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The brief reach of history and the limitation of recall in traditional aboriginal societies and cultures.

'Knowest thou it because thou wast then born? Or because the number of thy days is great?' (Job, 38:21--Authorised version of the Bible)

In this essay I address the backward reach of time in traditional Aboriginal societies and cultures. (1) My reason for embarking on this course is that the depth of Aboriginal recall is relevant to the native title demand that a judge, as fact finder, will determine the extent to which the current practices of the applicants in a native title case relate to the practices of their forebears at sovereignty.

More particularly, on the authority of Yorta Yorta (HC) as set out in Yulara (FC) at 192, the native title requirements are that:

* The claimed native title rights and interests had their origin in the body of norms or the normative system that existed before sovereignty;

* The laws and customs of the indigenous people that existed at sovereignty constituted a body of normative rules that could give rise (and did give rise) to interests in land; and

* The pre-sovereignty normative system has had a continuous existence and vitality since sovereignty.

There is a further stipulation. In the recent Yulara Native Title Compensation Claim ('Yulara', 2006), the trial judge remarked how, in their submissions, counsel for the Commonwealth had pointed out that: '... trial Judges dealing with native title claims in this [the Federal] Court have consistently stated that what really matters in such cases is the evidence of the Aboriginal claimants: Yarmirr v Northern Territory (1998) 82 FCR 533 ... at 562, per Olney J; De Rose (FCA), at [342], [351], per O'Loughlin J.' (2)

On anthropological grounds, I arrive at a contrary proposition. Trends of cultural practice disqualify any Aboriginal witnessing on the three scores listed above. Of itself, widespread Aboriginal tradition limits recall of traditional practice. Emplaced traditions work, furthermore, to eliminate all memory of any historical departures from once-established norms. The consequence is that credible information about anything but the personally witnessed past cannot be rendered up by the Aboriginal testator who has not had recourse to records. If proof of the continuity or discontinuity of tradition from the time of sovereignty is to be supplied, the court has no choice but to rely on those devices for the remembering, preserving or retrieving the past that have been imported into Australia since settlement. Proof (if any proof there be) is to be gained by recourse to records and/or expert opinion. Where the depth and constancy of traditional observance is at issue, evidence other than the evidence provided by Aboriginal claimants is the evidence that must count.

To support my announced contention, I have to document three things:

(i) The Aboriginal relegation of the past (that is, the institution of short cultural memory);

(ii) The suppression or 'masking' or 'editing' of any histories of unconformity (that is, the elimination of accounts of irregularity from the record) and

(iii) Calculation of the onset of 'time immemorial'.

Stark documentation is my primary aim. And this is so because of the peculiar demands of the judicial process. When hearing a native title case, the trial judge will have most narrow concerns. Judicial focus must be on the case in hand, that case and nothing but determination of the facts in the particular matter that is before the court. Ordinarily, judges do not want to hear about the trends of regional ethnography. Rather, they look for evidence of local practice. From applicants and others, the evidence to be elicited concerns practice and observance (contemporary or historical) in that local and particular 'community of native title holders' to which the applicants belong.

Judges also curb flights of anthropological interpretation. They are apt to do so for two reasons. In the first place, the interpretations of anthropologists nearly always go way beyond the necessary facts that a judge will be required to find. Secondly (anthropology being what it is), interpretations will often be derived from comparisons. The expert may thus invite the court to move between Africa (segmentary lineage systems), the Amazon (dialectic hunter-gatherer tribes) and Afghanistan (parallel cousin marriage) before homing back to that delimited and relevant bit of Australian countryside that is under claim.

I now cite a caution delivered from the bench during a recent hearing. As counsel (for a respondent party) rose to introduce his expert anthropologist, the judge was moved to intervene and say: 'When you lead this witness ... the court does not want to be taken on a Cook's tour.' The judge had read the expert's report and had noted its trends. Responding to objections entered earlier on, he had already struck out those portions of the anthropologist's report deemed inadmissible on various grounds. My point is that (whether presented in oral or in written form) expert opinion is admitted into evidence only to the extent that the expert works within the circumscribed and narrow focus that a court defines in consideration of each particular case.

In native title matters, it is right to say that the court is concerned only with the quiddities of local 'traditions acknowledged' and local 'customs observed'. This is why I deal first and foremost with reported quiddities of limited recall and with significant registration of the suppression of history in Aboriginal societies and cultures. But there has to be more. An unreclaimed anthropologist, I am impelled to go beyond the mere reporting of actualities (things Aboriginal that are 'acknowledged' and 'observed' but are rendered up as just-so artefacts because their raison d'etre has been left out of the accounting). In brief passages of commentary that have no forensic import but function instead to locate my discourse in anthropology, I propose some answers to the 'Why?' question that the curious must be provoked to ask in response to the teasing ethnography. (And please note: my excursions into anthropological explanation are separated out and tagged; they can be jumped over and wholly ignored by the reader whose concern is with quiddities alone.) So, why the social impulsion to curb memory and establish arrangements that promote cultural amnesia (3)--a traditionally required and precipitant onset of temps perdu?

This essay is written to make a general case. However, there are problems concerning differences between Aboriginal societies and cultures to be acknowledged and dealt with at the outset. For present purposes, it is sufficient to divide Australia into three distinct provinces. The Great Western Desert is to be set apart as a land of privation and extremes. In this desert, the Aboriginal response was to develop patterns of extensive, long-range nomadism together with 'flexible' and permissive tenurial arrangements that gave each person rights of visitation and use in a suite of 'countries'. In the tropical north-east, the Cape York Peninsula is a narrow land with a constricted interior but a coastline of great length. Peninsular geography encourages a mode of exploitation that combines littoral, marine, riparian and landed resources to make Cape York a tropic of varied, plentiful and nutritious dietary options. As Chase and Sutton explain, this land of plenty has evoked a special pattern of land-use that may not qualify as nomadism at all. There are 'small-scale movements in small domains where nearly all resources (both physical and social) are usually within a day's travel' (Chase and Sutton, 1981: 1849). Semi-sedentary, the people of Cape York were, perhaps, 'forayers' rather than nomads (Chase and Sutton, ibid.)

With The Great Western Desert and Cape York established as exceptions on ecological grounds, the great residue (including Tasmania) is to be treated as middle Australia. Middle Australia contains lands in which the distribution of languages and dialects corresponds with the differentiation of territories whether at the local level or at the level of more inclusive groupings. In some places, both the 'tribal' language-country and component clan estates have tongues of their own (Rumsey, 1993). Ideologically considered, linguistic identities and landed association are aspects of one another in middle Australia because, place by place, named Dreamings have deposited separate tongues in each of the distinguished countries (Merlan, 1981). In contrast, a single language is spoken by Western Desert peoples and although evanescent speech varieties emerge within it, these are unstable. In the Western Desert, differences between styles of speaking are recognised but ways of speaking do not signal land ownership by unequivocally linking speakers (or language-owners) to locales.

Before colonization, the Cape York Peninsula was a land of some forty-five distinct tongues. These, in turn, were sub-divided into dialects and the people were notably polyglot. For this great peninsula divided into a myriad of pocket estates, Chase and Sutton (1981:1820) warn against 'identifying "tribes" in terms of language names' so as to avoid any 'attendant confusion of social groups, breeding isolates, language or dialect areas and polylingual speech communities'. In this province, it is best to focus on the individual estate with its semi-sedentary inhabitants whose contained and estate-bound pattern of land use and occupancy of itself proclaims their ownership of what, for them, is quite evidently home ground. Elsewhere in Australia, ownership of any local estate has to be reconciled with the nomad's permitted, legitimate and ranging access to estates owned by allies with the consequence that patterns of land use cannot match and thereby attest directly to the mosaic of possession. (4) It then becomes necessary to distinguish between permitted range and owned estate and to establish, for each given area, how people manage the relationship between the two (see Stanner, 1965).


Preliminaries aside, the first point I have to make is that the ways of treating the past to be documented here belong to the Australia of the original inhabitants as highly particular conventions and productions. In making this announcement, I am replying to a barrister who stood up in court to tell the judge that brief genealogical recall is, of course, something naturally to be expected in oral cultures everywhere. What else? To this counsel it was obvious that pre-literacy renders up no record. In the context of particular litigation, his erroneous proposition went unopposed.

