I was reading Tindale's Aboriginal Tribes of Australia and wondering why it had been published in California, not here. I'm Gordy Hollister and I'm a third-year student in Entomology at the University of Queensland. I'm going to do fieldwork inland over the hols. That's why I took the text volume of Tindale out of the library.
Until I went to the Uni, my best friend was an Aborigine, but Jacky and I haven't seen much of one another the past two years or so. But knowing him and his mum and most of his band meant that going into the field didn't seem alien. I was going to the Bunya Mountains, northwest of Brisbane on an Anthropology trip. It wasn't required, but I'd realised that much of what an entomologist does relates to people. With luck I'd have a few days to visit home, in Mitchell, before returning to Sidney.
Information on the indigenous inhabitants of this area prior to the settler invasion is scant. Tindale describes four tribes: Barunggam, Jarowair, Giabul, and Keinjan, who shared the Waka Waka language with tribal dialect variations. The indigenous occupation of the region dates back some 40000 years and the population at the time of white contact [after 1788] is thought to have numbered between 1500 and 2500. They were a hunter-gatherer people who moved through their recognised tribal territories in smaller familial groups according to seasonal and cultural demands. They adapted their labor and technology so as to sustain 'a stable population in a balanced environment' and 'this allowed the development of increasingly complex social systems and cultural traditions. Every three years tribes based throughout southern Queensland and northern New South Wales would travel to the Bunya mountains for a festival, during which the bunya nut was consumed and poems and songs exchanged via the corroboree. The invasion of the region by Europeans led to the violent dispossession of the indigenous population. Today it is difficult to trace many traditional people in the region, although there remains a significant population of historical people of indigenous descent.
It wasn't easy for me to get to go. I wasn't an anthropology student. There were six of us on the trip: our instructor, a graduate student, three anthropologists, and me. We'd drive up in a stretched Land Rover. I volunteered to do some of the driving (make yourself useful to get away with things). And I was the only one who knew what bunga nuts were. We were two guys and four women. There were three tents in the load, but I wasn't going to sleep in one. We did have a first aid kit and some energy bars, but every one wanted to subsist on bush fare. I wasn't a stranger to that, but I wasn't sure about the other three students.
At least we wouldn't be up in Never-Never land. Eating a handful of mashed-up green ants doesn't rate high on my culinary agenda, but standing in the middle of the woodlands near Cooinda it seemed the most logical thing to do. As did munching the top of a termite mound – "Good for diarrhoea, '' said our guide Violet Lawson, an elder of the Murrumburr clan. But that was years ago.
"How did you get to come along, Gordy?" one of the women asked. So I explained that my dad had a band living on his land and that I'd known many aborigines all my life.
"Do you know Dreaming stories?"
Many of the 'Dreaming stories refer to an Aboriginal group's creation time, for instance; 'Rainbow Serpent Dreaming' or 'Honey Ant Dreaming'. Their ancestor spirits arrived here at the time of creation in human and animal spirit form and are now encapsulated in the Stories of the Dreaming associated with that group of people.
"Here's one about the beginning.
Baiame walked on the earth he had made, among the plants and animals, and created man and woman to rule over them. He fashioned them from the dust of the ridges, and said,
'These are the plants you shall eat -- these and these, but not the animals I have created.'
Having set them in a good place, the All-Father departed.
To the first man and woman, children were born and to them in turn children who enjoyed the work of the hands of Baiame. His world had begun to be populated, and men and women praised Baiame for providing for all their needs. Sun and rain brought life to the plants that provided their sustenance.
Some are longer, but none is very long."
"That's a lot like Amerindian stuff."
"Of course. People aren't that different from one another."
"Are they all pre-First Fleet?"
"Oh, far from it," said the grad student. "Far from it. New Dreaming stories are continually added to those already in existence. Stories of islands pushed along by clouds were about the sailing ships of the 1780s, with their strange men from across the seas. The Aboriginal people perceived them as ghosts, or evil spirits, but, in fact, they were the colonists.
