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The refusal of holy engagement: how man-making can fail.

Behold their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken. King James Bible (Jeremiah 6:10)


While doing fieldwork among Aboriginal Countrymen of the Darwin hinterland (Top End, Northern Australia), I happened on the fact that an awful possibility is entertained. A lad can 'go through' the ceremony of initiation and then emerge physically altered but unchanged in his being. The fateful verdict may be given thus: 'Youngfella bin circumcise, but [sotto voce] himself not different really.' Implicit in such instancing is the general (but rarely voiced) concession that the drawn-out rites of transformation need not always and automatically transform.

Taken aback by finding that a circumcision rite can fail, I am provoked to ask questions of two kinds. Questions of the first sort concern personhood: To what extent has the lad's identity been spoiled? What of his future, his selfhood and his very being? And what of the proud men of ceremony whose ritual labours are shown up for being vain? After treating personal destinies, I take analysis a stage further to ask questions about holy engagement and the impersonal relationship between structure and event.

To discover that man-making can fail alters one's appreciation of an entire structure for ritual enterprise--the culturally provided form for doing 'Men's Business' among the circumcising peoples of the Western sector of the Top End. I now propose that all rites of this sector are built around the contrast between [i] the vulnerability of the totemite in relation to his own clan's Dreaming(s) and [ii] the same worshipper's own essential willfulness and willing (the aspect of being that makes each mortal human singular and therefore a bit like a Power of creation).'

Holy engagement between totemite and Dreaming has for its precondition the willed surrender of the totemite to participation in ritually contained, unequal and (above all) receptive relationship with a Power. In this vein, the rite of circumcision is expressed around a paradox: initiands are 'grabbed' into the rite and then, during the culminating moment of ceremony, the ritually coerced initiand is instructed to consent to receive unto himself a Dreaming. He is told to 'listen' to that Dreaming in a sense that posits the sort of religiously volunteered surrender that finds its precise equivalent in the Hebrew scriptures (e.g. Jeremiah cited in epigraph above). Lads are coerced to endure work visited on the body and, once 'grabbed', they soon stop struggling and are seen thereafter to endure their trials in what looks like Stoic submission. ('Thatfella gotta quiet n jus take it.') But the actual up-offering of self to a Dreaming Power remains an act of personal surrender; it cannot be forced by mentors. Instead, those worked-upon are told inwardly and of themselves to receive rather than reject a Dreaming. So, an opportunity for the exercise of will is returned to the initiand who (of a sudden and during a dread moment) is formally presented with a choice (even though, all the while, he remains ignorant of its import). In this, circumcision is fashioned according to the governing trope for socialization into religions of moral injunction in which Divinity requires self-suppressing surrender as prequel to the proper channelling of desire.

To make sense of all this, I offer an interpretation that relies on an application of the Thomas theorem to Aboriginal religion. This theorem, Merton (1995: 380, n. 3) claims, is contained in what is 'probably the single most consequential sentence ever put in print by an American sociologist'. Used by Merton ([1948] 1982) as his point-of-departure when he originated the notion of the 'self-fulfilling prophesy' in 1948, the Thomas theorem was to 'reverberate' (Merton 1995:387) in the writings of those social constructionists (e.g. McHugh 1968) who based their analyses on the proposition that: 'If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences' (Thomas & Thomas 1928:571-2).

My own rider to the Thomas's theorem is: when people regard Dreamings as real, Dreamings function consequentially as if present as actual characters in social situations. Humans and Dreamings are then to be considered together as conjoint actors destined to play parts (according to their respective natures) in holy encounters fraught always with what Countrymen call 'all that risk and very danger'. Rules for the proper management of holy encounter between humans and Dreamings constitute the socio-religious formation in which event-producing structures derive from an ontology in which being is sustained through the complex relatedness (cf. Myers, 1986: 29) that obtains between humans of like and opposite moieties and their respective Dreamings. (2)


I can tell the story I have to tell only because I extracted Lenny from the Darwin Rodeo of 1975 and, afterwards, became his prison visitor.

On Rodeo Saturday, my loaded utility swerved into line to join the convoy that transported the whole of our home mob to the Stockman's event of the year. The first horse had yet to jump when Lenny spotted a sergeant of police and two detectives in the crowd. We (that's Lenny and me) had to run. There was a warrant out for Lenny and the sergeant knew Lenny well. While I rued the missed performance, missing was the price we had to pay for delaying Lenny's arrest.

Weeks later the police caught up with the warrant-dodger. He was put away after pleading guilty to a swag of public order charges. Lenny (though always short of cash) had also stood surety for the fines of youngfellas who had not paid up. His sentence was therefore lengthened as he had to work off a debt--surety-dollars were translated into days of time to be served. Lenny was locked up in Fanny Bay Jail which, now a museum, was even then a survival of frontier ugliness--a bodged building put together out of steel framing, cyclone wire and corrugated iron, all painted a desperate, semi-reflective yellow to mitigate the hot-box heat.

While Lenny was in prison his people followed custom in such matters and did not visit him. (3) But I did. Lenny asked me to bring him piles of glossy magazines and I was to learn that these were not for Lenny's own perusal. Magazines serve as currency in jail and I was able to gain lots of glossies second-hand by doing door-knock patrols around the suburbs. When I took magazines to Fanny Bay Jail, the warder who monitored my visit would solemnly sit in his corner wielding the diligent blade he used to excise all those bra and boob pictures that would incite prisoners to lust. Once Lenny emerged from prison, he insistently called me 'brother'. There is also a sweat-swapping and obligatory brother-to-brother embrace of greeting that signals close relationship as men bonded to one another publicly renew their intimacy through deliberate transfers of personal odour (when making these transfers one is said to 'take sweat').

In his Theory of Social Structure Nadel (1956) rather insistently tells his reader that kinship is transitive. And so it was for me. As a brother, I was positioned in Lenny's family to become not an uncle but co-father to Lenny's son Will: 'Gotta be that youngfella callin you "Dad"'. The point to all this is that I came to act as co-father to Will when he was 'put through' the ceremony that should have turned boy into man. In situations like this, the participant observer is wholly participant in the ritual process, called to 'enter ... into the skin of experiences momentarily all-important and totally preoccupying in themselves' (Duchene, 1972:4) and capable of returning to the second part of the split role only when registering retrospective 'observations' in a night-time journal. I was also brought right 'close up' into family business by being included in Lenny's hearth group where I sat each day with all the family. From a co-father's vantage (and, I believe, only because I attained it), I came to appreciate just how initiation's finale is a post-ritual testing for the rite's effect. And put to this test, my titular son Will was to flunk it.


Because risk of a dud outcome is seen to be real, each rite of circumcision is followed by a time of anxiety. People wait and watch. The circumcised youth has been returned both to camp and to everyday life, his body marked with a wound that now is healing. As each further day of waiting endures, the youngfella's every act is observed by fellow-campers then to be described and examined in the hope that, in his witnessed activities, the lad will have shown forth the signs of new-gained competence.

Watchers 'check up la that detail'. All the time, they are looking for proofs of comportment of the kind that betokens the assumption of manhood. The lad should put away childish things. He may start openly to smoke. Among the watchers (and, especially, among concerned women who now, in public, will judge the outcome of the ritual work of men), the mood is prayerful: 'Mustn't be thatfella, youngfella, goin to do anythin that larrikin way!' After all, boys are 'grabbed' into initiation and 'put through' the rites in order to turn youthful tear-aways into responsible men. 'Properly', as they say, 'putting through' should purge the larrikin in a lad. (As an aside on the 'larrikin' of Australian English, let me cite Froude's character reference of 1888: '... noisy riotous scamps, who are impertinent to peaceful passengers, and make rows at theatres, a coarse-type version of the old Mohawks' [cited by Wilkes, 1978].) Each newly circumcised youngfella is thus watched through his 'larrikin / not anymore a larrikin' time of testing. A few, like Will, fail to pass the test and such lads become socially anomalous beings. They have 'been through'; they are 'cut'; and yet, despite both their experience of rites and the ritual scar each carries, 'larrikin' they stubbornly remain.

Testing whether or not the rite of circumcision has worked is, for the Countrymen, a socially proper, instituted and wholly necessary activity. It's what's done and to be done each time some newly-circumcised lad is brought home from the ceremony ground. The 'return of the initiate to camp' (4) calls forth a judgment from a general public. And there are words to characterize those lads who, having been tested, are found to remain unchanged. They are given as lads who 'can't hear' or 'don't listen' or 'won't listen' or are 'deaf'--and this last word stands for no mere auditory affliction; rather, it attributes a heavy charge that is nothing less than moral autism. (Note also that there is ambiguity because the attributions are of two kinds: deficiency can be given either as unwilled incapacity or as bloody-mindedness.)

Watching the returned initiate is collective activity subject to the business of 'remarking' (5) whereby people turn observations of particulars individually registered into those publicly constituted minor facts which, once attested and shared round, become a sort of public property called 'detail':

'Lookim that Petey. Thatfella gonna be that Drivin Man! He bin drivin that Toyota an thatfella not bin crunchim gear!'

'Smokin! Smokin! Themtwofella bin finish up that whole mob tailor-mades!'

The return of the initiate to camp should be a time for 'praisin that youngfella up' so, once remarked, positive 'detail' is bruited abroad. In a scene set for the joyful reception of new manhood, the possibility of failure is left unmentioned. Yet, as I found out, it is the desire to defeat an unvoiced fear that brings vehemence to voices busied with the 'praisin up' in which much is made of little things for speakers are registering mundane acts that may portentously assume the shape of proofs. Whereas Petey's smoking redounded to his assumption of manhood, Will's was treated as a sign that matched his dubious cut. Lying puffs signalled a pretender's indulgence: 'Smokin, all the time smoking! But thatta fella that jus not listenin!'

As observers, we are now positioned to note that the country back of Darwin is territory in which each instituted rite of circumcision carries with it the possibility of failure; that there is a routine for testing for a rite's success and, finally, that words are supplied which (used in proper context) will designate a social type to be encountered on the local scene--'Deafy', the lad whom ceremony left unaltered. We deal with momentous negation. A ritual designed to mark and assert social maturity has not worked the expected and mystical transformation that is required if an initiate, in and of himself, is to transcend the irresponsibility of his boyhood years: 'Thatfella bin circumcise, but notta full man really.'


While Australian ethnography since Howitt (1904) is replete with reports of initiations that initiate, I have so far searched in vain for the record of the rite that did not work. What I have read deals only in certainties. John Morton's (1997:167) resolute assertion thus exemplifies a general trend for his virile sentence has it that: 'Making men is genuinely transformative: identity is created there.'

Morton's words are taken from a festschrift panegyric in which he assesses Les Hiatt's work on Aranda initiation. In its staged progression, Aranda man-making is more complex than the series of initiatory practices that includes circumcision in the Top End. However, I can put complexities of hyper-development in the Aranda instance aside because it is the character of the interpretations proffered by the analysts that concern me here. Morton deals approvingly with Hiatt's work which, he writes, points to a set of findings. Apart from being rites of passage structured in conformity with the classic tripartite sequence identified by van Gennep ([1908]; 1960), Aranda initiation is a rite of passage naturalized into Aboriginality because it:

[i] relies on totemism which can be construed as a natural science of society that embraces a natural history of fatherhood as well (p. 153);

[ii] is an integral part of alliance formation and the control of marriage (p. 161) [because each initiand is introduced to a potential father-in-law during the rite and also because the marriage of each man is postponed until his rites have been completed];

[iii] provides the basis for the induction of men into cult lodges (p. 162) and is the means

[iv] 'whereby men are fully identified with the lands they come to possess and [this] gives the symbolic theme of sacrifice a kind of eco-logic [because the increase sites of clan totems are the ritual centres of patri-clan estates in land]' (p. 166) while, throughout,

[v] 'making men relies on totemic symbolisms to forge sentiments that are at once sexual, social and territorial' (p. 153).

These five findings concerning Aranda practice can be matched item-by-item to equivalent text in Stanner's (1966) monograph On Aboriginal Religion which deals with the practice of Top End forebears of the people with whom I moved from 1974 onwards. There is, however, one point of subtle difference. Whereas Durkheim ([1915]1976: 326) had identified 'the elements of sacrifice' in accounts of Aranda rites and Morton writes conformingly of sacrifice actualized as 'symbolic theme', Stanner was more hesitant. When he described the northern rites, Stanner (1966: 2) was to discern the 'lineaments of sacrifice'--a sort of elemental pre-figuring and 'resemblance' or 'homology'--rather than any exact equivalence with the 'form of sacrificial ceremonies' encountered 'in more developed religion'.

Silverman's (2004) Annual Review essay on the anthropology of circumcision takes its reader beyond Australia to deal with male circumcision (MC) and female circumcision (FC) worldwide. Furthermore, Silverman's survey is a centenary essay that covers the hundred years of anthropological endeavour ushered in by the 1904 publication of Sir James Fraser's essay on the 'Origins of Circumcision'. Silverman (2004:422) tells us that: 'A series of themes and approaches emerges from classic accounts of MC in the anthropological literature: symbolism, politics, aggressive manhood, history [of institution or de-institution of the rite and of oppositions between "nations" of the circumcised and the uncut], structuralist inversions, and the nature-culture dichotomy.' These themes and approaches all belong to institutional analysis which, instance-after-instance, yields typifications of a rite which works its given purpose as generally and universally it 'transfers fertility between generations [and] shifts boys from mothers to men' (Silverman, 2004:421-2). My comment is that the serried accounts neglect variation, disregard the fate of the individual initiand and so never seem to entertain the possibility that the standard rite could work less than that stipulated set of social and mental effects that is contemplated in its design.

