Indigenous Australia Paper 1

Choose one question from the list below, and write a 4-5-page double space paper. Focus your answers on two to three central issues raised by the prompt, and reference the readings with appropriate citations.  You need to support your arguments with reference to specific materials in the readings or lectures.  Please identify your choice of question/prompt (1-4) in your heading, along with your recitation section number and your name. 

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Cultures and Contexts: Indigenous Australia
Fall 2020


Professor Myers

Essay Topics – First Paper, Due Monday Oct. 5

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Choose one question from the list below, and write a 4-5-page double space paper. Focus your answers on two to three central issues raised by the prompt, and reference the readings with appropriate citations. You need to support your arguments with reference to specific materials in the readings or lectures. Please identify your choice of question/prompt (1-4) in your heading, along with your recitation section number and your name.

Your papers should be submitted electronically to your recitation section NYU Classes by 10 a.m. on Monday, October 5.

1. The very early explorer to Australia, William Dampier, described Aboriginal people as the “miserablest people on earth” – a description to which Capt. James Cook seems to be responding in the excerpt from his journal. Others have imagined Indigenous life to be what the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described for pre-state societies as a “war of all against all.” Based on the readings (Stanner, Rose, Myers) and the films “They Have Come to Stay,” “Babakiueria”), how do you respond to such representations? How have Aboriginal people responded, Were their lives “a war of all against all”? If not, why not? Be specific about the institutions, customs and beliefs that relate to these representations.

2. Anthropologists (and theologians) have shown that cultures provide people with basic orientations to the world, with ways of defining their lives and their positions in the universe. We have read several anthropologists and others who wrote about the basic concepts of an Aboriginal world-view. In your essays please compare and contrast the way in which Stanner and Myers discuss “The Dreaming.” Consider the following:

How do they present this fundamental concept and its relationship to human life?

What existential questions does it answer?

What are the daily realities of the Dreaming?

How do the authors’ representations of this institution speak to Western perception of Aboriginal people and their culture?

3. T.G.H. Strehlow once described the traditional system of the Arrernte people and their totemic geography as “a land-based form of religion.” This suggests that “The Dreaming” is more than a philosophy of life and has an important practical dimension. Discuss this proposition with respect to the materials you have read for this class, especially about “The Dreaming,” place, and kinship. In which writings is there evidence for such a proposition, what is that evidence, and how, then, can one understand the significance of The Dreaming?

4. Many outside observers have insisted that Aboriginal people – especially those who are involved with the classical traditions of Indigenous culture — are incapable of living with change or of engaging with change. On the basis of the readings (Stanner, Myers, Rose, Bell) and films (“Remembering Yayayi”), what positions do there seem to be about this question? What implications do the conceptions involved in The Dreaming have for Aboriginal peoples’ responses to change? Working with specific examples, consider:

How do the readings present change in Indigenous Australians lives?

How do you understand the relationship between Aboriginal conceptions of “The Dreaming” and ideas of “history” as a way of understanding time and change?

r U , ( 4

The Dreaming (1953)


The Australian Aborigines’ outlook on the universe and man is shaped
by a remarkable conception, which Spencer and Gillen immortalised
as ’the dream time’ or alcheringa of the Arunta or Aranda tribe.
Comparable terms from other tribes are often almost untranslatable,
or mean literally something like ‘men of old’. Some anthropologists
have called it the Eternal Dream Time. I prefer to call it what many
Aborigines call it in English; The Dreaming, or just, Dreaming


A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time
long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither ‘time’
nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have
never been able to discover any Aboriginal word for time as an abstract
concept. And the sense of ‘history* is wholly alien here. W e shall not
understand The Dreaming fully except as a complex of meanings. A
blackfellow may call his totem, or the place from which his spirit came,
his Dreaming. H e may also explain the existence of a custom, or law
of life, as causally due to The Dreaming.

A concept so impalpable and subtle naturally suffers badly by
translation into our dry and abstract language. T he blacks sense this
difficulty. I can recall one intelligent old man who said to me, with a
cadence almost as though he had been speaking verse:



Essays 1938-1973


Australian National University Press

White Man got no Dreaming

W hite man got no dreaming,
Him go ’nother way.

W hite man, him go different.
Him got road belong himself.

Although, as I have said, T he Dreaming conjures up the notion of
a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also,
in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in
time: it was, and is, everywhen. We should be very wrong to try to read
into it the idea of a Golden Age, or a Garden of Eden, though it was
an A ge of Heroes, when the ancestors did marvellous things that men
can no longer do. T he blacks are not at all insensitive to Mary Webb’s
‘wistfulness that is the past”, but they do not, in aversion from present
or future, look back on it with yearning and nostalgia. Yet it has for
them an unchallengeably sacred authority.

Clearly, T he Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind
of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things
that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending
everything significant for Aboriginal man. If I am correct in saying so,
it is much more complex philosophically than we have so far realised.
I greatly hope that artists and men of letters who (it seems increasingly)
find inspiration in Aboriginal Australia will use all their gifts of
empathy, but avoid banal projection and subjectivism, if they seek to
honour the notion.

Why the blackfellow thinks of ‘dreaming’ as the nearest equivalent
in English is a puzzle. It may be because it is by the act of dreaming,
as reality and symbol, that the Aboriginal mind makes contact—thinks
it makes contact—with whatever mystery it is that connects The
Dreaming and the Here-and-Now.

H ow shall one deal with so subtle a conception? One has two options:
educe its subjective logic and rationale from the ‘elements’ which the
blackfellow stumblingly offers in trying to give an explanation; or relate
the objective figure it traces on their social life to things familiar in our
own intellectual history. There are dangers in both courses.

T he first is a m atter of learning to ‘think black’, not imposing


The Dreaming (1953)

Western categories of understanding, but seeking to conceive of things
as the blackfellow himself does.

In our modern understanding, we tend to see mind’ and body’,
body’ and ‘spirit’, ‘spirit’ and ‘personality’, ‘personality’ and ‘name’ as
in some sense separate, even opposed, entities though we manage to
connect them up in some fashion into the unity or oneness of ‘person’
or ‘individual’. The blackfellow does not seem to think this way. The
distinctiveness we give to ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and ‘body’, and our contrast
of body’ versus ‘spirit’ are not there, and the whole notion of ‘the person’
is enlarged. T o a blackfellow, a man’s name, spirit, and shadow are ‘him’
in a sense which to us may seem passing strange. One should not ask
a blackfellow: ‘What is your name?’ T o do so embarrasses and shames
him. The name is like an intimate part of the body, with which another
person does not take liberties. The blacks do not mind talking about
a dead person in an oblique way; but, for along time, they are extremely
reluctant even to breathe his name. In the same way, to threaten a man’s
shadow is to threaten him. N or may one threaten lightly the physical
place from which his spirit came. By extension, his totem, which is also
associated with that place, and with his spirit, should not be lightly

In such a context one has not succeeded in ‘thinking black’ until one’s
mind can, without intellectual struggle, enfold into some kind of
oneness the notions of body, spirit, ghost, shadow, name, spirit-site,
and totem. T o say so may seem a contradiction, or suggest a paradox,
for the blackfellow can and does, on some occasions, conceptually
isolate the ‘elements’ of the ‘unity’ most distinctly. But his abstractions
do not put him at war with himself. The separable elements I have
mentioned are all present in the metaphysical heart of the idea of
‘person,’ but the overruling mood is one of belief, not of inquiry or
dissent. So long as the belief in The Dreaming lasts, there can be no
momentary flash of Athenian questioning’ to grow into a great
movement of sceptical unbelief which destroys the given unities.

There are many other such ‘onenesses’ which I believe I could
substantiate. A blackfellow may ‘see’ as ‘a unity’ two persons, such as
two siblings or a grandparent and grandchild; or a living man and
something inanimate, as when he tells you that, say, the wollybutt tree,
a totem, is his wife’s brother. (This is not quite as strange as it may seem.
Even modern psychologists tend to include part of ’environment’ in a
definition’ of ‘person’ or ‘personality’.) T here is also some kind of unity


/ ‘ ■ *

Pandak, ¿ríijí, as an old man. H e is a member of the D im tn in elan, and painted
the picture on which the endpapers are based as a g if t to the author, who has been a close
friend for over forty years.

The painting is an attempt by Pandak to depict ‘all the world*, the totality of things
in the cosmos. It is a work of high imagination.

T he symbolism of the painting is somewhat obscure, and draws upon a mythology too
tenuous for a clear account. B ut it depicts five strata or bands of reality. The topmost
stratum is that of the four suns, which move clockwise. The first-appearing sun (or the
sun in its first ascension— Stanner could not determine which) is both female and ophitic,
the second and third suns are male, but the fourth is again female, surrounded by clouds.
The suns are depicted as nearer the earth than the remote stars, which again are female
(and unmarried). The second stratum is that of the M ilky W ay, the third that of the
moon (shown as a cluster of forms between Ínew* and fu ll) , the planets, and the morning
star. T he planets are male, the morning star female, w ith children. The fourth stratum
is th a t of the earth itself, which is depicted as a steady platform of earth and trees and
places near and far, with a fa in t hint of perspective. The fifth stratum is the within’
or the Íunderneath’ of the earth, through which great (male) stars pass nightly. Each
segment of the earth is depicted as a d is t in c t icountry \


P a m h i as a young man w ith his w ift L itttha

between waking-life and dream-life: the means by which, in Aboriginal
understanding, a man fathers a child, is not by sexual intercourse, but
by the act of dreaming about a spirit-child. His own spirit, during a
dream, ‘finds* a child and directs it to his wife, who then conceives.
Physical congress between a man and a woman is contingent, not a
necessary prerequisite. Through the medium of dream-contact with
a spirit an artist is inspired to produce a new song. It is by dreaming
that a man divines the intention of someone to kill him by sorcery, or
of relatives to visit him. And, as I have suggested, it is by the act of
dreaming, in some way difficult for a European to grasp, because of the
force of our analytic abstraction, that a blackfellow conceives himself
to make touch with whatever it is that is continuous between The
Dreaming and the Here-and-Now.

The truth of it seems to be that man, society and nature, and past,
present and future, are at one together within a unitary system of such
a kind that its ontology cannot illumine minds too much under the
influence of humanism, rationalism and science. One cannot easily, in
the mobility of modern life and thought, grasp the vast intuitions of


White Man gat no Dreaming

stability and permanence, and of life and man, at the heart of Aboriginal

It is fatally easy for Europeans, encountering such things for the first
time, to go on to suppose that ‘mysticism’ of this kind rules all
Aboriginal thought. It is not so. ‘Logical’thought and ‘rational’ conduct
are about as widely present in Aboriginal life as they are on the simpler
levels of European life. Once one understands three things—the
primary intuitions which the blackfellow has formed about the nature
of the universe and man, those things in both which he thinks
interesting and significant, and the conceptual system from within
which he reasons about them, then the suppositions about prelogic-
alky, illogicality, and non-rationality can be seen to be merely absurd.
A nd if one wishes to see a really brilliant demonstration of deductive
thought, one has only to see a blackfellow tracking a wounded
kangaroo, and persuade him to say why he interprets given signs in a
certain way.

