In the western desert

We were 250km west of Alice Springs in central Australia. Our group had moved south from the salt lake that bordered Warlpiri country back towards the community of Papunya. We were camped at an outstation, a series of tin sheds that sat remote and awkward in the middle of a spinifex sand plain. Our sleeping arrangements were once again split into men’s and women’s camps, our swags haphazardly arranged around the campfires. 

A large space had been raked clear in the middle of the camps. 

‘Those old women,’ said Tjakamarra.

‘Might be, they sing’em that honey ant story tonight, might be, they dance that Wanampi one too, tjinguru.’

He pointed with his lips and a lazy forefinger at the large outcrop of granite boulders tumbled together in the distance. There was a rock hole amongst the boulders and the mythological honey ant dreaming was one of the major stories for the area. 

Yuwa, tjinguru,’ I said. 

Tjakamarra nodded and wandered off to sit with the other old men.  

After winter rains, Western desert circa 1990’s

After winter rains, Western desert circa 1990’s

That evening the women called the camp together into the cleared space. They stood in a loose line, black skirted with chests topless and painted up in concentric ochre circles. Their arms were daubed with rough white dots of chalk paint. They held their kanalpa at their abdomen with both hands, thumbs inside the edges of the dish, as though about to winnow seed. 

The men ambled over and formed up, sitting in a loose, inward facing circle adjacent to the women. Some of the men carried kali or simple pieces of wood to use as clap sticks. Tjakamarra sat with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He’d armed himself with a pair of thongs.  The dark sky was cloudless and full of stars. A half moon arced above us.

The men started singing without fuss or explanation. Tjakamarra was ‘policeman’ for the cycle and led the singing, slapping a thong on the ground to keep time, the men slipping in and out of unison. The lilting melody rose and fell in a continuous, pulsing cycle. The song lifted up from the circle of men and into the night. 

The women gathered themselves in their line and began dancing. It was a simple shuffling and stamping step as they swayed their kanalpa side to side in a gentle rocking motion. The dance phrases were brief and matched to the melody of the song cycle. The women would finish their phrase, pause, and then saunter back to their starting position to begin again. There was casualness, yet quiet dignity in the way they went about it.  The women then knelt and began the same shuffling and step side-to-side movement with their kanalpa. It was a sort of scuffling in the dirt on their knees. They began singing. This went on for some time. The timbre and intensity of the song changed, it hummed and permeated the air, hovering around us and above the firelight.

I was close by, seated cross-legged on the ground, watching and listening. Our group had been out for four days. I’d been teaching field ecology to the school kids, facilitating in two languages and juggling the demands of 70 men, women and children with driving, vehicle repairs, cooking and fetching firewood duties thrown in. The days had been long and hot, I hadn’t showered and I was tired and dirty. 

The bush trip out from the community was to assist with western and traditional ecological knowledge sharing and transfer. As I watched the women repeat the same cycle over and over again, I felt a bit over it all. After days of constant demands, I just wanted a moment to myself. I knew the feeling was ungrateful but I couldn’t help it. 

I’d been working in the Western Desert with the Pintupi/Luritja for years. I’d earned people’s trust, ‘yuwa, that one really inside Pintupi one,’ Tjakamarra would say stroking his grey beard and waggling his finger as he instructed me on a point of knowledge. As with most things in Pintupi culture and society, the simplicity was deceptive. I’d found their cultural responses and adaptations to their environment a never-ending source of amazement. Pintupi traditional implements were a wonder in design thinking, perfectly matched to their needs and environment as hunter and gatherers. 

As I sat, the cycle went on repetitively. I wondered at the simplicity of the dance. There was subtle nuance but why the lack of complexity in movement and phrases? Why no elaboration or variation? I understood the trance inducing and summoning effect of repetition but I was missing something. 

I saw Tjakamarra stop singing toss his thongs aside, slowly push himself to his feet and fumble through pockets for a smoke. All the men and women rose abruptly and walked off for cigarettes and food. Some went back and laid on their swags.

The chill of the desert evening had to set in. I stood, stretched and went over to the fire and extended my hands into the warmth. I stared vacantly at the flames. Tjakamarra arrived soundlessly at my side. He adjusted his large, white cowboy hat and looked at me from the corner of his eye. Some time passed.

‘Really good song that one,’ he said.

Yuwa,’ I said. ‘Really good one.’

We turned to warm our backs.

Yuwa, really proper strong one.’ He paused and looked up at the night sky.

‘That Wanampi bin come up. You see ‘im Tjangala?’

Tjakamarra pointed with his lips. In the flicker of the firelight I followed the line of his gaze. There, in the bare orange earth, where the women had been dancing, were a series of winding tracks like a snake. The Wanampi-the rainbow serpent, one the most important of the ancestral dreaming figures in the Indigenous pantheon, had been called and drawn out from under the ground to become one with the dancers and singers. The intimate connection, the pathway between people and the landscape had been remade. The story retold and reiterated. The knowledge transferred. There was the evidence.

Tjakamarra turned and looked straight at me. He looked tired. I felt his searching. After a moment, he crinkled his eyes in relief that the whitefella had finally got it.

Yuwuwu…yuwinpa lingku,’ he said slowly and nodded to himself, articulating each syllable in a rising tone.

‘Hmmm, really proper good one that one.’

He adjusted his hat and turned back to the fire.

 


Notes

Tjakamarra and Tjangala are two of the eight subsection kinship terms used in the kinship system by the Pintupi, Luritja, Warlpiri and Aranda peoples of the central and western deserts, northern Australia. Tjakamarra is an ‘uncle’ (wife’s uncle) to a Tjangala.

Kali: boomerang

Kanalpa: a high-sided oval shaped dish. Traditionally hollowed out by carving from a variety of soft desert timbers. Used for collecting and winnowing seeds and carrying a variety of things such as meat, water and babies.

Lingku: very much/really

Thongs: Australian slang for cheap rubber/synthetic flip flops

Tjinguru: perhaps/possibly

Wanampi: the rainbow serpent, an ancestral figure from the dreaming (Indigenous mythology) who presides over water and mediates water relationships. Its important to note the dreaming is a continuity existing in the present and past simultaneously.

Yuwa: to affirm/yes/used to acknowledge another person

Yuwuwu: whole hearted agreement

Yuwinpa: big/important/great/heavy