Now Aboriginal genealogies are shallow--Professor Annette Hamilton says 'notoriously shallow'--for people tend to remember ancestors only as far back as their grandparents and may, in addition, perhaps, recall a single great-grandparent out of eight. In Australia, court proceedings during both native title and ALRA (5) cases are affected by the Aboriginal ban on recalling the names of the dead, especially the recently dead. This ban, too, is a relegation of memory of predecessors. Nor is brief recall of past generations a typical feature of oral cultures the world over.

Vansina (1966) documents the Kingdoms of the Savannah in West Africa where remembrancers called griots recite the generations of the kings and nobles way back in time to the origin of kingdoms and to the founding of noble houses. Among egalitarian peoples with no ruling chiefs or kings, both the Nuer of the Sudan (Evans-Pritchard, 1940) and the camel-herding Bedouin of Cyrenaica (Peters, 1990) have genealogies that incorporate whole tribes and stretch back twelve to fifteen generations and more. (6) Bacon (1952) surveyed the widespread distribution of such embracing 'tribal-genealogical' forms of social organization in Eurasia and proposed that the 'tribal-genealogical' form of social organization should be called obok after one of its particular Eurasian manifestations. And I note that Genghis Khan grew up in an obok context, an embracing lineage system out of which he emerged to launch his campaigns of looting and predatory expansion.

My initial point is that particular orders of genealogical recall are integral to local social arrangements. In some oral cultures, long generational lines are required to produce the group-structures and regional frameworks for social and political action. If we turn to Australian instances, we will find that shallow genealogies are but one aspect of a temporality that is constructed according to Australian rules. Aboriginal people jokingly remark that while the rest of the world may run on G.M.T., they operate on A.M.T., characterizing Aboriginal Mean Time as a temporality that, in its distinctiveness, is their very own. The job for the anthropologist is then to describe those Aboriginal conventions that put processes in motion that work to determine the cultural construction of the present in relation to the past.


In a set of essays that overlap and are best read as palimpsest, Morphy (1990, 1993 and 1995) has addressed both the peculiar construction of time and the revisionist treatment of history that belongs to the Yolngu of East Arnhem Land. And Morphy's (1995:188) governing notion is forthrightly stated: 'Place has precedence over time in Yolngu ontology'. He has enlarged as follows:
 Landscape and myth are ... machines for the suppression of history.
 The place names refer to ancestral action when the form of the
 earth was set for ever. The names signify the spiritual force that
 lies beneath the surface of the earth and that has the capacity to
 produce the present in the form of the past, to enable new trees to
 grow, new people to be born, yet new names and ceremonies reunite
 the new with the old, blurring distinctions and collapsing
 generations. As I have shown elsewhere (Morphy, 1990) the most
 conservative part of the system is the totemic division of the
 landscape and certainly in the case of place names there is
 remarkable continuity at least since the 1880s when we first have
 evidence. However the very capacity of the system to mask history
 means that it has been able to accommodate change, in particular
 change in the groups that occupy the land and in the constitution
 of the groups that are formed. The name is not, as it is presented,
 evidence of spiritual continuity, but the very way in which
 spiritual continuity is constructed (Morphy 1993:236, emphases

In the cited paragraph, Morphy makes an observation that has an important bearing on native title. He tells us that the sacred geography of countryside is relatively stable and 'the most conservative part of the system'. In contrast, groupings of land-owners do not have the same capacity to endure. (7) But there is an irony. Whereas knowledge of country and the names for sites continues through the generations, the memory of named human forebears passes quickly into oblivion. The unremembering of persons is a letting go of history. When history is thus abandoned there remains no counter-evidence to the proposition that things as they are today are as they always have been.

Morphy (1993: 239) continues to discuss time that is 'frozen':
 In the Aboriginal case, place and place names are integrated within
 a process that acts to freeze time; that makes the past a referent
 for the present. The present is not so much produced by the past but
 reproduces itself in the form of the past. It is a process which
 increases the density and intensity of attachment to places where
 people are currently living. At the same time mechanisms exist for
 renewing links with places that were until recently abandoned or
 irregularly visited, or which were occupied by other groups.

In all this, Morphy deals with a basic contradiction. On the one hand, there is the Dreaming ideology that posits eternal recurrence together with uninterrupted continuity of human association with ancestral lands. On the other hand, the small size of local groups and other facts (both of demography and of politics) dictate that local groups are, in reality, emergent and ephemeral entities that do not necessarily survive to endure the vicissitudes that beset humankind in the tropical north. Again, there is a consequence for native title.

In the absence of total and reliable outside documentation of the history of a local group since sovereignty, it is not possible to say of any contemporary local group that it was represented by the antecedents of its present members at sovereignty. The anthropology defines a system in which local groups can wax and wane, split or amalgamate, become extinct, move to new places or be originated anew. And, in the face of all the actual changes (and despite the continuing potential for change), the ideology calls forth counter-historical representations of eternal recurrence.

Very broadly, let me offer some explanation for the stability of names in their attachment to place. 'Big names' (which locate and memorialize the doings of particular Dreamings) do not stand alone but exist, rather, as items in strings of names located in geographical order along the line of some major Dreaming track. Custodians of the track can recite the names in proper order which is always a forward progression and adventure. Furthermore, the song cycles associated with major Dreaming tracks give the doings of the creator beings as peregrinations along each track. The designations for big name places are integrated seriatim into songs of creation and travel that belong widely to custodians regionally located along the way. Knowledge of big name sequences thus transcends local clan groupings and belongs to clusters of clans and to widely recruited sets of individuals with interests in a sacred body of knowledge that maps their Dreamings onto the country of vast regions. In all, a widespread distribution of knowledge stabilizes names in their serried location along sacred tracks. To omit or forget a name, to change its referent by re-location of the event to which it refers or, otherwise, to add in a name, would require revision of rote song and recounted story among a population of landowners distributed over the area of an extensive ritual catchment. Quirky acts of revision are just not on.

In a recent essay, Mulvaney and Jones (2002) have presented a case study that shows how ritual custodians of the major track that is traced across country of the Victoria River district (Northern Territory) have worked together to preserve the integrity of their travelling Dreamings. In the late 1980s, a Wardaman elder set up a business promoting tourism by catering to an 'emerging "Indigenous experience" market' (Mulvaney and Jones, 2002:29). Now, Wardaman country contains spectacular rock art depicting, among other figures, sacred representations of two very powerful and regionally celebrated Dreamings--the Lightning Brothers. Wardaman enterprise turned depictions of the Lightning Brothers into a business logo. Images of the Lightning Brothers were emblazoned on the door of the Tours Toyota, vaunted on the cover of a promotional pamphlet and printed on T-shirts whose wearers were badged as honourary totemites.

Because the Lightning Brothers are Dreamings that belong broadly to a region and not to Wardaman country alone, a ground-swell of objection built up. Commercial use, promotion and display of the sacred figures offended those non-Wardaman custodians who had an interest in the relevant Dreaming track. A meeting was called and the Wardaman entrepreneur undertook to withdraw his pamphlet, stop selling the T-shirts and re-paint the Tours Toyota. However, before the re-painting was accomplished, the vehicle blew up. This is, of course, to say that the Lightning Brothers themselves took the initiative. They reached out of the Dreaming and struck. Mulvaney and Jones (2002:32) remark that the regional 'socio-cultural systems are what enabled a group of men, whose combined country covers some 70 000 square kilometres, to sit down and talk out a solution ... under traditionally delineated forms of appropriate behaviour, linked directly to a continuing and sacred ceremonial practice'. The general point is that a ponderous apparatus exists to ensure that regional and conservative interests will prevail; local and upstart deviations, instigated by some minority, will always be put down. (8)

Preservation of sacredness along far-flung Dreaming tracks by regional custodians belongs both to middle Australia and to the Western Desert for which Berndt (1959) identifies fourteen major tracks that enter this Desert on one side to pass out on another. However, the broad regional stabilization of serried Dreamings along far-flung tracks is not a pattern characteristic of Cape York where 'few myths in the region yield "Dreaming tracks" which pass through long ordered series of sites' (Sutton, 1988:255). Furthermore, 'the sites containing the essence of a clan's totems may in many instances lie in the estates of distant or different clans or in no known estate at all' (Sutton, ibid.). But, then, as I suggested at the outset, the estate-bound and semi-sedentary pattern of land-use on the peninsula would seem to function to assert possession in a manner that is a familiar of our Western perceptions in which to have is to hold and in which the holding of land is made patent as the physical occupation of that land to the exclusion of all others.


