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ETHNONYMS: Jigalong, Mardujarra


Identification. The Mardu Aborigines are part of the Western Desert cultural bloc, which encompasses one-sixth of the continent of Australia, and is notable for its social, cultural and linguistic homogeneity. "Mardu," meaning "man" or "person," was coined as a collective label because there was no such traditional term. Constituent dialect-name groupings include the Gardujarra, Manyjilyjarra, Gurajarra, Giyajarra, and Budijarra.

Location. The territories of the Mardu straddle the Tropic of Capricorn between 122° and 125° E in one of the world's harshest environments. Rainfall, the crucial ecological variable, is very low and highly unpredictable. Permanent waters are rare, and both daily and seasonal temperature ranges are high (-4° C to over 54° C). Major landforms include: Parallel, red-colored sand ridges with flat interdunal corridors; stony and sandy plains (covered in spinifex); rugged hilly areas with narrow gorges; and acacia scrub thickets and creek beds lined with large eucalyptus trees. Animal life includes kangaroos, emus, lizards, birds, insects, and grubs, which Together with grass seeds, tubers, berries, fruits, and nectars formed the basis of the traditional Aboriginal diet.

Demography. It is impossible accurately to estimate the precontact populations here termed Mardu. They were Scattered in small bands (fifteen to twenty-five people) most of the time, and population densities were very low: about 1 Person per 91 square kilometers. Today there are about 1,000 Mardu, most of whom live either in the settlement of Jigalong or in a number of small outstation communities that have been established in the desert homelands within the past decade. Both the general population size and the ratio of Children to adults have grown greatly since migration from the desert.

linguistic Affiliation. All Mardu groups speak mutually intelligible dialects of the Western Desert language, the single-biggest language in Australia. There are currently Several thousand speakers of this language.

History and Cultural Relations

Shielded by their forbidding environment, the Mardu were left largely undisturbed until relatively recently. They were attracted from the desert to fringe settlements: mining camps, pastoral properties, small towns, and missions, initially for brief periods. However, inducements offered by Whites who desired their labor (and, in the case of women, sexual services) , plus a growing taste for European foodstuffs and other commodities, drew them increasingly into the ambit of the newcomers. Inevitably, they eventually abandoned their Nomadic, hunter-gatherer adaptation for a sedentary life close to Whites. Migration began around the turn of the century and ended as recently as the 1960s. The Mardu remain today among the more tradition-oriented Aborigines in Australia. Jigalong was founded as a maintenance camp on a rabbit-control fence, and it later became a ration depot for the indigent Aborigines who had begun congregating there in the 1930s. It was a Christian mission for twenty-four years from 1946, but race relations were often tense and the Aborigines resisted all efforts to undermine their traditions. Many Aboriginal men and women worked on pastoral leases as laborers and domestics, but there was a dramatic downturn in this form of employment following the advent, in the 1960s, of laws requiring parity of wage levels between Aboriginal and White workers in the pastoral industry. Jigalong became a legally incorporated Aboriginal community in 1974, assisted by White advisers and funded almost entirely from governmental sources. Government policy since the early 1970s has promoted self-reliance and the retention of a distinctive identity and traditions. For the Mardu, access to alcohol and increasing Westernization pressures have led to considerable social problems, which remain unresolved. A recent movement to establish permanent outstations on or near traditional Mardu lands is partly in response to these pressures, particularly the damaging effects of alcohol, but it also relates to the advent of large-scale mining exploration in the desert. The Mardu strongly oppose these activities, and since the formation of a regional land council in the mid-1980s, a major concern has been to protect their lands from desecration and alienation.


