Aboriginal Women and Gimbutas

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."


I later wondered if Aboriginal cultures, since they must be classified as older than the Iron Age, exhibited the traits of matriarchy that Gimbutas predicted? Were Aboriginal women traditionally more important then the men? Could Aboriginal women also be warriors?

The first Aboriginal people I worked with, between 1973-6, were the Tjungundji of Mapoon in NE Australia who lived on the monsoon swept, forested and coral lined eastern coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. They had been evicted by the police from their tribal land, as I mentioned earlier, in pursuance of a government's policy to "assimilate" Aborigines into white ways and sell off tribal lands. Their first priority was very clear. It was to live on and look after their land, honour its sacred places and to care for the graves of ancestors. This priority became ours. We raised funds so they could return to re-establish themselves on their tribal lands - which they did despite company and government opposition.

The women we worked with were certainly not submissive to men. Elders like Joyce Hall and Jean Jimmy were major spokespeople and major organisers for their people. They were both totally motivated by love for their ancestral lands. There were also strong male spokesmen such as Jerry Hudson and Harry Toeboy. Harry looked after the nearby Pine River where he told us of a tree hung with barramundi fish skeletons in honour of the spirit of these great fish, concluding: "It is a very sacred place". He knew of the dances of his land and had a large drum made from goanna lizard skin.

Mrs Jimmy at Mapoon told us: "We want the land because it is most important to we Aborigines. It is sacred to us... We still carry our sacred customs. I think most white people don't understand us very much, but there comes a time", she added in a prophesy, " when they must understand our Aboriginal ways which we think are sacred. Looking now, we live by nature because God made our Ancestors civilised in our own way - by Nature and really and truly we live by Nature." (Mrs Jimmy's emphasis)

The last time I saw Mapoon, the people were busy reconstructing their settlement, planting gardens, fishing, hunting and teaching the ancient wisdom to their young people. We were proud and happy we had helped them. Warrior work needs to be cunning wise. Outright confrontation does not often work although sometimes it is needed. I left happy, sure that this beautiful place full of the richness of unspoilt nature had back within her the people who should be there, people who were part of her and knew it. I am however uneasy that Comalco still is mining the southern parts of their tribal lands without redress to this community - and that Comalco and still claims the lands around the virgin bay where the community now lives. I fear that at some future time, the Mapoon people will need help again. However, if this now happened, the Aborigines themselves are now far better organised to resist and effectively lobby.

The next community I worked with was the Wik people of Aurukun, 100 miles south of Mapoon. When I asked them who could speak for the 736 sq. miles that Shell wanted to mine, women and men were nominated equally as spokespeople for different areas. Thus Violet Yunkaporta told me; "I am responsible for up to the Watson River. This is our tribal lands and we don't want to see the miners coming in - not for any money." Thus also Cyril Owakran spoke "Ward River is my place as is Coconut Creek where the mining company is. I want none of this land to be mined. We have no way of giving our land away because our great grand-fathers gave it to us... We have story places on Coconut Creek". Another, Gladys, then a young woman and now an important spokeswoman for her people, said "We must keep on fighting until God changes their hearts. Young people like me, we won't know where our culture is. I say no. We want to live as Aborigines."

But when it came to evicting Shell from their mining camp, it was the men who went for their weapons and drove up to the mining camp. I was the only woman present. It seemed at that time that such work was seen as particularly a responsibility of the men. I also noted that often it was the men who would hunt the larger game rather than the women - although I felt that women were not necessarily excluded from this hunt if they so chose. This gender role difference seemed to be grounded in their culture but I am not certain of this.

Eventually it was a joint effort by women and men that succeeded, after 4 years of campaigning from 1975 to 1979, to persuade Shell not to mine these lands. (See page x in Fri.) But the Aurukun lands were still not completely safe. Comalco of RTZ has a lease over a 100 square miles of their tribal lands - and Shell's old mining lease could still be activated. Despite these dangers the Wik people have gone from strength to strength and now make national news with legal victories over pastoralists.