T h e second means of dealing with the notion of T he Dreaming K
as I said, to try to relate it to things familiar in our own intellects.!
history. From this viewpoint, it is a cosmogony, an account of the
begetting of the universe, a study about creation. It is also a cosmology,
an account or theory of how what was created became an ordered
system. T o be more precise, how the universe became a moral system.

II one analyses the hundreds of tales about The Dreaming, one can
see within them three elements. The first concerns the great awr-
veh—how all the fire and water in the world were stolen and recaptured ;
how men made a mistake over sorcery and now have to die from it; how
the hills, rivers, and waterholes were made; how the sun, moon, and
stars were set upon their courses; and many other dramas of this kind.
T h e second element tells how certain things were instituted for the first
time—how animals and men diverged from a joint stock that was
neither one nor the other; how the blacknosed kangaroo got his black
nose and the porcupine his quills; how such social divisions as tribes,
clans, and language groups were set up; how spirit-children were first
placed in the waterholes, the winds, and leaves of trees. A third
elem ent, if I am not mistaken, allows one to suppose that many of the
main institutions of present-day life were already ruling in The
Dream ing, e.g. marriage, exogamy, sister-exchange, and initiation, as
well as many of the well-known breaches of custom. The men of The
Dreaming committed adultery, betrayed and killed each other, were


The Dreaming (1953)

greedy, stole and committed the very wrongs committed by those now

Now, if one disregards the imagery in which the oral literature of
The Dreaming is cast, one may perhaps come to three conclusions.

The tales are a kind of commentary, or statement, on what is thought
to be permanent and ordained at the very basis of the world and life.
They are a way of stating the principle which animates things. I would
call them a poetic key to Reality. T he Aboriginal does not ask himself
the philosophical-type questions: What is ‘real?’ How many ‘kinds’ of
‘reality’ are there? What are the ‘properties’ of ‘reality?’ How are the
properties ‘interconnected’? This is the idiom of Western intellectual
discourse and the fruit of a certain social history. His tales are, however,
a kind of answer to such questions so far as they have been asked at all.
They may not be a ‘definition’, but they are a ‘key’ to reality, a key to
the singleness and the plurality of things set up once-for-all when, in
The Dreaming, the universe became man’s universe. The active
philosophy of Aboriginal life transforms this ‘key’, which is expressed
in the idiom of poetry, drama, and symbolism, into a principle that The
Dreaming determines not only what life is but also what it can he. Life,
so to speak, is a one-possibility thing, and what this is, is the ‘meaning’
of The Dreaming.

The tales are also a collation of what is validly known about such
ordained permanencies. T he blacks cite The Dreaming as a chapter of
absolute validity in answer to all questions of why and haw. In this sense,
the tales can be regarded as being, perhaps not a definition, but a ‘key’
of Truth. ‘

They also state, by their constant recitation of what was done rightly
and wrongly in The Dreaming, the ways in which good men should,
and bad men will, act now. In this sense, they are a ‘key’ or guide to
the norms of conduct, and a prediction of how men will err.

One may thus say that, after a fashion—a cryptic, symbolic, and
poetic fashion—the tales are ‘a philosophy’ in the garb of an oral
literature. T he European has a philosophic literature which expresses
a largely deductive understanding of reality, truth, goodness, and
beauty. The blackfellow has a mythology, a ritual, and an art which
express an intuitive, visionary, and poetic understanding of the same
ultimates. In following out The Dreaming, the blackfellow ‘lives* this
philosophy. It is an implicit philosophy, but nevertheless a real one.
Whereas we hold (and may live) a philosophy of abstract propositions,

White Man got no Dreaming

attained by someone standing professionally outside ‘life’ and treating
it as an object of contemplation and inquiry, the blackfellow holds his
philosophy in mythology, attained as the social product of an indefi­
nitely ancient past, and proceeds to live it out ‘in’ life, in part through
a ritual and an expressive art, and in part through non-sacred social

European minds are made uneasy by the facts that the stories are,
quite plainly, preposterous; are often a mass of internal contradictions;
are encrusted by superstitious fancies about magic, sorcery, hobgob­
lins, and superhuman heroes; and lack the kind of theme and struc­
tu re—in other words, the ‘story’ element—for which we look. Many
of us cannot help feeling that such things can only be the products of
absurdly ignorant credulity and a lower order of mentality. This is to
fall victim to a facile fallacy. O ur own intellectual history is not an
absolute standard by which to judge others. T he worst imperialisms
are those of preconception.

Custom is the reality, beliefs but the shadows which custom makes
on the wall. Since the tales, in any case, are not really ‘explanatory’ in
purpose or function, they naturally lack logic, system and complete­
ness. It is simply pointless to look for such things within them. But we
are not entitled to suppose that, because the tales are fantastical, the
social life producting them is itself fantastical. T he shape of reality is
always distorted in the shadows it throws. O ne finds much logic, system
and rationality in the blacks’ actual scheme of life.

T hese tales are neither simply illustrative nor simply explanatory;
they are fanciful and poetic in content because they are based on
visionary and intuitive insights into mysteries; and, if we are ever to
understand them, we must always take them in their complex concent.
If, then, they make more sense to the poet, the artist, and the
philosopher than to the clinicians of human life, let us reflect on the
withering effect on sensibility of our pervasive rationalism, rather than
depreciate the gifts which produced the Aboriginal imaginings. And
in no case should we expect the tales, prima facie, to be even interesting
if studied out of context. Aboriginal mythology is quite unlike the
Scandinavian, Indian, or Polynesian mythologies.


The Dreaming (1953)


In my own understanding, T he Dreaming is a proof that the black­
fellow shares with us two abilities which have largely made human
history what it is.

The first of these we might call ‘the metaphysical gift’. I mean the
ability to transcend oneself, to make acts of imagination so that one can
stand ‘outside’ or ‘away from’ oneself, and turn the universe, oneself
and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation. T he second ability is
a ‘drive’ to try to ‘make sense’ out of human experience and to find some
‘principle’ in the whole human situation. This ‘drive’ is, in some way,
built into the constitution of the human mind. N o one who has real
knowledge of Aboriginal life can have any doubt that they possess, and
use, both abilities very much as we do. They differ from us only in the
directions in which they turn their gifts, the idiom in which they express
them, and the principles of intellectual control.

T he Aborigines have no gods, just or unjust, to adjudicate the world.
N ot even by straining can one see in such culture-heroes as Baiame
and Darumulum the true hint of a Yahveh, jealous, omniscient, and
omnipotent. T he ethical insights are dim and somewhat coarse in
texture. One can find in them little trace, say, of the inverted pride, the
self-scrutiny, and the consciousness of favour and destiny which
characterised the early Jews. A glimpse, but no truly poignant sense,
of moral dualism; no notion of grace or redemption; no whisper of
inner peace and reconcilement; no problems of worldly life to be solved
only by a consummation of history; no heaven of reward or hell of
punishment. T he blackfellow’s after-life is but a shadowy replica of
worldly-life, so none flee to inner sanctuary to escape the world. T here
are no prophets, saints, or illuminati. There is a concept of goodness,
but it lacks true scruple. Men can become ritually unclean, but may be
cleansed by a simple mechanism. T here is a moral law but, as in the
beginning, men are both good and bad, and no one is racked by the
knowledge. I imagine there could never have been an Aboriginal
Ezekiel, any more than there could have been a Job. T he two sets of
insights cannot easily be compared, but it is plain that their underlying
moods are wholly unlike, and their store of meaningfulness very
uneven. In the one there seem an almost endless possibility of growth,
and a mood of censoriousness and pessimism. In the other, a kind of
standstill, and a mood which is neither tragic nor optimistic. T he

White Man got no Dreaming

Aborigines are not shamed or inspired by a religious thesis of what men
m ight become by faith and grace. Their metaphysic assents, without
brooding or challenge, to what men evidently have to be because the
term s of life are cast. Yet they have a kind of religiosity cryptically
displayed in their magical awareness of nature, in their complex
totemism, ritual and art, and pechaps too even in their intricately
ordered life.

T hey are, of course, nomads—hunters and foragers who grow
nothing, build little, and stay nowhere long. They make almost no
physical mark on the environment. Even in areas which are still
inhabited, it takes a knowledgeable eye to detect their recent presence.
W ithin a m atter of weeks, the roughly cleared camp-sites may be erased
by sun, rain and wind. After a year or two there may be nothing to
suggest that the country was ever inhabited. Until one stumbles on a
few old flint-tools, a stone quarry, a shell-midden, a rock painting, or
something of the kind, one may think the land had never known the
touch of man.

They neither dominate their environment nor seek to change it.
‘Children of nature’ they are not, nor are they nature’s ‘masters’. One
can only say they are ‘at one’ with nature. T he whole ecological
principle of their life m ight be summed up in the Baconian aphor­
ism— natura non vincitur nisi parendo: ‘nature is not to be conquered
except by obeying’. Naturally, one finds metaphysical and social
reflections of the fact.

They move about, carrying their scant possessions, in small bands
of anything from ten to sixty persons. Each band belongs to a given
locality. A number of bands—anything from three to four up to twelve
o r fifteen, depending on the fertility of the area—make up a ‘tribe’. A
tribe is usually a language or dialect group which thinks of itself as
having a certain unity of common speech and shared customs. The
tribes range in size from a few hundred to a few thousands souls.

O ne rarely sees a tribe as a formed entity. It comes together and lives
as a unit only for a great occasion—a feast, a corroboree, a hunt, an
initiation, or a formal duel. After a few days—at the most weeks—it
breaks up again into smaller bands or sections of bands: most com­
monly into a group of brothers, with their wives, children, and
grandchildren, and perhaps a few close relatives. These parties rove
about their family locality or, by agreement, the territories of imme­
diate neighbours. They do not wander aimlessly, but to a purpose, and


The Dreaming (1953)

in tune with the seasonal food supply. O ne can almost plot a year of
their life in terms of movement towards the places where honey, yams,
grass-seeds, eggs, or some other food staple, is in bearing and ready
for eating.

T he uncomplex visible routine, and the simple segmentation, are
very deceptive. It took well over half a century for Europeans to realise
that, behind the outward show, was an inward structure of surprising
complexity. It was a century before any real understanding of this
structure developed.

In one tribe with which I am familiar, a very representative tribe,
there are about 100 ‘invisible’ divisions which have to be analysed
before one can claim even a serviceable understanding of the tribe’s
organisation. T he structure is much more complex than that of an
Australian village of the same size. T he complexity is in the most
striking contrast with the comparative simplicity which rules in the two
other departments of Aboriginal life—the material culture, on the one
hand, and the ideational or metaphysical culture on the other. W e have,
I think, to try to account for this contrast in some way.