Most Mardu live today at Jigalong or in smaller outstations on the western side of the Gibson Desert, but a few (mostly the steady drinkers) live in or on the fringes of towns in the region. Mobility remains high, especially between Jigalong, whose population is around 300, and the outstations, which range in population from about 20 to 100 people. Jigalong has an airfield, graded dirt roads connecting it to the main highway to the west, telephone and radio contact, television, and many motor vehicles. It has a large school, a medical clinic, a sewage system, electricity, water supply, a well-stocked Community-owned store, and many European-style houses for White staff and Aborigines. However, many people still live in squalid and unhygienic conditions. The outstations are still being developed, but most have basic necessities such as water supply and radio transceivers, and the large ones each have an airfield, a school, electricity generators, and refrigeration.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The total autonomy of the traditional hunting and gathering economy and the partial self-sufficiency of pastoral employment have been replaced by massive unemployment and a highly dependent, welfare-based existence. The Mardu region is ecologically extremely marginal, so the prospects of developing profitable local land-based industries are slim. Jigalong runs a cattle enterprise, and various other economic schemes have been tried, without success. All the settlements are heavily reliant on the importation of foodstuffs, despite the continuance of hunting and gathering activities. At Jigalong, the large settlement economy provides salaried work for Aboriginal office and store workers, teacher and health aides, Maintenance workers, and pastoral employees. Besides kinship, gambling with cards is an important medium for the redistribution of cash. The Aborigines have adopted a wide range of material items from the Whites, but they have strongly resisted changes in basic values relating to kinship and religion.

Trade. Formalized trading networks were absent in the Western Desert, but scarce and highly valued items, such as pearl shells and red ocher, diffused widely throughout the Region as a result of exchanges between individuals and groups, mostly within the context of ceremonial activities. Group Exchanges centered on religious lore, both material and nonmaterial, and the exchange of mundane material items, such as weapons or tools, was clearly subsidiary to religious concerns. Most individual transactions were gift exchanges conducted within the framework of kinship and affinal obligations.

Division of Labor. The gender-based division between women as gatherers (and hunters of small game) and men as hunters is still seen, but these activities are no longer fundamental to subsistence. Women are the main cooks, housekeepers, and office workers, whereas men prefer to work outdoors. Children stay at school into their mid-teens, so their economic impact is slight, but girls tend still to marry at a younger age than boys and to assume full parental responsibilities earlier.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, bands were the basic landoccupying, economic unit, while large territorially anchored entities, known as estate groups, were associated with land "ownership." Although they contained a core of patrilineally related males, these groups had multiple criteria for Membership, and it was possible for active adults to be involved Significantly in more than one such group. Since land was inalienable, property rights were more often conceptualized in terms of responsibility for, rather than control over, sites and resources. In both ethos and practice, Mardu society strongly favored inclusivity and the maximizing of rights and obligations. Today, the Jigalong area is an officially recognized Aboriginal Reserve, but the Mardu have yet to obtain firm tenure to the traditional homelands. An Aboriginal Land bill, introduced in the State Parliament in 1985, failed to become law. A long-term lease scheme has since been established but the Mardu are pessimistic that governments will recognize their claims to traditional land, as mining interests continue to take precedence over Aboriginal concerns.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although dispersal and traditional local organization have given way to aggregation in sedentary communities, kinship remains a fundamental building block of Mardu society, and everyone relates to everyone else primarily in terms of classificatory kinship norms. Kinship and religious ties link Aborigines right across the vast Western Desert. The Mardu are drawn from dialect-named Territorial divisions that unite territory, language, and kin groups. These larger units, sometimes wrongly called "tribes," never existed as corporate entities, and though boundaries existed, they were highly permeable. The most visible group was the band, whose camping arrangements reflected the several Family groups that made up this flexible aggregation. Within every dialect-named area were a number of bands and at least one "estate," the highly valued heartland that contained major sacred sites and important waterholes and constituted the locus of the estate group. The Mardu kinship system is bilateral, but traditionally there was a clear patrivirilocal tendency in "residence" rules and practices, as well as a strong preference for children to be born somewhere in or near the estate of their father. Both the estate group and the band tended to have a core of people related patrilineally. There were no lineages or clans, and genealogical depth was limited (aided by taboos on naming the dead).