Later, in 1985, I would as I have mentioned research and write a book about a warrior band lead by women, in particularly by the famed Truganini who was wrongly supposed to be the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. This band around 1840 drove the new settlers back from the settlements made east of the then newly founded Melbourne. They raided station after station, sometimes walking fifty miles a day. I found unpublished hand written settler diaries describing what had happened. They said that Truganini was known to be as good a shot with the rifle as any man. The Aboriginal fighters would order the white women and children away from stations before attacking. There was also another warrior band lead by a woman who angrily denounced the stupidity of elders whom at first thought that white people were their ancestors returned to life and therefore not to be attacked. (Ref. Jack of Cape Grim.) Tarerenorerer taught her people to use guns and led an Aboriginal war-band around Emu Bay in northern Tasmania. (Ref. p 6) She eventually died in an island concentration camp.

In an Aboriginal settlement in central Australia in 1977, Diana Bell was armed by the women with "fighting sticks" and instructed in their use when she was being harassed by drunken men. Men would not dare to come near the Single Women's camp - perhaps more from fear of their magic as of their weapons. Both the young man and the young woman of the Warrbiri nation of Central Australia learn to use weapons to defend themselves. Some Aboriginal nations have Dreamtime stories of how once women controlled fire and men stole it from them so perhaps equality always needed to be worked at to be maintained. (P34 bell).

Central Australian men, if they hurt a woman, feared that she might take ritual action against them. A women's spiritual power was said to be considerable, to entitle her to much respect and to be based on her relationship to her country. Men needed this woman's power for it also helped link them to the ground. Bell wrote of negotiations she observed during ritual preparations : "the women needed men within their ritual groups, the men needed the [women's] knowledge to back their claims to rights in the country." p204

The yilpinji rituals among the Warlpiri were performed by the women for such purposes as attracting lovers or repelling men they did not want - and could similarly be performed by men. Such rituals were only undertaken after much serious discussion and weighing up of circumstances. It as said that women's rituals were invariably successful unlike those of the men. Similar stories about the use of magic by women in particular abound in Irish or Celtic mythology. Thus the mythical Ulster hero Cu Chulainn came under attack by "the three skinny handed daughters of Cailidin" which he could only resist through the magic of other women that he had to obey. (Misc. p46)

Another perhaps common element between Celtic and Aboriginal spirituality was the use of stones to mark out ritual areas. Warlpiri men and women alike would mark out ritual sites with stones, arranging them sometimes to show the direction from which totemic animals or Ancestors had travelled. These rituals were still being carried out in the 1970s and no doubt is still happening.

It is true that as Gimbutas said of pre-patriarchal Europe, Aboriginal people never constructed fortifications as did the Iron Age British who crowned many major hill range and headlands with massive fortifications built with great effort with antler hand-picks. But, although I do not know of any wars fought over land claims, the myths of Aboriginal society spoke of battles. The Aboriginal women at Uluru told me ancient Dreamtime stories about warfare that seemed strangely akin to the ancient Irish stories of the Tuatha ni Danu and the Formanians. The women pointed out to me holes in the Uluru rocks where the spears struck during these mythical battles. There was sometimes hostility and suspicion between Aboriginal nations. These could possibly have been based on hunting or marriage disputes. Misunderstandings must have been commonplace in a continent of over 200 hundred languages - no matter how much linguistic abilities they had. Today many outback Aborigines still speak several of these languages.

When Whites arrived, Aborigines proved very capable of waging war in self-defence. The early records of white settlement in Australia are full of records of Aboriginal armed resistance to the settlers stealing their land. In 1795 the newly arrived British military were sent out with instructions "in the hope of inspiring terror, to erect gibbets in different places whereupon the bodies of all they might kill were to be hung." N914 In 1816 it was made illegal for Aborigines to approach Sydney in groups larger than six. Any larger group, even if unarmed, could be shot. In western New South Wales Aborigines co-ordinated attacks by different tribes over hundreds of square miles. In 1824 martial law was declared around Bathhurst. After a massacre by police Rev. Thelkeid reported: "forty-five heads were collected and boiled down for the sake of the skulls. My informant, a magistrate, saw the heads packed ready for exportation ... to accompany the commanding officer on his voyage to England." P16 MM In 1829 martial law was also declared in Tasmania. In 1838 300 the warriors of the Pangerang drove out the settlers near Wangarrata. In Western Victoria a confederacy of the Gunditj-Mara, the Tjapwurong and Bungaditj, with warriors also from the neighbouring Kirrrae tribe, carried on a sustained campaign during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1840 it was made illegal to sell guns to Aborigines. Around 1845 swivel guns were installed on sheep stations. It took over 60 years for the armed resistance of the southern tribes to be broken. In the north and centre massacres and armed resistance continued until the end of the 1930s. It is disturbing that those who fought for their land in Australia are still not honoured. Monuments are put up in Australia for those who fought and died in the two World Wars - but none are put up for those who died in Australia. Why is the resistance of American Indians so well known but not that of the Australian tribes? Why are Australian children much more familiar with American tribes such as the Mohawk and Sioux than the Aboriginal tribes? I think there is still a conspiracy of silence.