T heir creative ‘drive’ to make sense and order out of things has
concentrated on the social rather than on the metaphysical or the
materials side. Consequently, there has been an unusually rich deve­
lopment of what the anthropologist calls ‘social structure,’ the network
of enduring relations recognised between people. This very intricate
system is an intellectual and social achievement of a high order. It is
not, like an instinctual response, a phenom enon of ‘nature’; it is not,
like art or ritual, a complex type of behaviour passionately added to
‘nature’, in keeping with metaphysical insight but without rational and
intelligible purposes which can be clearly stated; it has to be compared,
I think, with such a secular achievement as, say, parliamentary
government in a European society. It is truly positive knowledge.

One may see within it three things: given customs, ‘of which the
memory of man runneth not to the contrary’; a vast body of cumulative
knowledge about the effects of these customs on a society in given
circumstances; and the use of the power of abstract reason to rationalise
the resultant relations into a system.

But it is something much more; their social organisation has become
the source of the dominant mode of Aboriginal thinking. T he blacks use social
organisation to give a bony structure to parts of the world-outlook
suggested by intuitive speculation. I mean by this that they have taken

White Man got no Dreaming

som e of its fundamental principles and relations and have applied them
to very much wider sets of phenomena. This tends to happen if any type
of system of thought becomes truly dominant. It is, broadly, what
Europeans did with ‘religion’ and ‘science’ as systems: extended their
principles and categories to fields far beyond the contexts in which the
systems grew.

T hus, the blacks have taken the male-female social principle and
have extended it to the non-human world. In one tribe I have studied,
all women, without exception, call particular birds or trees by the same
kinship terms which they apply to actual relatives. In the same way, all
me n without exception use comparable terms for a different set of trees
or birds. From this results what the anthropologist calls ‘sex totemism’.
T h e use of other principles results in other types of totemism. An
understanding of this simple fact removes much of the social, if not the
ritual, mystery of totemism. Again, the principle of relatedness itself,
relatedness between known people by known descent through known
marriages, is extended over the whole face of human society. The same
term s of kinship which are used for close agnatic and affinal relatives
are used for every other person an Aboriginal meets in the course of
his life: strangers, friends, enemies, and known kin may all be called
by the same terms as one uses for brother, father, mother’s sister,
father’s m other’s brother, and so on. This is what an anthropologist
means when he says ‘Aboriginal society is a society of kinship’.

I t might even be argued that the blacks have done much the same
thing with ‘time’. T im e as a continuum is a concept only hazily present
in the Aboriginal mind. What might be called social time is, in a sense,
‘bent’ into cycles or circles. The most controlled understanding of it
is by reckoning in terms of generation-classes, which are arranged into
named and recurring cycles. As far as the blackfellow thinks about time
at all, his interest lies in the cycles rather than in the continuum, and
each cycle is in essence a principle for dealing with social

O ut of all this may come for some an understanding of the blackfellow
very different from that which has passed into the ignorance and
vulgarity of popular opinion.

The Dreaming (1953)

One may see that, like all men, he is a metaphysician in being able
to transcend himself. With the metaphysic goes a mood and spirit,
which I can only call a mood and spirit of ‘assent’; neither despair nor
resignation, optimism nor pessimism, quietism nor indifference. T he
mood, and the outlook beneath it, make him hopelessly out of place
in a world in which the Renaissance has triumphed only to be
perverted, and in which the products of secular humanism, rationalism,
and science challenge their own hopes, indeed, their beginnings.

Much association with the blackfellow makes me feel I may not be
far wrong in saying that, unlike us, he seems to see ‘life’ as a
one-possibility thing. This may be why he seems to have almost no
sense of tragedy. If ‘tragedy is a looking at fate for a lesson in
deportment on life’s scaffold’, the Aboriginal seems to me to have read
the lesson and to have written it into the very conception of how men
should live, or else to have stopped short of the insight that there are
gods either just or unjust. N or have 1 found in him much self-pity.
These sentiments can develop only if life presents real alternatives, or
if it denies an alternative that one feels should be there. A philosophy
of assent fits only a life of unvarying constancy. I do not at all say that
pain, sorrow, and sadness have no place in Aboriginal life, for I have
seen them all too widely. All I mean is that the blacks seem to have gone
beyond, or not quite attained, the human quarrel with such things.
Their rituals of sorrow, their fortitude in pain, and their undemon­
strative sadness seem to imply a reconciliation with the terms of life
such that ‘peace is the understanding of tragedy and at the same time
its preservation’, or else that they have not sensed life as baffled by
either fate or wisdom.

Like all men, he is also a philosopher in being able to use his power
of abstract reason. His genius, his mitier, and—in some sense—his fate,
is that because of endowment and circumstance this power has
channelled itself mainly into one activity, ‘making sense’ out of the
social relations among men living together. His intricate social
organisation is an impressive essay on the economy of conflict, tension,
and experiment in a life situation at the absolute pole of our own.

Like all men, too, he pays the price of his insights and solutions. We
look to a continuous unfolding of life, and to a blissful attainment of
the J>etter things for which, we say, man has an infinite capacity. For
some time, nothing has seemed of less consequence to us than the
maintenance of continuity. T he cost, in instability and inequity, is


White M an got no Dreaming

proving very heavy. Aboriginal life has endured feeling that continuity,
not man, is the measure of all. The cost in the world of power and
change is extinction. What defeats the blackfellow in the modern
world, fundamentally, is his transcendentalism. So much of his life and
thought are concerned with The Dreaming that it stultifies his ability
to develop. This is not a new thing in human history. A good analogy
is with the process in Chinese poetry by which, according to Arthur
Waley, its talent for classical allusion became a vice which finally
destroyed it altogether.

A ‘philosophy of life*, that is, a system of mental attitudes towards
the conduct of life, may or may not be consistent with an actual way
of life. W hether it is or is not will depend on how big a gap there is,
if any, between what life is and what men think life ought to be. If Ideal
and Real drift too far away from one another (as they did at the end of
the Middle Ages, and seem increasingly to do in this century) men face
some difficult options. They have to change their way of life, or their
philosophy, or both, or live unhappily somewhere in between. We are
familiar enough with the ‘war of the philosophies* and the tensions of
m odern life which express them. Problems of this kind had no place,
I would say, in traditional Aboriginal life. It knew nothing, and could
not, I think, have known anything of the Christian’s straining for inner
perfection; of ‘moral man and immoral society’; of the dilemma of
liberty and authority; of intellectual uncertainty, class warfare, and
discontent with one’s lot in life—all of which, in some sense, are
problems of the gap between Ideal and Real.

T h e Aborigines may have been in Australia for as long as 10 000
years. N o one at present can do more than guess whence or how they
came, and there is little more than presumptive evidence on which to
base a guess. T he span of time, immense though it may have been,
m atters less than the fact that, so far as one can tell, they have been
almost completely isolated. Since their arrival, no foreign stimulus has
touched them, except on the fringes of the northern and north-western
coasts. T o these two facts we must add two others. The physical
environm ent has, evidently, not undergone any marked general
change, although there has been a slow desiccation of parts of the
centre into desert, and some limited coastline changes. The fourth fact
is that their tools and material crafts seem to have been very

If we put these four facts about the Aborigines together— 1) an


■dú’ittf. p a in tin g s from K ir in d j

‘ingin. Below, deta ils of fu-o ot the background

White Man got no Dreaming

immensely long span of time, 2) spent in more or less complete
isolation, 3) in a fairly constant environment, 4) with an unprogressive
material culture, we may perhaps see why sameness, absence of change,
fixed routine, regularity, call it what you will, is a main dimension of
their thought and life. Let us sum up this aspect as leading to a
metaphysical emphasis on abiding ness. They place a very special value
on things remaining unchangingly themselves, on keeping life to a
routine which is known and trusted. Absence of change, which means
certainty of expectation, seems to them a good thing in itself. One may
say, their Ideal and Real come very close together. The value given to
continuity is so high that they are not simply a people ‘without a
history’: they are a people who have been able, in some sense, to ‘defeat’
history, to become a-historical in mood, outlook, and life. This is why,
among them, the philosophy of assent, the glove, fits the hand of actual
custom almost to perfection, and the forms of social life, the art, the
ritual, and much else take on a wonderful symmetry.

T heir tools and crafts, meagre—pitiably meagre—though they are,
have nonetheless been good enough to let them win the battle for
survival, and to win it comfortably at that. With no pottery, no
knowledge of metals, no wheel, no domestication of animals, no
agriculture, they have still been able, not only to live and people the
entire continent, but even in a sense to prosper, to win a surplus of
goods and develop leisure-time occupations. The evidences of the
surplus of yield over animal need are to be seen in the spider-web of
trade routes criss-crossing the continent, on which a large volume of
non-utilitarian articles circulated, themselves largely the products of
leisure. The true leisure-time activities—social entertaining, great
ceremonial gatherings, even much of the ritual and artistic life—
impressed observers even from the beginning. T he notion of Abori­
ginal life as always preoccupied with the risk of starvation, as always
a hair’s breadth from disaster, is as great a caricature as Hobbes’s notion
of savage life as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. The best
corrective of any such notion is to spend a few nights in an Aboriginal
camp, and experience directly the unique joy in life which can be
attained by a people of few wants, an other-worldly cast of mind and
a simple scheme of life which so shapes a day that it ends with
communal singing and dancing in the firelight.

T h e more one sees of Aboriginal life the stronger the impression
that its mode, its ethos, and its principle are variations on a single


The Dreaming (1953)

theme— continuity, constancy, balance, symmetry, regularity, system,
or some such quality as these words convey.

One of the most striking things is that there are no great conflicts
over power, no great contests for place and office. This single fact
explains much else, because it rules out so much that would be
destructive of stability. The idea of a formal chief, or a leader with
authority over the persons of others in a large number of fields of
life—say, for example, as with a Polynesian or African chief—just does
not seem to make sense to a blackfellow. N or does even the modified
Melanesian notion—that of a man becoming some sort of a leader
because he accumulates a great deal of garden-wealth and so gains
prestige. There are leaders in the sense of men of unusual skill,
initiative, and force and they are given much respect; they may even
attract something like a following; but one finds no trace of formal or
institutionalised chieftainship. So there are no offices to stimulate
ambition, intrigue, or the use of force; to be envied or fought over; or
to be lost or won. Power—a real thing in every society—is diffused
mainly through one sex, the men, but in such a way that it is not to be
won, or lost, in concentrations, by craft, struggle, or coup. It is very
much a male-dominated society. The older men dominate the younger;
the men dominate the women. N ot that the women are chattels—D r
Phyllis Kaberry in her interesting book Aboriginal Woman disposed of
that Just-so story very effectively, but there is a great deal of discri­
mination against them. The mythology justifies this by tales telling how
men had to take power from women by force in T he Dreaming. The
psychology (perhaps the truth) of it is as obvious as it is amusing. If
women were not kept under, they would take over!