"There are tales of hoofed, four-footed, monstrous creatures with two heads that stank like bunyips and defiled nature — men on horseback. There are stories of things that could only be described by the noises they made. There is no word in any Aboriginal language that could describe such creatures. They were known as 'chuggasshhhh-chuggashhhhhh' and were the early paddle steamers on the Murray River." She smiled.
"Dreaming connects us to the land and the sky. And all the people."
"Anthropologists collect materials, relate materials to other materials and describe the meanings of those materials," added the professor.
And thats how it went up A3 to Yarraman till we got to the state forest where we followed several undeveloped roads to a campsite where we pitched all three tents. "You'll have it to yourself," I said to the other guy, "Unless you can arrange company." I moved my head towards the two undergraduates, who were busily arranging things in their tent.
"You think there's a chance?"
"Up to you, boyo."
"Where will you sleep?"
"With one of the bands."
"Oh, yes. At least two young men have been watching us."
"Where?" he spun around.
"One's gone back to report. The other's right there." I pointed. "Hey! Come from the shadow and say hello!"
A young man wearing only a tassel and with white, yellow and ochre paint stepped from the shadow of a tree.
"'Day. You sharp-eye fella."
"I saw you move when your friend left. You Kullila?"
"Illawarra. Kullila brothers, boss."
He grinned. "Lookin' boss. Mebbe lucky."
"My name is Gordy. From near Mitchell." I put out a hand.
"Billy." He took my hand, shook it, turned and disappeared among the trees.
"That's the darnest thing. What was it all about?"
"The track stops where we parked. One of the band heard the noise while we were still klicks away. Two marriageable young men were sent to watch. One went back to report. I greeted the other and identified myself. He greeted me."
"Great job, Gordy. And you're not an anthro student?"
I laughed. "No, ma'am. But I've been around and I can observe. And I've read."
"How did you know he was looking for a wife?" asked one of the students.
"No visible scars and only a tassel."
"Full marks, Gordy."
"Thanks." I looked toward the tree line. "Uh, Gladys. You might want to walk towards me."
"There's a snake near that rock."
She gave a squeak and moved away. The snake was spooked by the motion and went into the forest litter.
"Probably a coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus)," I said. "It's venomous, but we've got anti-venin in the kit. I think Kevin Budden back in 1950 is the most recent Australian fatality."
"Are they that dangerous?"
"The coastal taipan is considered to be one of the deadliest species in the world. Budden was a herpetologist who was catching them to milk for venom research. A few years later the antivenin was developed. He was just careless or unlucky. But I'd avoid them, if possible. I worry more about spiders and ticks than about snakes."
"Enough. Let's see if we can locate the corroboree," said our prof. She started into the trees where the young man has gone. Neither watcher had tried to be invisible, so it was no big job to backtrack them. We were soon in a large clearing with about a hundred abos. About a dozen were available females – bare above the waist. One of the two students gasped. "Keep your shirts on," the prof told them. "That way they know you're not available."
An older woman in a flowered dress came over and offered a bark plate. I took a few bunya nuts from it and ate them. I took a Cherry Ripe from my pocket and gave it to her. She broke into a wide grin and I could see her missing front teeth. "Gordy," I said.
"Carol," she responded and went back to a group of adults.
"How many did you bring?"
"About half a dozen. And a brick of tobacco."
"Very smart. Sweets for the women, tobacco for the chief or the nungungi."
"You think there's a nungungi here?"
"Should be if their planning includes marriages." I nodded.
"Excuse me." I walked over to where Carol stood with a group of women. "I see you, Carol."
"I see you, Gordy."
"I need a place to leave my swag. Where would be a good place?"
"You stay here?"
"Yes." She turned to the women. One of them said something and they all broke into giggles.
"Your old woman stay with you? We have younger women."
"Your young men need your young women." I walked back to the prof. "Do you want to camp here or return to the tents? They think you're my 'old woman'."
"Well, I am older than you are. But I'd like to observe a lot more."
"Okay. I'll tell them I need space for myself and my woman."
I did so. I also said we were going back to the Rover to make certain the others were fed and that we would return before dark.