In my view, the anthropology of circumcision has been an anthropology most thoroughly taken up with institutional analysis where the aim is to deal with overall significance and generalized meanings by treating initiation as a total phenomenon in the manner that Durkheim (1982) pioneered. This way, anthropological interpretations of standard forms are propounded at the expense of the reporting of happenstance. What eludes the analyst of the endlessly reproduced ritual (always an examination of what churchmen call 'the order of service'), is the fact that performances may be tailored to produce unique consequences for particular individuals. There is also a need to relate life-crisis rituals to the intersection of the life-courses of actual persons (rather than role-types) and, further, a need to attend to the deliberate contriving and tailoring of rites to the shaping of personal destinies. A while ago, Max Gluckman (1962) encouraged anthropologists to study not only rites as such, but to attend also to case material in order to appreciate ritual's use in the conduct of social relations.


In 1976 fourteen lads were 'put through' the rites of circumcision at the Darwin fringe-camp I call Wallaby Cross. The lads were 'put through' in pairs and so there were seven circumcision rites in all and each of these was conducted in the style called 'wannga' (cf. Stanner, 1966:108). It was the seventh and last of the year's rites that had personal significance for me because, as Lenny's 'brother', I became ritual co-sponsor for Lenny's son Will and also for Petey (son of Lenny's brother). These two cousins were to be 'put through' together.

When the rite was done both lads were returned to camp. Days followed during which their two families set me at their hearth-sides turn and turn about. There we defensively are take-away fish, chips and hamburgers as we watched to see on what terms the made-over lads would re-join the camping scene. (Food prepared at take-away outlets and delivered in wrapped packs is held to be less subject to the mystical contamination that a local sorcerer could visit on a meal prepared at an open hearth in camp.) As the sun went down, I would join a gaggle made up of new initiates and older males to set up a drinking circle on open ground outside the pub where beer in individual cans (and not the cheap plonk of the shared and susceptible flagon open to contamination) was used to celebrate acquired manhood; there were, after all, fourteen 'new men' to toast and toast again.

Will was the only one of the year's tally of initiates found to be circumcised but yet unchanged. His parents were chagrined. They went about broadcasting their distress, protesting the amaze of the afflicted: 'How this thing bin happenin longa we?' The problem of Will was then given over to the world of Countrymen at large: 'Wefella altogether got this boy [note the relegation] who jus not listenin'

The problem worsened. About three months after his initiation, Will was arrested and then taken to court on a set of minor charges. Petey, in contrast, had a job and was courting a local beauty whose parents beamed on him whenever he visited. Two lives were thus developing along lines whose vectoring the post-circumcision testing seemed to have predicted. By the time of his arrest, the attested fact of Will's perverse resistance to ritual transformation already was well-known. Those who were told of the arrest could receive the news without surprise and with some variant of the standard comment: 'Well, you bin see, thatta boy that just caan listen.'

After the initiations of 1976, I kept a watch on the Aboriginal population back of Darwin. From 1977 to 1992 I maintained on-and-off contact with the people of my major research of the mid-70s. In 1987 I returned to the fringe camps to do a further six-month stint of fieldwork. 1992, however, was a terminal year in which I found that I could no longer meaningfully return to encounter any cohesive sub-sets of the fringe-dwellers I previously had known even though I could still seek out particular survivors. While the camp-site at Wallaby Cross had itself remained a venue, by 1992 its physically 'improved' state, its new population and its transformation into an officially recognised 'town camp', meant that it exhibited few continuities with the squatters' bush-retreat of earlier times. Diaspora has also happened which means that the way of life I described for the mid-70s has been transplanted out of original encampments to become the stuff of suburban living as descendants of the habitues of Wallaby Cross have moved into rental homes (or on to cattle stations or Aboriginal settlements) while preserving the social order that organizes persons into the Top End 'mobs' in which most still claim to 'run'.

Social and residential shifts apart, death took a precipitant toll. Few adults who ran with the mobs of the Darwin hinterland in 1976 survive. All fourteen lads of the 1976 initiations have since died--not one of these teenagers lived on to turn 50. In 1983 or thereabouts, the ceremony ground at Wallaby Cross was spectacularly disestablished (of which more anon). Four youngsters were initiated in 1977 (Sansom 1980: 200) and theirs were the last circumcisions to be performed with Wallaby Cross as venue. Nor for the relevant population of Countrymen has another ceremonial centre been created to replace the Wallaby Cross ground. In consequence, only some of the sons and grand-sons of parents I knew as habitues of Wallaby Cross in 1976 have been circumcised. For the uncircumcised, there is a break between the generations and this is a break in the inter-generational transmission of traditions for the uncircumcised generations of Countrymen live on as moderns who can neither act as men of ceremony, nor be brought ritually to meet their totems, (6) nor learn the secret/sacred song-lines of site and track that locate their Dreamings in the landscape. They cannot elect to enter into the 'devotional life' (Stanner 1966: vii) of the dedicated Ceremony Man.


As things used to be, a lad's initiation began with an act of seizure. Taken by surprise, the initiand was set on the trail to complete a 'big walkabout' under the guidance of mentors. 'Big walkabout' translates pretty fairly as Grand Tour--a guided expedition designed to expose young men to the religion, peoples and languages of chosen 'countries'. Aboriginal way, however, there is more to marching than locomotion so one needs to attend to the particular sense of walking that the word 'walkabout' contains.

Top End speakers of Aboriginal English are apt to treat 'walk' as a general verb of motion--of coming or going in every which-way possible. To 'footwalk', in contrast, is to move unshod across country and, ideally, not to move on paved surfaces but, rather, to tread along 'pads' that were made by previous treaders and which will be renewed by one's own passing.

Whether at the trot or plod, the bare foot that strikes the pad engages country. The surface grain of each landform is peculiar to it and is to be relished and savoured through one's sole. This way, a person 'feels' country. Each stretch of country felt is country one can claim to 'really know'. Footwalkers who 'feel' country also leave residues behind. On soft ground footprints will last for their brief while. Yet such prints are but surface indications; what truly counts is the mutual transfer of what I'll call 'essence' between footwalker and the pad. That a transfer from walker to pad occurs, is attested by each camp's tracker dogs who (like Dreamings) are able to follow a person's spoor even across rock. Transfer the other way, from country to person, is experientially self-evident; each passage over land enlarges one's being--you feel it as it happens, breathing ever more deeply. Extravagantly, an older man can say: 'Go to that country; you gonna find my footprints all around--jus everywhere.' Nor are the 'footprints' of such a claim ephemeral markings; each human passage has left traces that the Dreamings of country take eternally to themselves. It follows that people become co-eternal with each country they have known and whose Dreamings have come to know them also. Because it creates, renews and expands relations with the holy, footwalking is sacramental. (7)

More obvious as sacrament is the staged rite that marks a person's introduction to the emplaced Dreaming(s) at the ritual centre of each patri-clan estate traversed along the way. The business is brisk, brief and simple. A traditional owner calls out to the local Dreaming announcing his or her own identity and then names the 'new man' who has been brought to country, telling of the 'new man's' purpose there. The 'new man' is then douched with (or submerged in) the waters of the place and thereby brought into the local Dreaming's ken. Once thus inducted, a person should in future be recognized by the local Power which, otherwise, could get 'cranky' and lash out after sensing the unfamiliar body-smell of the trespassing stranger. Estate-by-estate, introductions to country put the equivalent of multiple visas onto bodies. And even those who are born to a country and hold birth-rights in it, have to be brought by water-rite into the ken of their inherited Dreamings. The potency of the rite of introduction derives from the commingling of Dreaming-waters with human sweat--individuating water of the body merges with the specific 'living waters' (8) that have been drawn from a particular Dreaming's very own site.

The lasting residue of ritual performance is that an emplaced Dreaming and a capacitated 'new man' are both brought permanently into recognition of one-another's personal signatures of flavour. Out of brief ritual encounter, a mystical and enabling set of relationships is established. The inductee is brought into particular association with the land of an estate, with that estate's owners, and with located Dreaming(s). Gaining multiple rights of access during the initiation journey, the initiand was endowed with the holding that is a personal range. Furthermore, each person's life is enriched by progressive expansion of the capacity to access lands. An aspect of personal identity is to be counted up in the progressive accumulation of: 'All that place I got [have licensed access to] altogether'.

The nature of the range given to an initiand is defined by sacred geography which emplaces the pads and Dreamings of the western side of the Top End within country that is broadly divided into three adjustable sectors, each of which is named for a distinct style for initiation. Each recognised 'campin' is a pivot of the three sectors. Sitting in any 'campin', a speaker can indicate sectoral direction either by manual gesture or, more usually, by a pursing and pointing of lips that is accompanied by a head-jerk. The zone of the three sectors has its northern terminus about the Finniss River which divides the circumcising from the noncircumcising peoples. (Larakiya of Darwin did not circumcise; instead they worked ordeals upon the body by depilation and other means.) South-western marches of the zone stretch southwards to the Victoria River and, once cattle-droving began, were extended even further towards the Ord River at Kununarra. The sectors, further, take in the notions of up-river, downriver and, because all these rivers are estuarine, they are contrived in acknowledgement of the distinction between salt river-water and fresh.

Today, the sectors are mapped less onto broad landscape, more onto the usual haunts of those Ceremony Men who are distinguished as the adepts in 'wannga' or 'manbanggoi' or 'naitpan', the names for the three regional styles for ceremony. When a distinguished Ceremony Man moves, he takes his stylistic competence with him and so he can re-locate his major style. True ceremonial adepts build up their stylistic competencies and will learn the whole regional repertoire. Although primarily identified as 'Wangga', Roy Kelly (in 1975-83 the leading ceremony man in the Darwin fringe camps), was reputed to know all the styles of the circumcision rites. He also claimed to be the last surviving speaker of Dirula, the reserved and secret 'really high language' in which the songs and stories for the rites of the noncircumcising Larakiya were once wrapt.

'Useta be big walkabout.' It would (they say) be a year's journey. Furthermore, the journey would be vectored from the pivot of an originating encampment and treated as a venture into a named and chosen sector onto and through designated lands. Nor were lads necessarily directed into their father's style and sector. They could be required to 'cross over' instead. The journey would be into and out of the languages and dialects of the different countries and estates (located father-tongues with their home grounds). And to shift from one tongue to another is to acknowledge a switch from one jurisdiction to the next. The Grand Tour would entail exposure to full use of the language and courtesies of kinship--more often than not, the initiand would have to assume the subdued and respectful demeanour of the visitor among new acquaintance. The initiand would encounter potential affines. Indeed, one way of regarding the 'ol fashin big walkabout' is to figure it as an obligatory journey of inspection and exhibition with each likely lad being paraded, 'campin'-by-'campin', in front of one set of potential in-laws after another. The final destination of big walkabout was not so much a place as the performance of a ritual finale in the chosen style. And the ritual work would be done on a lad already altered to the extent that he had been made open to 'all that country'.

What follows on circumcision are rites of serried revelation. In these rites, initiated but still 'new' men are shown the objects that betoken country. 'Big walkabout' took a lad to countries that, in the ritual plan of things, are destined to take on the character of sacred sites and places that are signified in storied rites. A properly prepared and receptive man has already been opened to the sacred signifiers of the Dreaming. In the ritual context, he learns to recognize what places he truly visited and how already-traversed country is actually transected by Dreaming trails. However, only those who surrender to the Dreaming experience gain privilege of Powers and get 'properly' to 'know' country for how, Dreaming-way, it is truly signed and then emplaced in narrative. For the revelatory rites to work, the participant has again to 'listen' in self-surrender, taking Dreaming-knowledge to his being. As Stanner (citing his informants) reported, the novice is thus increasingly enlarged and so 'becomes a man of understanding' (Stanner, 1966:109).

In 1975 tribute was paid to the conduct of the 'old time' journey and it was regretted that it could be undertaken no more. The problem was less shortage of transport than difficulty of access to Dreaming sites which are now mostly on whitefella lands. Indeed, many adults among the Darwin Countrymen had never yet set foot on their ancestral patri-clan estates. However, spiritual connection with original country was maintained and regional geography was reproduced on a small scale at each major camping place. When people 'came up' to the camp at Wallaby Cross, they set their hearths to the west if their ancestors hailed from the west and so on. One could say 'I'm going over to that Paperbark' and follow the path to a Maratheil 'campin' for Marathiel are the Paperbark people and, because they embody their country, they bring swamp-tree identity along with them to plant and assert it anew in their camp-site at the edge of town.

As a prelude to initiation, the initiands of 1976 were taken round chosen camp sites, presented to the incumbents and made welcome by them. This was to conduct the 'old time' peregrination in miniature. (9) Individuating purpose was achieved. Each lad was given over to chosen others often by renewal of acquaintance but now on new and special terms. Nowadays, the introduction of youngsters to actual country is done opportunistically. Each and any secular trip has extra recruits who board the car or truck because they want to be ritually introduced to Dreamings at the places that the primary expeditioners propose to visit. Young people (of both sexes) have thus found a way to work to 'get' personal repertoires of countries thereby each enlarging social presence and potential.


During my fieldwork of the 70s, I asked Roy Kelly (leader of ceremony but also my mentor among the Darwin fringe-dwellers) to let me record his life story. After we negotiated terms, Roy went about the business of registering life-story in his own way (Sansom 2002a). Telling about one chosen 'time' would put Roy in mind of another and, to my present purpose, Roy Kelly told of the failed rite that was his own circumcision.

Roy lost mother and father early on in life. He reported episodes from his 'kid times' when (as I deduce) he lived as an orphan in camps along the banks of the Daly River and, strangely, no guardian figures populate Roy's accounts of his early years. While Roy gave nobody the credit for 'raisin him up' after his own parents both were dead, I can imagine no youthful existence for the orphaned Roy without his being attached to the hearth of recognized guardians or foster-parents. Furthermore, it is a duty to acknowledge the debt one owes to those who reared one up. Absence of guardianship in Roy's story is thus to be read as a studied refusal to acknowledge particular non-parental custodians and to be seen also as Roy's disregard for an obligation that calls for memorial tributes to be paid. In Roy's stories of his boyhood, I discern defiant relegation of historical relationships. His quiet censorings were deliberate acts of non-recall--erasures that twice-killed the dead.

