual life participate in initiation ceremonies and perform gender-specific ceremonies in which they reenact restricted versions of Dreaming stories. Kinship ties among Warlpiri and other Aboriginal families are cemented and reaffirmed during kajirri and kankarlu events, prompting participants to perform other rituals together.

There are no marriage ceremonies among the Warlpiri, unless future spouses get married in a church as Christians. Betrothal takes place during initiation ceremonies. The ceremonies marking a person's death are called malamala, or "sorry business" in Aboriginal English. Malamala ceremonies are performed by a dead person's relatives. Widows, mothers, and mothers-in-law go to a "sorry camp," where they are placed under a speech taboo that can last from several weeks to several months (Kendon, 1988). Men conduct "sorry business" but are not put under a speech taboo. Male relatives self-inflict wounds to their bodies to show their sorrow at the loss of their relative. The name of the deceased as well as all words sounding the same are placed under a speech taboo. All individuals sharing the name of the deceased or something that sounds similar are subsequently identified as kumanjayi, or "no name" (Nash and Simpson, 1981). All performances of the Jukurrpa associated with the deceased are suspended until proper "finishing-time" rituals are conducted to lift the various bans imposed after death. With death, the pirlirrpa, or "essence of the individual," enters a liminal state identified as yama or marnparrpa. Since Warlpiri do not regard death as "natural," male relatives conduct a ritual in which they accuse various individuals of neglectful and malign actions that led to the death of their relative.

Every place and object owned by the deceased is put under taboo, and the ground where he or she walked has to be swept to ensure that the spirit of the deceased does not remain among the living. Plagued with social problems and deadly diseases, the Warlpiri are involved in malamala almost on a monthly basis. At the "finish-time" ceremonies, women are relieved from their speech taboo and other restrictions on remarriages are lifted, as is the ban on enacting the itineraries of the Jukurrpa associated with the deceased. Other individuals bearing the name of the deceased can resume the use of the name. The "finish-time" event can take place a few months or many years after the death of the individual whose country is "opened up" again. This process of reintegration has wide-ranging implications, offering insight into the relationship between the living, the dead, and the Ancestral Beings.

The second set of rituals mentioned earlier are the following ceremonial cycles: jardiwanpa, kura-kurra, ngajikula, and puluwanti. These are undertaken jointly by senior men and women. These four ceremonial cycles are distinguished by the Ancestral Beings they invoke. Most of the ceremonies are restricted, except for the last night of the cycles when the initiated, both young and old, are engaged in the final steps of conflict resolution. These ceremonial cycles contain a great deal of intra- and intersettlement importance, and their highly valued content is regularly exchanged with neighboring Aboriginal groups.

Since sedentarization, there has been a steady decrease of public performances called purlapa. Purlapa events are performed only by men and, like most public performances, they proclaim the richness of the Jukurrpa beyond the settlement, circulate ritual knowledge, and in the process sustain if not revivify social networks. In this sense, public performance simultaneously functions as a mirror and a projector of Warlpiri culture. Today, women's public rituals called yawulyu play such roles. The transfer of performative responsibility reflects more than the mutability of Warlpiri ceremonial life under postcolonial pressures, as it underscores the gender-specific methods by which sedentarized Warlpiri kin groups sustain their religion and their prestige within and beyond the confines of their settlements.

Yawulyu rituals are only performed by women. These ceremonies can be either restricted or public, and they have plural functions. In their yawulyu ceremonies, women enact the myths for which they are kirda assisted by their kurdungurlu, and most of them are performed in the settlements where the participants live. Yawulyu are performed to enhance women's knowledge of the Jukurrpa, sexuality, fertility, well-being, and physical and spiritual growth, as well as to educate non-Aboriginal peoples about the importance of the land and the Jukurrpa. Through the performance of public yawulyu ceremonies, Warlpiri women have come to play crucial roles as gatekeepers of Warlpiri identity beyond the confines of the settlement.

Church purlapa is the Aboriginal English term used for creolized performances merging some components of Christian and Warlpiri religions. Only formally constituted in the late 1970s, church purlapa are performed by both men and women. Missionaries representing various branches of the Christian church have long struggled to convert the Warlpiri and have had a small but noticeable impact within certain settlements. Since the mid-1990s, the younger generations have been far more actively engaged in orchestrating Christian ritual activities, such as church bands.


Despite colonial and postcolonial pressure, the Jukurrpa as a cultural form continues to provide a fundamental structure to the lives of the Warlpiri people. The Jukurrpa cannot change and gives to Warlpiri men and women feelings of continuity in a world of uncertainty. In their enactment of Jukurrpa itineraries, the Warlpiri reaffirm their ties to their lands, their ancestors, themselves, and other Aboriginal people. Even though the frequency of ceremonial performances has diminished and the length and site of performances modified, the power of the Jukurrpa remains strong. Through their ritual activities, Warlpiri participants demonstrate the importance of the Jukurrpa and their land to the world at large.

See Also

Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article; Cosmology, article on Australian Indigenous Cosmology; Dreaming, The.


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