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Shoes of invisibility and invisible shoes: Australian hunters and gatherers and ideas on the origins of footwear.

Abstract: Apart from a single brief paper written by DS Davidson and published in 1947, and a detailed description of bark sandals from the Tanami desert region by DF Thomson in 1960, most attention in relation to Aboriginal Australian footwear has focused on the emu-feather and hairstring kadaitcha shoes or slippers of Central Australia. While footwear was lacking among most indigenous Australians, at least five different forms of indigenous footwear or .foot protection have been recorded. A revised distribution of Aboriginal footwear is presented here. Early records draw attention to the use of footwear among the Tasmanian Aborigines and offer insights into the possible origins of the use of footwear.

While traditionally footwear had a limited distribution on the continent, the use of at least one form intimately associated with magical killing and sorcery, the kadaitcha shoe, seems to have been spreading in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is suggested here that internal disruption caused by the impact of Western and Asian societies in the nineteenth century led to an increase in aberrant behaviour, including sorcery, that may account for the spread of this particular type of footwear.


Generally, Australian Aborigines are regarded as maintaining their hunting and gathering existence unshod. The use of footwear, apart from bark sandals, in the Western Desert region of Western Australia, and emu-feather slippers or shoes by sanctioned vengeance parties in Central Australia, is generally unrecognised. DS Davidson, summarising information about the use of footwear in Australia in 1947, failed to incorporate information from the eighteenth century that indicated a wider distribution than normally considered (Davidson 1947).

Early records

The earliest records suggesting that Australian Aborigines used any sort of footwear were made in 1777 on the east coast of Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land), by surgeons Anderson and Samwell, members of Cook's second voyage into the Pacific. Samwell noted that 'some of them had skins secured to their feet which served to defend them from the stones' (Beaglehole 1967:994). Anderson wrote: 'some bits of kangaroos skin fix'd on their feet with thongs as amongst some labourers of other countries; though it could not be learnt whether these were in use as shoes or only to defend some sore on the feet' (Beaglehole 1967:787).

Further reference to Tasmanian footwear was made in 1793 by Labillardiere (1971:229): 'We observed one, who walked with difficulty, and one of whose feet was wrapped in skin'. This clearly implies that the hide was being used to protect a wound. In 1802, Baudin (1974:345) noted of the Tasmanians, 'Their drinking vessels are made from a type of seaweed with very broad thick leaves. These they also use as shoes when they have sore feet'. The seaweed used to make the carrying vessels is the bull kelp, Durvillaea potatorum.

In 1852, John West (1852:85) wrote: 'The tribes to the westward were the finer race: those from South Cape to Cape Grim had better huts, and they wore moccasins on travel'. West's informant may well have been George Augustus Robinson, who had spent almost 10 years trying to effect a peaceful solution to the conflicts between Tasmanian Aborigines and the colonial interlopers. Robinson himself, while near Waterhouse Point, Ringarooma Bay, northeastern Tasmania, noted in his diary of 7 December 1830 (Plomley 1966:288, 510) that 'The dog chased a brush kangaroo and killed it, the natives taking the skin for moccasins but leaving the carcase'. Later (9 November 1831), he examined an old campsite with 'the remains of native huts, old blankets and moccasins, and numerous other indications of natives having frequented these parts'.

Ethnologists considering the apparently meagre suite of items manufactured by the Tasmanian Aborigines have also failed to note the presence of footwear. Some may argue that the Tasmanian use of footwear reflects a post-contact phenomenon. However, it appears that the use of animal skins or kelp to protect the feet from injury and to protect injured or tender feet was not uncommon. There are, to my knowledge, no similar early references to the use of footwear, made in relation to mainland Aborigines. The Tasmanian situation suggests that the general use of footwear may have developed initially from the custom of bandaging or otherwise protecting injured feet, rather than being initially invented to protect the feet from harm.

Davidson's 1947 survey of footwear in Aboriginal Australia did not refer to the Tasmanian evidence. It is clearly time for a review and revision of his summary of Australian Aboriginal footwear.