Proceeding by chain-of-association, Roy arrived at the story of his circumcision. He began by announcing a verdict. For him, this was: 'That time I really didin bin listen'.

When it came to the moment of cutting: 'They bin tellin me to think Shark: "Think Shark, think Shark" they bin say.' But Roy didn't 'listen for that Shark' and so when the cut was made, he bled and bled. The blood went everywhere and the bleeding would not stop. And Roy said that he bled because he refused instruction: he would not think Shark even though Shark was called up on the didgeridoo while, at the same time, a Singing Man 'called up that Shark' by singing Shark's song. Now, as it happens, due to their peculiar vascular and skin structures, sharks in general are not bleeders--a fact of recently-established science but known immemorially to Aboriginal fishers along the Australian coast. Thus, at Roy's circumcision, Shark was sympathetic in the Fraserian sense--well-chosen to play its part as coagulant Dreaming. In Roy's account, the recalcitrant initiand sees himself bleed and bleed. Yet, all the while, he is rejecting bleeding's antidote. His is a story about the self-willed refusal of the lad who, perversely, would not surrender and enter into the medley of sound that invoked Shark. By listening, he could have checked the issue of blood.

Roy's self-willing is to be taken up later. Right now, my concern is with registration of the fact of inordinate bleeding. In the matter of Will, aspects of this lad's increasing mischief were remarked during a conversation that occurred months after Will had been cut. For the first time, I heard a man say: 'Well, everybody gotta know: when that fella bin circumcise, he bin bleed n bleed.' This was news to me. Unlike the commenting know-all, I had witnessed the operation and had seen no alarming flow of blood. Nor did I hear any other witness remark bloody excess on the day the rite was done. However, once entered as public comment in response to news of Will's delinquencies, the canard of Will and blood-flow quickly and generally went round. As time passed and the list of Will's misdeeds lengthened, the boy who 'wouldn't listen' was given retrospective character as an initiate who everyone knew to be a lad who had (of course) bled buckets.

I believe that all such bleeders become haemophiliac some time after the event. Here, I treat memory of copious bleeding as the established and recognized sign of an initiand's refusal. I add retrospective recognition of surmised and imagined bleeding to the clutch of things that characterize circumcisions that have not worked. However, men do not walk away from each cutting remarking all the while on the flow of blood, generous or meagre as it may have been. Rather, copious bleeding is fished out of the past as a reluctant memory. It is brought to public mind only when, by his subsequent behaviour, an initiate establishes his character as that of a person whom the rite of circumcision has not, after all, reclaimed. Attribution of late-remembered bleeder status then becomes general. And this is potent condemnation. To say that a man 'bleeds too much' has the selfsame moral force as saying that that man is 'deaf'. Retrospective construction shapes historical performances, allowing the future to turn the ideological requirement that larrikins must bleed into a remembered particular of some initiate's historicized past.

If I am right about post-factum attributions, Roy Kelly succumbed in his own being to the accumulation of public rumour long ago. In and of himself, he came to believe that he had bled inordinately at his cutting. The judging public he assiduously leaves out of the history of his early life is thereby made not only present but conspicuous in it. It was members of this disregarded public and not Roy (the lad who himself experienced the cut) who came in time to recover the required but spurious 'memory' of how, during this lad's cutting, the sanguinary sign of their imagining had spurted all about. And decades later the adult Roy, dignified as Ceremony Man and leader, still took a bloody fiction of false public recall to himself. Assimilated to his being, an invented yet symbolic fact came in his later years to serve autobiography as the origin of his life's trajectory. When presenting his life-story, Roy connived in the fiction that has him starting off an independent existence with a deficit. As he set out along the droving trail, he took up droving (his first job) as young Deafy, a well-known bleeder.


My experience of the Top End yields three characters each of whom can stand for a path that may be taken after a diagnosis of moral deafness had been made news.

Will was to die after serving long years in jail for crimes given as heinous at law and decried also by his Countrymen. And Will died 'deaf'. In this essay, Will stands for the man who remains unredeemed among his own Countrymen because, time and again, his life's doings show him to be stubbornly and reassertively unhearing. In contrast, Roy Kelly's redemption story (to be retailed below) stands for what I surmise is probably the most usual sequel to a public attribution of deafness--the journey by which a man will overcome his deficit and recover from having been made 'rubbish' at the time of his initiation (the story of recovery will have the recounted form of brief Bildungsroman). Mike Wagin, however, stands for a surprising third alternative. He personifies triumphant unhearing for he became a region's most brilliant Trickster who, affectionately and in defiance of convention, everyone laughingly called 'Deafy' to his face. His nick-naming turned a label of opprobrium into an endearment and I need briefly to say how.

In his time, Mike Wagin was a famous dancer. And his dancing belonged to public, outside performances that are open to the world rather than being acts done secretly on the men's ceremony ground. Mike inherited the dance sketch called 'Buffalo' together with its songs and music from his father and some would still regard Buffalo as Mike's signature performance. Others preferred his renditions of Emu and Kangaroo. All would agree, however, that Buffalo, with its story of encounters between horsemen, men on foot and a rogue Buffalo of the Dreaming, had great potential for larking about as Mike and his troupe wove their bullfight slapstick and rodeo-clowning into the piece. Mike Wagin also responded to new songs that Singing Men receive from their Dreaming muses and he delighted especially in the stories that Walakunda spirits deliver for these are songs that are, by turn, risque or outrageous, but always defiant of convention. Mike Wagin had another repertoire--the fund of dog stories he commanded. In these, dogs featured as proxies who acted out normally unmentionable human peccadilloes which, through Mike's explicitly silent miming, were assigned to well-known figures in authority. Finally, it's to be noted that, for Mike, there was no off-stage/on-stage divide and so just to join him was to keep company with a perpetual entertainer who gloried in irreverence, turning the world of the Top End bottom up. (It's to the point that he had an established joking relationship with each of the relevant publicans in town and could turn a night at the pub into a comedy show.)

Mike's marital history, the history of his love-life and the natural history of his fathering, also ran to form. He lived as much as acted the Trickster's part. Accorded recognition as Top End jester, his deafness to morality and taboo made him the licensed clown rather than the despised delinquent of his region. The magic of his performances accounts, in part, for the admiring yet somewhat uneasy regard in which Mike Wagin commonly was held. But, then, he was well-off because well-recompensed for his performances (an economic security bought at the price of making others jealous). He was built in the shape of a 5ft. 6inch Hercules and was known to be a cunning fighter who, over time, built firm alliances. If attacked, his call for reinforcements would find answer. In all, Mike Wagin made himself into a muscled, wickedly-inspired and successful one-man carnival full-time. His muses were called 'debil-debils' and Mike was preternaturally empowered by them. Thus he became the prodigious Deafy whose given purpose was to mock convention. Master of Ridicule is what his nick-name stands for. And Master of Ridicule was the very thing that a joking relationship with his 'debil-debils' caused this most exceptional Deafy to be. His was the somewhat frightening because devilishly endorsed deafness of creative release from everyday inhibition.

Now to redemption. In his life story, Roy Kelly tells how he and his only close 'mate' (both then youngsters, but already circumcised) were sitting one day beside the Daly River when a horseman rode up. Without ado, the horseman declared that he wanted the boys--they were to come with him. The two boys joined him and they left the banks of the Daly without saying goodbye to a soul. The man took the boys out on the droving trail, teaching them the Drover's skills and introducing them to country all the way along to Anthony's Lagoon and then beyond to far-flung droving camps in Queensland whose names Roy once knew but was later to forget.

To tell of an apprenticeship that turned him into a full-skilled Drover, Roy Kelly insistently used the vocabulary of initiation. The horseman 'grabbed' those two lads Roy calls 'boys' despite the fact that both have been circumcised. Then 'he really bin put we twofella through'. There follows a long phase of life when: 'Useta be, they bin callin me Drover'. The new and public entitlement wholly displaces 'Deafy'. Then Roy also came to be marked during the time of his droving. While on the droving track, Roy accidentally drank from a tin can that had contained strychnine intended for dingo baits. He survived the poisoning but was left with a hacking, trademark cough--Dreaming work was done upon his body. (10) Roy himself used the words that show that the business of becoming a Droving Man was his true experience of passage. This experience of becoming both substitutes for and transcends that fiat rite of circumcision which had promised much but was to profit Roy not at all. And there is great irony. Again by indirection, Roy Kelly tells his auditor that the 'Droving Boss' who 'put him through' is no man of Aboriginal ceremony and Law (called 'Business'). This agent of transformation is a white or, perhaps, a part-white contractor for whom cattle management is a Business whose mysteries he knows (as adept) through and through. So Roy was guided into adulthood by a Boss Drover. And the Boss Drover (though unnamed) is given full credit for setting Roy up--opening Roy to a traveller's world of regionally distributed ceremonies, Dreamings and groupings, the Boss Drover serves as mentor during a true 'big walkabout' or initiation journey. The Boss Drover did those essential things for Roy that his deliberately unrecalled and conscientiously disremembered Daly River kinsfolk failed to do. Finally, there was a day when Roy attended a ceremony as its 'owner' (of this term, more below). On that day of redemption, Roy Kelly succumbed wholly. He entered into his own clan's Dreaming. (11)


Having witnessed African initiations in which warrior discipline is brought down on lined-up regiments of boys-becoming-men, I am led by appreciation of contrast to remark the extent to which initiations in the Top End are tailored to each initiand's particular and emergent position in the world. I have already noted facts of individuation and scale--the fourteen initiates of 1975 were put through expensively in pairs so that seven consecutive rites were done. And, again, the old-style initiation journey was the custom-made tour that endowed selected country on each chosen lad.

Each year in the Top End the initiation season comes up (December-February during the annual lay-off from work on cattle stations). People of the mobs which will put on ceremonies, prepare for months in advance and so the fact that a ceremony impends is generally foreknown. However, those uninitiated lads who are potential candidates do not know whether or not it will be their turn this time round. Initiation should come to a lad as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be. So each year people wait and watch to see which of the likely lads is to meet a contrived destiny and be 'grabbed'.

Among the anxious uncircumcised, a standard rumour of the bogey-man kind goes round. It is said that when the time comes, each initiand can anticipate getting just deserts. For the proven larrikin, initiation will be 'hard'; for others, the time will be 'easy'. In this, even false rumour is employed to tailor degrees of imagined cruelty to the public character of each lad. (12) Likewise, after circumcision when an initiate is still today gathered into the revelatory rites, he is there to become acquainted with icons of his own inherited Dreamings as these are taken from their store and presented to him as tokens of origin that tell him apart from others. In this, the initiate is united with his familial past and the symbols and mythical history of his own clan and of those other clans with which his own has historically been connected. And before he is shown icons that embody his clan history and the relationship between his clan and others, the initiate has already been offered a future.

What Redmond (2001:130) refers to as the 'crucial last movement' of old-style initiation is a cynical moment of forced choice. In this moment above all others, aboriginal gerontocrats historically reasserted their ascendancy as they delivered sons or adopted charges over into the peculiar form of bondedness that is bride-service. Nominated future affines see the initiand through the ordeal of cutting, supporting his body. (thus with Roy Kelly, the injunction to 'think shark' expressed a proto-affine's caring and 'looking after'.) The ritual made a lad bondsman to a potential and particular father-in-law whose infant or even unborn daughter would have been promised to the 'new man'. This was nothing less than prolongation of jural minority even if on new terms.

Before initiation, the young male answered to his parents and to others of his consanguineal kin. Following initiation with its imposed affinal connection, the young man answered primarily to his future father-in-law in the hope that, after years of service, he might finally take this proto-affine's maturing daughter to wife. And as Francesca Merlan (1997) has observed, debts towards blood-kin are contracted within a forgiving regime whereas the regime that governs debts between affines is one of strict reckoning and enforcement. To gain affinal kin is, at once, to meet inflexible obligation and to experience entry into relationships whose conduct is defined with reference to a strict and detailed etiquette of in-lawship (including the awkwardness of mother-in-law avoidance while living for extended periods in one's affines' camp).

Let's attend to the provisional structure of an ostensible gift of manhood. Historically in the Top End, circumcision made so-called 'men' of boys. However, the 'men' had then to live out a time of wife-earning servitude, each paying tribute to a nominated (rather than a self-chosen) father-in-law or his successor. In this, there is both prolongation and transfer of paternal power. The father/guardian who has arranged the affinal compact (struck without either cognizance or consent of the two main parties that it binds), is a man who stands to benefit. (13) For himself, he has established new status as father-of-the-groom-to-be in relation to the father-of-the-future-bride. Both older men benefit, sharing influence over the young man's doings while the young fellow is subordinated through the nexus of a relationship brought into being to join two oldsters to one-another. (In the old days, the two men were often already established as ceremonial exchange partners.) Thus original initiation turned each lad into a probationer made subject to a future tailored as a structure of postponement and delay. Because betrothal and man-making were joined together in a single symbolic moment (cf. Morton cited above), the initiand was not endowed with generalized potential to shape his own future but, rather, was set upon a pre-set course that conspiring elders had mapped out for him to follow for a decade or so.

Not only was each 'new man' called upon to live a probationary span of life with reference to the less-than-certain 'promise' of a bride, he was assigned connections also. (14) The well-documented impetus towards polygyny in the Top End of 'classic' times (see e.g. Stanner, 1960), was due (in part) to the fact that second and subsequent marriages were entered into on the groom's own initiative and are expressive of self-will, agency, choice and political independence.


