Wik Mungkan

views updated

Wik Mungkan

ETHNONYMS: Munggan, Wik, Wikmunkan


Identification. In early ethnographies of the area, "Wik Mungkan" has been used both for the particular language and for the "tribe" nominally speaking it. In fact, dialect names throughout this region are commonly prefixed by a term meaning "language" (i.e., "Wik-") together with a lexical item that typifies the particular dialect. Thus, "Wik Mungkan" refers to "those who say mungkan to mean 'eating.'"

Location. The various Wik-speaking peoples occupied an extensive zone on western Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland between roughly 13 and 14° S along the rivers of the area, in the sclerophyll forests between them, and in the coastal floodplains bounding the Gulf of Carpentaria to the west. Particularly on the coast, the region was one of great ecological diversity and marked seasonal variations, with an annual intense monsoon period over two or three months and an extended dry season.

Demography. Population estimates for the region before European settlement are difficult to make with any degree of accuracy. There could have been some 2,000 Wik in the less ecologically diverse inland sclerophyll-forest zone, and at least as many could have lived in the much richer coastal zone. There was rapid depopulation beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century from such factors as measles and influenza epidemics, punitive expeditions by cattlemen, and forced labor on pearling and fishing vessels. Today, there would be some 1,200 or so Wik people in the settlements of the region, with a high birth rate in recent years.

Linguistic Affiliation. There were a great variety of dialects referred to by their speakers as "Wik Mungkan." With dialect exogamy being the dominant pattern, particularly in the coastal zone, people were commonly multilingual. For complex social and political reasons, in the contemporary settlements Wik Mungkan and Aboriginal English have become the lingua francas for most people and there are no extant speakers for many of the original dialects.

History And Cultural Relations

While the Cape York region could originally have been a major route along which migration into the Australian landmass occurred, little detailed archaeological or prehistoric Research has been conducted in the area occupied by the Wik. Linguistic and other evidence demonstrates the existence of links between various Wik groups and their neighbors on the coasts and inland. Direct contact with Macassan fishermen or with Torres Strait Islanders appears to have been minimal on the west coast of Cape York. The first Europeans known to have contacted Wik people were the Dutch, early in the seventeenth century. Pressures from the outside world began in earnest for the inland Wik with the encroachment of cattlemen in the latter part of the nineteenth century and a consequent history of dispossession from lands and punitive expeditions that continued well into the present century, in living memory of some of the older Wik. Along the coasts, there has been intermittent contact with itinerant timber cutters for many years, but it was the bêche-de-mer fishermen working in the Torres Strait and looking for labor who caused the greatest depredations. Partly in response to public disquiet about the situation, missions were established in the remote areas of Cape York from the early 1900s, operating under the assimilationist policies and legislative framework of the Queensland government. These saw the gradual sedentarization of the Wik, with systematic attempts to inculcate a Social, political, and economic regime based on settled village life rather than the precontact pattern of dispersed semiNomadic groups. A fundamental set of changes was set in train in 1978 with the institution of a secular administration under the state local-government model and by a concomitant massive increase in funding, capital development, and bureaucratic involvementall of which have led to severe pressures on Wik internal social mechanisms.


Traditionally, people had a more restricted range of movement during the wet season, when they were generally confined to camps, typically centered on a focal male in his clan estate, on higher ground. In the dry season, groups dispersed more widely, with base camps typically being made near Lagoons and lakes. People moved over the country for other than strictly economic reasons (e.g., to meet for ritual occasions and for social intercourse after living in the small and confined wet-season camps). Nowadays, most Wik people live in three small townships and settlements situated on the fringes of what once were their traditional lands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Wik were hunters and gatherers, constrained by the generally flat Terrain and seasonal variations. Food resources were scarcest at the height of the wet season when people also had a more restricted range; in the dry season, groups camped near lagoons and lakes to exploit such resources as fish, swamp tortoises, birds, and water-lily roots. Yams were taken in large quantities from sand-ridge country, and fish and crustaceans from estuarine waters. The forms of economic life have changed radically in the contemporary settlements, particularly with the large-scale introduction of a cash economy in the late 1960s. Some of the Wik still spend periods on or near their traditional lands, supplementing their cash incomes with hunting and fishing. However, government transfer payments are the main source of income for the Wik, and almost all of the rious attempts to institute economically viable industries, such as beef-cattle raising, have failed.