Davidson's types of Indigenous footwear reconsidered

Four types of footwear are recognised by Davidson as being used by Australian Aborigines and he limited their distribution to the central and central-western areas of the continent. Three types were believed to have been of very limited distribution, while the fourth, the kadaitcha shoe, was found over a much wider area and considered by Davidson as having spread in a south-westerly direction since first recorded in Central Australia in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

One problem is, of course, the distinction (or lack of it) made by many observers between sandals and shoes or moccasins. I propose that the term 'sandals' be used to refer to footwear with a plain or woven sole and no upper, which were bound to the foot with attached straps. 'Shoes' and 'moccasins', on the other hand, possess both soles and uppers that more or less enclose the foot. They may be secured baglike, by the shape of the upper alone, by tying with a separate cord, or possess one or more bands of material--extensions of the upper--that hold the shoe to the instep.

Davidson's types

1. Skin sandals or shoes made from possum or kangaroo-rat skin worn fur side down (Davidson 1947:114)

The sandals were called mungar, in the language of the Wanman (Warnman) of the Rudall River area, and wdnya by their south-eastern neighbours of the Gibson Desert. Davidson apparently collected this information during fieldwork undertaken in Western Australia during 1938-39.

While he noted that they were worn when hunting in difficult terrain, both names provided suggest that the sandals were used for more esoteric purposes. Davidson considered that the word mungar and its cognates meant 'ghost' or 'spirit'. The term wanya, generally, can mean 'an evil spirit' as well as 'a sorcerer' or 'assassin', endowed with magical powers and bent on vengeance for some perceived wrongdoing. In Central Australia, such people are called by the more familiar name, kadaitcha or kurdaitcha, a word that has now entered the general Australian vocabulary.

It is possible that Davidson misinterpreted or misheard the word mungar. According to Warnman speakers today, a spirit is called ngunu and munga means 'night'. On the other hand, the term mangun refers to the creative period--'the Dreamtime'.

The use of footwear fashioned from skins has also been reported in South Australia. Menstruating women of the Yaraldi, of the Lower Murray River and Lakes area of nineteenth century South Australia, wore slippers to travel between a special seclusion camp used during the day and the place where they slept at night. The slippers were made of fur, worn fur side out and gathered around with fibre, which was also used as a tie. The slippers were said to keep a woman's feet warm and dry and to ensure a 'normal' menstrual period, as well as obscuring her tracks from the eyes of young boys (Berndt & Berndt with Stanton 1993:153). The use of the words 'worn fur side out' suggests that a pelt rather than spun or felted fur was used in the construction of the slippers.

These references, and the Tasmanian evidence referred to earlier, suggest that footwear made from skin or the pelts of animals may have had a much wider distribution than previously considered by Davidson.

2. Sandals 'crudely made of strips of bark tied to the foot' (Davidson 1947:114)

The first reference to this type of sandal was made in 1898 by the explorer, David Carnegie (1998:234), who collected one of a worn-out pair found while seeking water north of Patience Well in the Gibson Desert and approximately 300 km east of Lake Disappointment. Carnegie (1998:236) discussed these sandals in the light of his reading of the journals of the Horn Scientific Expedition, and compared them with 'Kurdaitcha' shoes. Warri, Carnegie's Aboriginal guide, remarked about the bark sandals, 'Blackfella wear 'em 'long hot sand'.

Davidson limited the distribution of this type of footwear to a small area of the Gibson Desert. However, the Warnman, referred to earlier, also used bark sandals, and Davidson may have been confusing the Warnman term mungar with other similar words related to bark sandals. My own investigations with Warnman speakers reveal that bark sandals are generically called jakapiri but may also be termed mangarr, after the Rattlepod shrub (Crotalaria cunninghamii), the bark of which is primarily used to make the sandals. Acacias with barks suitable for sandal construction are known as kalirrma and jamal, and these terms may be used for sandals made from their respective barks.

Davidson noted that the Kija people of the southeastern Kimberley were aware of these sandals, which they called pailka. Pailka (palyka or palkany) is a term used by the eastern Walmajarri and their neighbours to the east, the Kukaja, for both the Crotalaria and the sandals made from it. Synonymous terms are yakapiri (Walmajarri) and mirrinpa or ngalyipi (Kukaja) (Richards & Hudson 1990:305; Valiquette 1993:186). The terms yakapiri and ngalyipi are also the names used for the Crotalaria. However, some Kukaja have indicated to me that palyka (sandals) are made from ngalyipi (Crotalaria). The use of the name of the material that an artefact is made from to denote the artefact itself is a common practice in many parts of Aboriginal Australia.