Morphy's principle that place takes precedence over time applies only because temporality is actively and persistently degraded. The literature yields four kinds of evidence concerning the brevity of, and impediments to, historical recall in Aboriginal societies and cultures. These are:

i. The well-known bans on the calling of the names of dead people which, inter alia, are respected during the hearing of ALRA and native title cases and are mentioned when television programmes depicting deceased Aboriginal people are screened.

ii. The anthropological observation of the 'shallowness' of genealogical recall in Aboriginal societies.

iii. The anthropological observation of the operation of a hearsay rule that proscribes the telling of stories about persons one has not seen and come to know.

iv. The anthropological observation of a set of conventions that enjoin the revision or 'editing' of history by elders who act as keepers of the culture. By operation of these conventions, irregularities in consequential matters such as succession to land or the take-over of the country of one group by another are erased from collective memory.

To supplement the well-documented trends referred to above, I add a personal contribution:

v. When I returned to Darwin to do fieldwork after a lapse of years, I repeatedly experienced the suppression of reminiscences that I was prone to volunteer. To bring out history, a speaker has to rally an audience that is willing to listen to the telling of the recollections that are proposed. Such willingness is governed by the principle that the recounted past must be a reminiscence that positively affirms the realities of the present.

Bans on the calling of the names of dead people

In the first instance, such bans work to keep the spirits of the dead at a distance, ensuring that they will not be provoked to visit the living in response to the invocation of their names (Sansom, 1980; Myers, 1986:39). To document the style of such bans, I turn to Dawson, a pioneer of ethnography who worked with elderly refugees who had survived the rapid destruction of Aboriginal society on Victoria's great western plain (1834-44). In 1881, Dawson published the first detailed account of rules that govern locutions concerning the recently dead:
 Personal names are rarely perpetuated, as it is believed that anyone
 adopting that of a deceased person will not live long. This
 superstition accounts for the great number of unmeaning names in a
 tribe. When a dead man or woman is referred to, it is by the general
 term 'muuruukan'--'dead person;' but when the time of mourning has
 expired, they can be spoken of by name, though still with very great
 unwillingness. If they need to be named by strangers during the
 period of mourning, it must be in whispers. As a great favour to the
 writer, references were made by name to deceased relatives; but this
 was done with so much reluctance, that in several instances the
 inquiry had to he abandoned without obtaining the desired
 information; and one man would not pronounce his own name because it
 was the same as that of his deceased brother. Not only is the name
 of a deceased person forbidden to be mentioned, but the names of all
 his near relatives are disused during the period of mourning, and
 they are mentioned only in general terms ... To call them by their
 own names is considered an insult to the deceased, and frequently
 leads to fighting and bloodshed (Dawson, 1881:42).

Further, such rules operate in totemic societies in which the proper names accorded to humans proclaim their relationship with those particular creatures or entities with which living persons, as totemites, are identified. Thus, for people of the great Victorian plain, Dawson further observed that:
 A similar law regulates the names and things after which a deceased
 person has been called. Thus, if a man is called after an animal, or
 place, or thing, and he dies, this animal, or place, or thing is not
 mentioned during the time of mourning by any member of the deceased
 person's tribe, except under another name, because it recalls the
 memory of the dead (Dawson, 1881:43).

In this vein, 'the common cockatoo, gniiyuuk, is called narrapart' and so on. In conscientious detail, Dawson provided a listing of alternative names to be used for those things, places or animals that functioned as a deceased person's totemic namesake.

In Tasmania, another early observer found fascination in the rules forbidding utterance of the names of the dead. Milligan reported that, following each death, Tasmanian practice was both to put the name of the dead person under ban and then also to provide an entirely new label for the totem entity after which the deceased person had been called:
 ... it was a settled custom in every tribe, upon the death of any
 individual most scrupulously to abstain ever after from mentioning
 the name of the deceased--a rule, the infraction of which would,
 they considered, be followed by some dire calamities: they therefore
 used great circumlocution in referring to a dead person so as to
 avoid pronunciation of the name (Milligan, 1890:11-12).

In addition, Milligan wanted to account for the fact that, on one small island, the Aboriginal Tasmanians maintained such quantities of tongues. He proposed that the ban on calling the names of the dead could be thought of as an engine that worked perpetually to generate new words. With the passing of the generations, there was a demand that the totem entities be re-designated time and time again. And in Tasmania each separate speech community operated a neologism machine on its own account. For this author, name-dumping and the minting of new-coined replacement names by neologism machines, were two processes that worked together to set the languages of each Tasmanian speech-community ever further and further apart 'imperiously modifying nomenclature and the substantive parts of speech, and tending arbitrarily to diversify the dialects of the several tribes' (Milligan, 1890:9).

I mention Milligan's Tasmanian observations and extrapolations directly after citing Dawson's Victorian ethnography because the evidence for the existence of a peculiar customary ban on the mainland as well as on island Tasmania, raises a possibility that is quite awesome to contemplate. In time past, what is now island Tasmania was joined to continental Australia. The separation of the island from the main (due both to rifting and the rising of sea levels) is dated at some 12,000 years before the present (Chappell and Thorn, 1977). It is not often that any specific, non-material and cognitively-sustained human practice can be given the status of an artifact and assigned a place in prehistory. However, in this instance, the evidence is suggestive. Maybe the ban on name-calling has been continuously preserved in traditions of both the mainland and island Tasmania from at least the time of separation.

In some parts of Australia, the ban is an aspect of instituted forgetting of the dead whose names may eventually be given anew to youngsters. Aspects of the dead may then be held to live on in those namesakes who succeed them. There can be implicit or explicit suggestion of metempsychosis. (9) In many places, there is thus a re-cycling of spirit and names rather than the historical remembrance of the named ancestor fixed in his or her own generation. Generally in Aboriginal cultures, the institution of the notion of cycles of repetition does not seem to be complemented by that other genre of temporality that produces the Western stress on (non-repetitive) linear histories that are stories of cumulative change, 'development' and 'evolution'.

The anthropological observation of the 'shallowness' of genealogical recall.

For the anthropologist, a 'shallow' genealogy is one with few (say, two to three) generation levels above the living witness. In contrast, the registration of many generation levels yields a genealogy that is said to have 'depth'. Writing in general terms about irregular marriages in Australia, Piddington drew on his own experience to remark 'the vertical shallowness of Aboriginal genealogies'. He went on to observe that, for Aboriginal people, 'the grandparent's generation is dead and forgotten or only barely remembered' (Piddington, 1970:337).

Piddington's characterisation of the 'vertical shallowness' of genealogies in Aboriginal Australia is a generalisation based on empirical evidence derived from fieldwork. He went on, however, to provide a theoretical and anthropological explanation to account for the forgetting of the grandparental generation and, hence, to explain more generally why 'vertical shallowness' should be characteristic of genealogies in Aboriginal Australia. He put forward the view that: 'In a society which lacks hereditary transmission of wealth and status, they [dead grandparents] have ceased to be of any sociological significance' (Piddington, 1970:337).

Piddington implies that (in oral cultures) hereditary transmission of wealth and status is a precondition for the existence of genealogies that have depth. In general, his proposal is that egalitarian peoples who have no property will have no reason to work to produce and remember socially agreed recitations of named begetters and child-bearers who have long been dead. Anthropologically speaking, Piddington's thesis is of interest. I find it persuasive. (10) However, Piddington's theory which links the inter-generational transmission of property and status to the production of genealogies that have depth is a matter of anthropological interpretation that derives from comparative analysis. I shall return to it below in a section devoted to causes rather than to the bare registration of the trends of tradition.

For forensic purposes, my aim in this section is to draw attention to grounded observations of 'vertical shallowness' as a discovered and well-attested property of Aboriginal genealogies. Early on, the empirically-based case for a general 'shallowness' was established by Elkin for whom the collection of genealogies was a major activity during his broad-ranging surveys and expeditions. We also have the matter-of-fact observation of Daisy Bates who indefatigably collected Aboriginal pedigrees throughout the swathe of country that extends from tropical Broome to the southern desert about Eucla. Daisy Bates (who did fieldwork between 1906 and 1923) sought to record the antecedents of living informants. Her particular usage equates the word 'genealogy' with 'pedigree' (a record of predecessors) and, on this basis, she asserts that: '... there can be no more than three generations in an aboriginal genealogy ... [that is, informant together with informant's father and grandfather]' (Bates, 1972:98).

In a land claims context, Peter Sutton (2003:169) remarks that, in the region of the Daly River (N.T.): '... the family tree for Malak Malak land claim Group 3, as remembered in 1979, and as is so often the case, only went back as far as the grandparents of the oldest living members, to their father's father' (emphasis supplied).