Cursory reading of The Camp at Wallaby Cross led Ian Keen (1994:190) to misrepresent the ethnography reported in that book as follows:

'A Darwin Aboriginal fringe-camp studied by Sansom was not embedded in an environment in which young men had to participate in initiation and revelatory rites. Here, young men were able to prevent an older man of the camp from marrying a young promised girl (Sansom 1980: 254-6).'

When introducing my book, I had written that: 'The camp at Wallaby Cross is a major regional centre. It is a centre where mortuary ceremonies are held; a centre for the initiation of young men and a place, also, for ceremonies in which men celebrate creator beings' (Sansom 1980:10). Further on, I reported that the fourteen initiations of 1976 and the four initiations of 1977 had taken place (p. 200). I also found reason to discuss the bearing of initiation on the conduct of everyday affairs (pp. 60, 152, 168-70). I noted that during my 1970s fieldwork, I saw five old men 'pulled off' when they tried to get young girls and noted also that older men could wryly count up 'promise marriages' they had been unable to realise. Hence I concluded that youngfellas had 'eliminated oldfella to young girl marriage as a type' (Sansom 1980: 256). Further proof was in the fact that 'fathers no longer bother to promise their daughters to future sons-in-law' (ibid.). Yet Keen passes on the mistaken notion that Wallaby Cross was a place without 'Men's Business'; he also conveys the impression that I had reported no general trend of action but had registered a single case of pulling-off.

Keen's misrepresentation of the Wallaby Cross scene occurs in a chapter of his own book on Yolngu religion in which he 'has suggested a link between gender separation and age-related authority created in ritual' (Keen 1994:190, emphasis added). More broadly, he writes that: '[T]he whole system of religious knowledge, including initiation, served the particular interests of older Yolngu men; without that religious backing young men were likely to refuse to support the interests of older men which entailed costs to themselves, in particular the late marriage which polygyny entailed' (Keen 1994: 190, emphasis added). Further, in Keen's interpretation, young Yolngu men accept their own subordination and support male elders only because they have been made subject to 'socialization in a broader process of social control' in which initiation features as 'an aspect of the religious dispositif" (Keen 1994:189).

Once he learnt that youngfella Countrymen of the Darwin hinterland had the general capacity to ensure that no instance of 'old fella n young girl marriage' would be sustained within their region, Keen decided that these were young men who could never have been subjected to the chastening effects with which he credits ceremonies of initiation 'backed' by a Foucauldian dispositif. Keen seems to have reasoned backwards. My reporting of the prevention of 'old fella n young girl marriage' led him to reassert his own thesis of developmental cause-and-effect. If (back of Darwin) young men had the courage to defy gerontocratic authority (particularly with regard to marriage arrangements), they could not possibly have been religiously socialized nor could they have been 'put through' those salutary ordeals that religious traditions ordain. How Keen was able to ignore those passages in which I register the occurrence of initiations (Sansom, 1980:10, 60, 152, 168-70 and 200) I cannot say.

Anthropologically speaking, the problem presented by the Wallaby Cross instance is in the co-occurrence of [i] religious education leading to initiation together with [ii] the thoroughgoing elimination of one aspect of historical gerontocratic control--the oldfella monopoly of nubile girls. For me, the question that follows is: Did gerontocracy still prevail among the Countrymen in 1975 or, otherwise, was gerontocracy, at that time, either diminished or negated?

My reply to the rhetorical question is that, in general, 'olfellas' retained control but did so (with much noise and 'growling' about the 'new generations') in a context in which social relationships had been radically re-constituted in reaction to settler take-over of the lands of the western part of the Top End. Here, gerontocratic authority was established anew. 'Olfellas' of the Darwin hinterland found that they could exercise a measure of control over the Aboriginal re-occupation of a confiscated life-space. They became 'bosses' of mobs whose members, in their turn, came to be associated with sets of places that were recaptured and taken into informal (and conditional) Aboriginal incumbency.

Keen essayed his Yolngu/Darwin comparison from the vantage of what historically was the great East Arnhemland Reserve. In the Arnhemland Reserve set aside for Yolngu people, the local Aboriginal presence was rightful and uncontested. To gain access to the reserve, the non-Aboriginal person had to apply for a licence. The Reserve represents the inverse and opposite of the situation in the settled part of the Top End with its tenured landscape of pastoral and special purpose leases, land held under grazing licences, freehold farms along the Daly River, mining tenements, town-sites, nature reserves, military reserves and lands set aside for government purposes. On all the lands made over to economic use, there was in 1975 small space legally set aside for Aboriginal occupancy. And, notoriously, there was at least one unlicensed Aboriginal fringe encampment on the edge of each gazetted and inhabited townsite.

Countrymen 'sat down' in the settled parts of the Top End not by any right, but on sufferance. They gained 'sit-down' places on those cattle stations on which camps were established for 'station blacks' (see Berndt and Berndt, 1987); they found obscure bush camping sites such as those on the banks of the Daly River and they set up the fringe camps outside towns. (Bagot, the Aboriginal reserve in Darwin, and the out-of-town settlement at Delissaville [now Belyuen] stood out as special locations designed by administration to accommodate and control displaced Aborigines.) The Countrymen of my acquaintance were located within a region in which, night by night, they cooked their meals and lay down to sleep in camps located either on the land of an employer of Aboriginal labour or, otherwise, on land on which they squatted. (16) Each 'campin' thus occupied was subject to a regime of permission and control. Station camps accommodated workers and their 'dependants' and each station was characterized by its own particular rules concerning the permitted ratio of employed to 'dependant' campers. Furthermore, the seasonality of the cattle industry was integral to regimes: some stations tolerated an Aboriginal presence during the Wet season layoff; others did not. So the Wet was made a time of scarce space, re-locations, expansion of the fringe camps (in which station workers took refuge) and a seasonal lack of wages. (17)

This was a scene not of insecure tenure but of sufferance, by which I mean a quasi-tenancy of abject dependency that had no true basis in law but was, nonetheless, a prime reality that conditioned life. Each night, any seasonally or otherwise unemployed Aboriginal person had to find a permitted and safe place in which to lie down. Otherwise, the sleeper (already legally either a vagrant or a trespasser) was likely to become prey or victim. On the stations, whitefella bosses had absolute control over incumbency but they delegated its exercise to Aboriginal camp bosses. Sufferance of the Aboriginal presence in urban fringe camps entailed continuing negotiations with local white 'bosses' (such as shopkeepers and publicans), as well as with tenured local residents and the police. However, an elaborate informal system developed and, within this system, particular Aboriginal men came into prominence as camp bosses and bosses of station-mobs. Each boss's job was to create and maintain order in each camping mob, holding each mob to size and keeping it 'quiet'--that is, unbothersome to whitefellas. In addition, mob-bosses on stations had to produce work teams in accordance with the seasons. Overall, camping life was lived out under the looming threats of summary dismissal from work, instant eviction from sites, and arrest for unlawful presence (and unlawful drinking) in public space. And the Aboriginal mob-bosses took on intercalary positions so each worked on behalf of his mob as 'the personality in whom the domestic-kinship and the political systems intersect' (Gluckman, Mitchell and Barnes, 1963:151). The power of each mob-boss derived from acts of mediation that depended on the continuing relationship he maintained with a set of white authorities. Incumbency of his intercalary position was itself the thing at stake as the mob-boss strove to satisfy those Countrymen to whom he answered. In larger camps, there could be a division of labour. At Wallaby Cross, one camp-boss (much admired for his ability to 'humbug'--i.e. get the better of- whitefellas) took on the intercalary role; another worked as the camp's Masterful Man of ceremony; a third (Lenny, father of Will) became organizer of the Fighting Men that guard each mob (and was especially prominent during times of siege), while a fourth was in charge of the circulation of Daly River people between country and town. (18)

Made integral to a system of arranged marriages and entailing a grand tour designed to open an initiand to a chosen country and its inhabitants, classic initiation was about the distribution and re-distribution of young people over countryside and amongst family groupings over time. By 1975, proposals of promise marriage had been extinguished and so the arrangement of particular marriages had dropped out of the nexus. However, young men still needed horizons to be opened for them. They needed access to camps and family groups in addition to those camps and family groupings into which they had been born. So, in initiations conducted in 1975 style, the initiand was given titular affines who promised him no particular bride, but were set up to offer him 'chances' instead. With any luck, an initiand would be linked with an established man of authority in a mob other than his own. And the link would be something like the 'ol fashin' link of bride-service because the new initiate would be welcomed at the home-camp of his titular affines and so rightfully meet with its complement of chaperoned young women. As I have explained elsewhere (Sansom 1980 263-4), leading men of the Darwin hinterland generally managed relationships with youngsters by dealing in what were called 'chances'. Among the best of 'chances' was the 'chance' that would grant an initiate access to a cattle station together with sponsored entry into the cattle industry.

The teenagers of 1975 were enrolled at schools where pupils were drawn from the general population. They therefore spent school-time with school-mates who were not recognized as Aboriginal. Most claimed the ability to read and write and all could speak standard Australian English though Aboriginal English was their preferred home-tongue. The most apt among the youngsters acted as translators and writers for illiterate elders. All tried to wear the latest American gear and they followed bands and rock stars with serious dedication. Wallaby Cross itself served as base for a successful (gig-performing) play-alike and dress-alike band reminiscently called 'The Stones'. The young people socialized together under supervision, observing rules according to which unmarried girls were chaperoned and prevented from 'running round'. But, then, the young people themselves drew a line. In defiance of the 'old generations', they worked actively to ensure that they married one-another. They used obscenities including the analogies of 'talkin dog' to characterize any proposed or imagined union that would join hoary, dog-randy age with youthful womanhood. Their own 'new generation' norms proposed new standards of decency and created an anti-traditionalist category of the dirty old sexual predator which had 'Stinking Prick' for its main label and entitlement.

Young initiated men provided each camp in the region with its protective force. In concerted opposition to presumptuous olfellas, the young men combined regionally to issue a general threat: they would withdraw their fighting services and thereby 'leave' any camp in which an 'oldfella n young girl marriage' had been set up. The place would then become an open camp, without benefit of protection. The stratagem worked because the women of any camp thus left unprotected found the situation with its implicit threat of tape unbearable. That camp's regimen of women would then arraign the local wife-hog and cause him to put an end to his now-derided relationship which was converted from pretensions to marriage into a 'try' at marriage that now was made to fail. Victory in such instances was credited to the initiative of Fighting Men: 'Youngfellas bin pullim off olfella from young girl'. With the elimination of promise marriage, the nature of the marriage market was altered wholly and assortative mating made the rule. (20) However, because 'chances' were put in place, the character of initiation as an inter-generational rite that proffers each initiate a particular and packaged future was not lost. In their relationships with younger men, the olfellas still controlled access to camps and their populations; they still dealt in futures and, therefore, still maintained an order of dominance. If he wished to escape subjection to the class of 'bosses', a young man would have had to find a place outside the world of the Countrymen.

There was a further aspect to youngfella control over the marriage market. Young Aboriginal Countrymen worked collectively to discourage any of their sisters either from taking up with non-Aboriginal men or from succumbing to the attraction of the easy cash that could be earned by becoming a 'working girl' (with a non-Aboriginal clientele). Non-Aboriginal suitors would be warned off while clients of any Aboriginal working girl went in danger of being bashed by a set of the working girl's 'brothers'. Here, again, the youngfellas would sometimes be ranged against certain of the Aboriginal 'bosses' who would willingly have prostituted their own kinswomen. Returning to Keen's proposals, I note that outside the Arnhemland Reserve, Aboriginal marriage and sexuality in Northern Australia belongs to a social field that is complex, permeably bounded (rather than sealed off and contained) and inter-racial.


The berserk (locally known as 'goin wild') is the last recourse of the individual who faces insupportable insult to personal well-being and integrity (Sansom, 1980:99-101). And twice during the months before his initiation, Will spectacularly went berserk. In my interpretation, Will's acts of going wild expressed raging discontent that had structural causes. I put things down to unremediated ultimogeniture which was made yet worse by Will's father's policy of adopting boys and 'rearin them up', thereby giving Will yet more older brothers to resent.

Will was the last-born in a family that had for its roll-call of original kids: four boys, then three girls, and then Will himself. In addition, there were at least three adoptive older brothers for Will to acknowledge. These three were lads who had (in part and intermittently) been 'reared up' by Will's mother and father but who also had experienced placements in other homes in which they had lived with yet other fostering or adoptive parents. Taken together, Will's full and adopted brothers were all much older than he and the age-gap was significant because Lenny (Will's father) had a lot to do with these older sons. Lenny organized the Fighting Men at Wallaby Cross which meant seeing that lads of the fighting group were sufficiently provisioned and so inclined to stay on at this camp. He had also to 'watch out for' the lads day-by-day in order (unobtrusively) to moderate their drinking and (tactfully) curb tendencies that could turn pub-nights into mayhem. While Lenny was good at managing the older lads, the trouble was that he left young Will right out of things. And the explanation was in offhand relegation chorused by Lenny together with members of his fighting mob: 'Well that Will, that youngfella jus comin up too far behind.' Made 'rubbish' in this way, Will found no way to recover. Born too late, he could find no way that would allow him to 'catch up'.

When Will went berserk, he protested his neglect. His berserking appeals made Will's desperation evident to all who witnessed them. Lenny and crew were then moved to give their kinsman special attention for a brief and grudging while. Then it was back to neglect as usual.