There are other early references to the use of bark sandals of which Davidson was possibly unaware. For example, Mathews (1901:80) in reference to the Northern Territory stated:
 To protect their feet from the sharp stones in rugged
 country, or from the hot sands of the desert, the natives
 sometimes make shoes, or sandals, from the bark of
 the tea-tree, with a string tied over the foot to keep it
 on. This string is made from the bark of a shrub with a
 yellow flower which grows on the sand hills. In some
 districts the shoe itself is made of the bark of the same
 tree, worked in the manner of netting, and is fastened
 on the foot just as stated.

In 1901, GA Keartland exhibited a pair of sandals, woven from the bark of Crotalaria cunninghamii, at the Victorian Naturalists Club (Anon. 1901:71). He gave the provenance as north-western Australia. Keartland was a member of the ill-fated Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition of 1896-97 when two members, CF Wells and GL Jones, were lost and perished; Keartland also went on the 1897 expeditions that eventually discovered their bodies. Expedition leader LA Wells (1902:52), on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert, saw 'a peculiar-looking pair of shoes made from bark' being worn by an old Aboriginal woman. Two sandals collected by Wells at Joanna Springs in 1897 are now in the collections of the South Australian Museum (reg. nos. 6054 and 6055). The sandals are not a pair and 6055 is described as a sandal for a child. Both sandals are recorded as having been collected 100 miles (160 km) south of Joanna Springs in the Great Sandy Desert and consequently do not appear to be those recorded in Wells journal.

In 1910, Swedish ethnographer Yngve Laurell collected bark sandals called mangara from Mangala people at Mowla Downs Station on Geegully Creek, south-western Kimberley. Laurell, a member of the First Swedish Scientific Expedition to Australia, 1910-1911, also recorded details of the manufacture of the sandals, noting that (1910:11-12, 26-7, paraphrased translation by Claes Halgren 2004):
 each is made of two strips of bark. One strip is tied and
 looped about the body of the manufacturer and over
 the big toe of an extended foot. This forms the initial
 foundation upon which the other is woven to create
 a sole. On completion the ends and median section of
 the foundation strip serve as the ties and lashing points
 respectively when fixing the sandal to the foot.

Laurell noted that the sandals were made by both men and women, and were generally discarded after use.

Bark sandals were also known to the Nyangamarta and Karajarri of the north-western coast, the latter calling them manyarr (McKelson n.d.:134). HS Trotman recalled finding bark sandals in 1897, just east of Roy Hill in the eastern Pilbara. He described (Smith 1966:75) 'a pair of what looked like Roman sandals made from the bark of the Spearwood-tree, with a loop for the big toe and long grass thongs attached to the soles with which to lace them'. While doubting at the time that these sandals were of Indigenous origin, in a footnote Trotman (Smith 1966:75) stated that:
 Later I was to learn that these sensible foot coverings
 had been made by the natives of that area who apparently
 are the only blacks in Australia to have contrived
 anything in the nature of a shoe. They called them
 mongas and used them when the ground was too hot for
 even their horny feet.

The word 'mongas' used by Trotman and Davidson's term mungar appear to be synonymous, and there may be some overlap in the use of skin and bark footwear in the eastern Pilbara.

In the south-western Kimberley and on the Dampierland Peninsula, EA Worms mentioned the use of shoes (guridja or mangar) of leather or bark to disguise the tracks of murderers (Worms 1986:54). These terms possibly refer to sandals rather than shoes.

