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ETHNONYMS: Ilpirra, Wailpiri, Walbiri, Walpiri


Identification. Warlpiri country lies in central Australia, with its center about 180 kilometers northwest of Alice Springs.

Location. Traditionally the Warlpiri-speaking people occupied the Tanami Desert; today they live mainly in various towns and on the Aboriginally-owned cattle station of willowra. A number of Warlpiri live in Alice Springs and others can be found scattered across the top of northern Australia and the Kimberly region.

Demography. Prior to colonization, it is estimated that there were around 1,200 Warlpiri. By 1976 the estimated number was put at 2,700, perhaps somewhat generously, but it can confidently be assumed that there are upwards of 2,500 speakers today. These people all have Warlpiri as their first language and English as only their second, third, or even fourth language.

Linguistic Affiliation. Warlpiri belongs to the Pama Nyungan Language Family, which includes the languages of Cape York and the southern three-quarters of the continent. As with all other Australian languages, the genetic relationship with languages outside the continent is now lost. Because widows had to observe a one-to-two-year speech taboo following the death of a husband, the Warlpiri women have developed a highly elaborated sign language still in use among the older people.

History and Cultural Relations

There is no archaeological evidence indicating when the area the Warlpiri inhabited at first contact was originally occupied. Other parts of central Australia were, however, sparsely occupied 22,000 years ago and parts of Australia for at least 40,000 years. European explorers began passing through their country from 1862 onward, but it was the development of the pastoral industry in the Victoria River District to the north in the 1880s, and a gold rush at the same period in the Halls Creek region, that initiated sustained contact for some Warlpiri. In 1910 and again in 1930 there were short-lived gold rushes in the Tanami Desert; like the pastoral industry, gold mines utilized Aboriginal people for labor but, unlike the pastoral industry, only briefly. Both industries brought conflict and displacement for those nearest to them. From the 1920s onward pastoral settlement in the area northwest of Alice Springs impinged more directly on Warlpiri resulting in, among other things, the 1928 killing of a station hand at Coniston Station. This led to major reprisal expeditions in which police and station workers admitted to killing thirty-one people, although they probably killed many more. This outbreak of violence scattered the Warlpiri in the area, some of whom retreated to other cattle stations for protection. In 1946 the government established the settlement of Yuendumu, to which it moved many Warlpiri in the region, thus ending the period in which any Warlpiri were living a completely independent life in the bush. Today, with government assistance, a number of small groups have set up outstations or homeland centers in the area of their traditional land interests, leading to a limited recolonization of the remoter desert regions, supported by modern technology.


Traditionally, shelter was provided mainly in the form of low windbreaks, but in rainy periods more substantial domed huts with spinifex thatch were used. Nowadays, most Warlpiri live in towns ranging in size from 300 to 1,200 people, most of whom are Warlpiri speakers. The core of each town includes a store from which all day-to-day nutritional and material requirements are bought, a clinic, a primary school, a municipal office, a workshop, usually a church and a police station, and a number of European-style houses. The professional staff are nearly all non-Aborigines; all of them are assisted by Warlpiri coworkers and occupy the European houses along with a limited number of Warlpiri. The remainder of the Warlpiri population live in a wide variety of housing, ranging from "humpies" (sheets of corrugated iron arranged in a tentlike structure), through one- and two-room huts, to various kinds of more substantial housing. Access to immediately located water and electricity is poor for all but those in good housing; the situation is, however, slowly improving.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Until settlement, the Warlpiri lived by hunting and gathering on a diet of roots, fruits, grass and tree seeds, lizards, and small marsupials, supplemented from time to time by large game in the form of kangaroos and emus. Until the 1960s, a number of Warlpiri men worked for substantial portions of the year as stockmen on neighboring cattle stations and a few Warlpiri women worked as domestics in the station homesteads. Those remaining in the settlements performed community maintenance and small jobs in return for rations and limited amounts of cash. Following the introduction of equal pay in the cattle industry in 1968, most Aboriginal people were laid off, and the majority of Warlpiri are now unemployed and living on transfer payments. A few work in the schools, hospitals, and municipal offices, and some are involved in running their own cattle station. Within the last five years the main commercial activity has been painting of traditionally derived designs for the localand, increasingly, the internationalart market.

Industrial Arts. Traditional technology included a small range of versatile artifacts, such as spears, spear throwers, digging sticks, dishes, stone-cutting and maintenance tools, and hair string. The greatest variety of objects made were religious, to be used in men's and women's public and secret ceremonies. These items included sacred boards, poles and crosses, hats, and ground paintings, often combined in complex ways with mounds, pits, and colored decoration made of plant or feather down and ochers.