With reference to the region of the Victoria River and the Timber Creek native title claims, Deborah Bird Rose states that: 'Most Yarralin people trace their genealogies back about three generations to their grandparents, and there it stops. Grandparents, for most people, came straight from the Dreaming' (Rose, 1992:204-5).

Writing about fieldwork based in Arnhemland in the 1950s, Hiatt (1962:22) commented both on the shape of genealogies and on bias in recall--male antecedents were more readily remembered than were females. Implicitly rather than explicitly, he also confirms the operation of what I have called the 'hearsay rule' (to be discussed later in this piece). The second sentence in the citation given below echoes earlier observations made by Elkin concerning recall of anyone the Aboriginal witness had not seen and encountered as a living human being: (11)
 Genealogical memory was short. The natives had difficulty in
 recalling the name of anyone they had not seen, and few could go
 back further than the members of the grandparental generation. I
 collected no genealogy in which all living members were descended
 from a man in the great-grandparental generation of the oldest
 living member. In some genealogies there were several men in the
 grandparental generation of the oldest living member, in others
 only one. Some of the latter were the only genealogies with an
 apical structure. Female ancestors were forgotten more quickly
 than male ancestors; the highest ascending generation in most
 genealogies did not include women (Hiatt, 1962:22).

In his recent book written with native title in mind and devoted to Aboriginal social formations as these existed at the time of sovereignty, Keen (2003:292) comments on genealogies in comparative terms. He remarks the four-generation depth of the genealogies he collected from Yolngu in East Arnhemland. These contrast with the more usual three-generation genealogies he obtained from among Western Desert peoples: 'Yolngu people traced deeper genealogical connections than Western Desert peoples, back (or "down") to the great-grandparents of the older members of the group who were its "roots".'

Greater genealogical depth in Yolngu country can be accounted for. The marriage system of the Yolngu is exceptional in that it functions to allow polygyny on a grand scale; historically, some men accrued ten or more wives (Keen, 1982). Lineages of the grand polygynists had deep genealogies because a first wife would be decades older than her husband's youngest bride. In fact, the set of wives of a polygynist would contain women of different generations. (12)

Annette Hamilton adds a further dimension to one's appreciation of the difference between temporalities of the Western Desert and those of the tropical north. After remarking the shallow time-depth of Western Desert genealogies, the ban on calling the names of the dead and the re-cycling of names which, for Hamilton, results in the 'obliteration' of the identities of the deceased, this author sets Western Desert custom in comparative perspective. She writes that:
 Indeed everything in Western Desert culture indicates a tendency to
 forget the deceased, which is in marked contrast to the situation in
 other parts of Australia, such as northern Arnhem Land, where a
 great deal of creative labour is employed in memorialising the dead,
 together with elaborate funeral ceremonies, double disposal in some
 cases, grave-posts and so on. (13) These are also the areas in which
 patrilineal descent is firmly articulated and socially embedded in
 one form or another (Hamilton, 1987:102).

The observations of both Keen and Hamilton are in accord with those of Bardon (1973) who writes that in the Western Desert there is no time at all because people subsist in an eternal 'now'. In this vein, the title of Annette Hamilton's Ph.D. thesis is: Timeless Transformation: women, men and history in the Australian Western Desert.

The operation of the hearsay rule prescribing that one should not tell stories about persons one has not seen and come to know.

Early in the 1930s while doing fieldwork in the Western Kimberleys, it seems to be the case that Elkin was the first anthropologist to record what I call the 'hearsay rule' that applies generally to responsible discourse among all those Aboriginal people who follow the old conventions that govern proper utterance. Stated in full, the hearsay rule is: 'You can't tell about those people you did not come to know.' In a passage in which he works towards his own formulation of what I call the 'hearsay rule', Elkin has the name of the person beyond historical acquaintance for his focus:
 It is hard to obtain the name of mr.'s mr.'s br.'s [mother's
 mother's brother's] wife; for not only are we seeking the name of a
 person of the second ascending generation who is certainly dead, in
 the case of the older men of the tribe, but there is the added
 difficulty that a man's mr.'s country is different to his own, and
 that his mr.'s mr.'s br.'s is different again, and so too is that of
 the latter's wife. The same difficulty is experienced with younger
 men. They say that they have not seen the person in question and so
 do not know the name. The general impression one gets is that actual
 acquaintance at some time or other is a prerequisite for memorising
 the name (Elkin, n.d.: 16--emphasis supplied).

We have already noted that operation of the 'hearsay rule' is implicit in Hiatt's comments on genealogy. On the basis of my own fieldwork, I can attest that a claim to actual acquaintance with an individual is the prerequisite for legitimate recall of personal details that pertain to a person now deceased. (14)

Deborah Bird Rose reports text provided by a man from the Yarralin community in which respect for the hearsay rule is evident in the manner in which a speaker attributes cannibalism to the ancestors of a mob other than his own:
 Well they used to make an enemy one another, you know. Sometimes
 people came up killing, and if they find a fat one they eat him
 too ... That's the time before [my life]. Well, I didn't catch it
 up but all [other people] told me about that yarn (Rose, 1991:
 114, interpolations original).

Rose's interlocutor, who happens to be Bobby Witipurru, is observing the hearsay rule by reducing his reported story of events that were not witnessed by him to the status of a 'yarn'. He cannot truly give 'the word' (Sansom, 1980) on that cannibal story. 'I didn't catch it up' is one of a set of standard phrases for either disclaiming ability to speak about an unwitnessed event or, otherwise, for reducing one's received story to the status of a mere 'yarn' which is a story received as hearsay. And a yarn is not story to be handed on as authentic and vouched-for story that attestedly is true.

Conventions that enjoin the editing of history

Conventions that enjoin the editing of history were investigated in the context of the Finniss River case (Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, 1981). The cited conventions, described by Justice Toohey with reference to the reports of two anthropologists, deal not only with the manipulation of history. They also explain how Aboriginal witnesses come to assert that present-day attestations concerning the eternal duration of Dreaming realities can be maintained despite (and in the face of) the actual vicissitudes of human history. Justice Toohey characterised these tendencies and trends as 'Orwellian' for they indeed are reminiscent of both Animal Farm and 1984.

In the Finniss River case it became clear that the elders of an immigrant group felt duty-bound to edit history and withhold from their children the knowledge of an immigrant past. They returned group history to the formula: 'always was always will be' to assert that they had held the country they now occupied in all eternity and from the Dreaming.

The relevant principle is that events such as irregular succession to land, or the fact of immigration, or the fact of take-over of land, will be expunged from the record of oral history and replaced with stories of continuity. Similarly, any major shift in rules of kinship would be expunged from memory and contemporary people would then assert that what is, in fact, a reformed kinship system is in no way a new creation but is, instead, an eternal endowment of law, ordained in the Dreaming. (In a number of native title cases it has been put to the court that a shift from patrilineal inheritance to cognation has occurred even though the applicants plead that theirs has always been a cognatic system of kinship.) (15)

An anthropological and judicial finding that transcends indigenous conceptualisations on the part of the majority of persons in a local population is that oral histories are righteously edited and manipulated by elders. The myth that prescribes the eternal re-enactment of the Dreaming can thus be maintained without making any public concessions to the historical occurrence of actual deviations and subsequent adjustments. Peter Sutton was one of five anthropologists who assisted in the Finniss River case. (16) Some years later when he reflected on Aboriginal temporality, he was brought to remark in general that: 'In traditional Aboriginal culture the historic past, including genealogical memory beyond two or three generations, is usually quickly forgotten and often actually suppressed, except as it is selectively maintained for a time or transformed into myth' (Sutton, 1988:261; emphasis supplied).

With regard to historical recall, the perceptions of the anthropologists (or the historians) transcend the consciousness of the Aboriginal claimants in any land rights or native title case. For Aboriginal claimants, remembrance of history is curtailed both by operation of the hearsay rule and by appeal to the belief in eternal recurrence which underlies a broader cosmology which envisions the cyclical reproduction of the known world. Anthropologists have thus come to some understanding of the social mechanisms by which the myth of eternal recurrence (17) is maintained in the face of (and despite) actual historical change.

The lending or withholding of ears.

My discovery of the dependence of reminiscence on informed audience consent was not a finding of my first period of extended fieldwork among the people of the Darwin fringe. It owes everything to the fact that I myself became a returner after the passage of thirteen years. On the basis of my participation in the process that is negotiating the renewal of close acquaintanceship, I can now attest to conventions that are brought down to govern a returner's representations of the experiential past.