Industrial Arts. Wik technology was relatively complex by Aboriginal Australian standards, and there are a variety of distinctive items (e.g., spears and spear throwers, woven bags, and fishing nets) that today form the basis for a small handicraft industry selling mainly to urban centers elsewhere in Australia.

Trade. There is evidence of trade in material items such as pearl shells, originating in the Torres Strait and most likely being traded down by northern and eastern neighbors, with stone axes and stingray barbs being traded out. Internal trade in the region also existed, as it still does to some extent, in spear handles, ochers, and resins. However, trade was, and is, rarely a purely economic activity, serving social, political, and ritual ends rather than formal economic ones.

Division of Labor. While the general picture is one where women and children gathered and men hunted, the fine-grained picture is more complex. Culturally appropriate tasks varied through the life cycle of individuals, and they also depended to some extent on the composition of the particular exploiting party. Men and women both fish, although women rarely do so with spears. Women never hunt game with rifles or spears. The material items associated with each sex's roles were in general manufactured by members of that sex, although certain women made spears on occasion. The food gathered or hunted was usually prepared by the person obtaining it; thus men cooked game and women prepared vegetable foods. It is fairly common today, however, to see men preparing bread baked in ashes. Indigenous models of the division of labor in the contemporary settlements have been Influenced profoundly by those of the cattle stations, Missionaries, and European settlement staff. Only Wik men work at cattle mustering or as mechanics or operators of heavy equipment. Nurses' aides and health workers are all female. Some men have recently become involved as teachers' aides and clerical staff.

Land Tenure. The model of the Wik presented by early ethnographers was essentially one of patrilineal landowning clans that combined to form dialectal tribes, with territories containing sites relating to species or phenomena that were the totems of the particular clans. There is evidence that along the Archer River and in the sclerophyll-forest country there was some degree of isomorphic mapping of landholding clan estates and sites relating to their own totems and a lower degree of linguistic diversity than along the coast. In coastal areas, and most probably in the inland zones as well, the ideological native model is indeed that of patrilineal totemic clans with unique bounded estates (although it is a form of custodianship rather than of ownership). But the actual picture is considerably more complex, with crosscutting land tenure, clan totems, totemic ritual cults, and linguistic affiliations. This model has been rendered even more complex where landholding groups have died out and estates are now vacant. Furthermore, claims to land and to sites through the mother's side and into the grandparental generation can in certain circumstances be legitimate, and a further complication is added by the necessity to consider the difference between tenure of land and access to it.


Kin Groupe and Descent. It is necessary to distinguish between actual social groups formed for a specific purposesuch as residence or fightingand clan membership, even though to some extent the latter provides the benchmark against which the former are conceptualized by the Wik. Residential groups in the bush, for example, may be comprised of members of several clans, including spouses of core clan members, visitors from neighboring estates, and those whose kin ties to the core residence group give them legitimate rights to be there. Clans are patrilineal, exogamous, landholding units, with shallow genealogical connections that are rarely traced beyond the second or third ascending generation. Clan membership itself, however, may vary over time, with schism being a common feature, resulting from conflict and, in the past, possibly environmental and demographic pressures. The web of kin ties, traced bilaterally, is much more important in mundane life, however, than is clan solidarity, which is realized mainly in events such as major conflicts and mortuary rituals.