Trade. There was extensive exchange of items of material culture in the past, but it was mainly in the nature of gift exchange rather than economic necessity. Much prized, both locally and beyond, was the red ocher from a mine at Mount Stanley. It was exchanged for balls of hair string, spear shafts, or shields. Incised pearl shells and dentalia were exchanged into the Warlpiri area from the Kimberly range. Such exchanges continue today as do the exchanges of ceremonies with members of other linguistic groups in the region.

Division of Labor. Tasks are organized along sex and age lines within the household. Women gather vegetable foods and small game, while the men concentrate on hunting small and large game.

Land Tenure. Rights in places and tracts of land (estates) are acquired from one's father or mother but also on the basis of one's place of conception, the burial place of a parent, or a shared ceremonial interest as a result of having interests on the track of an ancestral hero who traveled widely. The Warlpiri have an ideology of patrilineal descent that gives primacy to rights inherited from the father, which confer an absolute right to use the everyday resources of the tract of land or estate with which it is associated. These tracts are not well defined, but they tend to focus on a cluster of sites and lines of ancestral travel (also called mythical, ancestral, or dreaming tracks) linking important places. Being linked to a place or estate by an interest raises the expectation that one will be consulted on matters relating to it; the importance given to one's opinions will vary with the kind of rights held and, more importantly, the depth of ritual knowledge associated with the place or estate. As a person with a patrilineal interest, one has the right to expect to be taught the corpus of religious knowledge associated with the estate. A maternal interest is of considerable importance, too, for when people with such an interest reach middle age they may be the custodians of their mother's and mother's brother's patrimony. They play a crucial role in the organization of their ceremonial life, which cannot be accomplished without participation from some people with this kind of interest. Since the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976 and subsequent land claims, the Warlpiri now collectively own most of their traditional lands in inalienable freehold and receive royalty payments from mining activity on their lands.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Warlpiri have an Arandic system of kinship with four terminological lines of descent but no named patrilineal or matrilineal descent groups. They also have patrilineal, matrilineal, and generational moieties, semimoieties, and subsections. The subsection system divides the population into eight named categories and provides for a distinction between female and male members of each. These named categories are much used in day-to-day speech and in talking to Europeans, but they are not the persuasive organizers of activity they appear to be; instead, they are a shorthand way of referring to matters organized by genealogy, land, religious interests, and other factors.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship terminology system is of the bifurcate-merging type, recognizing sex differences among primary relatives but ignoring collaterality among most categories of kin.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past all first marriages were arranged, often when the girl was young or even before she was born. The average age difference at first marriage was 21 years, with a girl of about 10 marrying a man in his thirties. These age differences are now in sharp decline as are the numbers of arranged marriages. Middle-aged men at present can still expect to have two or three wives in the normal course of events, which is made possible by the delay in men's first marriage, but this is changing rapidly. Permanent, stable unions were the ideal and separation and divorce were comparatively rare; however, because of the age differences between husbands and wives, most women could and can expect to have several husbands over a lifetime and to have more say in whom they marry as they get older. Preferred marriage partners in the past were classificatory second cousins, but more people are now marrying first cousins, and a few are marrying classificatory mother's mother's daughter's sons. In the past, intertribal marriages could result in the couple's living in the wife's tribal territory, but eventually at least the children would be taken back by the father to Warlpiri country.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is composed of a man, his wife or wives, their unmarried children, and often some elderly dependent, usually one of the couple's parents. Today and in the past, the widowed members of the household will usually sleep in a widows' camp, while the boys age 10 or older will sleep in a single men's camp.

Inheritance. There is little material property to inherit. The senior mother's brother supervises the distribution of his nephews' possessions among his own brothers and of his nieces' possessions among his sisters. He also takes steps to arrange the avenging of the death.

Socialization. While primary socialization takes place in the domestic unit, mothers spend much of their time with co-wives and close female kin, all of whom may act as care givers. All children are indulged; male children in particular have a great deal of freedom. The freedom ends with marriage for girls and at initiation for boys, which involves seclusion and circumcision at about 11-13 years of age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Minor dialect variations among northern, southern, and eastern Warlpiri reflect loose regional kin networks sometimes called "communities" in the scholarly literature, but these networks have no corporate political or territorial significance. Today as in the past, life is based on an economy of knowledge that confers respect and authority on middle-aged and older men and women.