When I went back to Darwin in 1988, the place I had written about as The Camp at Wallaby Cross had been utterly transformed. The city had expanded. The camp site was no longer on the edge of town but was now embraced by new roads and flanked by new enterprises. Terms of tenure had changed. What had been a squatters' campsite retained on sufferance had been gazetted to become an official town camp. There was provision of standard housing and suburban amenities. No longer a secret retreat screened by jungle, the town camp had been opened to surveillance (that subjection of outward domesticity to inspection which ensures conformity in the suburbs). The population had changed and the camp was no longer a rallying place that in high times would accommodate over 230 visitors drawn in from the hinterland. Most telling of all, the remodelled site no longer offered space for a secluded and secret ceremony ground with a cache for sacra at its edge. I returned with my memories of past action to a place now dominated by slow and elderly pensioners who were not too much visited by the young

I soon discovered that swathes of memory were not appropriate to the revised structure of social relations I encountered after the lapse of years. Once I had got the hang of things, I also came to know in advance which kind of memory matched the current scene. The rule was this: Let no accountings of the past be permitted to intrude to subvert or denigrate or belittle our present and arrived-at order. Perhaps the most stern and uncompromising knock-back I experienced was given when I tried to speak about a day that in its own time was famous as the day on which, shortly before his death, an erstwhile camp leader was visited by a Dreaming (an event described in Sansom [2001]). I was made abject for days (and should, of course, have known better anyway).

My acts of the presentation of snippets of camp history to an unreceptive audience have the same structure as an exercise performed by Sharpe among the Yir Yoront of Cape York during his fieldwork of 1935: the anthropologist challenges people to set their historical knowledge against whitefella registration of events.

In Sharpe's case, the anthropologist was to tax Aboriginal historical memory by trying to elicit evidence of the existence of any received accounting of horrendous historical infliction. In 1864, ancestors of Sharpe's informants had fought the 'Battle of Mitchell River' which, he writes, was 'one of the rare instances in which Australian aboriginals stood up to European gunfire for any length of time' (Sharpe, 1952:70). A cattlemen's diary yielded a rare thing: a participant's confessional account of massacre:
 ... ten carbines poured volley after volley into them from all
 directions, killing and wounding with every shot with very little
 return, nearly all of their spears having been expended ... About
 thirty being killed, the leader thought it prudent to hold his hand,
 and let the rest escape. Many more must have been wounded and
 probably drowned, for fifty-nine rounds were counted as discharged
 (cited in Sharpe, 1952:70).

The anthropologist kept the diarist's account of carnage in mind for the duration of his fieldwork working to discover, in whatever guise, the existence of some recit of violent first-contact history. But, as Sharpe reports, he found no trace of received story:
 During the anthropological investigation some seventy years later,
 lasting almost three years, there was not one reference to this
 shocking contact with Europeans, nor anything that could be
 interpreted as a reference to it, in all the material of
 hundreds of free association interviews, in hundreds of dreams and
 myths, in genealogies, and eventually in hundreds of answers to
 direct and indirect questioning on just this particular matter
 (Sharpe, 1952:71).


When writing about the genealogies of Aboriginal people living on Groote Eylandt, Peter Worsley pointed to the scant space that the locals allowed for heroes to inhabit.
 In genealogies, a handful only of the "great men" of two, rarely
 three, generations ago, actually remembered by living men are
 recorded. Further back than that, no genealogical extensions or
 connections exist (Worsley, 1967:150).

So, from the moment of a grand achievement to personal relegation to time beyond recall, there is but a mean measure of the seasons during which any human can strut through stories that attest to proclivities and acts that turn actor into hero, someone to be celebrated as a person who is larger than life. This is so because general operation of the hearsay rule voids production of stories of the kind we used till recently to call 'legends'. In anthropological usage, 'legend' once stood for brave tales of the deeds of ancestors long past whose recounted doings were held in remembrance in objectively groundless but believed-in and reverently received accountings. However, the genre of story to which I refer is not meaningfully to be distinguished as 'legend' anymore. For us today, 'legend' (together with 'icon') has come to identify the notorious among the living.

What I want to remark are two absences that customary Aboriginal bans create. As we have now noted, there is both disallowance of significance to chains of human succession and curtailment of the memory of 'great men'. These two things then work in combination to ensure that there can be neither the recognition of an heroic age nor generation of the genre of geste-stories that celebrate the grand or awful deeds credited to human ancestors in recounted episodes of long ago. Seen in literary and folkloric perspective, Aboriginal time immemorial is won at the expense of the Heroic. And this observation is to the point. Memorialization of the hero often brings history to warfare and then serves as a means towards the consolidation and perpetuation of antagonism between warring factions or groups. It can work to lengthen the time-span for retaliation.


Working in the field of industrial relations, Jacques (1972) developed a measure he called 'the time-span of responsibility' which he attached to roles within organizations. If one considers the charge-hand who schedules the tasks that are to be completed by a small work-team on a day-to-day basis, the measure of the time-span of this worker's supervisory responsibility and discretion is a single working day. At the other end of the scale is the executive who participates in the planning of a programme of research and development that, if all goes well, will put a pharmaceutical drug onto the chemists' shelves in thirty years' time. Taking leap years into account, the contrast is between programming one day and 10,957. The industrial relations argument is, of course, that remuneration should be reckoned on the basis of a formula that allows the difference between one day and 10,957 days to be factored in.

An analogous sort of measure can be developed to yield a quotient of bellicosity to attach to each of those small-scale and traditional societies that once provided anthropologists with their essential subject matter. This quotient is the time-span for retaliation. In his book on Maori warfare, Vayda (1960) writes as follows:
 Reference has already been made to the Maori practice of keeping
 debtor and creditor statements of encounters with enemies. Best
 points out that when one side deemed an account squared, the other
 side probably held that it was more than squared and would set about
 to equalize it. The result was a see-saw record of military exploits
 extending often for generations. Hostility between two groups thus
 could be of very long duration, although actual fighting between
 them would be only intermittent (Vayda, 1960:81).

And a Maori group that had been depleted in battle could retire into isolation for a generation devoting this interim to 'causing men to grow'. Then, after the years of build-up, the new-grown club-fodder would be entered into the battle-cycle to fight sons of the foe that had thrashed their fathers.

Discussing feud in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean, Black-Michaud (1975:78) deals with devices for the prolongation of the time-span of responsibility:
 ... the events of generations past must be remembered in order
 that the history of outrage and homicide may serve as a mould in
 which to cast the pattern of present relations. Largely preliterate
 feuding societies have consequently created a number of crude
 devices which serve to record the events of feud and to "awaken"
 successive generations to take vengeance for their forebears.

Among the Baggara Arabs of the Sudan (Cunnison, 1966), in Somaliland, southern Greece, Albania and Corsica (Black-Michaud, 1975), the major mnemonic is the funeral dirge composed to instigate the close kin of a victim to avenge the very death that it laments. Such dirges 'are remembered by the kin of the victim over whose bier they were sung and are repeated by their womenfolk for years after the event to instil into the male heirs of the deceased, who may have been infants at the time of the killing, the necessity to bring vengeance when they grow old enough to bear arms' (Black-Michaud, 1975:79). The feud is then carried in a folk-poetry of revenge as women, forever blackly clad in mourning, prod orphaned heirs of violence to answer death with death.

My excursions into comparative anthropology had a purpose. They now allow me to turn questions about genealogy and heroes into questions about the reckoning, inheritance and discharge of debt. Maori, Bedouin and the other peoples of the heritable grudge, are heirs not only to property but to blood-debts too. Further, the peoples of property are apt to set a price on human life. They can then contrive to commute straight-out retaliation (eye for eye, tooth for tooth) into blood-money compensation if they have specie or, otherwise, into blood-payments made over in camels, cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, peccaries, pigs or whatever locally is given as the measure of wealth. And in each feuding constituency, compensation is usually paid at going rates (for Bedouin, half as much for a woman as for a man). Furthermore, the amount of the blood-payment is often related directly to amounts generally given and received as bride-wealth or dowry, reproduction payments that are essential to the founding of the sort of menage in which warrior-infants come whooping from the womb with battle-axe in hand. Debt-complexes can even entertain the possibility that the giving of a woman in marriage can cancel a blood-debt owed by the givers of the bride to those who receive her (your Dad killed mine and so here we are now ceremoniously put into bed together; the act that follows is the public display of a blood-stained sheet). But, as the saga-bard of Beowulf says, bed-blood may give pause but seldom can it atone for blood that has been battle-let: 'After a slaying, the death-spear seldom rests but for a while, though the bride be good (duge)' (Beowulf: 2029-31, my translation).