At all events, the struggle for power occurred once-for-all. Power,
authority, influence, age, status, knowledge, all run together and, in
some sense, are the same kind of thing. The men of power, authority,
and influence are old men—at least, mature men; the greater the secret
knowledge and authority, the higher the status; and the initiations are
so arranged (by the old men) that the young men do not acquire full
knowledge, and so attain status and authority, until they too are well
advanced in years. One can thus see why the great term of respect is
‘old man’— maluka, as in We of the Never-Never T he system is self-
protective and self-renewing. The real point of it all is that the checks
and balances seem nearly perfect, and no one really seems to want the
kind of satisfaction that might come from a position of domination. At


White M an got no Dreaming

th e same time, there is a serpent in Eden. The narrow self-interest of
m en exploits The Dreaming.

Power over things? Every canon of good citizenship and common
sense is against it, though there are, of course, clear property
arrangements. But what could be more useless than a store of food that
will not keep, or a heavy pile of spears that have to be carried
everywhere? Especially in a society in which the primary virtues are
generosity and fair dealing. Nearly every social affair involving
goods—food in the family, payments in marriage, inter-tribal
exchange—is heavily influenced by equalitarian notions; a notion of
reciprocity as a moral obligation; a notion of generously equivalent
return; and a surprisingly clear notion of fair dealing, or making things
‘level* as the blackfellow calls it in English.

There is a tilt of the system towards the interests of the men, but
given this tilt, everything else seems as if carefully calculated to keep
it in place. The blacks do not fight over land. There are no wars or
invasions to seize territory. They do not enslave each other. There is
n o master-servant relation. T here is no class division. There is no
property or income inequality. The result is a homeostasis, far-
reaching and stable.

I do not wish to create an impression of a social life without egotism,
w ithout vitality, without cross-purposes, or without conflict. Indeed,
there is plenty of all, as there is of malice, enmity, bad faith, and
violence, running along the lines of sex-inequality and age-inequality.
B ut this essential humanity exists, and runs its course, within a system
whose first principle is the preservation of balance. And, arching over
it all, is the logos of The Dreaming. How we shall state this when we
fully understand it I do not know, but I should think we are more likely
to ennoble it than not. Equilibrium ennobled is ‘abidingness’. Piccarda’s
answer in the third canto of the Paradiso gives the implicit theme and
logic of The Dreaming: e la sua volúntate i nostra pace, ‘His will is our
peace.’ But the gleam that lighted Judah did not reach the Australian
wilderness, and the blacks follow The Dreaming only because their
fathers did.


Continuity and Change
among the Aborigines


Some time ago I thought that a suitable topic for my Presidential
Address would be ‘The Future and the Aborigines*. A great many
people seem to have had the same idea for other addresses about the
same time. I did not know this because I was still in a rem ote corner
of the continent studying the Aborigines’ past. I then learned that their
future was to be discussed by a special symposium of this Section. The
title of my address thus had to become ‘Continuity and Change in
Aboriginal Life*. The topic remains much the same. This is a good
illustration of continuity and change.

It is not my wish to cross the wind or steal the thunder of others who
are to speak later. I shall therefore limit myself to some very general
observations on things which, being continuous from the past of
Aboriginal life, and still of influence in the present, are likely to have
force in the future, until the Aborigines cease to be themselves, which
seems to be what we are about to insist upon their doing.

* Presidential Address to Section F (Anthropology) AN ZAAS, Adelaide, 1958.


The Last Step?

Movement did not stop with the outstations. In mid-1981, the
Pintupi moved back to a site near the Kintore Range, known to
them as Warlungurru. This area was, for the first time in twenty
years, their own country-located 150 miles west of Papunya. The
older Pintupi saw the creation of this settlement as a step toward
autonomy and a reassertion of control over destructive outside
influences. Nonetheless, the actual move to Kintore depended on
the grudging willingness of the government to support the new
community and the provision of a white administrator to handle
the business with Alice Springs. As the Pintupi had hoped, however,
the distance has made alcohol difficult to obtain, and they have
prohibited its use in Kintore.

Those who moved from Papunya have been joined at Kintore
by relatives who had once left the desert for Balgo, Warburton
Range, or Jigalong. And the thrust of recent developments is an
increasing ritual and pragmatic communication among Western
Desert communities that had previously been individually isolated
on the fringes of the Gibson Desert. Even so, access to the more
remote parts of the desert remains difficult. The limited water and
transportation resources in the Western Desert initially restricted
the population of 300-350 Pintupi to living in one settlement at
Kintore. But their plan, since the move, has always been to create
a number of small outstations in the Gibson Desert. The drilling
of new bores is now making this last movement possible, with fifty
Pintupi living still further west at Kiwirrkura and other outstations.
This development promises, one hopes, an eventual end to their


Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self


The Dreaming: Time and Space

It’s not our idea, it’s a big law.
We have to sit down alongside of that Law like all

the dead people who went before us.

Throughout Australia, the Aboriginal outlook on human life and the universe is shaped by a distinctive and subtle conception
that they refer to in English as The Dreaming. A series of celebrated
anthropologists from Spencer and Gillen (1899), Roheim (1945), and
Strehlow (1947), to Stanner (1956, 1966), Meggitt (1972), and Munn
(1970) have grappled with the significance of The Dreaming, each
arriving at fruitful interpretations. Taken together with the theo-
retical extrapolations of scholars such as Durkheim (1912) and Levi-
Strauss ( 1966), these accounts provide illuminating analyses of this
distinctly Aboriginal cultural construction. Pointedly, they all agree
on the importance of The Dreaming in Aboriginal social life and
its central place in constituting their lived world.

Yet for all that has been written, the relationship between this
cultural construction of time, space, and personhood and the par-
ticular varieties of social life remains problematic. It is with this
in view that I address again the problem of The Dreaming among
the Pintupi.

Initially, the constitution of the world by The Dreaming must
be treated phenomenologically as a given condition of “what there
is,” an endowment of being and potential that defines for Pintupi
the framework of human action. Like all symbolic constructions,
however, its meaning requires further interpretation (Geertz 1973,
Ricoeur 1970, Rosaldo 1980). Because it touches so many dimensions
of Pintupi life, The Dreaming (tjukurrpa) possesses no single or
finite significance. It represents, instead, a projection into symbolic
space of various social processes. We understand the social meaning
of such a construct only when we are able to relate it to the particular
circumstances of those who use it.


For the Pintupi, at least, particular attention should be paid to
the precarious achievement of Society within the constraints of life
in dispersed local groups as a construction that transcends the
present and immediate. Essentially, the form taken by The Dreaming
among the Pintupi represents this dilemma. Its structure is a product
of the way Pintupi society reproduces itself in space and time.
Indeed, the distinction that the concept of The Dreaming establishes
between two levels of being reflects the structuring of Pintupi space.
Such a view sustains the intuition that two other constructs of
major importance in Pintupi social life-ngurra, meaning “camp,”
“country,” or 11place 1

11 and walytja, referring to 11family 1
1111 relatives 1


or 11kin 11-are fundamentally linked to the concept of The Dreaming.
It is in relation to this practical logic that space and time, defined
by The Dreaming, acquire their value.

The Dreaming: Tjukurrpa as Ontology

Far more than a set of just-so stories, the concept of The Dreaming
is basic to the Pintupi view of reality. The distinction between The
Dreaming and all else underlies every feature of their universe. Both
the country (the landscape and its form) and the people are thought
to be “from The Dreaming” (tjukurrtjanu), the ground of being.
Pintupi describe a large hill in the Kintore Range, for example, as
the body of a monitor lizard, Ngintaka, who traveled from the west.
At Kintore, the monitor lizard came upon a group of women and
children dancing. He killed them with his tail and, raising his head
up in a position that is represented in the shape of the landform,
turned to stone (purlirringu). The hill that arose is known as
Yunytjunya, in reference to the exposure of the lizard’s throat

As Pintupi use the term, “Dreaming” may refer both to the
specific stories and to the whole creative epoch of which the stories
are part. A narrative of the traveling ancestor who killed the dancing
women becomes, then, Monitor Lizard Dreaming.

An important semantic opposition reveals the consistent on-
tology underlying the Pintupi conceptualization of The Dreaming.
When they describe events, Pintupi contrast The Dreaming (tju-
kurrpa) with those events or stories that are said to be yuti. The
word yuti signifies visibility or some other form of sensory pres-
entation to a subject. A person might be directed to an ax he wants
to borrow by the phrase, “There it is over there, visible” (yuti). A
kangaroo emerging from behind a bush has, to the Pintupi, “become
visible’ 1 (yutirringu). But other senses equally convey the informa-
tion that makes an object yuti. For example, a native curer once

48 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

told me he was certain that a car was on the way to our camp. After
waiting and listening for several minutes, he turned to me trium-
phantly and said, “Listen, the motor sound has become yuti. 11

Whether or not something is yuti is very important to Pintupi, who
place great emphasis on personal experience and distinguish between
what is witnessed and what is reported at secondhand. The contrast
between yuti and tjukurrpa, however, does not depend on a person’s
actually having seen an event. As long as somebody could see an
event, it may be described as yuti. What is critical ontologically is
not whether a particular person witnessed the event, but whether
it is in principle witnessable.

A late arrival to a conversation often asks a storyteller about
the status of the narrative: “Are you talking about The Dreaming?”
11No 1

11 he may answer, “not Dreaming; I’m talking about the visible”
(yuti), or “not Dreaming; I’m talking about what really happened”
(mularrpa). Since the word mularrpa usually means 11real, 11 11 true 1


or “actual” as opposed to “untrue, 11 “fictitious, 11 or “lie, 11 its contrast
with the concept of The Dreaming may seem puzzling. However,
The Dreaming is not viewed either as a fiction or a lie. In fact, there
is no category of fictional narrative in Pintupi. A story either
happened or it did not; if it did not occur, the story is a “lie. 11

The relationship between these two realms of the universe
(tjukurrpa and mularrpa) is not, therefore, one of simple logical
opposition. Rather, The Dreaming constitutes the ground or foun-
dation of the visible, present-day world. What speakers define by
choosing between these words is whether an occurrence is in the
phenomenal (mularrpa) realm or in the noumenal, whether it is
witnessable. For the Pintupi, the veracity of The Dreaming is assured,
no matter how imperfectly it may be known by humans who did
not witness it. These stories, they insist, are not “made up just for
fun” (ngunytji); they really happened. The existence of the lizard’s
hill is proof enough that the event occurred as postulated. 1 Thus,
informants assured me of a Dreaming story’s truth by insisting they
had seen the place where it happened.

Pintupi apply this theory of existence to everything in their
world. Persons, customs, geographical features, all are said to have
originated in The Dreaming. The phrase they use- 11from The
Dreaming, it becomes real 0 (tjukurrtjanu, mularrarringu)-repre-
sents a passage between two planes of being.