In 1957, anthropologist Donald Thomson (1960:177-9) observed Pintubi men making and wearing Crotalaria bark sandals at Lappi Lappi, an important water point south of Lake Hazlett on the western margin of the Tanami Desert in Western Australia. Thomson understood that the Pintubi distinguished between the plant ngalyibi (Crotalaria cunninghamii) and the term balka, which he perceived meant the sandal itself, and published a most detailed description of the manufacture of the sandal (Thomson 1960:179):
 After stripping the bark, the sandal-maker squats on
 the sand with one of his legs extended at full length in
 front of his body. He selects a single long strand of bast
 fibre, or if none of sufficient length is available, he ties
 on an additional strand. This strand is then looped over
 the big toe of the foot that is stretched forward, and the
 other ends carried back passed round each side of the
 body and tied at the back. Tension is thus maintained
 on the parallel strands on which the sole of the shoe is
 woven, leaving the maker's hands free. The end of the
 sole nearest the toe is necessarily narrower than the one
 near the body and so forms the heel, while the wider
 end takes the ball of the foot. The loop that was passed
 behind the big toe during the process of manufacture
 later serves as a strap for the instep, and the two loose
 ends, untied from the body, are passed between the toes
 and serve as lashings to secure the sandal, thus eliminating
 the need of any additional thongs.

It is clear that Thomson observed the same technique for manufacturing sandals that had been recorded by Laurell over 40 years earlier in the south Kimberley. Other descriptions of the manufacture and use of Crolalaria bark sandals have been provided by Gould (1969:7, 12, 26) and Lowe and Pike (1990:75).

Davidson (1947:115) suggested that woven bark sandals had a very limited distribution. In fact, these sandals were made and used throughout the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts regions of Western Australia and also in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory. It may be that the Mathews reference noted earlier, to bark sandals in the Northern Territory, alludes to the use of bark sandals in the latter area.

3. Rabbit-skin moccasins

Bolam in the first decades of the twentieth century recorded the use of rabbit-skin moccasins at Ooldea at southern-central South Australia. These were used by Aborigines who had to travel in porcupine-grass country. Some species of porcupine grass (Triodia sp.), also commonly but incorrectly known as 'spinifex', possess hard phyllodes with needle-sharp tips. Bolam (1925:77) makes the point that these shoes were worn in August when Aboriginal hunters would venture into the country seeking dingo pups for pets.

Each moccasin consisted of the entire skin of a freshly killed rabbit. The foot was slipped into the skin from the rear with the toes resting against the tied off neck. The rear section of the skin was pulled back over the heel and the skin of the back legs was tied at the ankle. The skinned-out front legs were tied together over the instep. Presumably the skin was everted so that the fur was on the inside, although this is not specifically mentioned.

This is the only reference, to my knowledge, to this type of footwear in Australia. While Davidson (1947:115) questioned whether the use of animal skins in this manner was in use at Ooldea prior to the introduction of the rabbit to the area, or was introduced from more northerly regions, it may be a local innovation possibly influenced by non-Aborigines in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

4. Kadaitcha (kurdaitcha) shoes (Davidson 1947:116)

With soles made from emu feathers and uppers of knitted or woven twine of human hair or animal fur, kadaitcha shoes are the most familiar form of footwear used by Aboriginal Australians. Along with bone pointing, the shoes represent to many the dark side of Indigenous magical practices associated with social control.

As a class of footwear they should perhaps be termed 'feathered shoes', as it seems that they were worn on occasions other than killing expeditions. Etheridge (1895) collected accounts of their use from a wide range of sources, noting that, according to French, Howitt and Coward, they were worn for the purposes of rain-making. Coward also noted that they were worn in western Queensland to conceal tracks on wife-stealing missions (Etheridge 1895:544, 546, 549).

In some instances, the shoes were said to be able to be made publicly and seen by both women and children except when being used (Bates 1923:977). In other instances they were said to be restricted, although any adult male may make them (Meggitt 1955:385). Among the Walbiri, men belonging to the matriline of a deceased person would make the shoes worn on an expedition sent out to avenge the death of a kinsman (Meggitt 1962:325). Until the mid-1970s they were a regular craft item, produced for sale at many centres in the central and western desert areas of Australia. The manufacture of kadaitcha shoes for sale seems to have begun soon after they were first reported. Spencer and Gillen (1899:478) reported that models of kadaitcha shoes existed that were too small for actual use. By 1928 Spencer (1928:264) could write that:
 The best feather shoes are made in the southern section
 of the Arunta tribe, and during recent years, since it has
 been discovered that they have a marketable value, a
 considerable number have been manufactured by the
 natives and have, for some time past, been finding there
 way into museums and curiosity shops; but as a general
 rule, they can be distinguished by their size, most of
 them being too small for even the foot of a native.