The peoples of blood-debt deal not as self-acting individuals but as members of family units that are structured as corporations of production, reproduction, defence, offence and ownership. Blood-debt is a corporate liability owed by a killer's corporation to the corporation to which the victim of homicide belonged. Further, vengeance is corporately exacted: 'One of theirs for one of ours' which is not pursuit of the actual killer in the most recent incident in the endless feuding, but a threat against a group as such. And the magic of corporate identity is that the corporation is recruited by perpetual succession and so defeats mortality. It outlasts its members to perpetuate both its estate and its heritable grudges which attach to like lasting entities (Stoljar, 1973)--the proud corporations of opponents. Because corporations of kinsfolk outlive their members generation after generation but are, nonetheless, reproduced as collectivities made up of mortals, they must produce both genealogies and histories to function as charters of offence and defence that nominate the foe and identify those who are destined to kill or be killed together. (18) To Piddington's proposal that inheritance of property and status is the source of significant genealogy, I have added blood-debt and the heritable grudge of the feuding corporation.


Anthropologists who attended to classic Aboriginal social formations were slow, exceedingly slow, to come to the realisation that gerontocratic polygyny was the beating heart of social organization in Australia. In his book of 1956, Eisenstadt, an arm-chair theorist resident in Israel, announced this truth after he had studied Warner's (1937) account of the Murngin of East Arnhem Land. Then, in 1968 the late Fred Rose published the essay in which he (i) shows that gerontocratic polygyny was practised Australia-wide, (ii) discusses this form of marriage with reference to data he collected during fieldwork on Groote Eylandt (iii) establishes the demographic and material bases of the practice and (iv) attempts, in all charity, to explain how anthropologists such as Radcliffe-Brown and Elkin could have been purblind to the centrality of an institution. Late publication of Hart's excellent material on gerontocratic polygyny (henceforth 'GP') among the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands collected in 1928-29 but first appearing in print only in 1960, is also part of the story of an anthropological failure to discover the obvious in good time. And noting all this is to my purpose because gerontocratic polygyny has everything to do with timeframes, debt and the sundering of the present from the past.

The Greco-Latin polysyllables I have not yet glossed stand for what contemporary speakers of Aboriginal English give as: 'old fella and young girl marriage'. More completely, GP is one old fellow with a whole lot of wives, some of whom were 'promise wives' who got married to the old fellow as first-time brides when aged about 13 or even less. Other wives would have come earlier to this now hoary husband as widows or, possibly, as women who had either run away or been stolen from previous husbands.

Now put one or two hale and still sexually-active Methuselahs each with his clutch of wives at the centre of each and every clan estate and then let us refer to them as the 'focal men' of their respective clans. Note that in each clan, the Methuselah(s) plus wives and minor children account for a goodly proportion of the clan entire (except in the desert ranges, they make up the core quasi-resident population on the clan estate--they do not range too much abroad). Now note further that the hale and hearty Methuselah position is what every ambitious hunter-gatherer male will not only aspire to but will also dedicate his whole life's effort towards achieving. It's a lottery, of course. In traditional populations, we can set average male life-expectancy at about 43 or less. Yet, represented on the right hand side of the bell curve of mortality is the set of survivors who see three generations pass before they die. Every man lives his life (and structures his debts) as if he is destined to end up as one of the demographic elect. On a calculus of life-chances, we then have whole populations of males betting at long odds. Here's a scene in which each man's whole life-course itself is structured as deep play.

Eisenstadt drew attention to the fact that Australian GP has to be posited on delay. Young females were precipitously rushed into marriage sometime round about menarche. As Vikki Burbank (1988) points out, the classic social formations of Aboriginal Australia allowed women no period of maidenhood--a time of sexually mature, pre-marital feminine existence was ruled out. On the other hand, a man would ordinarily only gain his first wife when aged about 28-32 and that wife, in today's frank speaking, is to be described as 'that second-hand job'. Further, the first wives of men were generally not just widows but older second, third or fourth time widows to boot.

A general and extraordinary prolongation of bachelorhood (followed by a first marriage of reduced breeding chances) was visited on young men and was socially perpetuated in two ways. As emphasized by Rose (1968), there was long and graded initiation full of ordeals and inculcation of religious knowledge--Dreaming stories with 'outside' and gnostic 'inside' versions, liturgies, song-cycles, prolix rites, ordeals, progressive revelations and experience of the country to which the things of the religious apparatus all refer. Also, there were mentored initiatory journeys that lasted for long months taking the initiand away from the home estate and introducing him to the broader world. Without experience of all this, no male was socially a man. Finally, initiation procedures carried within them the actual promise of marriage. During initiation, a male would meet one or more potential fathers-in-law. In the circumcision tribes, the initiand was usually sponsored by his prospective father-in-law who cradled him during the cutting. The catch was that the prospective father-in-law offered the newly circumcised young man the 'promise' of a female toddler as prospective bride. And this leads to definition of the second means for prolongation of bachelorhood which is 'promise marriage' and the attendant necessity to do bride-service over a long period of years. Bride-service took a man away from father-country into that of prospective in-laws and, when a promise marriage was finally accomplished, he tended to spend yet further time in the country of his young wife.

If a man fathered a boy when he was thirty, that man would be sixty (or thereabouts) when his begotten son entered into a reproductive marriage and this father would be most unlikely to be witness to an actual grandson's wedding. This was, therefore, a system that tended to rob the relationship between actual fathers and true sons of economic and political significance. It also promoted the circulation of widows together with their respective broods and, hence, the 'rearing up' of children (especially boys) by strings of adopting fathers rather than by their original fathers (while women are fated to have many husbands seriatim, the men strive to have many wives all at once). Such arrangements do not produce 'son and heir' groupings with blood-line and lineage the profound values. Rather, the importance of patrifiliation, though real, is muted because, day-to-day, lateral ties are very important. (The title of Shapiro's [1982] book Miwuyt Affinity proclaims that, for Miwuyt of the Roper River, it's in-lawship rather than the blood-line that counts.) (19) At the start of male careers, the aspirant bachelors are, in a sense, put out and away from the clan estate with its focal men because their destinies lie with the focal men of other clans from whom they try to extract promises of brides. And a clutch of such promises is needed for two reasons. First, the aim is to end up with not one wife but a set of wives. Secondly, there is risk in any promise. On the one hand, the promised girl may not survive while, on the other, the promise itself might not survive either because the promiser dishonours his word or because he dies before transfer of the young woman as bride. The cruellest quirk of the system was that the elders were prone to promise the same girl to more than one prospective husband with ensuing and recriminatory competition among younger men.

For peoples of feuding corporations, there is a corporate aspect to marriage. Generally, members of the lineage contribute towards dowry or bridewealth and the lineage often retains the widows of its members (and where there are leviratic provisions, a brother is obliged to 'raise up seed' on behalf of the deceased). Also, the feuding corporations hold onto orphaned children born into them. In outright contrast, there is Aboriginal autonomy. (20) Aboriginal way, the marriages a man makes are the result of his own work, his own management of debts of service and his own contriving. His allies will be that assortment of kinsmen he has drawn round him by investing in selected social relationships over the years. And this assortment (which may or may not include one or more of his brothers) is the grouping which might rally to his defence or might avenge his death. It is also a grouping that may have to bear collective responsibility for the wrongs (including homicide) of any one of its members. A focal man can be got at by striking one of his allies (cf. Shapiro, 1982). The people entertain the notion of pay-back in response to homicide but (as both Sansom [1980: 262-3] and Shapiro [1982] discuss in detail) those who may exact vengeance are not members of a structurally determined grouping whose social composition is fore-ordained. Rather, they are people rallied to an occasion of homicide and for whom retaliation is a possibility but no sacred obligation. Vengeance is then made subject to a calculation of interests and may be foregone. (21)

When an achiever of GP dies, the ties that once joined others to this nodal character (located on his clan estate with wives, children while offsiders orbit about him) all drop away. Suitors from hither and you compete for his widows who are rapidly turned back into wives. The children of each widow are likely to go with their mother but they can be assigned elsewhere. The allies who rallied about the leading man re-assess their allegiances and may or may not continue in close association together. Usually, some male member of the dead man's clan will try to become a new focal man on the clan estate. He will be a replacement but, socially speaking, he is no successor because he will 'sit down' and then map his personal set of alliances onto the country of the clan estate with himself a newly prominent and human centre. And in conversation, the name of the new man becomes attached to the place he now dominates.