Kinship Terminology. Terminology is bifurcate-merging and occurs in association with a section system, with the division of society into four named categories. Many of the seventeen different terms of address used by each sex are shared by male and female speakers. Mardu also employ a large and complex set of dual-reference terms. There is a generational emphasis; thus, for example, all people in one's grandparent and grandchild generations are merged under two nearly identical terms, differing only for the sex of the person addressed. Patterned sets of behaviors associated with each kin term can be seen as ranging along a continuum from joking to avoidance relationships.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Classificatory bilateral cross-cousin marriage is the prescribed form. Polygyny was a social ideal not always realized in the past, and today it is still practiced but is not Common. Infant betrothal was once the norm, all adults married, all widows remarried, and divorce was rare. Today, many Widows remain single, and young, unmarried mothers are Common. Marriage rules are less often obeyed, but they still have considerable force and transgressors are physically punished. Traditionally, men could not marry for at least a decade after their first initiatory rites, which occurred around age 16-17, but today men in their early twenties are marrying, and far fewer betrothals result in marriage.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, the commensal unit was the nuclear or polygynous family and this remains largely the case. Most people camp near close relatives and there is a great deal of visiting and casual eating at the camps or houses of others. Generosity and sharing remain prime values and most households provide food and shelter for a shifting number and range of relatives.

Inheritance . Material possessions were minimal, and were generally buried with a person upon death; today, they are burned or given away to distant relatives, and houses, or areas surrounding the deceased's camp, are vacated for months or years at a time following a death.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised by parents, siblings and other close coresident relatives; grandparents typically play an important role as socializers. Children tend to be greatly indulged by adults and can always get money and food from a wide range of relatives. Freed from the necessity of observing kinship rules, they spend much time at play in large groups. Traditionally, they spent more time with women, whom they accompanied on food-gathering expeditions. Today, most attend school from the age of 5 or 6, but this requirement is frequently breached. At the onset of the teenage years, the fortunes of boys and girls begin to diverge dramatically. The transition of girls into wives and mothers is unmarked by ritual, whereas boys enter upon a protracted and ritually highly elaborated process that transforms them into adults. This culturally very important transition takes about 15 years from the first physical operations, such as nose piercing, to the final stages preceding first marriage, which occurs in the late twenties and marks the young man as socially adult.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Families, bands, estate groups, and "big meetings" (periodic aggregations of people from a number of neighboring dialect-named territories, who met to conduct ritual and other business) were the major elements of Social organization traditionally. These were crosscut by a multiplicity of memberships (totemic, kin-based, ritual-grade, etc.), including moieties and sections, which welded desert society together. Today, the families and the "big meetings" remain important institutions, but they exist parallel to introduced forms such as committees and councils.

Political Organization. In former times, political action was the domain of small groups, and sex and age were the main criteria for differentiation. Although the status of women was lower than that of men, an egalitarian ethos prevailed, and leadership was very much context-dependent and changeable. Most of the time, the norms of kinship provided an adequate framework for social action and the allocation of roles. The social and political autonomy of the traditional band and estate group has been replaced by encapsulation and minority status within the nation-state and the introduction of Western-style institutions such as elections and Councils. High mobility and involvement in regional land councils reflect a continuing interest in the wider Western Desert Society as "all one people," and the Mardu spend much time and effort maintaining these contacts. Politically, they remain dependent on governments for survival and on White advisers for assistance in dealing with the bureaucracies of Australian society. In the past few years, however, there has been a marked increase in Mardu political awareness and confidence in dealing with outsiders.

Social Control. Traditional social controls relied heavily on a high level of self-regulation, but physical sanctions were invoked on occasion. Western influences have seriously undermined these controls in the contact situation. For example, spearing and other forms of physical punishment have occasioned police interventions and arrests of "lawful" punishers; unprecedented numbers of children have led to problems of vandalism; there is an increasing incidence of Marriage between improperly related partners; and young women have successfully resisted attempts to marry them off to their betrothed partners. Alcohol has contributed greatly to a loosening of traditional social controls, and uncontrolled violence (as well as drunken driving) has led to many deaths.