The soles were made from a mass of emu feathers, felted together by repeated stabbing with a wood or bone skewer (Spencer 1928:260). In most of the early descriptions, human blood was said to be the principal binding agent. While blood may have been used to charge the shoes with magical power, it is likely that the felting of the feathers, rather than the use of blood, created the mechanical stability required to ensure a bond between the sole and the netted upper. Byrne (1896:65) noted that the 'sole [was] made of human hair and a great number of intertwined emu feathers, a certain amount of human blood being used as a kind of cementing material'. The Walbiri further reinforced the sole by sewing it through with hairstring (Meggitt 1955:385), a practice that was followed in the Western Desert area of Western Australia.

Bates (n.d.:l) divided feathered shoes into two forms. The first had a simple sole of felted emu feathers that was tied onto the foot with a length of fur or hairstring; they were used in sandy country (Berndt & Johnston 1942: Figure 19 provide an illustration of a pair of these simple shoes). The second form had a sole built up by stitching fur or hairstring through the matted emu feathers to create a more robust shoe. The latter had netted uppers, and was said to have been for use in stony or rugged environments. Bates also stated that the fur of both the native marsupial cat and the introduced feral cat could be felted to form soles for these shoes. In another account, Bates (1923) provided a myth from the Western Desert that describes the invention of both forms of shoes and thus provides a cosmological rationale for their manufacture and use.

Most descriptions of the uppers simply refer to them being made of hairstring mesh with a hole in which to place the foot. Spencer and Gillen (1899:477-8) confused the matter by stating that there is a hairstring cord across the aperture, presumably to hold the foot in place, but also illustrated a ball of human-hair string 'used to tie the shoe to the foot' (Spencer & Gillen 1899: Figure 96:4).

At Ooldea, the uppers were made of two separate materials. The lower section, attached to the sole, was of wombat fur and the upper of woven rabbit fur (Berndt & Johnston 1942:206). On the other hand, the Walbiri stitched hairstring loops on to the feather soles to create soft sandals (Meggitt 1955:385). The Wongkonguru (Wangkangurru), situated in Aiston's time on the north-eastern shores of Lake Eyre between the Warburton and Coopers Creek in South Australia (having moved from an area northwest of the Warburton), used a quill netting needle to weave with. This was made by stripping most of the vane from each side of the shaft of a medium to large feather, leaving only a few centimetres at the tip. Prepared human-hair string was then spun into the remaining vane and the quill was ready to be used as a needle, both for weaving the upper and attaching it to the feather sole (Home & Aiston 1924:138--9).

Part of the ritual involved in preparing a man to be a kadaitcha involved dislocation of one or other little toe (Spencer & Gillen 1899:478). Spencer and Gillen noted that true kadaitcha shoes have a hole in the upper to accommodate the dislocated toe of the wearer. However, as only one toe is dislocated only one shoe of a pair would show such a hole.

The literature relating to kadaitcha practices is extensive and will not be entered into here (see Berndt & Berndt 1977:324-6; Curr 1886:148; Etheridge 1895; Kitching 1961; Spencer & Gillen 1899:476-85). The term "kadaitcha' refers to revenge expeditions, which involve sorcery as well as physical injury to ensure success. The term is from the Arrernte (Aranda) language of Central Australia. Kadaitcha avengers wore the feathered shoes to disguise their identity. It is often said that they were used to conceal the tracks themselves, but this is impossible in all but the stoniest country. The presence of the blurred tracks, however, would indicate that ritually empowered kadaitcha were in the vicinity and best left alone. Individual identity is further concealed by the use of ochre and feather-down ornamentation on the face and body worn by the participants of the kadaitcha expedition. Spencer (1928:264), however, comments of the shoes that 'The only real use to which apparently they are put is that of carrying small objects, such as bull-roarers or stone knives, used during ceremonies'.

Davidson (1947:116-18) described the use of such footwear as restricted to the southern sections of the Northern Territory and from South Australia, west of Lake Eyre, extending into Western Australia; in Western Australia the use of the kadaitcha shoe was limited to the Gibson Desert, extending south-east into the Eastern Goldfields region and north-east into the northern Pilbara. It is clear that the shoes had a much wider distribution than Davidson suspected. Bates (n.d.: 2) stated that she collected them at places within the Gascoyne-Murchison region that lies south of the Pilbara.