With the death of an achiever of GP, a small universe enters into liquidation. Names are put into store because identities have to be re-established with reference to the new constellation of relationships that is coming into being. Social discontinuity is actual, patent and widespread. And the way of registering that there is a wholly new order in this re-constellated small universe, is to sunder the new order of things from the past by bringing all the culturally supplied devices for forgetting into play. Symbolically, the death of one order and the birth of another is most perfectly signalled among the Tiwi who do not only ban the calling of dead men's names. The Tiwi man who sets up with a widow and becomes father of her children bestows a new name on each and every member of the family (Hart, 1979: 134).

Conditions of ecology, economy and social structure distance all Australian Aboriginal societies from social formations that entertain perpetual antagonism between groupings of hereditary warring or feuding foes. And the conditions that work to distinguish the feuding societies from Australian hunter-gatherer cultures coalesce to produce a contrast in the nature and location of value among hunter-gathers on the one hand and peoples of hereditable enmities on the other. The economic base of the feuding societies is pastoralism or horticulture or a combination of these two. Dependence on cultivation or flocks or herds carries with it both time-valence and peculiar vulnerability.

Cultivators must preserve an uninterrupted integrity of the annual cycle. Swidden horticulturalists in the tropics must protect standing crops year round. On the other hand, the vulnerability of the grain-producers shifts after each harvest from field to stores. The threat is that raider-looters could undo the horticultural year, burning standing crops, pillaging the granaries, driving off the animals, kidnapping women and children, killing men. A family herd of cattle (or of camels) is a thirty-year project of production for both consumption and exchange with bridewealth and/or dowry paid in animals tying human and bovine reproduction together to establish mutual breeding dependency (you can't have children without cows for 'cattle beget the children'). Flocks of the smaller animals can be more quickly reconstituted after raids or droughts but, even so, the measure of a breeding flock is at least a decade. Property-based projects are prey to theft and a family with its herds or crops or granaries can be overwhelmed by the raiding party at any time. The reply to threat is not constantly to mount a close and idle guard. Rather, that cunning arrangement, the feuding corporation, counters ever-present threat with the promise of sure and certain retaliation which will endure even, as it is said, 'unto the third and fourth generation'.

Returning to the Wardaman case study discussed earlier, one regards the apparatus for ensuring a regional structure of stability that continues over and above the waxing, waning and liquidation of labile and fluctuating local groups. Essential to continuity in the definition of attachment to country in middle Australia and the Western Desert is a minimal, sacred and symbolic corporateness. Stanner (1960: 253) characterized the patri-clan as a 'sacramental corporation of a perennial order'. Its essential sacral properties are icons which betoken ownership of the clan estate. These icons join members of particular clans to sites on their estates. The responsibility for keeping sites together with their stories forever fixed in place vests in the grand regional convocation of initiated men and they deal not in the rags of time which are days, weeks, months and years. They hold the tokens of eternity instead. To finish excursions that allowed recurrent liquidations and the ethic of heritable retaliation to be juxtaposed, it seems fitting to reflect and say with Brecht: 'Pity the land that needs a hero.'


The onset of 'time immemorial' can be calibrated and, fortunately in the light of my present concerns, Deborah Bird Rose has performed this task with reference to the people of Yarralin. She writes that: 'There is ... something we might reasonably call a temporal distinction between Dreaming and ordinary [time]' (Rose, 1992:204). Having made the distinction between 'Dreaming' and 'ordinary', Rose further explains that:
 The point at which Dreaming became ordinary ... is only about one
 hundred years ago. The change from Dreaming to ordinary is uneven.
 This is so in the sense that it is always relative to the speaker.
 The end point in our given span is "now"--hence it is constantly
 changing. The beginning point is about one hundred years before
 "now". And at any given point that which is known and remembered is
 conceptualised as being ordinary. This is ordinary time: the one
 hundred year present, the time of change, of human strategies and
 negotiations (Rose, 1992:205).

I agree that Aboriginal cultural conceptions yield an ethno-historical present that has a tapered measure of about a hundred years (recall becoming less and less detailed with backward extension of duration which entails a regressive shedding of persons from memory). I agree also that the change from remembered to unremembered time is 'always relative to the speaker' who recalls his or her own particular grandparents (and, perhaps, also their peers) and the times that he or she may have spent with such elders. Yet, in the face of all this agreement, there is a difficulty with nomenclature. The difficulty is begotten by the fact that Dreamings habitually enter into the hundred year present that, for Rose, is not Dreaming but 'ordinary'.

The Dreamings belong not only to that past that is the era of foundation; Dreamings belong also to the present into which they quite often irrupt to modify 'human strategies and negotiations' (in addition to the striking of the Wardaman Toyota, see e.g., Sansom, 2001; Povinelli, 1993). The terms employed to distinguish between the hundred year period of time remembered (by the oldest inhabitant) and time that is past recall, should be consistent with the fact that interventionist Dreamings are to be encountered in the time 'of human strategies and negotiations' (Rose cited above). To set 'Dreaming' over and against 'ordinary' as Rose has done is untrue to Aboriginal perceptions.

Aware of the participation of Dreamings in all human eras, Stanner proposed that (in Aboriginal conceptions) the temporal dimension (taken entire) is a space saturate with Dreamings. Stanner was to locate Dreamings in a cosmic site that subsumes all time, a space he called the 'everywhen' (Stanner, 1979:24). And Deborah Bird Rose approves the word Stanner invented to capture the pervasion of the Dreamings. For her, 'everywhen' is 'a delightfully accurate term' (Rose, 1992:205). With all this now registered, one can point to a contradiction.

If the Dreamings inhabit an 'everywhen', Rose's notion of the point at which Dreaming yields to 'ordinary' can no longer hold. While I accept Rose's distinction between two eras, I propose different labels to indicate the selfsame discrimination. The way I go is to suggest that remembered times and time immemorial be told apart. I note, further, that the Aboriginal time immemorial is not populated by humans at all. It is, rather, a domain reserved to Dreamings and to spirit beings (including the shades of those who once lived human lives).

In Aboriginal conceptions, the domain of time immemorial also accommodates the stomping ground for figures such as a Captain Cook or Ned Kelly neither of whom is celebrated as a character of history. Captain Cook and Ned Kelly move about as immortal archetypes. In myth, each stands for a particular manifestation of the white man. Whereas Ned Kelly is a positive force, Captain Cook is the author of injustice, hangings, flogging and hard law. In this, time immemorial becomes populated with the mythical characters who personify fraught trends of Aboriginal and European encounter. (22)

While, for some, the domain of remembered time may seem to be dominated by the presence of humans, this domain is in fact constituted as a present in which potent Dreamings may decide radically to intervene as when a wind labelled Cyclone Tracey (yet not actually, in one Aboriginal story, a girl called 'Tracey' but two conjoined Dreamings) was driven by Dreaming Powers to destroy the city of Darwin in December 1974 (Sansom, 2001). During ceremonies, the Dreamings are made manifest and invoked; they become instantiate in human celebrants who, for a nonce-time, are wholly taken up to become and be their totems. Dreamings participate in the inception of the seasons and they used to be invoked in ceremonies dedicated to annual increase of totemic species. And the work of the sorcerer is a marshalling of Dreaming powers to modify the life-course of his chosen victim.

When Dreamings inhabit the everywhen, no moment can belong to a space called 'ordinary'. And of 'ordinariness' itself there is something to be said. It is to be seen for the ethnocentric construction that it is: a notion that partakes of the peculiar and instituted divide between Sabbath and weekday, between secular duration and that sacred time-out-of time that originates in Semitic religion and which Durkheim imported as the distinction that was to govern his analysis of Aboriginal religion in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life." a study in religious sociology published (the English translation) in 1915. (23) Durkheim's imposition of a rabbinical divide that separates the sacred from the profane and masquerades as 'sociology' has bedevilled Aboriginal studies ever since,

Given all that we know of the Aboriginal construction of time together with what we know of those forces that operate in Aboriginal society to mask memories of any deviation from tradition so that the principle of eternal recurrence may be retained inviolate, assertions made by native title applicants to the effect that laws and customs have endured from the Dreaming are to be taken most seriously and accorded the status they deserve. They attest to piety, not fact.