As for the equal status of Aboriginal women, it was until recently denied by male anthropologists who thought Aborigines lived in a patriarchy. But Diana Bell, one of the first women anthropologists to learn what it was to be instructed by women elders for some years and then to be with the "mothers" in ritual, reported a very different Aboriginal society. When I met her in Alice Springs, she was taking a break from living with her sons among the Warrabri in central Australia. She observed that many male anthropologists, with no access to the senior women living in the jilimi, the single women's camp , had no understanding of the important place of women in rituals - and of the vital role they had even in the principal male celebration, that of the ritualised rebirth through circumcision of the young men - which could not be performed without the women participating. They could even bring a halt to such rituals if they felt the men were not performing them correctly.

Aboriginal women among the Warrabri and other nations always retained the power to leave the company of men and live independently in the women's camp or jilimi. Bell described the jilimi in the settlement where she lived in 1977 as consisting of a long snake like building that the women had erected themselves. On its northern side was the large clearing known in Aboriginal English as the "ring place" or "business ground". Such grounds are always located where they cannot be seen from other camps. Aboriginal men would never walk in sight of them. Here Aboriginal women conduct rituals, display their sacred boards telling the stories of their Dreaming and sometimes sleep especially when ill or in trouble. The ring place was also traditionally a place where offenders were brought to trial and disputes resolved by ritual means. Backing onto its eastern side was the storehouse for sacred things. On the far side of this, to the east, it opened out to a bough shelter where the women would work on making ritual objects or simply chat and rest while monitoring all activity around the jilimi. If any women approached the ritual ground, she had to stop and wait to be signed through.

Here the elder women taught the younger women the Dreaming and arranged many ritual events. From here and the other camps women still go out together with their children to gather and to hunt. As they moved through the country they still sing of the travels of the creating Ancestors and teach their children about the land and its Dreaming. All food gathered, Bell observed, was first distributed among the women and the children before any was given to the men.

Diana Bell described the care and reverence with which women approach all their rituals. The senior women would grease then painted the bodies of the girls and women with ochre in the patterns that showed the link with country while singing gently and harmoniously of the Dreamtime. During the rituals the women would hold up and dance with the sacred boards that were also marked by them with the sacred signs denoting their links to their country. Energy had been sung into the boards until the paint itself was said to shine Their bodies, their dances, their chants and their boards told of their totem links to creatures such as the dingo and to their much loved country. The red ochre used represented the power of life and blood. They were through the rite reaffirming their bond with their sacred land and their responsibility for it.

Once the ritual is over, the energy of the Dreaming is sung back into the ground, dirt is thrown to nullify the energy over where the sacred boards have been laid, the sacred boards rubbed on the women's bodies to remove the sacred signs and re-absorb the energy. They see this grounding as extremely important. Men and women had their separate sacred rituals - and also rituals they shared. The major themes and purposes of women's rituals were for love, land and health.

A. K. Radcliffe-Brown, the first to be appointed to a Chair of Anthropology in Australia, did not know of any of the business of the jilimi - for as a male he was barred from it. He instead interpreted Aboriginal society in light of the dualistic theories of Emile Durkheim. Not knowing of the secret ceremonies that celebrate a girl's menarche and only knowing of the men's role in male initiations, he saw initiated Aboriginal men as representing the sacred realm and Aboriginal women as representing the non-initiated profane world. Many anthropologists followed him in dismissing the women's spiritual work as "magic". They meant by this that it was without power because unconnected to the Dreaming. Women were said to have no religion. Our society's presumption that males were more important also made Aboriginal society less gender balanced by promoting Aboriginal men over Aboriginal women.