Sorcerers and killers wearing feathered shoes were also known to the peoples north and east of Lake Eyre, including the Wangkangurru, the Diyari, Yaluyandi, Thirrari and Yandruwantha. The shoes were called thina nhipa ('foot clothes') by the Thirrari and tidna-nipa or tidna-kati by the Diyari (Hercus, pers. comm.). As well as being worn on kadaitcha raids, they also seem to have served as an aid to avoid detection when surreptitiously entering hostile country for whatever purpose, and were also worn by some men to avoid scorching the feet on the hottest days (Horne & Aiston 1924:138-9).

Among the Arrernte, the shoes are called interlinia in the south and intathurta to the north. Elsewhere they are called jina wipia ('foot-feather') by the Manjiljara of the Gibson Desert, and multjara and jina wipia by the southern Western Desert peoples. According to Davidson (1947:117), the Nyangumarta of the northern Pilbara knew the shoes as jfno-whgu; jfno were said to be evil beings or people who have transformed into evil beings for the purposes of sorcery. According to linguist Albert Burgman (pers. comm.), jina waku is the northern Nyangumarta term for a kadaitcha man, who is termed jina karrpi by the southern Nyangumarta and jina karrpil among the Warnman. The term jina karrpi ('foot-tied' or '-bound') with cognates jina arbil and jina karrpil, is recognised across the entire Western Desert area. The term for the introduced, non-Indigenous forms of shoes and boots in most of the eastern and northern Pilbara and Western Desert languages is jina buka, literally 'stinking feet'.

Extending northwards beyond the limits of distribution as defined by Davidson, we find that the shoes were known or believed to be part of the paraphernalia that sorcerers could use in many Aboriginal groups other than those of Central Australia. To the Pintupi and Kukaja of the Tanami and Stansmore Ranges, respectively, such shod killers were known as jina karrpinyu ('foot bound') and jina karrpilpa ('foot bound'). The Walbiri of the eastern Tanami Desert call the shoes wanjia-wulia (janba = 'foot').

Janba are considered to be malevolent male spirits who maliciously kill humans whenever they encounter them. To conceal their tracks they also wear the feathered shoes. The existence of janba spirit beings is acknowledged across the northern arid regions of Australia, from the Northern Territory west to Broome and the Dampierland Peninsula. According to Worms (1952:550), knowledge of janba and the religious cults associated with them existed in Broome in the early 1930s and was appearing in the central Kimberley in the late 1930s. Worms considered that the janba cult had spread from the desert regions east and southeast of the Kimberley, possibly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other phenomena introduced from the desert regions into the southern Kimberley at the same time included the section and subsection systems of social organisation as well as ceremonies, religious artefacts and sacred objects commonly associated with the desert people (Worms 1952:551).

Some suggestion regarding the possible original construction of the feathered shoes is given by Worms (1952:552) in his translation of a statement made by a Kukaja informant from the Balgo region:
 Djanba spears people. Blood runs out of the wound
 when he withdraws the spear. Djanba walks all day
 leaving his weeping mother alone in the camp. He
 opens the vein in his arm and lets the blood drop on
 the soles of his feet. Then he plucks the fur of a bandicoot
 and with the blood attaches it to the underside of
 his feet. But the heels remain uncovered. Nobody can
 see his tracks.

The Pilbara spirits known as jfno, however, were said to cut their ankles so that their shoes are kept saturated with unearthly blood, which ensures that they leave no tracks (Davidson 1947:117). As noted earlier, there is evidence of the use of skin or bark sandals for a similar purpose reported for the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Additional forms of footwear not considered by Davidson

RH Mathews (1901:80) referred to the use of shoes made from spun fur yarn 'woven into a net with very small meshes'. These shoes, used in an unspecified area of the Northern Territory, protected the feet in rugged country. The netted fur-string shoes do not appear to fulfil the same function as kadaitcha shoes, which Mathews goes on to consider in his next paragraph. If this is the case, then these slippers or shoes represent a further type of footwear that warrants inclusion in any consideration of Indigenous Australian footwear.