I return to this lad's circumcision. When Will was cut, he was cradled by titular affines recruited to the ceremony by Lenny. They were not people held in high regard in the community of Countrymen and they had little to offer a 'new man'. From the protest inherent in his berserking, Will went on to project enlarged resentment into the larrikinism of his post-initiation reproaches. When he took his rule-breaking out of camp to start stealing from a local supermarket, Will got caught often enough for a reluctant shopkeeper to report him to the police. (And a verdict of Will's youngfella mates: 'Who gonna be so dumb that you gonna get caught like that?') A few years passed and Will graduated to the commission of wrongs that brought him no material gain, but visited harm on randomly chosen victims. In the newspapers, such acts, in and of themselves, are given the shape of mindless destruction or violence without cause. (I command no evidence that would allow me to present Will's crimes as acts of conscious 'resistance' generated in response to racial repression.)

After his cutting, Will had experienced the 'return of the initiate to camp'. He turned his homecoming into a drawn-out larrikin show. He put the Law aside and, as he told me, there was good reason: neither had the teachers of the Law shown him a path stretching forth before him; nor did they offer him any good and worthwhile 'chances'. Will experienced man-making as a 'time' when others had caused him to be 'buggered up'. But then people had, in addition, been 'always, always abusin' him.

Local axiom has it that true 'abuse' does permanent damage. 'Abuse' is taken to the person; its consequences are losses or deficiencies assimilated to one's being. And, often, there are scars and other bodily inflictions that bear witness to the ways in which malign work has been visited upon one. The Top End is a region of the symbolic wound where (circumcision and ritual cicatrice apart) people perform self-immolation as they register grief attendant on death or as women cut their heads at a boy's initiation (grieving as they yield each boy-child up to the world of men). Marks on bodies generally bear witness to happenings that are taken to person as instances of the formative re-shaping of one's being. There is a brain and body contrast. By 'listening' one can go on and on, ever enlarging one's understanding. Over time, however, the body becomes a book that registers the deficits, depletions and diminutions that cumulate towards physical decrepitude. And each outward sign of abuse signals historical insult sometime received by a wounded inner being. The notion of abuse has thus to do with deposition of real but unseen life-scars on the battered self ('thatfella bin have that whole lotta trouble').


I now have a story of the imagination of abuse in which the protagonist is a young man allegedly maltreated by the mentors of initiation. (21) It belongs to the onset of the Wet of 1974.

Sullivan, aged twenty-seven, had decamped from Wallaby Cross after proclaiming his disaffection before a select audience. (He wanted to leave behind a message but did not want again to 'face up' to the hard men of the camp one of whom had recently beaten him badly.) Soon, word came back up the track to say that Sullivan had now joined a mob whose members habitually moved about down south, beyond the ambit of the Darwin Countrymen. The young man seemed to have switched regions. In the language of initiation, Sullivan had left 'wannga' country to enter onto lands associated with a southern style for circumcision.

Forty-two days after his departure, Sullivan was led back into the Darwin camp by Ted Wolsey, one of the 'bosses' of the southern mob. Ted Wolsey had brought his 'new man' with him in order to register the fact and finality of Sullivan's defection. This was to be a demonstration that the young man truly had changed countries and sides. He was now set to take up his 'chances' with a new 'boss' and with southern Countrymen.

Ted Wolsey called for men of ceremony at Wallaby Cross to join together with him and Sullivan for a private conference which I attended too. Once we were set, Wolsey spoke for a long while. He re-envisioned Sullivan's passage through initiation step by compromised step. The initiand's progress is always awesome, the candidate always 'gonna fright'. Mentors of initiation should therefore work to calm the youngfella; they should cosset and reassure him, promising all-the-way support. It's the form of the thing that's cruel and the ordeal just has to be endured. However, the cared-for candidate is to be cradled on human bodies during the cutting and held in a crush of comfort. All the while, each mentor's job is to mitigate the rigours that a demanding rite--'hard law'--prescribes. This, in all, is 'helpin that youngfella through'.

So much for describing an ideal. Ted Wolsey's case was that, as each step of the business was taken, officiants of the 'wangga' rite had acted to pervert their sacred purpose. Instead of helping Sullivan through, they had given him the hardest of hard times. His 'fright' was brought to an intensity the like of which you 'jus caan belieb'. In my summation: mentors became tormentors, ordeal turned into torture, required severity was excuse for sadistic infliction. And all this 'for no [good] reason'. Aboriginal English has no expanded catalogue of things 'horrible and awfu[l]/Which even to name w[ould] be unlawful[l]'. (22) There is instead a single great repository into which all horrors beyond reason are to be shunted. This one box holds the sum of things that right-thinking people just can't comprehend--a general class of acts which may each be detailed if and when encountered, but yet are not to be told apart by any individuating names that would give categorical status and instituted recognition to this infamy, or that wrong or, otherwise, to the labelled perversion. And Ted Wolsey could tell his auditors exactly how wrong things had been done to an inner being because Sullivan, that unimpeachable witness to his own remembered terror, had privately given him the whole story.

To arraign the Darwin Ceremony Men, Ted Wolsey took time back about twelve years to represent Sullivan's initiation as germinal moment. Sullivan's passage was then represented as key-note for the tenor of the next twelve years of a life's progression--more than a decade of allegedly unfair dealings, cruelties and put-downs that (all taken together) led Sullivan to exclaim on the day he decamped to go down South: 'Nobody lovin me longa this place.'

Super-cruelty allegedly inherent in the original ritual performance was projected through the years as Wolsey had the 'wannga' bosses continuing in their sadist style. Things were to continue in the sadist style ritual had seeded until, by act of will, Sullivan finally 'took off' refusing to be made 'rubbish' any more. Wolsey argued that Sullivan's years of affliction came of the perverted rite. His big word for myriad inflictions was 'abuse'. Then, announcing his measured and culminating accusation (given in the continuous tense), Ted Wolsey said that the Wallaby Cross mob had been: 'All the time abusin youngfella.'

A pattern had been conjured: abuse first planted during circumcision effloresces into the excesses of mundane and unceasing maltreatment (les fleures du mal). So the notion that promises of futures are inherent in man-making perversely is fulfilled. In a rite they (allegedly) spoilt, senior men had ritually set a pattern for the abuse of authority which they then steadfastly followed. As Wolsey had it, Sullivan lived on to surfer exactly those sorts of things that initiation's cruelty had promised him of life. Wisely (in an economy of witnessed happenings), Ted Wolsey stayed with the initiation rite and referred to only one actual incident of Sullivan's subsequent existence--his decamping act. Ted Wolsey's case was focussed on massively detailed evocation of the 'fright' that mentors had induced in the initiate he claimed they had abused. His last touch was to stretch initiation's cruelty out through the years by appending the necessary non sequitur: And you've been acting like that ever since.

In the context of this essay, telling about Sullivan again shows how ritual work relates to an initiand's subjectivity. While mentors of initiation are called to the cure of mentored inner selves, each initiand is called upon inwardly to suspend petulant self-willing as he surrenders to a Dreaming.

I come now to invidious comparison. When (many years apart) Will and Roy Kelly were respectively 'put through', neither listened. As things came to pass, they both were said to have bled and bled. When Sullivan's alleged memories of initiation are recounted by his new 'boss', there is no suggestion that Sullivan had been anything but compliant--a sufferer who surrendered himself to some nominated Dreaming that had staunched his wound. In Sullivan's case, incomprehensible mischief was with wilful mentors who were said to have abused their sacred charge. While this 'wrong thing' of ceremony belonged not to the initiand but, rather, to Sullivan's accused mentors, the 'wrong ceremony thing' still functions as a sign of particular being. This time, it shows forth the mentors for what they're really like (or accused of being like).

Ceremonies, then, are testing times for both doers and those done unto and this is so because the tenor of a ceremony is determined by the subjectivity and intentions of those who are party to it. This is to say that the significance of each ceremony cannot be spelt out in advance. Instance-by-instance, the significance of ceremony is a function of an array of compliances and defiances (moments of consent or refusal), each of which originates in an act of human will. What Will and Sullivan had in common was that both were males persuaded of their relative deprivation amounting to abuse. What puts them apart, is that while Sullivan was finally to seek out political allies to mend his plight, Will always acted alone, defying not only fellow-men but Powers too.

Another point emerges from comparing Sullivan with Will and it has to do with futures. Will instantly saw that the recruitment of nonentities to his initiation was an empty promise that masqueraded as the gift of true 'chances'. In retrospective accounting, Ted Wolsey has a teen-age Sullivan being cynically offered a future in bad faith. Twelve years then pass before Sullivan comes fully to see things for what, all the time, they've really been. Only then does he summon the gumption to defect and try his luck elsewhere. (And it was a bachelor Sullivan that left the urban camp; his time with Countrymen of the Darwin region did not turn him into a married man.) Histories of the significance of circumcisions are thus to be given in the idiom of promises, 'chances', futures, relative deprivation and the recruitment and retention of young men. Such winning, losing and nurturing of personnel is the stuff of inter-mob politics.


The camp at Wallaby Cross used to be one venue in a hinterland in which the leading men of various mobs vied to turn their home-camps into places where ceremonies would triumphantly be staged. In 1976 and 1977, the leaders at Wallaby Cross were still and evidently among the winners in this competitive struggle. In 1983 or thereabouts, ceremony was lost to this urban encampment.

It happened, first of all, because Wallaby Cross lost personnel as it suffered the official take-over that was figured as 'development'. What had been a fringe camp run by its mob, for its mob, and in service of its mob's grand host of visitors, was turned into a gazetted 'town camp' in which bushland and hutments were converted into a low-grade, wire-fenced suburban section. Screening jungle was all cut down while newly provided dwellings were sited on cleared ground. The whole area was brought under surveillance and made open to checks by police who could maintain their motorized watching from the main road. Official residents of the created 'town camp' were registered as rent-paying householders while the capacity of Wallaby Cross to entertain large mobs (of unlicensed visitors) was abruptly curtailed. (In 1976, when the fourteen lads were circumcised, the 233 visitors who had 'come up' to witness the ceremonies had all been accommodated.) By 1983, the camp could no longer harbour a complement of Fighting Men. The place had been tamed. And it was into this denatured and vulnerable 'town camp' that raiders were to ride, bent on snatching ceremony away.

The history of the raid was told me by Roy Kelly in 1987. In his account, the men of a hinterland Aboriginal settlement (famous for ceremony) were driven up in convoy to town. They arrived at nightfall carrying hunting rifles and Minder-style torches. The few men left at Wallaby Cross were marched to the old ceremony ground and then told to open their sacred store and take out the sacred objects. These items were confiscated, wrapped up in red cloth and packed reverently into containers that the raiders had brought with them. Then the raiders took off, shouting insults at the men they had robbed and mocking local women for their marriages to husbands too weak to hold onto the icons of the Dreaming.

The success of the raid on Wallaby Cross points to the fact that acts of circumcision have for their broader context the long-term history of the waxing and waning of centres of ceremonial power in the Darwin hinterland. There are two indices of each centre's potency. One is the tally of sacred objects known to be in its sacred store (and men of ceremony can recite this secret list by rote). Then there is a public score--a string of names of the young men who have been 'put through' in the designated and particular style attached to each centre. When the raiders snatched the Wallaby Cross sacra, they took away the ritual power of this place. And triumphant raiders snatched no ordinary spoil. Their booty was a collection of things called 'really dear' because each of them mediates between men and Powers, joining congregations of men together in their communion with one-another and with the particular Dreaming each icon represents.

Yet Roy Kelly smiled and said that he was massively relieved. He would no longer be haunted by that 'all the time worry' that is a ritual custodian's lot. That he would no more be hailed as 'Wangga' (his erstwhile power-name and entitlement) would, he said, bother him not at all. In his time, there had actually been 'too much of all that Business'. Always, Roy would pounce on any children he happened to hear 'cryin for no reason': 'What you! You reckon somebody here bin die?' For Roy Kelly, survival optimism always pushed out regret; it relegated yesterday's losses to those receding times made up of businesses now finished up, given their quittance, and rightly put quite out of mind.


The unclosed circumcision wound is a supposed and surmised sign. I hold that its symbolic meaning derives from the value which Countrymen attach to 'business' that has been 'finished up'.

For Countrymen, each definitive moment in public life is brought to its culmination through due process that leads to the announcement of a 'word'. When things are in process, people recognize that a 'business' (whether 'police business' or 'man-making business', or whatever) is in train. Each 'business' should be worked through to find its completion in an agreed determination, the verdict on a now completed 'happening'. And verdicts on completed 'happenings' bring otherwise unsettled matters to their proper conclusion. They also serve to provide grounds for future action. In this vein, Will's berserks called forth 'words'. In each instance, Will's father agreed that the lad needed attention and also made public his promise to be more caring. (Then, during brief periods of reparation, he ostentatiously did 'right' things.) Each of the fourteen circumcisions of 1976 called forth its own verdict--an official 'word' on how each lad had done. And such a significant 'word' endowing status is the kind of 'word' that is given currency among Countrymen as proof-positive of a lad's achievement of majority. In all, respect for due processes that result in issuance of 'words' is a given of the culture. To challenge the socially arrived-at closure of a 'happening' is defined as a 'wrong thing' bringing irresolution to that which has properly been determined (Sansom, 1980: Ch. 5). The declaration that a happening is 'finished up' is valued because closure is required if completed business is to find significance and meaning in the 'word' that is its seal.

Copious bleeding (retrospectively posited as a 'must-have-been' event) is someone's image of a body speaking. And the envisioned blood-flow is the body's comment on incompletion. The wound won't close because the initiand, in and of himself, did not enter into the transformative process of the rite. Despite this, the mark of transformation bas been put upon the lad and so this mute wound of retrospective imaginings stubbornly bleeds without stop to signal incongruity--a disharmony between a self still unreclaimed and a body that now bears the 'blazon' (Stanner, 1966:117) which is, in fact, a lying sign. Symbolic protest expressed in an issue of blood brings the colour of high drama to the scene for this supposedly remembered bleeding is, indeed, a dire envisioning. Local rules enjoin circumlocution in matters of mortality so it's very hard to bring oneself to say it but, yes, the refusenik must truly have been in peril: 'Thatta fella that nearly bin pass away.'