If The Dreaming can be said to transcend the present in this
fashion, the fact that the landscape is a series of stories allows it,
also, to transcend the immediate. Frequently known as totemic
ancestors in anthropological literature, the mythological personages
of The Dreaming traveled from place to place, hunted, performed

The Dreaming: Time and Space 49

ceremonies, fought, and finally turned to stone or “went into the
ground/ 1 where they remain. The actions of these powerful beings-
animal, human, and monster 2-created the world as it now exists.
They gave it outward form, identity (a name), and internal structure.
The desert is crisscrossed with their lines of travel and, just as an
animal’s tracks leave a record of what happened, the geography and
special features of the land-hills, creeks, salt lakes, trees-are
marks of the ancestors’ activities. Places where exceptionally sig-
nificant events took place, where power was left behind, or where
the ancestors went into the ground and still remain are special
sacred sites (yarta yarta) because ancestral potency is near. For
almost all the landscape (hills, water holes, and so onl, the country
(ngurra) takes its name from The Dreaming, either from the event
or from the associated rituals and songs. Finally, while Dreamtime
a~tion gives name and identity to each location, the connections a
story may make between places also links them into a larger country
whose parts share identity.

Other aspects of Pintupi life derive from this epoch as well.
One hears repeatedly about customs and of human beings that
“from The Dreaming, ltheyJ became real.” Nothing is created by
human beings; it was all there “from the start.” Pintupi believe
that The Dreaming left behind at various places the creative
potency-or spiritual essence-of all the natural species and of
human beings. They speak of conception and birth as the emergence
of an individual from the plane of The Dreaming onto the physical,
phenomenal plane of existence. Logically, then, conception in the
Pintupi sense refers to the quickening of the fetus, when the mother
first notices physically that she is pregnant. An individual is said
to have been “sitting as a Dreamtime being” (nyinama t;ukurrpa)
and then to have become visible (yutirringu). Alternately, the
transformation may be characterized as “becoming body” or “be-
coming a human being” (yarnangurringu). Individuals are thought
of as being “left behind” (wantingu) by The Dreaming and subse-
quently to emerge into the present-day world. Birth thus represents
a movement from the significant, invisible, temporally prior situ-
ation to the present, visible one; and quite unambiguously, the
spirit of an individual preexists, autonomously, apart from parental

The Dreaming also links people and place. The place from which
a person’s spirit comes is his or her Dreaming-place, and the person
is an incarnation of the ancestor who made the place. A person’s
Dreaming provides the basic source of his or her identity, an identity
that preexists. It is not unusual, therefore, to hear people describe
actions of The Dreaming in the first person. For the Pintupi,

50 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

individuals come from the country, and this relationship provides
a primary basis for owning a sacred site and for living in the area.
In such ways, present-day arrangements are prefigured by The
Dreaming, although the Pintupi see themselves as following The
Dreaming. As the invisible framework of this world, The Dreaming
is its cosmic prototype. 3


Although Pintupi make a sharp conceptual distinction between
“dreams” and “The Dreaming,” certain cultural understandings
underlie both. Therefore, the word t;ukurrpa is also used to signify
actual dreams. Sometimes, Pintupi will describe the act of dreaming
as “seeing Dreaming” (t;ukurrpa nyanginpa) or just as “dreaming”
by adding a suffix to the root to create a verb (t;ukurrmaninpa). In
this way, the experience of dreams is contrasted with the visible,
but The Dreaming remains a different order of reality. Conventional
dreams are usually considered matters of “little import” (ngunyt;i).
To sustain the distinction when necessary, the word kapukurri
unambiguously refers to actual dreams and is never equivalent with
the concept of The Dreaming as the mythological past. The rela-
tionship between the two derives, presumably, from their joint
reference to situations of nonordinary reality, but the connection
between them is culturally problematic.

The common Pintupi view of what happens in dreams is that
one’s “spirit” (kurrunpa) travels apart from the body and observes
things not ordinarily within the field of sensory presentation. These
observed events may be distant in time or space but, significantly,
others cannot witness them. Sometimes individuals are believed to
come into contact with the ancestral figures of The Dreaming, who
may give them special knowledge, usually of songs and ceremonies.
These experiences are considered to be revelations of matters people
did not know of before. What one sees is believed to have always
existed. As other observers have pointed out (cf. Stanner 1956), the
experience of dreams-as a dimension of existence that is parallel
to everyday life but invisible to it-makes them a good metaphor
for The Dreaming. Like the latter, dreams also are said to be “not
real” (mularrpa wiya). The relationship is more than metaphorical
and, consequently, more complex.

The major question of all such experiences is whether or not
they are “true.” Though usually considered insignificant, their value
is negotiable, as the tentative ambiguity of the commonly used
phrase “I saw something” suggests. When people wake up in the
morning, it is not uncommon for them to mention a dream. They

The Dreaming: Time and Space 51

may wonder about what they saw, what it means, and whether it
is an omen, but a dream’s potential portent seems prominent only
in situations of uncertainty and danger. Although a dream of violence
that a man interprets as a killing at a distant settlement may arouse
anxiety if relations are strained between groups, it will be forgotten
if nothing transpires. Or such a dream may gain importance in
retrospect, if the appearance of an event confirms an interpretation
of it.

The significance of dreams, then, becomes a product of negoti-
ation and not a given. Even if one believes one has come into contact
with ancestral beings, to validate this publicly one must be able to
persuade others to accept the claim. Most often, people express a
puzzled curiosity rather than an insistence on any value as omen.
In this way, the mystery of dreams parallels that of The Dreaming.
While they offer a certain amount of information, one cannot be
sure about their meaning and no one else will have witnessed them.
That they lie outside of human control-unwitnessable-gives
dreams much potency: They remain open to enormous interpretive
possibilities, while individuals need not commit themselves to a
particular meaning. Social construction can take place around them
without attributing creativity to individuals.

Time as Continuity

What is critical about the concept of The Dreaming is that it denies
creative significance to history and human action, just as it denies
the erosions of time. It represents all that exists as deriving from a
single, unchanging, timeless source. All things have always been
the same, forever deriving from the same basic pattern. The Dream-
ing, which cannot be altered by human action, is the very image of
self-direction and the source of a given autonomy in human life.

In the Pintupi view, things as they are-the familiar customs
of male initiation, death, cross-cousin marriage, sorcery, and burial,
for example-were instituted once-and-for-all in The Dreaming.
Human beings neither made it so nor invented these practices. Like
everything else of the cosmos, people and their practices are simply
part of a single, monistic order of existents established long ago.
The vital essence of men and women appeared as spirits (kurrunpa)
from The Dreaming. The Pintupi ontology thus emphasizes the
relatedness of the cosmos, rather than the opposition of spirit and
matter, natural and supernatural, or good and evil.

It is also a world view that implies continuity and permanence.
The historicity of hills unchanged through time proclaims that the
cosmos has always been as it is and that, indeed, it cannot be

52 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

different. The Pintupi, like other Western Desert Aborigines, some-
times mark this quality of “life as a one-possibility thing” (Stanner
1966) when they describe The Dreaming as “the Law.” In doing so,
they emphasize not only the norms or precedents established in
The Dreaming, but also the sense of moral imperative it embodies.
People must continue The Dreaming and preserve it, making first
things continuous with last, by “holding the Law” for coming
generations. Thus, human beings play a role in the maintenance of
the instituted order. Pintupi explain about The Dreaming that it is
not a product of human subjectivity or will. It is, rather, an order
to which all are subordinated: “It’s not our idea,” men told me.
“It’s a big Law. We have to sit down alongside of that Law like all
the dead people who went before us.” Indeed, not only do the
Dreaming narratives tell how the world came to be, but the raw
material of the stories, the symbols themselves in the form of the
landscape, signify the same concern on another level. Human life
and being, they imply, are as permanent, enduring, and unchanging
as the land itself.

These concepts are subtle and complex. In Western historical
terms, changes have always taken place. The evidence of new
customs and new cults is unassailable; life is not static. The Pintupi
understandings of the historical process are not totally static either,
but the concept of the The Dreaming organizes experience so that
it appears to be continuous and permanent. For the Pintupi, the
dynamic, processual aspect of history seems to exist as one of dis-
covering, uncovering, or even reenacting elements of The Dreaming. 4

The basis for the present-day association of people, in the
Pintupi view, is that they come from one Dreaming, that is, a single
geographical track of a story. Since the forties, Western Desert
Aborigines have been moving out of the deepest desert areas and
congregating around government settlements and mission stations.
This process has brought together people who previously had had
little contact with each other. Some Pintupi wound up hundreds of
miles to the north, at Balgo Mission. Until 1975 I had been told
that one of the main Pintupi Dreaming tracks ended at a place
called Pinari near Lake Mackay. However, after Pintupi from my
community visited their long-separated relatives at Balgo, they
returned to tell me that “we thought that story ended, went into
the ground, at Pinari. But we found that it goes underground all the
way to Balgo.” Apparently, this revelation was discovered in a vision
by a man from Balgo. The example shows that historical change
can be integrated, but that it is assimilated to the preexisting forms:
The foundation had always been there, but people had not known
it before.

The Dreaming: Time and Space 53

What appear to be changes do not challenge the fundamental
ontology of all things ordained once-and-for-all. New rituals, songs,
or designs–for Westerners the products of human creation-are for
the Pintupi clearer sights of what was always there. This construc-
tion denies the impact of human actions by asserting that the events
and existents of the visible world remain reflections of an ontolog-
ically prior set of events. Though we might see in The Dreaming
merely the “moving shadow of the present” (as Stanner once
described it), its participants see sustained correspondence. Time-
in this sense as an abstract dimension detached from subjectivity-
is captive to the cultural constructions of continuity. A similar
structure underlies the Pintupi ordering of space.

Ngurra: Extension in Space

Orientation in space is a prime concern for the Pintupi. Even their
dreams are cast in a framework of spatial coordinates. It is impossible
to listen to any narrative, whether it be historical, mythological, or
contemporary, without constant reference to where events hap-
pened. In this sense, place provides the framework around which
events coalesce, and places serve as mnemonics for significant
events. Travel through the country evokes memories about a fight
that occurred at a nearby water hole or a death in the hills beyond.
Not temporal relation but geography is the great punctuator of
Pintupi storytelling. Upon close examination, it is activity that
creates places, giving significance to impervious matter.

Thus the world is socialized by the Pintupi, although they do
not build a spatially centered cosmos of domesticated culture and
wild nature as many more settled people have done. A social life
with so much movement seems to preclude such a construction.
Instead, they seem truly at home as they walk through the bush,
full of confidence. A camp can be made almost anywhere within a
few minutes-a windbreak set up, fires built, and perhaps a billycan
of tea prepared. Unmarked and wild country becomes a “camp”
(ngurra) with the comfort of home. The way of thinking that enables
a people to make a camp almost anywhere they happen to be, with
little sense of dislocation, is a way of thinking that creates a universe
of meanings around the mythologized country. These people who
move and shift so regularly from place to place have truly cultur-
alized space and made out of impersonal geography a home, a ngurra.
The threat to this construction is not the overgrowth of wild nature
but the ravages of time.