Another form of foot protection that needs to be considered is the use of plant resins or saps rubbed on the feet to toughen them. For example, the Bardi of Sunday Island and the northern tip of the Dampierland Peninsula in Western Australia crush leaves of muntuj (Gardenia pyriformis) and rub the sap over the soles of their feet before going fishing and collecting on rocky reefs covered with coral and oysters. This is said to ensure that the feet remain tough enough, even after prolonged soaking, to withstand the sharp edges of oyster shells and coral tines and, more importantly, the deadly spines of the stonefish (Synencaja horrida). There is currently little knowledge about the distribution of this unusual form of foot protection in northern Australia.

The general paucity of information regarding Indigenous footwear in Australia suggests that some local forms may have been abandoned soon after contact. The exceptions are the bark sandals of the Western Deserts and adjacent areas, and the feather-soled kadaitcha shoes. The use of the former type of footwear in the arid regions into recent times can be explained by the fact that the inhabitants of these areas were among some of the last to have direct contact with non-Aboriginal Australians.

The continued manufacture and use of kadaitcha footwear into the twentieth century may, however, have wider social implications.

The post-contact spread of the kadaitcha shoe

Davidson (1947:117) considered that the feather-sole kadaitcha shoe had spread westwards from Central Australia, into the southern arid areas of Western Australia and then into the Pilbara and Goldfields regions within historic times. The use of feathered and other slippers for sorcery purposes is known now to extend across most of Central Australia and the entire Western Desert region into the southern Kimberley and north-western Pilbara regions.

Part of the reason for this spread may be the gradual depopulation of the arid areas as Aborigines, from the late nineteenth century until very recently, abandoned their desert estates and migrated to towns, missions and other settlements. This migration was partly initiated by a series of droughts that affected the Western Deserts in the early to mid-twentieth century; and partly by government policies of centralisation whereby Aboriginal peoples were encouraged to leave the desert for life on mission and government settlements; and partly by their desire to experience new places and seek old neighbours who had migrated earlier. One consequence of this period of migration was that towns and settlements on the desert fringe now contained immigrant populations more akin to others around the perimeter of this locus than with their immediate hosts. The desert cultural identity, more conservative than that of the host bodies, was to become a dominating force in the areas where it was re-established.

Australian Aboriginal societies had been undergoing huge social upheavals even prior to physically encountering Asian and European visitors or settlers. Diseases introduced into Arnhem Land in the late eighteenth century were to cut swathes across broad reaches of the continent, devastating many Aboriginal groups (Campbell 2002; Kimber 1988:63-8). In traditional Aboriginal societies such diseases were perceived to have only supernatural causes. Diseases or illnesses for which there was no traditional remedy were seen to be either a supernatural punishment brought about by breaches of social and religious rules, or the result of sorcery. Sorcery and assassination were said to be used in some instances to enforce changes in ceremonial behaviour created by the introduction of new forms of religious activity (Wilson 1954:15-19).

In some parts of Australia, there is clear evidence that sorcery was resorted to in the early contact phase as people sought to correct situations over which they had no tangible control and which they blamed others for creating. In South Australia, sorcery was said to be resorted to by the more conservative as they attempted to reassert control over others falling under the influence of missions (Berndt & Berndt 1951:87, 231). On the walls of the great rock-art galleries of western Arnhem Land, the majority of motifs reported by Aborigines to be associated with sorcery occur within the post-contact era and belong within the contact period phase (Chaloupka 1993:207-13). Chaloupka considers the epidemics of smallpox, influenza and, later, sexually transmitted diseases and leprosy, coupled with the dislocation of dispossession, as major contributors to the increase of sorcery.

A feature associated with the gradual removal of populations from their homelands in the central and western arid areas of Australia is that in many cases there was no strong core of senior males or females left to ensure adherence to normal rules of behaviour. In these situations it appears that some men, occasionally alone or in the company of one or two others, became 'rogue'. They would not hesitate to kill other men whom they caught unawares and to usurp women wherever possible. Their lives were violent and, secure in their own physical strength, they rampaged through the isolated family groups still remaining in the desert. Many believed that sorcery was the only means by which these brigands could be brought down.