Conflict. Conflict was closely controlled traditionally, and the ritualized settlement of disputes was a vital preliminary to every "big meeting." Today, adding to less easily controlled intracommunity conflicts are political struggles, mostly with mining companies but also with a neighboring Aboriginal group that has long sought, unsuccessfully, to bring the Mardu under its control.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Religion, like kinship, is pervasive in Aboriginal society. Founded on the notion of a creative era, now commonly known as "the Dreaming," when everything came into being and the rules for life were instituted by ancestral beings, religion is embodied in the landscape, myths, Rituals, song lines, and sacred paraphernalia. Life was profoundly under spiritual authority, but prayers and worship had no place. Men controlled the most powerful, inner secrets, and ritual performance was believed to ensure the continuance of society, under the watchful eyes of all-powerful, but withdrawn, spiritual beings. Their continued release of life force into the physical world was held to be dependent on the proper observance of "the Law" (their legacy to the living, in the form of a blueprint for the proper conduct of social life) and the correct performance of ritual. Totemism provided each individual with direct and unique links into the realm of the Dreaming and were important in the formation and Maintenance of identity. Despite intensive contact with Whites and a diminution in the frequency of ritual activities, beliefs in the reality of the traditional religion remain strong among Mardu, and all young men continue to be initiated into its secrets. Beliefs in a range of benevolent and malevolent spirits remain strong, and Mardu retain strong fears of travel to Distant areas whose spirits do not know them and therefore are likely to be dangerous. A small minority of Mardu profess Christian beliefs, but none to the exclusion of the traditional religion.

Religious Practitioners. Virtually all Mardu participate in aspects of the religious life, and while different ritual complexes involve different roles or grades, there are no specialist practitioners.

Ceremonies. The traditionally rich ceremonial life, much of which included all community members, now has to compete with many other distractions. It is now more seasonal, and most "big meetings" are held in the very hot summer period. Some kinds of ceremony are no longer performed, but those surrounding male initiation remain as significant as ever, and generally involve several hundred Aborigines from widely separated communities. Ceremonial activities are still generally accorded priority over sociopolitical dealings with the wider society.

Arts. Most artistic endeavor was confined to religious contexts and entailed the manufacture of sacred objects, body decorations, and ground paintings. The making of weapons and other artifacts for sale to Whites has been an informal and minor part of the local economy for several decades.

Medicine. About 10 percent of Mardu males are magician-curers (mabarn ), part-time specialists who employ magical means to cure (and, allegedly, to harm) people. A range of "bush medicines" is also known and employed by the Mardu, who also have frequent resort to Western medicines and treatment. Belief in the powers and efficacy of mabarn and magic remains unshaken.

Death and Afterlife. The ceremonies surrounding death were not highly elaborated among the Mardu. Their objective was to ensure the passage of the newly released spirit of the deceased back to the place from whence it had emerged, as a spirit child, to enter the body of its mother. Loud mourning, self-injury, and ceremonial exchanges continue to mark death, but there is now only a single burial, since inquests using dug-up bones, prior to reburial, are no longer held. Mabarn attend the burial to speak to the spirit and urge it to leave peacefully and to not harass the living; Christian prayers are also offered in some cases. The Mardu have no beliefs in reincarnation.

See alsoAranda, Ngatatjara, Pintupi, Warlpiri


Tonkinson, R. (1974). The Jigalong Mob: Aboriginal Victors of the Desert Crusade. Menlo Park, Calif.: Benjamin Cummings.

Tonkinson, R. (1978). The Mardudjara Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia's Desert. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Tonkinson, R. (1987). "Mardujarra Religion: A Profile of the Religious System of the Mardujarra Aborigines." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by M. Eliade, 196-201. New York: Macmillan, Free Press.

Tonkinson, R. (1988). "Mardujarra Kinship." In Australians to 1788. Vol. 1, Australians: a Historical Library, edited by D. J. Mulvaney and J. P. White, 196-219. Sydney: Fairfax, Weldon & Syme.

Tonkinson, R. (1988) "One Community, Two Laws: Aspects of Conflict and Convergence in a Western Australian Aboriginal Community." In Indigenous Law and the State, edited by B. Morse and G. Woodman, 395-411. Dordrecht: Foris.