Kinship Terminology. Essentially, terminology is of a simple Dravidian type, with grandparents divided into Parallel and cross varieties.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The preferred marriage type was between classificatory cross cousins. However, at least one group of Wik Mungkan speakers has shown a strong preference for actual cross-cousin marriages and liaisons, and there were numbers of marriages predating major European influence that did not conform to either of these types and were termed "wrong-head." In coastal regions there was a strong tendency for dialect exogamy and for marriages to form relatively endogamous regional clusters defined by the sclerophyll-forest/coastal distinction and totemic ritual cult membership.

Domestic Unit. Within local groups there would normally be a number of "households," generally made up of a focal male and his wife or wives, their offspring, and perhaps inlaws and aging parents. Residential groups also commonly would include a single men's camp. In the contemporary settlements there is if anything even more fluidity, with a continual flux in household compositions. A household, as a basic unit involving resource exploitation, distribution, and consumption, care of children, and so on, is not necessarily confined to one particular dwelling.

Inheritance. Land, its sites, its associated ritual and mythology, its totems, and the rights to the pool of clan names that are oblique references to the totems, as well as totemic ritual cult affiliation, are all patrilineally inherited. There are, however, rights of access to land and certain sites that may be realized through such factors as marriage or residential association with the landowning group.

Socialization. While the daily minutiae of child rearing may be the province of women, menolder siblings, fathers, and unclestake part in playing with and caring for young children. Children are indulged, and once weaned they spend a great deal of their time playing with siblings and age mates from compatible kin groups. Learning rarely took place in Formal contexts, with the exception of male initiations. The missions severely disrupted many aspects of family life and child socialization, with children being brought up in dormitories until their abolition in 1966. Of great concern to many of the older Wik today is the perceived lack of social control over children and young people, a matter about which they feel powerless.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The kinship system formed a basic matrix by which social relations and organization were interpreted, but other forms of association included the basic inland/coastal dichotomy, regional marriage clusters, loose areal associations, short-term collectivities for certain seasonal economic pursuits and the ceremonies surrounding initiation, and the over-arching regional totemic ritual cults. While clan and family structures have been undergoing major changes in the settlements over many years now, and many of the precontact regional and ritual associations are severely attenuated or no longer exist, kinship is still the basic idiom of everyday interactions. New forms of group and corporate structures are emerging, centered on such activities as work, alcohol consumption, and on the governing and administrative bodies instituted in the settlements.

Political Organization. A primary feature of the coastal Wik, but apparently less important inland, is the concept of "bosses"men who are knowledgeable in terms of country and ritual; who are politically astute leaders, skilled fighters, and commanding public orators; and who can mobilize large numbers of kin. Women can be leaders, especially as they get older, but in general they command a more restricted influence. Clans would normally have a senior man or woman who is a recognized "boss," and there are regional leaders drawn from the ranks of these clan spokespersons. While the bosses may have had major roles in decisions regarding ceremonies, alliances, camp locations, etc., there was and is a strong resistance to hierarchical authority and an emphasis on Personal autonomy in much of everyday life. The dominant Contemporary settlement political organization consists of elected councils, set up under local-government models that, while nominally encouraging self-determination, are run very much according to European agendas and priorities. Almost all service and administrative staff are White Australians or other non-Wik. The locus of control of Wik affairs is firmly in the hands of the state.