There is more by way of contrast. Spontaneous healing comes of religious union of surrendered initiand with a Dreaming. Excessive bleeding is held to have been checked by emergency human intervention as no Dreaming was working to cause the refusenik's blood to clot. Mentors of initiation are then figured as men who had to work against death in order to save a life. One message to be read from remembered bleeding is that an initiand risked death through his refusal to engage during holy encounter. But it's not only that Roy Kelly all but met his quittance by not listening to Shark. What he also put at issue was his capacity ever to enter into volunteered relationship with a Power. A bleeding refusenik would have been brought to physical recovery outside the ritual context and, therefore, in the absence of any engagement with a Dreaming. Mystical unhearing entails the incapacity for engagement and, in its absence, the unmodified negative potential of unbridled wilfulness signified by a nickname such as 'Deafy'.

Having come to an appreciation of the refusenik's social negation, the next step is to consider that which the refusenik rejects--full participation in the relational structure that allows a person to engage with a Power. I have arrived at a point of departure: from here on, I shall conscientiously be treating Dreamings and humans together as actors in situations.


My take on initiation in the region of the Daly River differs from that of Stanner (1966) for a reason that is surprising given the way in which he issued a warning couched in words that can be read as the Thomas theorem applied to religion:

'It is plainly a mistake to allow inquiry to be ruled by the philosophical notion that religious or metaphysical objects do not exist. They do exist for many peoples under study, and the facts of study are what they are because of that' (Stanner 1966: viii).

Nonetheless, Stanner's remained an agnostic ethnography in the sense that he refused to permit native accounts of experience of gnosis to qualify as things to be registered as social facts. Thus he closed the ear of ethnographic attention to a dimension of what Myers (1986) would later refer to as 'relatedness'. And the particular sort of relatedness that Stanner put beyond consideration, is relatedness which brings humans into experience of the Divine. When people engage with Divinities, they treat Divinities as active agents, actual presences, and (above all) as vital Powers in whom participation is metaphysically and humanly possible. (23)

While he banished experience of Dreamings from ethnography, Stanner was, nonetheless, able to attend to the relationship between a person and that person's Dreaming by turning the religious tie that binds totemite to totem into a jural construct. In his submission to the court in the Gove land rights case, (24) Stanner (2001) was able to draw attention to a special class of rights whose existence he had already discussed in his study of Aboriginal religion (Stanner 1966: 254). Whereas Radcliffe-Brown (following Maine and other jurists) had built social structures out of relationships between statuses defined with reference to the two classes of rights that are rights in rem (which are rights against the world) and rights in personam (in a person), Stanner created a trinity by adding the class made up of rights in animum. Rights in animum (> Latin, 'in spirit') are rights in things and qualities that pertain to the clan totem: 'Totems, as signs, stood for the identity of and unity between persons known to possess them by proper or mythical title, and proclaimed the possessors as the true custodians of rights in rem, in personam and in animum over such benefits of life as were instituted by the drama [of foundation enacted in the Dreaming]' (Stanner 1966:152).

Once this vocabulary has been supplied, ownership of land can be discussed fluently and effectively both in anthropology and at law because a person's spiritual relationship with the Dreaming located at the spiritual centre of a landed estate is made over to become an aspect of the jurally constituted social structure. More particularly, Stanner is able to make Western-type sense of the two distinct ways in which Aboriginal people come to country. He writes that the totemite enjoys primary rights in animum in the estate of his patri-clan (Stanner 2001). Non-agnatic kinsfolk of the totemite gain secondary rights in the land of the patri-clan estate by virtue of their respective and various kin-ties with the totemite; jurally, these ties of kinship yield rights that are mediated rights. Mediated rights are also to be seen as derivative rights for these are rights in an estate that come of rights in personam in one's particular kinsman/kinswoman who is a totemite with 'intrinsic' relationship to country. Rights in rem are thus to be derived either directly by totemites from their possession of rights in animum in totemic country or, otherwise, are to be obtained as mediated rights enjoyed by kinsfolk of the totemite--that is, via rights in personam held in a kinsman/woman who is holder of primary rights in animum and, consequently, of rights in rem, in relation to a patri-clan estate. In all, rights against the world (in rem) are then asserted by totemites who gain such rights from the Dreaming (via rights in animum) together with qualified kin of totemites who assert rights against the world by virtue of their relationship with the totemite but not with the totemite's Dreaming.

Of Aborigines and initiation, Stanner remarks that: 'It probably heightened their sense of ambient mystery and may have deepened their interior life' (Stanner 1966:154; italics supplied). The uncertain 'may have' of wavering possibility concedes nothing but doubt concerning the nature of the 'interior life'. Elsewhere, Stanner (1965:19) writes that the relationship between totem and totemite is 'intrinsic' (OED: (a) inward/interior (b) secret/private). By making the totemite's relationship with the totem 'intrinsic', Stanner establishes an entity that is hermetic, personal, private, interior and beyond the reach of second or third parties who can only speculate about it. Both inward and complete unto itself, the relationship is as if a primary existent or axiom of ontology. It neither brooks nor invites discussion. In all this, Stanner acknowledged a dimension of religiosity only to put it away.

Aboriginal English does not generally allow the transferred epithet that permits Jeremiah's figure of the uncut ear. (25) However, when an Aboriginal lad who emerges from ceremony is found to be 'himself not different' despite his experience of the rite and then, in addition, is said to be 'deaf ', the modes of Aboriginal and Semitic expression may differ but, in either instance, exactly the same message is encoded. Either way, circumcision is expected to be the outward and visible sign of inner transformation. Distinguished by circumcision, Jeremiah's erring countrymen should by their obedience have shown forth their love for Torah; in like manner, circumcised Deafies back of Darwin should have listened to their Dreamings. Far from being closed off, occasions for ritual engagement with Dreamings are moments that are to be monitored and refereed by third parties whose job is to discover and read signs in order: [i] to determine the quality or nature of engagement between totemite and Divinity and [ii] discern impending danger whenever mystical encounter goes awry.


There is a neutral shot in a solo pinball game--the shot that yields neither a plus nor a minus score. The iron ball has been thwacked uphill along the channel to be released at velocity onto the board. It then makes a swerving, downhill run all the way to the finish without bumping against a single pin. Here pinball yields an image of the no-hit progress through an obstacle course. And the no-hit journey is what Aboriginal people most earnestly looked for whenever they used country. What to this day remains unwished for in the Top End, is an accidental and untoward encounter with a Dreaming associated with one or other of those 'danger' or 'poison' places that dot each countryside.

People avoid located Powers because Aboriginal religion has people in very edgy relationships with them. Dreamings are demanding and, at the same time, they can be somewhat less than friendly towards those who are bound to serve them. I think that the neatest way to attribute any single and overweening quality to all the various Dreamings, is to say that (in human perceptions) each Dreaming is an entity of caprice that is born of eternal wilfulness. Evidence of these qualities is of two kinds. In myth, the Dreamings have to do with one another. Often, mythical episodes are, in Stanner's apt phrase, stories of some Dreaming's 'immemorial misdirection' born often of a wilful negativity. In their relations with humans, Dreamings are inconsistent while some (especially serpents and lightning [Mulvaney and Jones (2002)]) are always downright 'cranky'--apt to strike out 'for no [good] reason'. In myth just as in everyday relations with people, Dreamings are like humans at their emotionally charged, impetuous, stubborn, whimsical and wilful worst. And one's own familiar and experienced Dreamings may enter into unsociable moods 'for no [known] reason' and so announce themselves as entities whose ways you simply can't rely on.

Dreamings, further, are apt to 'jealous' (verb active) in both of jealousy's senses. They are overly protective of their own rights and injunctions. They are also inclined to envy anything of note and everyone of worth. Among Countrymen, evil-out-of-envy is generally given as the main and distinguishing attribute of one's human enemies: 'Themfella jus always jealous la we' so that human jealously accounts for the acts of those ill-disposed towards one. Somewhat paradoxically, the emotional stock-in-trade of the human enemy is attributed outright to all the Dreamings. But then, if you look around, you notice that Dreamings have got to put up with more and more. They have vested interests in landscape and we live in a world of 'improvements' and mining and fencing, of digging up and de-forestation. Nowadays, nearly every emplaced Dreaming bas, at some stage, to come to terms with a big yellow Caterpillar. Dreamings are getting more and more 'cranky' because they partake in an environment which is under siege. Then, people (all about and every day) up and do wrong things. Dreamings today are repeatedly provoked by acts of individual human error and defiance. But, also, a persistent wrongfulness bas always flowed in streams of human action to offend them. It's not, after all, surprising that the so-jealous Dreamings are quite often moved to strike.

Located fifty-seven kilometres South-West of Darwin, the Berry Springs are thermal waters renowned among Countrymen for curing and famed, more especially among women, for the soothing of uterine ills. The springs also harbour bright trigger-fish that shoot out water-blob missiles to bring down insects on which they feed. But to the point, the Berry Springs Dreaming is a rather active Serpent. Two of the connected springs are paired--one hot, one cold. Of a sudden, the Serpent changed the signs on these two springs making the hot one cold and the cold one hot. This was interpreted as the Dreaming's demonstration of protest against assaults on the landscape--against works that made Berry Springs bushland over into the barbeque-venue and swim-site that tourists now visit. But the Serpent at Berry Springs also acted to harm its own main custodian. One day, the custodian went swimming in the hot pool and there he 'tangled' with the Serpent whose sense of smell had been so 'stuffed up' by the reek of diesel and other imported stinks, that it failed to recognize the body-odour of its very own servitor. Here's a perverse tale: the custodian goes for a swim in healing waters only to emerge a damaged man. Arthritis afflicts him so that he becomes known for the halting gait that is now his body's habitude:

Q: 'What's up with the leg?'

A: 'For that, I gotta tellin you bout that time I bin tangle with this Dreamin.'

The custodian's 'cripple leg' belongs to a class of afflictions. These are chronic, evident and progressive ills that once instated in the body only get worse. When remarked by others, they provoke the telling of affliction stories in which the onset of disability issues from some untoward encounter with a Dreaming. Premature greying of the hair belongs here as does leprosy, baldness, the sightless eye, acquired squint, bent back, and other downhill afflictions. Such chronic ills are visited by Dreamings and exist in contradistinction to damage done during bouts of acute illness. (Sudden illness is visited upon people through the workings of a sorcerer.) So time and time again, tortured bodies bear witness to damage directly done by Dreamings.

Whereas chronic afflictions came always of 'tangles' with Dreamings, in these days the tally of 'tangles' is on the up and up. Type B diabetes is now a chronic ill which attendant obesity makes visible, promoting general consciousness of epidemic (see Bundhala et al. 2006). Older people I speak to hold that the new diabetes scourge comes of widespread 'upset' of the Dreamings--an unprecedented latter-day discontent in which the Dreamings individually and separately are offended all at once. Diabetes is thus exceptional in that, when remarked, it will not always call forth a story in which onset of chronic illness is given as the product of particular encounter. (26) There is, rather, widespread and indiscriminate visitation which (in these new times) has Dreamings unleashing affliction in newly pervasive ways. There's a call for extra caution when going bush. Nowadays, one is even more liable to be struck.


To enable humans to cope with capricious Divinities, that world in which humans and Dreamings co-exist (the socio-religious formation) is divided down the middle into two. The two divisions belong to hereditary (and exogamous) moieties. Sets of Dreamings are simply and in esse given as beings of one moiety rather than the other. Humans, however, are born to the moieties of their fathers while a father's moiety-identity derives from ancestral association in animum (Stanner 2001) with the Dreaming at the ritual centre of that father's patri-clan estate. For humans, moiety identity originates in a site that is located within a broad and sacred geography of connection that links each person to same-moiety sites that dominate one half of the known firmament.

To belong to a moiety is to inherit two distinct programs of relatedness. On the one hand, a moiety member inherits vulnerability to visitation by (and the in-dwelling of) paternal Dreamings. On the other hand, each person enjoys hereditary relief and immunity in relation to all the Dreamings that belong to the mother's side. Whether for ill or good, Dreamings normally reach out to touch their own. In consequence, they hold their own in anxious thrall. In poked-snail contrast, Dreamings are expected to withdraw, back off, or retreat from threatened engagement with persons of the moiety opposite to their own. The arthritis of the custodian at Berry Springs is thus startling, exceptional and out of order.

The custodian's account of the infliction improperly visited upon him by his opposite-moiety Dreaming, got into the transcript of court hearings in the Upper Daly land claims. In neat and complementary contrast, witnessing about proper immunity to a Dreaming's inflictions was to seize the attention of an anthropologically-inclined Land Commissioner in the Wurumungu claim. In the latter case, Japparti Wickham told the court about the Warlungka or Rainbow Serpent resident at a place called Mirtartawuntu. Japparti Wickham is the traditional 'owner for' Mirtartawuntu and refers to its Serpent as 'paternal grandfather'. He feared the Mirtartawuntu Serpent and would not go near its rock-hole: 'We bad friend, [that Serpent would] get mean'. However, he explained that his uterine kin and all people of the opposite moiety can go to the rock-hole in safety. 'Kingili [the opposite moiety] go, not Wurlurru [Japparti Wickham's own moiety]. Wurlurru people 'get drowned' whereas the opposite-moiety 'Kingili can go swim' (Maurice 1988:127).