As the Pintupi portray it, this universe of meaning is not
restricted to their own creations or those of their forebears. The

54 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

world as it now exists, in their conception, is the product of powerful
mythological beings and the formative events in which they took
part. Evidence of this enduring reality is all about them, in every
formation of the landscape. To travel across the land with them is
to learn that at this hill or in that creek something happened “in
The Dreaming.”

There is a consistency in these structurings, embodied in the
dual meaning of ngurra. This word has two distinct references to
socialized space, in referring both to a temporary camp in which
people live and also to an enduring “country” or named place.
Ngurra is not only the human creation of “camp” but also the
Dreaming creation of “country.” Thus, as the concept by which the
Pintupi most frequently appropriate space, ngurra always relates
demarcated places to activity that gives them meaning. As with the
Nuer use of cieng (Evans-Pritchard 1940), it is through this concept
of spatial order that the Pintupi articulate their own social organi-
zation. The idea of a camp combines people who live together with
a site at which they are localized; it is the fact of people living there
that makes a space a camp.

Although the identification it formulates is more complex, the
usage of ngurra as country or place similarly does not refer to an
objective, physical space. Because named places acquire their iden-
tity through the activities of mythological personages in The
Dreaming, ngurra continues to be based on a social reference.
Neither “camp” nor “country” exist apart from the significance
created by action or event, but “country” retains an identity enduring
through time as something beyond human choice. Human and
Dreaming action each contribute to the definition of landscape,
although their constructions have differing properties. In relation
to human action, one is historical while the other might be termed

The realm of human action is surely primary in its meaning,
and at its simplest, ngurra is the place where one belongs or where
one sleeps. It is common for Pintupi to classify a water hole and its
environs as a ngurra. But when describing a particular site, they
clearly distinguish between the place where one camps, sleeps, and
prepares food (the camp), and the water hole nearby (kapi). In this
sense, a ngurra may be anywhere that people decide to sleep.

Just as a bird’s nest is its ngurra and a kangaroo’s home is the
plain, one’s ngurra is the place where one belongs. Within the daily
routine of leaving a camp in the morning and returning, perhaps
after a day’s hunt, in the afternoon, the ngurra is the place to which
one returns. Here, food is likely to be shared and resources pooled.
Through this association, the concept of ngurra involves the idea

The Dreaming: Time and Space 55

of “relatives” (walyt;a) or “family group,” in the sense of people
whose daily lives are tied together. In Pintupi thinking, therefore,
ngurra is the embodiment and image of sociality, the physical
expression of a basic social unit, the conjugal family. Just as
proximity implies cooperation, so does social distance lead to spatial
separation: When the social ties between people weaken, they move
apart. Because it embodies sociality at a primary level, the concept
of ngurra is used by the Pintupi as an idiom of social classification.

It is characteristic of folk terms like ngurra that, unlike analytic
concepts, they may be used at quite distinctive levels of organization.
Conflating these has often led observers to treat the organization
of small-scale societies as less complex and more rigid than it is.
What Pintupi mean when they talk of ngurra can be sorted into
several distinct contexts.

When speakers refer to the camp of an individual man and his
spouse, as opposed to the nearby camps of coresidents in a local
group, the term ngurra delineates social boundaries of privacy that,
ordinarily, people should respect. Further, a married man who lives
with his wife and young children is said to be “with camp”
(ngurrat;arra) and differentiated thereby from unmarried men and
boys who are described as “from the single men’s camp” (tawar-

At a broader level, the word ngurra may be used to distinguish
a set of camps (individual units), whose members consider them-
selves to be a group–that is, spatially separated from the camps of
others who may be living nearby. Those of the same ngurra, in this
sense, cooperate more closely within the designated cluster than
between them, and people will speak of “our camp” as opposed to
“their camp.” Such classification is quite noticeable in settlement
life, especially in the continuing separation of the “old Pintupi”
and the “new Pintupi.”

The difference between ngurra as “country” and as “camp” is
especially significant. Among people who move so frequently, camps
are physically impermanent, and their membership changes through
time. The idea of ngurra as “country,” on the other hand, is enduring.
In this sense, the two forms of appropriating space (ngurra as camp
and as country) imply different temporal dimensions. A camp, as a
human creation, never loses its identification with those who made
it or lived there. Not only do the Pintupi move away from camps
associated with someone who has died, but they avoid the places
for years, as they avoid all other extensions of the deceased such as
name or property. Places, they say, remind them of the dead person
and make them sad. People also avoid setting up camp in the precise
spots where others have camped. But despite these identifications

56 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

with people who lived there, camps are impermanent. Eventually
they are overgrown and their associations forgotten, while significant
new spaces are constantly being established.

Ngurra as “country” represents a more inclusive level of the
social system: These named places are the camps of The Dreaming.
In this way, as several theorists have suggested (cf. Leach 1958,
Turner 1979a), the higher level of organization is constructed
through a recursive transformation of the lower-level unit. Ngurra
as country employs a relation of people to each other through place
modeled on the camp, but it becomes a different sort of social
object. Whereas camps come into and pass out of existence, country
endures as a reality which people cannot, in theory, alter. Country
is collectivized or turned into a socially enduring object because its
creators are outside the immediate social world. Though it is
modeled on the camp, it exists through time, providing a social
framework that appears to have objective status to humans. Further,
if ngurra as camp represents social ties that exist at the moment-
relatives organized around a camp-those sharing a country are
identified as a fundamental, enduring corporation. That The Dream-
ing is invisible and, in a sense, not knowable with finality makes
it possible to turn the lower-level realities into social ties of more
permanent status.

Place and Place-Names

To the Pintupi, then, the landscape in which they move is a life-
world of constituted meanings. Though it is not possible to ignore
the social concomitant of places, the rest of this chapter will outline
the significant features of “country” as a frame for action. We will
consider country as if it were simply culturalized space, noting as
others have before (Gould 1969a, Tonkinson 1978) that the Western
Desert is dotted with places named and known by its Aboriginal

Almost invariably, Pintupi discussions of country are punctuated
by descriptions of what happened in The Dreaming. Every significant
feature is held to result from Dreaming events. Yumarinya, for
example, means “wife’s mother-place.” The yumari of this case is
the mother-in-law of a mythological man, who copulated with her
at this place. Rock outcroppings, a rock hole, and various markings
within a few hundred yards are interpreted as the result of the
abhorrent actions of the mythological beings. The name signifies a
specific feature of the event.

Two places have the name Kurtitji-nya, “shield-place.” In one
case the name refers to a shield made in The Dreaming. The other

The Dreaming: Time and Space 57

refers to a ritual performed in a boy’s initiation in which men beat
a shield with a boomerang and sing while the women dance. In the
second case, the site was said to have been a result of the ritual
being performed there in The Dreaming.

Not all names are Dreaming-derived. Wanaritjarra-nya, “mulga
tree-having-place,” refers to the physical attributes of the area around
a water hole surrounded by mulga trees. Names such as this seem
to resemble descriptive labels rather than proper names. If the word
wanari became taboo, owing to the death of someone with a similar
name, the place would be referred to as Kunmarnutjarranya, meaning
“with name avoided.”

An increase center for wild black currants, whose essence was
left there by a group of men in The Dreaming, is known as
Yawalyurru-nya, “black currant-place,” or as Tjartupirrnga, a syn-
onym. It is also known, and preferably so, as Tjukulanya, describing
its feature of a large sinkhole in the ground. This last name is used
as a matter of etiquette and respect by those who feel a close
identification with the site. Some substitutions of this sort are
meant to deceive or to focus on nonritual or nonsacred associations
in the presence of uninitiated persons.

At the level of “country,” the world ngurra may apply to any
named place. Pintupi refer to Yumarinya as a ngurra. All its features
hold mythological significance. When people say they went to
Yumarinya, they refer to the whole clustering, a single name referring
to several features. Although included in the one name, particular
aspects of a site may be designated by context or by further linguistic
additions. 5 For example, a speaker might distinguish between Yu-
marinya the water hole ltjiwiri) and Yumarinya the sacred part
lyarta yarta).

Likewise, a single name may be used to refer to a number of
individually named places that are geographically clustered. Thus,
a trip to the Pollock Hills in Western Australia was described as a
trip to Yunarlanya. We camped on a creek with that name, taken
from the tuber plant growing beside the water. Pointing to the hill
beside us, men named three distinctive places on it: Tjikarrnga,
Pantukurunya, and Yunarlanya. In ordinary conversation, particu-
larly when the place is remote, speakers would refer to the whole
area as Yunarlanya; knowledgeable listeners understand that the
other features are nearby. As other cases could further illustrate,
Yunarlanya is not a more general and logically inclusive term for
the whole area or hill, as Pennsylvania is for Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh. It is merely one of the several named places in the
cluster:’ Another site name could be similarly used to refer to them

58 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

The names of ngurra, in other words, refer to specific features
rather than to an area enclosed within spatial boundaries. In addition,
the names are not organized in an ascending series of · mutually
exclusive units, as with cities and states. One name may be used
to designate collectively a series of place that are considered to be
unified or defined by some set of activities as a single living area. 6

The Pintupi names of places should not be understood as proper
names. Alternative names or references are frequently employed,
such as words from a song or some other referential system. A large
salt lake in the west is variously known as Ngunarrmanya, Pinarinya,
or Nyaru. The last term refers to the fact that the Dreaming event
there was a fire that left a huge burned-out area (or nyaru). The
second name and probably the first derive from the words of
associated songs, although they have a meaning in themselves. To
the Pintupi, then, a place itself with its multiple features is logically
prior or central; its names are simply standardized forms of reference
or description. This view of naming parallels a Pintupi tendency to
circumlocution in talking about individual persons and a zest for
oblique but descriptive reference.

The Country as Story

One cannot speak of places, as the Pintupi view them, without
considering their mythological associations. For two reasons, at
least, the metaphor of country as story is particularly appropriate.

First, in discussing an individual’s ownership of a place, Pintupi
men frequently use the English equivalent, “That’s his story.” This
phrase focuses on what is significant about a place for ownership-
the ritual or sacred associations that Stanner I 1965) called the
country as an “estate.” The usual word for sacred object, turlku,
means variously “song,” “sacred board,” “ritual object,” “cere-
mony,” or “story.” It is significant that all these referents are
classified by the single term, as Strehlow I 1947) noted for the Aranda
concept of tjurunga. Within the category delineated by turlku there
are, of course, more precise words for different kinds of objects, but
Pintupi usage emphasizes the underlying commonality of the refer-
ents as manifestations of a story, The Dreaming. This view expresses
a fundamental feature of Western Desert thought, as Munn (1970)
observed: Sacred objects, country, or songs become the embodiment
of events, of activity that has, in a sense, turned into these objects.