Another consequence was that women were unable to obtain the protection for their sacred sites that was available to the men. Thus, when in 1981 I went to visit the managing director of a mining company to tell him his geologists had trespassed on an Aboriginal women's Dreaming site which the women wanted protected, he immediately pulled from his bookcase a supposedly authoritative report that said Aboriginal women have no dreaming sites. He suggested to me that that I was being hoodwinked. Thus West Australian male sites were protected legally - but not this woman's site. The women have since lost to a major diamond mine (producing 40% of the world's gem diamonds at Argyle in the Kimberlies) their sacred place dedicated to the Barramundi, the Australian equivalent to the salmon of which my people also had ancient myths.

What Diana Bell and I found in the communities was that both women and men were equally responsible for the custodianship of sacred sites. One Aboriginal woman told her; "As my father could not go into the Waake country, from when I was a young girl I kept on doing the yawulyu, the looking after of the country." Her sisters also did this with her. Her father could not do it because his relatives had been massacred there by Whites within his lifetime. He was barred from there by the rituals of grief P119 but no matter what had happened, the Dreaming needed to be maintained, the country had to be looked after so his daughters did it for him.

Men and women both have ritual sites they need to look after -and relate to the dreaming places of the other gender. Aboriginal sacred sites are not passed on in European style inheritance. Bell witnessed how some Warrabri women, who were rich in dreaming sites but poor in health, handed on some sites to a group of impoverished women who lived along the same dreaming track but had far fewer sites. The "giving away" ritual involved passing on the ritual objects and the basic elements of the songs belonging to these sites. It was then up to the new custodians to elaborate the songs to demonstrate their new rights. P 143 Both women and men paint their bodies for rituals with the symbols linking them to their country. All are linked to land through both the female and male members of their extended families.

Diana Bell in her book "Daughters of the Dreaming" reported, after spending many years living with Aborigines in Central Australia ,that there was no patriarchy or matriarchy but "Under the Law, men and women have distinctive roles to play but each has access to certain checks and balances which ensure that neither sex can enjoy an unrivalled supremacy over the other.. Underlying male and female practice is a common purpose and a shared belief in the Dreamtime experience; both have sacred boards, both know songs and paint designs that encode the knowledge of the dreaming." P182. This was not as predicted by Gimbutas but is more gender balanced society.

Some rituals are performed by both men and women. She tells of how men, grateful for being shown a woman's dance, promptly return the favour by painting up their own boards and bodies and showing the women one of their own dances. In these dances they were exchanging ritual knowledge of the country and its Dreaming painted on their bodies and their boards and spelt out by the patterns their pounding feet make upon the earth. At one point the women picked up the male boards displayed and danced with them while the men called out approvingly "they are your dreamings now". (P204 db) But this does not mean that there is not secret knowledge, private to each gender. In such displays, something is always held back, kept for people of the same gender.

I have mentioned (Mon.) how women play a vital role in the most sacred and special of male rituals, that of circumcision which also symbolised death and rebirth for the initiates. These rituals vary in detail from one tribe to another. I learnt how things are done at Warlpiri from Diana Bell's book for I worked in many different communities and did not spend sufficient time in any one to learn at such depth. After many seasons of instruction Diana tells how she found herself "red ochred from top to toe and propelled into ritual action I had only previously observed from afar." (P210) She was present at twenty or so initiations and over time she took "all the major female roles" - and thus was able to write an account few have ever been able to give - while withholding in her book all that the women told her should not be said.

Red ochre signifies the blood or energy of the land and is used widely for sacred ceremonies. In being painted with red ochre, Diana had become part of an extremely long tradition that is also part of our own heritage as Europeans - for we too are an ancient people even if we have forgotten much. In central Europe archaeologists have found many statues of women covered in red ochre from the Palaeolithic period that are some 18,000 -20,000 years old - as well as ochred bodies in graves. (Myths103). Red ochre was used for sacred purposes in Europe for many thousands of years - thus there were traces of red ochre on an image of a sleeping women made of brown clay around 3,700BC, found in the Thypogeum temple in Malta.

Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, would not have been surprised by this commonness of ritual significance. He wrote that every human contains: "the mighty deposit of ancestral experience accumulated over millions of years ... to which each century adds an infinitesimally small amount of variation and differentiation." myth p 105

Mrs Jean Jimmy of the Tjungundji of Mapoon in the far north east of Australia told us a story that revealed how her people made sure a prospective husband had a proper attitude towards the prospective bride. "When the chief man of their tribe sees the man with a moustache and hair on his chest, they talk to the parents about his promised girl. It is now time their son takes his girl on their walk-about The man and his girl must be away for three months. The man picks up his spears and woomeras and his girl gets her basket and yam stick and both of them leave their tribes to be alone. When they reach the first water, tribal law says her husband to be cannot drink first. His girl must drink first. After she had her drink, she passes her urine into the water before he drinks.

"..(Then) he must find a lagoon so his girl can swim. When they find this, this is where they will camp. They both gather wood. He then gets out his wood and makes their fire. If he didn't get any meat or fish on the way, he must kill something before nightfall. When he comes back, he must cook the meat but he cannot eat. It must be given first to his girl and he eats after her. This much must be repeated each day, also their swimming in the lagoon.

"But at the first moon, the girl watches and when she gets her moon sickness, she gets up and sticks a spear above her head while they are both asleep with a fire between them. When he sees the spear he moves away ... until she is well again. They both eat pangi (water lily root) , kangaroo, fresh water turtle, sugar-bag (honey), fish and other foods that Nature has created for them to eat.

"All this is a test given to the man to see if he will be a trustful man under the three moons... They then can get married. They both kneel on the ground with their hands on their laps. A woomera is held above their heads... the husband then takes the girl to live with him and his tribe."

The whole of Australia is a cobweb of Dreaming Tracks in the mythology of the Aboriginal nations. This weaves together many people of diverse languages, cultural customs and different skin and hair colour. These tracks are rich in energy for the Creating Ancestors, both male and female, once walked them while forming the land. Today the great creation sagas are re-enacted and renewed by the Sacred Boards that travel the same routes with their songs and dances, being passed on from one community to another. These Dreaming Tracks were also left by the totemic animals, reptiles and birds. All these Tracks, all totems, all Aborigines have their songs, dances, painted Sacred Boards and chants.

These tracks are not seen as necessarily confined to Australia. I know that some Aborigines said they sensed the dreaming tracks of North America when they travelled there to meet the American Indians. Perhaps when some in Britain say they sense energy tracks which they more clinically call "ley lines" (perhaps because they do not yet know their dreams), they are sensing a natural pattern that is world wide - and perhaps sensing the energy once put into them by ancestors?

One day in the Kimberlies I was sitting with a group of elders showing them some photos when I found one of Uluru. I showed it saying that I did not know if they knew of this place for it was well over a thousand miles away. They laughed at this. One of them promptly pointed at a distant hill. "Jani", he said "our dreaming track (he named it for a totem) starts behind that hill and goes straight down there. We all know that place," I had exactly the same experience when I showed the same photo to elders in Darwin. They too had a Dreaming Track from nearby going to Uluru. I have since found that there are Dreaming Tracks linking Uluru with Sydney Harbour and the site of Melbourne. These were not just ritual routes but also travelling and trading roots. Axes made from volcanic glass found near Melbourne were traded 3000 miles up Dreaming tracks to the Kimberleys.

I learnt more about the magic of the Australian land when I went back to the Kimberleys a year after the police there had been ordered in by helicopter to arrest me for being on Aboriginal land without state government permission. This time I was smuggled by the Aboriginal people of Halls Creek into the diamond mining lease that was destroying the women's Barramundi Dreaming Place. The mining company had banned all journalists but the Aborigines slipped me in through the security gates in a hunting party because they wanted me to be able to interpret for them the mining works and to show me their land with its creek filled with wildlife. They wanted me to write about the importance of this land to them and reveal what was happening here in my newspaper articles, using as always my pen as my weapon.

But what I did not write about at that time was the magic that I experienced when I travelled this ocean of bush, this vast expanse of wildlife, with the Elders or by myself. I felt very privileged to be in this land as their guest. I learnt from instinct and from them to revere this very ancient land that felt to me to be full of the creating divine energy.