Social Control and Conflict. Conflict was an ever-present factor in the precontact society as well as today, but there were mechanisms to resolve or contain itin particular, what has been called "the resolution of conflict by fission." This option of moving away from potential or actual conflict is severely compromised in the settlements, built on European models of small compact townships for administrative and service convenience. The parental and grandparental generations no longer have control of the sexuality of young people, and much conflict arises from unsanctioned sexual relations. Older men no longer control crucial aspects of the socialization of younger ones through initiations, which have not been held for some twenty years. Large-scale alcohol consumption has further compromised the Wik's own conflict-resolution mechanisms, and there are very high levels of interpersonal violence that ultimately lead to further bureaucratic intervention in Wik affairs.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Culture in its broadest senseland and its sacred sites, languages, totems, rituals, and body-paint designs; technology; and the fundamentals of social relationsis not the work of creative human agents in the Wik view but was "left" by culture heroes. In the coastal regions, these heroes are two brothers, whose exploits form the basis of ritual cults that over-arch clan totemism and bind clans in regional associations. For the inland Wik, the clans' founding heroes are as a rule also their major totemic species. This Creation time of heroic exploits is represented as being just Beyond living memory of the oldest people, but its power is brought into the present through the performance of the rious rituals. Also populating the Wik cosmos are spirits of the dead and various other nonhuman beings and spirits, some of whom are malevolent. Like people, however, they have Language and are territorial. Many Wik are nominally Christian today, but beliefs and their modes of expression show strong elements of syncretism with traditional Wik ones.

Religious Practitioners. As in the past, there are ritual specialists, although their numbers are now few and the knowledge of many of the ritual and initiatory cycles is greatly attenuated. Ritual leaders are not necessarily secular ones, Especially in the settlements.

Ceremonies. Minor ceremonies included those performed at totemic increase sites, but the major ones were those surrounding birth, male initiation, and the complex cycle of mortuary practices. The totemic ritual cult cycles figured prominently in the latter two. Land and its sites, along with individual and corporate-group relationships to them, were at the core of ceremony and other social practices. Many rituals were and are relatively public and had both men and women taking part in specific roles, while others traditionally were restricted, though this is seldom the case today. Women had their own specific rituals in the mortuary cycles, as well as in certain increase ceremonies at particular clan totemic sites, but there was no autonomous domain of women's ritual life as such, apart from certain ceremonies surrounding birth. Mortuary rituals, transformed to a degree from precontact forms, continue to be major features of settlement life, but initiation and formal birth rituals are no longer practiced.

Arts. From the 1950s on, carved and painted ceremonial objects relating to totemic figures of the major ritual cults have been produced by the Wik for use in public and semipublic ceremonies. Prior to this time, they were evidently much simpler, more abstract in form, and used for secret Rituals. There are various body-paint designs that are a form of clan corporate property and today are seen only in mortuary rites. There have been some small-scale art workshops developed over the past few years, producing screen-printed cards and clothing.

Medicine. Sickness and misfortune are assigned ultimately to human causality through the medium of (always male) sorcery, or they are attributed to ritual infringements of various kinds, such as approaching a ritually dangerous site to which the individual did not have the right of access. Healers, who counteract the sorcerers' work through their own ritual interventions, are referred to today as "murri doctors." Remedies such as bark poultices and infusions are used for such conditions as wounds or diarrhea, but these treatments are not just the province of the healers and hence their application is somewhat idiosyncratic.

Death and Afterlife. For the coastal Wik, there are at least two spiritual constituents of a person. Immediately after death, what could be regarded as the "life essence" goes west, over the sea. The "earthly shadow" of the deceased remains, infusing the places and objects owned and used by him or her, and purification rites are performed over time to resocialize them. The totemic spirit is dispatched to the clan spirit-sending center a few days after death (though inland Wik do not perform this particular ritual). Since mission times, burial has replaced cremation and a Christian service is used for this segment of the mortuary ceremonies.


McConnel, U. (1930). "The Wik-Munkan Tribe of Cape York Peninsula." Oceania 1:97-104.

Sutton, P. J. (1978). "Wik: Aboriginal Society, Territory, and Language at Cape Keerweer, Cape York Peninsula, Australia." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Thomson, D. F. (1939). "The Seasonal Factor in Human Culture: Illustrated from the Life of a Contemporary Nomadic Group." Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 5:209-221.

Thomson, D. F. (1972). Kinship and Behaviour in North Queensland: A Preliminary Account of Kinship and Social Organization on Cape York Peninsula. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

von Sturmer, J. (1978). "The Wik Region: Economy, Territoriality, and Totemism in Western Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Queensland, Brisbane.