An account of some of the attacks, murders and abductions that occurred in the Great Sandy Desert is graphically provided by Ngarta Jinny Bent and Pat Lowe (2004). Bent witnessed these events as a girl. Four men, brothers in the late 1950s or early 1960s, committed a range of crimes including murder before they came out of the desert. One of them was still alive, living a solitary existence, in the desert in 1982.

The spread of kadaitcha sorcery with the related use of the feather-soled shoes is an important reflection of this period of anomie. Even today, among remoter Aboriginal communities associated with the Western Desert, the threat of sorcery, known as jina karrpil or wanya, is invoked as a mechanism of social control. Among many urbanised Aborigines, 'feather-foots' are perceived as murderous strangers who come secretly to prey on unsuspecting townsfolk.


This review demonstrates that footwear was of much wider distribution than hitherto generally considered. A search of the literature and investigations over the years in Australian public and private collections has so far failed to provide evidence of the use of footwear in the eastern and south-eastern regions of the continent.

The use of footwear was sporadic, however, and dependent on various factors. In some instances, footwear appears to have been constructed to protect injured feet; in others, it protected feet from injury. In some arid areas, extremely high temperatures obliged walkers to wear sandals when crossing the burning sands. Similarly, rough country otherwise normally avoided might need to be traversed, and footwear made this task easier. However, this does not appear to be true for all areas of the continent where extreme conditions of either temperature and/or harshness of topography exist.

The use of the feathered kadaitcha shoes not only concealed the identity of members of a raiding party but also warned any who may have stumbled over the blurred tracks that ahead was an enemy endowed with magical as well as other powers and strengths.

The need for mobility and portability probably precluded the everyday use of robust footwear. Feet generally were tough enough not to require protection except in unusual circumstances.

Another factor militated against the regular use of footwear: in Australia, only the largest of kangaroos and crocodiles had hides capable of producing shoes or sandals that would last more than several days. In desert areas, large kangaroos are not easy to kill. Other cultural factors, including taboos on skinning them in many places, would also limit the development of leather-working skills. The use of tough barks, stripped from shrubs and woven in a matter of minutes when required, was a much more practical answer than the preparation and carrying of leather. Where, as in Tasmania, hides appear to have been used, our information is slight and details scant. Recognition of the use of footwear by Tasmanians suggests that ideas concerning the apparent paucity of their material possessions must be reconsidered.

At the moment it appears that, apart from in Tasmania, footwear was made and used across a broad swathe of the continent, from the lower reaches of the Murray River in South Australia north and northwest through the Central and Western arid zones into the eastern Pilbara and southern Kimberley. With a further examination of the records it may become apparent that, while in other areas of Aboriginal Australia people generally went unshod, the knowledge and the skills required to create footwear were present and used as occasion demanded.


I wish to thank the following people: Albert Burgman, linguist, and Desmond Taylor, Warnman language worker, of the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, for helping me with Warnman terminology for footwear. Luise Hercus generously provided data on footwear in the Eyre Basin region. Fiona Powell and David Kaus supplied copies of references not easily accessible to me. Phillip Manning provided data on Aboriginal footwear held in the collections of the South Australian Museum. I am indebted to Claes Hallgren, Stockholm, who ably translated excerpts from the Laurell diary for me.

To Charley Wallabayi of Wirrimarnu and Kiwirrkura communities, the late Benny Walkatu and Jimmy Wirili James of Krungal, my deep gratitude for demonstrating the making of paylka sandals in the Great Sandy Desert in the 1980s.

I am most grateful for the valuable comments and editorial changes suggested by two anonymous referees. Finally I am as ever grateful to my wife Val Hawkes for her comments on various drafts of the manuscript.


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Kim Akerman


Kim Akerman has been involved in Australian Aboriginal studies since 1967. His employment history has included positions as anthropologist with the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority, Community Health Services (both Western Australia), the Kimberley Land Council and the Northern Land Council, and curatorships within three Australian museums. He has also researched and advised on two successful land claims in the Northern Territory and on the Miriuwung-Gadjerong Native Title case in Western Australia. His writings cover topics including health, material culture, lithic technology, and Indigenous art with a focus on ethno-archaeology. Kim has been a member of the AIATSIS Research Advisory Committee since 1996.

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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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