Second, Pintupi mythology consists mainly of narratives of
beings traveling from place to place. Consequently, all the places
visited may be part of one larger story or myth. Each place is discrete
and separate, but also is part of a continuous series of places linked

The Dreaming: Time and Space 59

by the one story. As a way of classifying places into potentially
larger systems, this tradition of geographically based narrative is
extremely important both here and elsewhere in Aboriginal Aus-
tralia. 7 Principally it establishes a framework for the theory and
politics of “ownership,” in which claims about rights may be based
on the geographical continuity of a single Dreaming. The system is
not, despite appearances, a closed one. Reworked and recreated even
now, systems of stories constitute a changing political charter of
who and what are identified at various levels. With the “discovery”
that the Tingarri Dreaming traveled underground northward to
Balgo Hills Mission, for example, the Pintupi found themselves
able, in certain contexts, to describe the people of Balgo as “from
one country, from one Dreaming.”

Country as a Continuous Entity

It is as a manifestation of an underlying story that the Pintupi
perceive of country as, essentially, a continuous entity. This struc-
ture accounts for some initially puzzling features of Pintupi attitudes
toward their homeland. Sociocentric boundaries are difficult to
draw; one cannot say that an area X, made up of such-and-such
places, constitutes a “country.” When individuals describe their
“own country,” their lists of places are likely to overlap without
being identical. Indeed, no separate technical term exists for a larger
unit of space composed of a number of named places. What Pintupi
emphasized, instead, was that there was one country for everybody,
that they were all one family. As one patient older man said, Pintupi
country was not like a paddock that is fenced off; if he saw smoke
from a fire, he would be happy to go to see who was there.

Pintupi frequently claim that theirs is “one country,” nonseg-
mentary and belonging to everybody. Like so many sweeping
ideological assertions, this is both true in one way and not true at
another level. Such claims represent, certainly, an assertion of the
unity and identity of the people who had come to live together in
settlements to the east, using their traditional country as an
ideological basis for current relations. Far from being an exception,
this assertion represents a major consideration in the cultural
organization of space. Thus, one reason given for considering the
Pintupi as one group, one “family,” is that they are all from the
Tingarri, one long and interconnected Dreaming story.

They do not mean, of course, that all Pintupi are incarnations
of the same Dreaming, Tingarri. As everyone knows, there are
people of all different mythological origins. A clue to the meaning
of the claim is a contrast related to me. The Pitjantjatjarra ceremony

60 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

was the Kangaroo Dreaming, according to a thoughtful informant.
The Warlpiri was Shield IKurtitji) Dreaming, and the Pintupi had

While considerable complexities surround the meaning of Tin-
garri, 8 in the context of Pintupi claims about their country the word
refers to mythological traveling groups of men and ceremonial
novices. Pintupi glossed it regularly as “all the men” or “many
novices. 11 Three major geographical lines of named places are
described as Tingarri, visited and created in The Dreaming by three
groups of traveling people. These groups were made up of novices
who had already undergone circumcision jpunyunyu) and who
traveled under the guidance and discipline of powerful, authoritative
“bosses.” Secluded from women and the uninitiated, such groups
performed and witnessed ceremonies of revelation, as well as hunted,
argued, and fought, just as present-day Aboriginal people do. Action
in the myths themselves interrelates the three groups, and conse-
quently some basis exists in Pintupi thought for considering Tingarri
to be a proper name for the interrelated complex. It is worth
examining a small portion of this myth system to illustrate how
places are linked in The Dreaming and how country operates as a
continuous entity.

Tingarri and Pintupi Country:
The Native Cat Story

Though most of Pintupi country land even territory beyond that) is
linked by the Tingarri complex, a portion suffices to show how
Dreaming and country relate. Referring to the northern, middle,
and southern routes of Tingarri groups as A, B, C respectively jsee
Map 2A), I take up the story of Tingarri group B.9 This particular
segment of the larger complex links people from the Tikartika
region in the east with Lake Macdonald and Yawalyurru in the
west. The story is punctuated by place-emphasizing localities
jnamed places), relations in space, and evocation of specific kinds
of place jsandhills, water holes, and so on).

This particular narrative will provide background for many
additional issues discussed in later chapters. (The extended case of
claims to the sacred site of Yawalyurru, for example, is an important
part of the discussion of the politics of landownership in chapter
5.) As a product of the mythological imagination, this narrative
emphasizes the motivations and appropriate relations among people
“from one country” jsharing), the geographical expanse of such
relations, and the violent consequences of failing to respect the
rights of others.

The Dreaming: Time and Space 61







Map 2A. Tingarri Routes

The underlying motif of this story is the Native Cat’s (kuninka,
marsupial cat) desire for revenge against the Tingarri men from


Native Cat’s home country, men say, is Lake Macdonald
(Karrkurutintjinya). While walking near here one day, he came upon
a piece of emu fat and saw the tracks of men who had dropped it. He
realized that the Tingarri men had speared an emu east of the lake
and cooked it at Tikartikanya. Native Cat became angry (mirrpanpa,
“no compassion”) because the men had sneaked into his country
unannounced and not shared the meat with him. He told his two
sons at the lake to prepare themselves, for he was going to bring
back these people. He started westward then, following the Tingarri
men’s tracks. These latter had transformed themselves into wild dogs
for their return. Heading west at night, he passed the Possum people
among the claypans of Yiitjurunya, the most eastward of a north-
south line of fairly permanent waters in the sandhill country south
of the Pollock Hills.

The possums were a revenge party chasing a man who had eloped
with his mother-in-law and fled south from Warlpiri country.
Gathered for a ceremony when Native Cat burst into view, they
were frightened by his demeanor as he ran up a sandhill and ululated
(tjamarlangarangu, a signal from elder men that indicates a
ceremony is about to begin). Native Cat ran down the other side of
the sandhill, racing across the claypans in the high-stepping action
which men use in ceremonial performances and in displaying anger.

Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

He did not speak to the possums as he decorated himself with
vegetable fluff10 in the design used now in ritual to represent him. At
this place, a large bloodwood tree arose, marking the spot. Then,
Native Cat raced up another sandhill and ululated, holding a large
ritual object in his hand. To this terrifying and dangerous sight, the
possum men sang a verse which is included in the Tingarri song
cycles now performed.

Then he headed further westward, finally sleeping near
Mintjimga. In the morning he approached Yintjintjinya, where the
women of the Tingarri men were camped. He climbed a sandhill and
sent up a smoke. The women saw it and tossed dirt into the air, as
people do to ward off a dangerous spirit (mamu). Frightened, the
women did not speak to him as he turned south for the men at
Yawalyurrunya. He approached from the north as he saw smoke
rising from a small hole in the ground. The Tingarri men were
underground, “inside.” From the desert oak on the north side of the
site, he called to them. He “questioned” them in the ritual manner
used by older men toward secluded novices. There was no answer, so
he hurled a throwing stick at them, but it bounced away. He stepped
back then and circled to the south side of the site. He drew on his
hairstring belt, grasped another throwing stick and thrust it vertically
down into the ground, twisting it back and forth, opening up a huge
hole (which is now Yawalyurrunya) “like dynamite.”

The first men to see him as they climbed up were those on the
north side. They looked around expecting, because of the power
displayed, to see many men, but there was only Native Cat. He was
sitting on the edge of the sandhill to the south of the hole, crying
because he was “sorry” (yalurrpa) for these novices whom he had
blasted. Where he sat with an arm covering his face, a gnarled tree
now represents him. The Tingarri men climbed up his throwing
stick, just as contemporary men who care for the north side of the
site climb a ladder (tjukalpa) to prepare the increase center. From the
black currants (yawalyurru) the Tingarri men had with them inside
the ground, it is said, come the black drippings on the walls of the
sinkhole. When all the men had climbed out of the hole, they
decorated themselves with ceremonial down, the process leaving
loose reddish stones on the southern edge. Native Cat told them to
leave the black currants behind and go to Kurlkurtanya, to wait for
him in the sandstone hills to the east. He sent them away “just like
children.” Because they left the black currants behind, their essence
from The Dreaming is still at the place which men visit to make the
fruit grow throughout the country.II

After he sent them away, Native Cat flew westward to
Puyulkuranya to direct another Tingarri group !CJ eastward toward
Docker River (Wintalkanya) and then to Tjukulanya, Mitukatjirrinya,
and Pinarinya !see Map 2A]. Native Cat returned from Puyulkuranya

The Dreaming: Time and Space 63

to Kurlkurtanya and took the Tingarri men and women to Lake
Macdonald, hunting and performing ceremonies along the way. Their
actions gave rise to the features of this landscape. At Lake
Macdonald, finally, the Tingarri people were killed with hail and
lightning by Native Cat’s two sons. Exhausted by this exercise of
their powers, however, the sons died and turned into snakes at the
salt lake. Stricken with grief (yalurrpa) at the sight of his dead sons,
Native Cat bashed himself in the forehead with a stone axe. Where
he died, his body became a stone formation still visible out in the

As this brief narrative shows, Dreaming stories may be both
extensive, in linking up many geographically distant places, and
intensive, in organizing myriad details of a single place. The stories
account for far more precise and intricate detail than I have given
here, but in most cases the information is considered to be secret
and sacred. Because such detail is intimately related to men’s and
women’s ritual, access to the information is restricted. Thus,
frequently, only initiated men are permitted to visit sacred sites,
and women and children are excluded. 12

Transforming Landscape into Narrative

The process through which landscape is assimilated to narrative
structure is still active. I had the opportunity to see it take place
on one occasion at Yayayi in 1974.

One morning a group of men gathered near a white gum tree
on the creek bank where they waited for two older men. A younger
man had, as they put it ambiguously, “found something.” But they
did not know what it was. Because they had close relationships
with the traditional owners of this area, the two elders were
presumed to have special knowledge of local myth. On the one
hand, the men were fearful about the consequences of the discovery,
lest the owners of the country attack them with sorcery for disturbing
a secret site. On the other hand, they wondered if the discovery
were “gold” or “opal,” value for which the owners might pay them.

When the older men arrived, the group went down to the creek
and examined the discovery, an outcrop of some sedimentary crusty
rock that had been exposed by erosion. The men chipped off a bit
and examined the colors, then dug around the area to expose more
of the rock. Although one man expressed his fear of sorcery for
having desecrated a sacred site belonging to others, the enterprise
continued. One of the two elders speculated confidently that this
rock must be from the Kangaroo Dreaming with which the creek
is associated. Knowing that two men in The Dreaming had speared
a kangaroo at a point five miles east, he deduced that they must

64 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

This view of Yunytjunya, in the Kintore Range, from the southeast
shows the outstretched neck (at the right) of the Dreamtime Ngintaka,
the Monitor Lizard, as it turned to stone. (1974)

Yanyatjarri Tjakamarra’s unusual figurative painting (acrylics on
canvas) of Yunyt;unya represents the hill as the Dreamtime Ngintaka
who turned into stone there. (Yayayi, 1974)


have gutted it here on the way back. No one had ever told him this,
however. The Papunya people were ignorant of this fact, he said.