Among Wurumungu, those who relate to the site and Serpent as patrifiliates and/or members of Wurlurru moiety are called 'kirda'; uterine kin and/or members of the Kingili moiety are called 'kurtungurlu'. Summing up the evidence (given by both Wurumungu witnesses and the anthropologists in the case), the Land Commissioner wrote that: 'The immunity of the kurtungurlu to the dangers of the [W]arlungka was explained by their uterine kinship'. He further cited evidence to the effect that were the Serpent to swallow a Kingili person, that person would be 'thrown out' unharmed because the swallowed person within the Serpent would be felt by that Serpent as if a child in the womb/belly (binji):

'That accounts for the benevolence of the [W]arlungka towards the uterine kin of the local patriline ... The snake is imagined to swallow the Kingili visitor, to feel him in his [the Serpent's] stomach and then throw him or her out: but this throwing out is pictured, not as the exact reversal of swallowing [which would be regurgitation], but as the equivalent of giving birth. Failing this reversal, when the snake feels not a uterine relative, or a member of the Kingili moiety, but a patrilineal one, or a member of the Wuluru moiety, the process continues with the victim being consumed by the shake and being "drowned" in the waterhole.' (Maurice 1988: 127).

After being seized, the custodian at Berry Springs should thus have been re-born, not harmed. (27) But one is impelled to ask: Why should Dreamings routinely be 'mean' with a meanness of such intensity that it can be lethal in relation to people of their own moiety?


When trying to come to terms with the nature of a traditional owner's 'spiritual responsibility' in relation to land (and sited Dreamings on the land), the Land Commissioner in the Wurumungu case did not find answers in evidence given by contemporary witnesses concerning contemporary beliefs. He was referred instead to turn-of-the-century correspondence between Sir Baldwin Spencer and Sir James Fraser. In a letter to Fraser, Spencer (cited in Marrett and Penniman, 1932:68) had remarked 'the Warramunga idea that the other side of the tribe is responsible for feeding the other, or rather for performing the ceremonies to ensure the increase of the animals and plants on which that moiety feeds'.

The pioneer anthropologists treated announced belief as truly held belief and so they were able to discuss those nexuses that bring people of the different moieties into relation to one-another and to Dreamings on the basis of the differential provision of all sustenance by Dreamings sited on clan lands. The underlying principle is that you (a human) starve unless members of the opposite moiety have conducted proper service in relation to their own and particular Dreamings which are the very Dreamings destined to 'feed' you. The remedy to potential starvation is to ensure that members of the opposite moiety are punctilious in ritual observance. Vice versa, those whose service causes a Dreaming to provide the opposite moiety with sustenance, are reciprocally reliant on those their service causes to be 'fed' for any provender they themselves will eat. On this basis, the relationship between opposite moieties is made a mutuality of creative tension.

In previous analyses of Aboriginal modalities of exchange (1980, 1988 and 2009), I have placed emphasis on two things. Rather than volunteering returns of debt, debtors repay in response to voiced badgering and the demand that is pressed home. Then and secondly, what is given and received is defined always as act of human service rather than as material object; so, a demand system of service exchange. These trends are carried over into the complex of relationships that join people of the two moieties to Dreamings. Those the Wurumunga call 'kurdungurlu' are debt-collecting whippers-in. They are religiously obliged vociferously to demand that the 'kirda' do their duty, honour obligation, and thereby celebrate the Dreamings to which they are connected by birth. Kurdungurlu are thus charged to act as proxies that give insistent human voice to each Dreaming's demand that ceremonial service be duly rendered. Furthermore, no rite can be performed without co-participation of both kirda and kurdungurlu. Nor can a totemite even approach the site of his or her own totem without the helping (and protective) presence of the kurdungurlu.

To further discussion, I am going to gloss 'kirda' as 'owner' and kurdungurlu as 'offsider'. (28) And the next thing to note is another extension of threat in the complex of relationships that link the two co-essential kinds of human to the Dreamings they respectively own or cause to be served by owners. In the absence of recognition and tendance, Dreamings atrophy and 'go in' to become quiescent and inactive and nowadays people can point to particular sites of Dreamings that have become inert following on human neglect. (That widespread neglect of the Dreamings would have generalized cosmological consequences was systemically implied rather than being an explicit tenet of the unchallenged Aboriginal orthodoxy of the past.)

I am describing a medley of mediated dependencies. This is a religious system of placations in which one cannot directly placate the Divinity that supplies necessary sustenance either for one's own self or for one's own progeny. One bas perversely to rely on what is likely to be the desultory, dilatory and reluctant person of the opposite moiety who is to be urged and prodded into ceremonial enactment. And it is to be added that the totemite who enters ceremonially into identification with his/her totem, surrenders the everyday self to moments of intense and potentially dangerous participation in the esse of the paternal Dreaming. Worshippers emerge from worship tired out and sweat-soaked. During the hard work ('Business') of worship when there is engagement with Divinity, the role of one's offsider (immune to the power of one's own Dreaming) is to see one through and, if necessary, to act as rescuer. There is a spasmic quality to ritual performance. Whether singing, or dancing, or in other ways acting out events and thereby 'following up' the Dreaming, totemites participate in their totems during bracketed bursts of experienced and mimetic surrender. Out of these they are 'brought back' by the sharp 'Yuk-kaai' call bystanders utter to signal an end to the intensity of engagement with Divinity. A variety of work may be done upon the body of the emergent worshipper--cosseting, wiping down, a 'bring[ing] round' by plosive blowing in the ear, body stretches, murmurings of comfort. There's physiotherapy for the soothing of worship's aftermath. 'Awe' is a puny notion for feelings on the ceremony ground where, in moments of intensity, central participants truly 'gotta fright'. Entry into the crescendos of ritual participation is as much deep play as committing oneself to a bunji jump.

This, again, is a religious system of placations in which local Divinities cannot rely on their own inheritors spontaneously to be moved to perform that service which is necessary if a Dreaming is not finally to 'go in', descending into a place of non-utterance, eventual namelessness and, therefore, of worldly oblivion. It follows that the Dreamings' true 'mates' are not the owning totemites but the offsiders. The offsiders have an interest in promoting a Dreaming's tendance and in forcing or, at least, encouraging the totemite to religious observance. In this, the offsider serves self-interest, the mystical procurement of his/her own sustenance and that of his/her family. This is the function I've called 'whipping-in'. There is a further paradox. During actual ceremony, the offsiders in whose material interest the ceremony is being performed enjoy immunity. It's the totemites who sweat, 'fright' and may be fraught with Dreaming presence that enters the surrendered self. During ceremony, each offsider is tertius gaudens in the sense Simmel defined--an enjoying third party with an interest in the situation but, nonetheless, a participant on whom prime onus does not rest. For the totemite, ritual participation is ordeal.

My analysis of role-relationships yields a productive and circular string of enchainments:
 (because service = personally unproductive and onerous duty) >>>
 CONSUMER (because reliant on Dreaming for sustenance) >>> OFFSIDER

The string (29) sets out the classic entailments that would explain why the Dreaming at Berry Springs was mistaken when it afflicted its own custodian whereas the Kingili-offsiders could safely swim in the Serpent's pool at Mirtartawuntu (whereas Japparti Wickham dared not). The inattention of its own inheritors makes a Dreaming cranky (self-interest does not impel its inheritors to serve it); the necessity for those not its own to ensure a Dreaming's perpetuation makes a Dreaming friendly towards the offsiders but 'worried' in relation to its inheritors who (as religion bas it) are the only people who can (with assistance) give the Dreaming that proper service which will ensure its own continuance. For reasons of impulsion, a Dreaming is most like relevant offsiders. The ultimate motivation of both offsider and Dreaming is the drive to survival; both have to allay fear. Classically, two sorts of anxiety put impulsion into a religious apparatus designed, on the one hand, to allay the survival-fear of each mystical Dreaming and, on the other, to mitigate the sustenance-anxiety of human offsiders. (30) In classic Aboriginal belief, this was religion's engine. It could not survive unaltered.


Writing of the Nangiomeri of the Daly River in 1933, Stanner (1933: 416) remarked that 'local organisation' among this riverine grouping had altogether 'broken down'. The same went for the other peoples of the cattle country in the north-west of the Top End. Whereas performance of increase rites in one clan-estate after another ceased, new modes for rallying people to perform ceremonies were developed. These took the demography of re-location, 'mixing' and population-loss into account. From the vantage of the Victoria River valley which lies to the south of Darwin and the Daly River, Arndt (1965: 243) remarked regionwide trends of change:
 As the tribes were decimated, the remnants re-grouped and
 endeavoured to preserve the old traditions and beliefs. The
 reorganization seems to have been fairly effective but the old
 beliefs were superseded by new Aboriginal ideas that arose during
 the chaos or were imported with Aboriginal migrants from other
 regions; e.g., the Kunapipi cult of the bullroarer from the Roper
 River region seems to be superimposed on the local Kalwadi cult of
 the bullroarer.

By 1965, a vast arc of countryside stretching from the Ord River in the south-west to the circumcision-boundary near the Finniss River in far north-west Arnhemland had been made over into a single region of ritual coherence and ceremonial exchange. The cult of Kunapipi spread to pervade the region because it was organised to transcend the parochial tendencies of older cults, providing more open and extensive possibilities for pairs of men of different origins to enter into the ritual partnerships that joined them as 'mates' in owner/offsider relationships sustained over long distances by ceremonial exchange. Newly and easily, these partnerships were formed between men of travel who participated in a regional cult which put emphasis on the formation of cult groups made up of serried pairs of 'mates' drawn to one another as coreligionists in ways that derived from encounters based in the new economy of displacement, work and mobility. Kunapipi flourished as a cult with the capacity to draw men of tribal diasporas, re-groupings, and mixed mobs into congregational association with one another as 'mates' drawn from different language-countries that were connected by long Dreaming tracks. A structural consequence of Kunapipi has been the formation of wide-spread ties of affinity that link men of different language-countries who are brothers-in-law as well as partners in ritual.

Fostering the spread of Kunapipi, some men became specialist cultists who ventured out from their home encampments to travel between widely-separated populations instigating ceremony and promoting the cult. Born of a Yungman father and a Bulinara mother on country of the Mudburra, Arndt's informant Kulumput embodied both the tribal pluralism and the inter-group brokerage entailed in Kunapipi evangelism. His parents had become leaders at New Delamere Station which was 'a Wardman stronghold in Bulinara territory' (Arndt 1965:245). There, in his turn, Kulumput, though born to a Yungman father, 'became a man of authority in a predominantly Wardman society because of his intelligence and birthright [acquired via his conception-place] to the [Mudburra] country' (ibid.). In service of Kunapipi, Kulumput sought out teamster and droving jobs that took him 1,000 miles eastward from Bulinara country into Queensland and 200 miles northward to the railhead at Pine Creek where he entered the ambit of Countrymen of the Darwin hinterland.

By the mid-70s I found that people were no longer preoccupied with 'worry' because the Dreamings at increase sites on (often far-away) clan lands might have been neglected. Nor did people any longer rely primarily on bush foods mystically nourished by Dreamings of the increase sites for their own sustenance. They ate store-bought food instead. Mobility and removal together with radical dietary revision had thus altered the very grounds for construction of the archaic set of mutual dependencies detailed above. Nowadays, exercise of spiritual responsibility for Dreamings still depends on the division of labour between owner and offsider. However, in recent religious concern, angst turns on a new axis.

Ever since the whitefella invaded, country has been threatened by the direct assaults which are take-over and development. Countries are also and variously threatened by the degrees of removal of the original owners who were charged by Dreamings to protect them. What looms largest in cosmological envisioning, is the chaotic dynamic of an unending cycle of crisis which dictates that one or more of the Dreamings will be caught up and threatened each season. The impacts of development 'frighten you[r] hunting ground'. When the land takes fright, its owners 'get hurt feelings' (Sansom, 2002b). This transfer of insult from the land to the bodies of people who take the suffering of country to themselves, is at the core of latter-day religious experience. In response, the human afflicted are moved to strive together to put things right. The religion of the Dreaming has, in consequence, become unendingly and round after round a 'fight for country'. In all the fighting, struggles to reclaim ownership or protect threatened sites combine with and derive from the passionate relatedness that connects 'sentient' (Povinelli 1993) land with people and people with their land. And here the insensate 'deafness' of refuseniks extends to further incapacity--their inability to 'feel' a hunting-ground's distress. Refuseniks cannot enter into those owner/offsider partnerships in which men of ceremony join together in order to sustain and 'watch out for' all that is sacred in these fraught times when whitefella developments put the Dreamings generally at risk.


In an essay On Aboriginal Religion, Stanner (1966:116) deals with the work of the circumciser in Daly River country. To a clinical sentence describing cutting of the prepuce, he appends a footnote of sensational reporting:

'It is at this instant that spear-throwing is most likely. On one occasion Ngunima, a particularly fierce man of the Kultjil clan, beside himself with sorrow and anger about the suffering of Dapan, his adopted son, killed the boy's mother with one spear and with another pierced the surgeon through both legs. A third spear wounded another woman. True to his craft, the surgeon went on to complete the operation. Ngunima was later called to account but survived the battle.'

'Beside himself', I believe that Ngunima (like Will, instanced above) entered into the berserker's state of violent and unbridled protest. He went 'wild' and then cast spears. His homicide and woundings would then have been treated as berserker-acts to which reduced culpability is attached. Nevertheless, he was required to 'stand for spear' and present himself as dodging human target in a staged trial of reprisal. Such trials generally ended either in redemptive wounding or in a culprit's death.