BARDON, G. 1973. Reflections of time. The Human Context, 1: 331-44.

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Basil Sansom

University of Tasmania


(1.) The original draft of this essay was given conscientious attention by two anonymous reviewers. Both reviewers asked for more. One, in particular, was strict with regard to regional differences and also pointed to ethnographic materials that I had not considered fully if at all. The other reviewer wanted more in the way of interpretation than I had originally offered. I have responded to the comments of both reviewers largely by enlarging and thereby have produced an improved if longer piece. To these generous, unknown and exacting taskmasters, I offer my thanks.

(2.) The citation is to be found in Yulara (FCA), at 288, per Sackville J. The emphasis is added. See also Yulara at 291.

(3.) Cunnison (1951; 1959) has dealt with the 'structural amnesia' manifest as the shedding of ancestors from the selectively crafted pedigrees that people of the Luapula valley in Zambia use to charter their claims either to nobility or group-membership. In the Aboriginal case, the apparatus for forgetting entails a lot more than the dismembering of ancestors and so 'cultural amnesia' is used here to cover a battery of practices that all work together to an amnesiac end.

(4.) Because there is a debate as to the existence of estates in the Western Desert, my sentence is phrased to apply to estates wherever these may be discovered to exist. For Bates (1935), Layton (1999) and Tonkinson (1991) there are estates in the Western Desert. But see Yulara for expressions of the opposite view.

(5.) These are cases confined to the Northern Territory and brought under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory), 1976 which is Commonwealth legislation.

(6.) The Bedouin pattern described by Peters extends throughout the nomad populations of Arab North Africa and the Arab Middle East.

(7.) The demographic fragility of clans in modern times is discussed by Shapiro (1982) with reference to Miwuyt peoples. Peterson, Keen and Sansom (1977) address the question: 'What happens when a clan dies out?'

(8.) To complete the picture it is important to note that Dreaming tracks run up and down as well as from side to side when mapped. Consequently they intersect and the points of intersection are given in story as places where the Dreaming(s) of one line meet up with the Dreaming(s) of another. In all, there is a web of tracks enmeshing the landscape and the stability of Dreaming-guaranteed geography derives from the strength of a mesh made up of intersecting tracks.

(9.) As, for example, in the region from Timber Creek northwards to Darwin (my own observations supplemented by indications in the literature).

(10.) The cattle-herding Nuer and the camel-herding Bedouin mentioned above have great wealth in livestock. For Nuer and Bedouin alike, livestock serve as stores of wealth, standards of wealth and as media for exchange. Livestock are familial capital and patrilineally inherited wealth. In addition, livestock enable marriage for they are exchanged as bride-wealth. Livestock are also integrated into the political system where they function as compensation for homicide and thereby are made integral to feuding relationships between opposed groups. On the basis of Piddingtons's thesis, one would expect both Nuer and Bedouin to produce the deep genealogies that are characteristic of their societies but the inheritance of blood-debt also needs to be considered (see discussion of the feuding corporation in the penultimate section of this essay).

(11.) What Hiatt presents as 'difficulty' with recall is, in my interpretation, to be seen as adherence to a rule proscribing recall of those with whom one 'did not catch up with' in life.

(12.)Keen (1997) has written an essay dedicated to the proposition that 'The West' is, after all, not all that much different from 'The Rest'. Those who (like myself) radically distinguish The West from The Rest do so by pointing to normative difference. In The West there are 'multiple pathways' to land. Outside the Western Desert, in contrast, specific rules of kinship prescribe that primary right holders in land will be patrifilial inheritors of estates in land and that holders of secondary (and mediated) rights in estates constitute a limited set of persons who have particular and specified relationships that link them to those who hold the primary rights (cf. Stanner, 2001). Keen sets aside this modeling which emphasizes explicitly rendered ideological rules (or 'normative norms') by shifting the emphasis from normative norms to statistical norms. One then looks past ideology to instances. Do a count to show how, after all, in a given community, people have come to land. Keen suggests that in populations located outside the Western Desert on its eastern side, counting yields figures that show that persons who declare interests in estates as traditional owners do so on a variety of grounds despite the alleged primacy of patrilineal structure which previous investigators have put at the core of the system of kinship and land-holding. If rhetoric concerning privileged principles of recruitment is put aside, there is, according to Keen, little difference between the make-up of land-owning groups when Western Desert and Central borderland instances are statistically compared. I reject Keen's position on anthropological grounds and also because, with reference to native title, it is disastrous. It wholly undoes the theory of social structure on which British social anthropology is based for that theory is a normative theory (as promulgated by Radcliffe-Brown [1930-31]). Furthermore, Keen's work also undoes the relationship between social organization and social structure established by Firth (1961) in order to deal with the relationship betweens statistical norms and normative norms, a distinction that allows definition and analysis of the 'optative' aspects of social structure. Firth's important contribution modified the purely ideological and Radcliffe-Brownian position by allowing the investigator to give systematic consideration to the relationship between normative prescriptions and rates that measure adherence to and deviations from prescribed norms (e.g. a situation with divorce normatively condemned but characterized by a high divorce rate). Firth's modeling holds the normative and the statistical together in a relationship; Keen, on the other hand, turns the (observer's) statistical assessment into the single supervening and significant reality (a literal normlessness or anomie). The final point to make here is that Keen's position wholly undoes the relationship between anthropology and the law in relation to native title. In matters of native title, the courts are explicitly interested in 'normative systems' and in proof of the existence and perpetuation of a 'vibrant' local normative system in the instance of each claim (see the introductory paragraphs to this essay). For the anthropologist to place emphasis on the statistical rather than the normative norm will be (and, in the instance of Yulara, has already been) fatal to native title (see Yulara, at 257 and 393).

(13.) However, as Morphy shows in his book Ancestral Connections (1991:109-11), the elaborate grave-posts of the north come to memorialize an ancestor who is merged into the Dreaming and so has lost any human individuality. The grave post then stands for totem not person although people of subsequent generations know (on seeing the grave post) that there must have been some person who, in the past, embodied the totemic ancestor on earth.

(14.) Also see Povinelli (1993: 37ff.) on the conditions for bringing out a story.

(15.) While Sutton (2003:219) discusses the reasons for the shift to cognation that characterizes Aboriginal kinship in much of settled Australia, he does not relate cognation to Aboriginal perceptions of continuity and discontinuity and the tendency to represent practice on the principle: 'is now, always has been'. Several native title cases now before the courts are cases in which a cognatic system of kinship (in regions outside the Western Desert) has been presented as 'traditional' on the basis of the principle 'is now, always has been'. In ALRA cases, the shift to cognation received judicial attention in both the Upper Daly (Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, 1991) and the Timber Creek (Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, 1995) land claims and was noted to be a response to mixed marriages and high rates of separation of spouses. However, in ALRA cases continuity of tradition is not an essential issue.

(16.) The others were Jane Goodale, Robert Layton, Basil Sansom and Nancy Williams.

(17.) But see Kolig (1981): 'Their cosmology did not so much emphasize the necessity of eternal stasis as implicitly discount such a possibility. The Aborigines continued to believe that the immutability of their society was the "natural" condition.'

(18.) 'Strike and be struck with me' is the Bedouin expression of agnatic unities.

(19.) The ideology of conception which attributes fecundation of wives to conception spirits can be regarded as further devaluation of the role of the father who is denied genitor status: see Merlan (1986) and Tonkinson (1991).

(20.) Myers' (1986) celebration of autonomy as a dominant value among the Pintupi of the eastern side of the Great Western Desert has been influential and has generally been taken up by subsequent fieldworkers and treated as a value common to Aboriginal cultures (e.g Povinelli, 1993).

(21.) There is an interesting way in which the decision not to take vengeance can be justified. One can determine that the man who killed one's ally did so while acting under the spell of a sorcerer and so was not an intentional homicide. I encountered this elaboration as an aspect of discourse on the Darwin fringe and it has also been reported by Povinelli (1993).

(22.) Whereas Rose (1991) deals with Captain Cook and Ned Kelly in stories from Victoria River Downs, Humber River and Wave Hill stations, Maddock (1985) attends to theory and treats the mythical Captain Cook as a figure that belongs more broadly to Aboriginal groupings in Northern Australia. Sutton (1988:256) has discussed ways in which both historical and Biblical figures have been taken into myth writing that 'the approach to historical evidence is essentially the same as that in myth'.

(23.) The date for the original French edition of Durldaeim's book is 1913.
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