This Kangaroo Dreaming, the men maintained, is important
because it is associated with ceremonies in which men “show
special designs jwamulu) and make women and children go under
a blanket.” As the men continued digging, three of them looked to
see if there was gold in the composite; for others, “gold” was simply
a metaphorical equivalent to the traditional value of sacred sites.
Throughout the inquiry, the participants oscillated between assuring
themselves that the owners of the country had told them not to be
afraid if they found anything hereabouts and a hopefulness that
they would be paid for “finding” this thing.

Finally, examining the uneven distribution of colors in the
composite, they decided it was the sloppy stomach contents of the
gutted Dreaming kangaroo. The red elements in it, one man
suggested, must be the vegetable fluff that had been colored with
red ochre and stuck to the two men’s bodies, since traveling with
body decoration was common for many mythological figures.

All in all, the men’s behavior showed cautious concern, meant
to avoid punishment for desecration. They justified their digging
up of the composite and chipping of it by saying it was necessary
so that the owners would not think they were lying when they
went to tell them they had found “gold.” Eventually the spot was
covered with leaves and the old men told the women camped nearby
that no one was to go near the area. Subsequently, little was made
of the event, at least to my knowledge, but one man continued to
talk of the find. He was concerned, he said, because his son was
“from this Dreaming,” that is, conceived nearby. By now, everyone
was satisfied that the rock was the stomach contents of the gutted
kangaroo who had been speared and must have been crawling along
the creek trying to return to his ngurra near Yayayi soakage.

Geography as Code

We can see in this episode not only how previously unknown local
detail can be incorporated into an already known myth by a deductive
process, but also the concern that the Pintupi have for “explaining”
the existence of strange geological formations and shapes-or more
generally why there is something at a place at all. People who go
out hunting sometimes return with a pocketful of strangely shaped
or colored rocks, pointing out that they are, unexpectedly, “differ-
ent.” They seem to ponder these occurrences as possible new
infomiation, but they do not produce theoretical explanations easily.

66 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

The unusual is valuable in itself. Within the contemporary cash
economy, the finder may suspect that the unusual is “gold” and
hope to exchange it for money. For most, the worth of gold is a
metaphorical equivalent for the value they already attribute to
things that are “different. 11 Most sacred sites are said, therefore, to
be “gold. 11

The process by which space becomes “country, 11 by which a
story gets attached to an object, is part of the Pintupi habit of mind
that looks behind objects to events and sees in objects a sign of
something else. To the hunter’s mind, anything other than the
ordinary on the ground can be a sign that something has happened.
The landscape itself offers clues about what may have happened.
Not only does it reveal something about the invisible, but it offers
a link to the invisible forces that created it and whose essence is
embodied in it. As with a code, “country” signifies the whole event
of which it was a part, carrying “a meaning which refers to the
missing parts and is information about those parts” (Bateson 1972:
414). ·

The concern of the Pintupi is to gain knowledge about that
which is invisible, which is important and powerful. Conversely,
they are uncomfortable about that which is hidden (yarrka). Dreams
may be seen as signs, as potential sources of information about
what will happen, or as revelations of The Dreaming, but it is hard
to be certain about such information. What the Pintupi must rely
on is the knowledge that is handed down socially. The designs and
stories they paint on novices, Pintupi emphasize, are not made up.
One’s predecessors, “those who are dead,” had known these stories
before; they are from The Dreaming. The value of ceremonies,
designs, and objects, as the Pintupi formulate explicitly, is that they
are true, their veracity guaranteed indexically by their actual con-
nection to “first things.” 13 These properties enter into the social
processes of Pintupi life in several ways.

The Pintupi use the visible evidence of the world as a sign to
interpret that which happened and is invisible. Country is valuable
both for its iconic relationship to The Dreaming (telling a story)
and also for the indexical relationship between places and the
ancestral power left behind in them. However, the information
visible in the landscape is not sufficient in itself to illuminate the
underlying reality. Nor is knowledge of “what happened” in detail
freely available. The necessary keys are the highly valued (“dear”)
ceremonies, which reenact The Dreaming’s events at particular
places. Custodianship of these rituals and the associated sites is a
zealously guarded prerogative. Indeed, knowledge of this sort is

The Dreaming: Time and Space 67

controlled by older people, and each site is identified with a group
of “owners.”

Those who “own” a ritual and a place, the joint entity called
an “estate” by Stanner (1965), assume responsibility for their care
and preservation: They must “hold on to The Dreaming.” They
must also pass it on to the future. Through initiation and a long
process of epiphany in revelatory ceremonies, younger men and
women gradually are taught how to interpret and act toward the
invisible world that underlies their immediate physical and social
world. Pintupi describe the process as giving (yunginpa) knowledge
to young people, as revealing (yutininpa) it, or as teaching it
(nintininpa). In this regard, the visibility/invisibility contrast repro-
duces the temporal process of generational succession in Pintupi
social life.

However, given the nature of The Dreaming, this knowledge
remains particulate and localized. If the imprint of Dreaming events
on the country embodies a temporal process, the fact that Pintupi
country is continuous-a set of interconnected Dreaming tracks-
is equally significant. This property of the country is a concomitant
of the continuity of social networks, ultimately deriving from the
sharing of knowledge of places among people who are geographically

From one point of view, named places are signs from which
Pintupi can interpret events in The Dreaming. From another per-
spective, it is also true that places can code or punctuate events in
the phenomenal world. For Maantja tjungurrayi, the place Walukir-
ritjinya is where his father was killed and buried; Tjulyurunya is
the place he himself was conceived; at another place he was initiated;
his mother died at Tjitururrnga; and so on. For each individual, the
landscape becomes a history of significant social events. Geography
serves, it would seem, as a signifier of experiences; previous events
become attached to places and are recited as one moves across the

History, then, is incorporated into the unchanging, ever-present
features of the physical landscape. The question is really to what
extent this incorporation of history occurs: What endures and what
is erased? The concept of ngurra offers considerable flexibility for
expressing different kinds of relationships between persons and
between persons and space, but it also elides their differences. The
Pintupi inclusion of two levels of organization, “camp” and “coun-
try,” in a single term reflects this possibility of reification, of action
being converted to a structure that becomes the foundation for
further 0 action.

68 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self

Cosmos and Social Life

What leads a people to emphasize a changeless, timeless perma-
nence? I am not, of course, describing a “philosophy” in any formal
sense, but rather a construction of reality to which people subscribe
in less self-conscious ways. The principle embodied in The Dreaming
is nothing less than the principle by which parts of Pintupi social
structure are ranked in relation to each other, the relation of part
to whole that Dumont (1980) calls “hierarchy.” Ultimately (and I
explore this in detail in succeeding chapters), the structure of Pintupi
society defines the meaning of “the world.”

To be sure, the erasure of the historical is not confined to The
Dreaming. Taboos on mentioning the names of the dead, shallow
genealogies, and the lack of a written record also serve in this regard
(cf. Sansom 1980). The Dreaming-“the Law”-provides a moral
authority lying outside the individual and outside human creation.
It is not his idea or his will. Thus, although The Dreaming as an
ordering of the cosmos is presumably a product of historical events,
such an origin is denied. These human creations are objectified-
thrust out-into principles or precedents for the immediate world.
As in Plato’s Cave, the Ideal comes first. The principles to which
the Pintupi look for guidance and which they manipulate in daily
life are not seen as the creations of contemporary men and women.
Consequently, current action is not understood as the result of
human alliances, creations, and choices, but is seen as imposed by
an embracing, cosmic order. This construction of temporality is
intricately tied to Pintupi politics, Pintupi ideas of what a person
is, and theories of action.

The Dreaming, then, can be reduced to its significant features,
which constitute it as transcending the immediate and present. The
concept dichotomizes the world into that which is yuti (“visible”)
and that which is tjukurrpa, where the latter lies outside human
affairs and constitutes an enduring, primary reality. This construc-
tion occurs in space, on the landscape, where it creates places with
enduring identity and relationship to other sites. Finally, The
Dreaming provides the source of both humanity and the landscape.
As we shall see, this construction reflects the reproduction of
Pintupi social life through time, organizing a basic and given
autonomy into a larger system.

While the two critical qualities of The Dreaming, timelessness
and segmented extension in space, correspond to Levi-Strauss’s
theory of “totemic structures” as synthesizing constructs (Levi-
Strauss 1962, 1966), their meaning for the Pintupi should be sought

The Dreaming: Time and Space 69

within a particular form of social life rather than in ahistorical
philos?p~ical concerns. Through their inclusion in The Dreaming,
the pnnc1ples employed by people in the negotiations of daily life
hav~ a claim to being outside the creation of the manipulators; they
are mstead ti~e~e~s truths. Erasing the specific past, The Dreaming
pursues contmmues between current human action and a realm of
order transcending human affairs.

The Pintupi appropriation of temporality is guided, I will show,
by the two basic problems of Pintupi social life, the tension between
relatedness and differentiation and that between hierarchy and
~qualit;i:. As an order out_side of human subjectivity which is morally
1mperat1ve, The Dreammg can also be understood in relationship
to the problem of hierarchy in a small-scale society where egalitarian
relations are valued, and to the organization of a regional system of
sociality. It is not accidental that the sources of what Westerners
would think of as autonomy and authority are considered by the
Pintupi to exist “outside 11 the self, projected outward into The
Dreaming and onto the landscape where they are available as social
artifacts. This projection of a domain 11outside” society answers
two constraints that impede certain kinds of coordinated social
action: (1) the web of mutual obligation and relatedness between
people in this society of former hunter-gatherers, based on their
need for help from each other, and (2) the value placed on equality
or personal autonomy, such that no one is prepared to be told by
others what to do.

70 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self


Individuals and Bands

My country is the place where I can cut a spear or make a
spear~thrower without asking anyone.

(Western Desert man, quoted in Tindale 1974: 18)

This chapter takes up one dimension of Pintupi organization in space: the problem of “bands.1′ The variability of these for-
mations is of central importance. Pintupi people did not always live
with the same coresidential group or even within a single territory.
I do not treat this variability, however, as just one more example
of the 11flexibility 11 of hunting-and-gathering social systems (Lee and
DeVore 1968). In the Pintupi case, the mobility of individuals is a
primary feature of the social structure. As such, it encourages a
significant revision of our thinking about bands.

To do so suggests that we should recognize the spatial component
of production in hunting-and-gathering societies, rather than envi·
sioning the organization of productive roles as reflecting only the
division of labor by sex. Among the Pintupi, the relationships of
individuals to land enter into their social identities in a direct and
immediate fashion. Pintupi insist, for example, that individuals
who can marry must be from different localities. Locality is not
something merely added on, so that productive units can be situated
in space. Marriage establishes not only the immediate relations of
production but also, by creating ties between distant people, estab·
lishes relations of production and access to land within a larger
ecological region.

Bands, Land, and People

The prolonged debate about the kind of groups in which Aborigines
live (Radcliffe-Brown 1930, Hiatt 1962, Meggitt 1962, Starmer 1965,
Birdsell 1970, Tindale 1974, Peterson 1975, Myers 1982) has focused
largely on the relationship between residential groups and ownership


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