Political Organization. There are no institutionalized leadership roles or communitywide political structures, but senior members of a patriline have considerable authority in religious affairs. Today there are also town council chairmen and councillors who control large sums of money and resources, which can make them quite influentialbut usually only temporarily, as they eventually succumb to pervasive egalitarian pressures.

Social Control. Control was, and is, exercised largely informally and on the basis of public opinion, fear of sorcery, or supernatural sanctions for the breach of religious taboos. Older siblings exercise limited authority over their younger siblings. In the contemporary context the lack of broad-based community political structures poses problems in dealing with issues such as alcohol and vandalism, now usually handled by non-Aboriginal police.

Conflict. Most conflict in the past arose out of disputes concerning deaths (almost all of which were related to sorcery) , women, or perceived breaches of ritual rights. Conflict today is aggravated by the availability of alcohol, which can make people more combative and reduce the effectiveness of traditional dispute-settling procedures, which included formalized dueling and dispute-settling ceremonies. In the past, deaths were sometimes avenged by small parties of closely related kin pursuing the killer.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The central concept in Warlpiri religious beliefs is jukurrpa, usually translated as "the Dreaming." This term refers to the period when the world was created, the features of the landscape made, and the pre-European rules for conduct laid down, all by the ancestral heroes. These beings, at once both human and nonhuman, emerged from the subterranean ancestral spirit world and led a life much like that of traditional Warlpiri, only on a grander scale. The land surface was transformed into its present-day features by their activity. At each point where they engaged in creative acts are sources of water, and at some other places they left behind life force in the form of spirit children, which are responsible for new human and nonhuman life. The ancestral heroes had designs on their bodies, which carried the life force and which are the designs that men and women reproduce in ceremony today to renew the life force by recreating the founding dramas of their world. In addition to the ancestral beings, mildly malevolent spirits called gugu are often invoked to keep children close to adults at night or away from areas where men are holding ceremonies. Mungamunga, female ancestral spirits, may appear to either men or women in dreams with new songs, dances, or designs. Large or permanent bodies of water are thought to harbor rainbow serpents that can be offended if proper precautions are not taken.

Religious Practitioners. There is no separate class of religious practitioners since all adults play an active part in religious life. Nevertheless, some people are regarded as particularly knowledgeable about specific bodies of religious knowledge, usually manifested in the mastery of a large repertoire of songs relating to the deeds of particular ancestors.

Ceremonies. The Warlpiri have a rich religious life with a wide variety of ceremonies. These include: secular purlapa, based on songs and dance steps brought to people in dreams by ancestral spirits and then fashioned into performances; maturation ceremonies, principally for males; women's yawulyu and men's panpa ceremonies, which are separately held rites for paternal ancestral dreamings; community-based ceremonies to resolve conflicts and to celebrate the winter solstice; important religious festivals; and magical and sorcery rites performed by an individual or small group for immediate personal ends. Settlement life has removed many logistic problems formerly associated with holding ceremonies, leading to an efflorescence of ritual and a greatly increased catchment area for participation in and exchange of ceremonies.

Arts. Art is central to Warlpiri religious life. The designs given to the people by the ancestors are principal elements of religious property, important in substantiating rights to land and essential to the reproduction of people and nature. Even more important than the designs are the songs commemorating the deeds of the heroic ancestors, which often run into the hundreds for particular lines of travel. Singing is essential for turning boys into men, curing the sick, easing childbirth, attacking enemies, ensuring fertility, and tapping the powers of the Dreaming. In addition to various styles of dancing, there is a huge range of religious sculpture that is dismantled immediately following the ceremony for which it was constructed.

Medicine. A number of older people, almost all of whom are men, are thought to have healing powers and are called upon to treat the sick, especially when the major problem is internal and has no obvious immediate cause. A wide range of herbal medicines is known to people throughout the community and still used from time to time.

Death and Afterlife. The individual personality dissolves with death but the spirit returns to the ancestral spirit world. Traditional practices surrounding death and disposal of the body have been modified more than most aspects of Warlpiri life. At death the house of the deceased, if of a temporary nature, is vacated and destroyed. In the past there was platform burial with disposal of the recovered bones in a termite mound. Nowadays people are buried in cemeteries, although recently some people have been buried back in their own home territories.

See alsoAranda, Mardudjara, Ngatatjara, Pintupt


Dussart, F. (1989). "Warlpiri Women's Yawalyu Ceremonies." Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University, Canberra.

Meggitt, Mervyn J. (1952). Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

Meggitt, Mervyn J. (1966). Gadjari among the Australian Aborigines of Central Australia. Oceania Monograph no. 14. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Munn, Nancy (1973). Walbiri Iconography : Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.