Stanner's footnoted narration returns me to the tale of Ted Wolsey and Sullivan for, in either instance, relationships of opposition are defined along the self-same axis. Eleven years after a circumcision event, Ted Wolsey acts as Sullivan's substitute father and re-evokes fatherly rage at a son's mismanaged ordeal (cf. Hiatt, 1994). Forcing his auditors to re-live (his own version of) Sullivan's initiation, Ted Wolsey went on to mount verbal barbs on spears that he cast at (allegedly) delinquent mentors of initiation. Here owner was opposed to offsider outside the context of the rite, but in relation to it. When Ngunima cast spears, he likewise had acted outside the frame of ritual to perform his spear-throwing in the time-space of secular dealings; the wounded circumciser worked stolidly on, continuing within the frame of ceremony. Offsiders have a secular and direct responsibility to the owners they work for. This is subject to dealings and trading and politics away from the ceremony ground.

To investigate the qualities inherent in Dreamings, Stanner set young men to question their elders hoping that these novices would bring back pithy verities taught them by their mentors. The young men were fiercely directed to look to the seats of awe--the sacred dreaming places. 'There, they were told, is what is true' (Stanner, 1966:159). When attending to statements relayed by the novices, Stanner was to discover 'a nexus of four symbolisms' located in each dreaming place:

1. Essential--the Dreaming keeps you alive;

2. Substantial--it comes to know the sweat of the familiar totemite and so identifies its own;

3. Mystical--'a thing we do not hold in the ear [wholly comprehend], but true'; and

4. Historical--agnatic ties reckoned through those ancestors from whom Dreamings are inherited (the nexus later to be emphasised in Morphy's [1981] book title: Ancestral Connections).

Stanner failed to recognise a fifth nexus the existence of which is implicit in data he himself reports:

5. Experiential and interactive--the totemite listens to the Dreaming, addresses the Dreaming-place when approaching it, and joins together with the Dreaming in animus during ceremony thereby achieving a mystical jointure and entering into the being of the Divine.

My final task is to elaborate on the fifth nexus. First, however, I remark that Stanner (1966:168) recognized that the regard in which Aborigines hold their sacra counts as veneration and not worship; to worship a sacred object would be to worship the sign itself rather than that which is signified by the sign. In this vein, the nature of the fifth nexus is to be discovered by looking beyond signs of the Dreamings to consider the numinous relations such signs signify; and these are made manifest in moments of engagement with the holy.


The interactionist holy is manifested as a set of unequal engagements that occur during some special assignment of time. Powers are essential parties to all such engagements, some of which may entail encounters between two or more Powers (or may be works of Powers engaged with matter) in the absence of any participation by humans. Other encounters bring humans into relationship with one another as well as with one or more Powers, always on the special terms that define holy occasions. Of the encounters that bring humans and one or more Powers together, there are two kinds. One sort is the encounter initiated by Divinity. The other is the encounter proposed by one or more humans who work first to call up nominated Power(s) and then do more work either in propitiatory service of the summoned Power(s) or, otherwise, seek, through religious labour, to transform local states of affairs by causing Divinity to lend its presence and effect alterations that a human could not confidently accomplish without some Power's aid.

Within the context of holy encounter, engagement is actual participation in Divinity and is in line with Wordsworth's vision of 'a holy time, quiet as a nun breathless with adoration'. (31) It is a conceptualization that, in addition to engagement during rites (treatment of which is the standard anthropological preoccupation), also allows epiphanies, revelations, visions, acts of divine infliction, prophesy, possession, gifts of grace (charisma), miracles, hermitage, retreats, visitations (whether the recipient is awake or sleeping), the discovery or 'finding' of reincarnate identities (such as Aboriginal conception Dreamings) and the circumcision of the ear. Whereas the Durkheimian sacred provides--as things set apart--the occasions, sites, props and role-types for ritual performance, the interactionist holy entertains the gamut of experience of the Divine.

In Northern Australia, the terms of unequal engagement that characterize relationships between humans and the Divine are built into the calculus of all kinship because (ideologically speaking) the Dreaming-ordained first purpose of kinship is to establish exogamous moieties which determine the distribution of rights in animum among members of each regional population. Moieties yield a plentiful supply of those two distinct and different kinds of person who play opposite but complementary roles whenever Divinity is deliberately to be invoked, addressed, approached or represented (as in dance, story, song, painting or rite). Religious acts require pairings so that in each and every performance, representatives of each moiety will be present. What is at stake is safe passage and control: the proper management of each fraught encounter with the holy.

A primary purpose of male initiation is to bring a lad into his first contrived, deliberate, ritually contained and reciprocal encounter with the Divine. (32) The initiand must volunteer his own receptivity by self-willed act of surrender for, in the absence of surrender, the rite fails and the lad emerges marked in body but unchanged in his being. When an initiation fails, some recalcitrant lad remains unpersuaded and unreformed (you can take a horse to water but can't make him drink; brought to an encounter with Shark's evocation, Roy Kelly would not engage with this coagulant Dreaming). But, also, there is failure on the teachers' part for they have been unable to cause such a lad to 'hear' and 'listen'. If, during the rites, no 'wrong ceremony things' were done by the adult celebrants (no evident glitches in the enactment of the rites have been discerned by men of ceremony in their de-briefing discussions), then the fault of the teachers could well have been a failure of the inner being too (they were affectively ineffective). Overall, it should be clear that (in logic) ontology here precedes structure because the structure for holy engagement is built to accommodate prior constructions of both the human person and the personified Power that is a Dreaming. The consequence is that manifest structure makes little sense unless referred to the ontology that subtends it.

To conclude, I register the externalization of conscience. Beginning with initiation, ceremonial participation causes the receptive totemite to enter into long-term functional relationship with a number of specific offsiders and their successors. These offsiders stand ready to act recurrently as mystically unthreatened workers in ceremonies dedicated to the Dreamings of the totemite's own moiety. As whipper-in, each linked offsider provokes his totemite Countryman to ceremonial performance. But, more than this, the offsider also acts in life as commentator on the propriety of the totemite's actions in any matter that can be referred to traditions that were instituted by Dreamings. But, inescapably, all morality and all law comes of the Dreamings. One therefore meets up with owner and linked offsider paired in quotidian relation wherein each owner is Pinocchio called to listen to an appointed Jiminy Cricket. (33) By rejecting the mediations of provided offsiders and turning a deaf ear to the proxy-voices of men appointed to speak stridently for Dreamings, the refusenik eludes the conscience-laden relationships of his culture. (34)


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Basil Sansom

University of Tasmania


(1.) In refining this account, I have responded to the helpful comments of both editor and two reviewers.

(2.) Whereas ritual frames holy encounter as programmed event, holy engagement is the commitment of a person to participation in a relationship with a Power--discussed in greater detail in the culminating section of this essay.

(3.) Non-visitation of both the prisoner and the hospital patient deserves lengthy treatment. The brief explanation for inaction is that any deterioration in the condition of an unvisited person will be unambiguously attributable to those officially charged with the maintenance of that person's well-being. If things go wrong, anyone who visited either a prisoner or a patient is liable to be suspected of causing the misfortune by use of sorcery or, more mundanely, by having 'upset' the visited person.

(4.) This is 'reaggregation', the final phase of van Gennep's ([1908], 1960) now classic tripartite characterization of rites of passage while my labelling echoes that of Stanner (1966). The local phrase 'putting that fella back in' would also be apposite but it bas the disadvantage of being a broader formulation in that it stands for reaggregation in general, including the re-incorporation of the long-time absentee into a local mob (Sansom, 1983 & 2009).

(5.) Discussed in detail in Sansom (1980).

(6.) That is, in a ceremonial context where celebrants see and handle totemic icons. On the other hand, it remains possible for any person (whether waking or sleeping) to encounter a Dreaming.

(7.) Historically, people carried fire ritually to smoke the way as they progressed along the pads for footwalking (see Sansom, 2006). When Cowlishaw (1999: 215-20) insistently describes the removal of people from Mainoru as 'foot walking to Bulman', she turns a journey of displacement into a true Exodus in which the people are in communion with Dreamings who are made party to their shift.

(8.) With its Biblical allusion, this is one of the rare semantically 'hybrid" terms of Aboriginal English.

(9.) The emergence of a mini-rite in the Darwin hinterland is the exact opposite of the expansion of the initiation journey in recent times reported by Peterson (2000) for the Centre.

(10.) The story of Roy's sickness is retailed in Sansom (1982).

(11.) A true ethic of redemption requires that past wrongs be put aside and forgotten once reparation is achieved. I would not ordinarily expect to be given personalised stories of the 'deafness' of any initiate who subsequently learned to 'listen'. On the other hand, people do tell salutary stories in which the morally 'deaf' feature as anonymous figures as in Bill Neitjie's (1989) story of two brothers, one obedient and one 'deaf' to injunction; the unheedful brother is taken by a prescient crocodile which eats the body but returns the boy's severed, rotting and unhearing head to the river bank.

(12.) Sackett's description of ritual as punishment at Wiluna actualizes what is mere rumour in the Top End where mentors of initiation are charged to mitigate the 'hard' ordeal that is circumcision.

(13.) While Bell (1983) reports that in her experience of the Centre, women had great influence in the matter of arranging the first marriages of young people, my older male and female informants of 1975 were all adamant that, while an older woman might be daring enough to venture an opinion, it was always some male guardian figure who had promised each young girl to a nominated man--'Ol Bill bin promisim that young Dolly longa Jack.' Further, it was said that promises generally lapsed if they had not yet been made good when the promiser died. These older witnesses had themselves all been parties to 'promise marriage'.

(14.) For the Ngarinyin of the Kimberley, Redmond (2001:130) points to thee importance accorded to the initiand's future brother-in-law. However, the Ngaranyin practised matrilateral parallel cousin marriage which engenders a different complex of affinal relationships when compared with the Top End where rules do not identify preferred spouses.

(15.) It is worth noting that Stanner (1960) reported that, in the early 1950s, Durmugam, an older man of the Nangiomeri who Stanner had known as a young warrior in 1933, lost the youngest of his four wives to young men who snatched her from her husband and gave her to one of their number.

(16.) Only a few of the Countrymen had links with mission settlements; missions of the different denominations all tried to maintain the integrity and discreteness of each mission population. Figuring Darwin as Babylon, missionaries worked actively to discourage visits to town and would sometimes mount expeditions to 'rescue' truant converts who had defiantly tripped to Darwin.

(17.) I discuss the seasonal economic cycle in Sansom (1988).

(18.) Their assigned functions apart, the specialist camp bosses were like the Daly River boss in that each had a hinterland constituency as well.

(19.) Those I refer to as the 'most apt' belonged to a locally recognized category--those who 'got that English really high' where 'high [Aboriginal] English' is opposed to the register of Aboriginal English that is called 'rough'.

(20.) I know of a single exception. On Kulpinya station, a truly aged man held to be 'the last of his tribe' was able to realize a promise marriage due to [i] the tight and exclusive organization of this station's mob and [ii] the station's sequestered situation. By active gate-keeping, the station was kept out of the range of most of the younger Countrymen. This oldfella's marriage of December and May was famous and was subject to allusion whenever the evils of gerontocratic marriage were discussed by young people. Young women would utter obligatory 'poor thing' expressions of commiseration as often as the name of the ill-matched bride was mentioned.

(21.) In service of a discussion of 'humbug' and 'gammoning', a more elaborate version of this story is given in Sansom (1980).

(22.) R. Burns, Tam O Shanter but rendered into standard English (see www). The irony in Burns is that the vocabulary nominating the unmentionable exists in Scots English so that such unlawful namings remain a possibility.

(23.) The dimensions of such relatedness in an African setting are analysed by Godfery Lienhard (1967) in an exemplary monograph.

(24.) Milirrpum and Others v Nabalco Pty Ltd and Commonwealth of Australia, 1971.

(25.) In addition to circumcision of the ear (Jeremiah 6:10), biblical transfer of the epithet allows a circumcised heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4) and circumcised lips (Exodus 6:12).

(26.) As previously documented (Sansom 2001), medical diagnosis of diabetes may be resisted in favour of folk-diagnosis of a Dreaming-derived cause for a sufferer's obesity.

(27.) In 1934-5 Stanner (1979) conducted a survey of similarities and differences in the social organisation of peoples of the area from Tennant Creek (which is in Wurumungu country) to the Daly River. On grounds of the demonstrated existence of a regional culture complex, reliance on Wurumungu material in the present context is ethnographically justified.

(28.) The 'owner/offsider' pairing is just one of the glosses for these two regional role-types encountered in both Top End and Centre and used generally in land-rights discourse concerning traditional owners or 'TOs'. 'Owners' also feature as 'bosses' while those called 'kurdungurlu' by Wurumungu are often identified as 'managers' or 'workers'. Sutton, Coleheart and McGrath (1983: 100) list 'constable', policeman', and 'look-after people' as additional glosses for kurdungurlu. Each gloss is nuanced commentary on the nature of the role-type for each emphasises a particular aspect of the relevant role.

(29.) The set of enchainments is a metonymic template or metonomeme (cf. Sansom [1995]).

(30.) There is a complementary string of exchange relationships that link owners and offsiders both as trading partners in secular dealings and as potential allies in local politics.

(31.) It is a Beauteous Evening (see www).

(32.) Small children may be 'smoked' and otherwise made subject to Powers but as objects and not as engaged parties.

(33.) The 'policeman' gloss for the kurdungurlu or 'offsider' reflects the offsider as Jiminy Cricket.

(34.) When such a person dies 'deaf' it seems that the rite of secondary disposal is stalled and his spirit is not sent back to the Dreaming because the disturbance attendant on his definition as a being may remain unresolved. As I write, the spirit of the deceased person who features as Will in this account bas not yet been finally 'put down'. It is possible that he will never be subject to this last rite for those who remember him are rapidly passing on. Soon there will be no one left who can be held to have inherited the responsibility for his final disposal. My use of gendered pronouns here raises an issue of substance rather than one of grammar: I do not know whether or not females among the Darwin Countrymen may experience any social confrontations that may show them up for being 'deaf' to the Dreamings. I never knew a female counted as 'deaf'.
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Author:Sansom, Basil
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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