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Title: The Customs and Traditions of the Aboriginal Natives
       of North Western Australia (1901)
Author: John G. Withnell
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 060701.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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The Customs and Traditions of the Aboriginal Natives of North Western Australia
John G. Withnell


THE object of this work is to preserve, before civilization has made
them obsolete, the traditions and customs of the aboriginal natives of
the North-West of Western Australia--particularly those of the
Pilbarra district--as accurately as possible, based upon upwards of
twenty years' observation. Since the discovery of gold and the
consequent influx of population the natives cannot carry out their
traditions as they used to do--most of the young men being in the
employment of the whites, prefer to imitate them, caring little or
nothing for their elders' teachings. So it is merely a matter of time
when they will become extinct. It is quite probable that the curse of
drink together with the supplanting of black children by mixed races
will eventually cause them to die out, for it is reasonable to suppose
that few intellectual persons will find companionship in the natives,
so they merely gain the evil part of the European element from those
who do associate closely with them.


IT is a strange revelation to find that the natives believe in a
common Creator, and that their race sprang from one man and woman.
There is no mistake that this it; their belief. Their Creator's name
is GNURKER. They allow that he has a wife, who gave birth to the first
couple sent to populate the earth. When their God saw that this earth
was fit for man, and that all animal life and fishes were plentiful,
He caused an immense whirlwind, which reached from Heaven to earth,
and sent down him son and daughter with full instructions in all
manner of ceremonies. They were to name their children by four tribal
names--Banaka, Boorung, Paljarri, Kymera--and thus observe the
marriage laws. They were to strictly follow out His commands, and when
they died, their and their children's spirits would be received into
heaven. They were given control over the fishes of the waters, the
birds of the air, all animals, insects, and every living thing--that
by a ceremony of will they could cause them to multiply and increase,
they and their children for ever; and they were to set apart a
hallowed spot called Tarlow for this purpose. Their God gave the men
spears, throwing stick, and shields for protection and purposes of
hunting; to the women he gave wooden scoops and paper bark from the
Cajeput tree for the gathering of seeds and other uses. They were
given power even over rain, and provision was made that every food
they possessed should be held for the common good. As a covenant of
God's promises they were to circumcise their young men at the age of
fourteen years, and if they failed to carry out these laws He would be
angry with them, and cause their children to fight against each other;
whilst for breaking the marriage laws they should be killed by their
own kindred. But their God would never forsake them, and would receive
their spirit. It thus appears from their showing that they are the
direct children of the Creator, who is all merciful to them, and that
for any evil doing they are punished on earth alone. It must not be
thought that their worship in any way resembles ours. On the contrary,
all their modes are wild and barbaric, and so far as I can gather they
do not worship Him in the same sense as we do. They have only to carry
out the commands given by God to His children, and since they do not
hold that their first parents sinned against Him in any way, they do
not pray for forgiveness; for their wrong doings they are punished by
their elders alone, and if they choose to overlook them they are
forgiven. They know nothing of any Fall such as the eating of the
forbidden fruit. At the same time although they do not at present have
any direct form of worshipping Him, it is quite possible in ages past
they had, and have fallen away in this respect; the tarlow ceremony
(dealt with elsewhere), the marriage laws, the circumcision, and
others seem to indicate that they had. They do not worship the moon,
stars, sun, or any images. So since they still, through tradition
handed down from generations, hold that they are the Creator's own
children and will return to Him in spirit, they must hold Him in
respect though they do riot fear Him. Although at times they are cruel
to each other, yet they are in general equally as kind as are we. The
name of an angel is Mulgarra--dwelling both on earth and heaven. They
define heaven as space. They have strong belief in the spirit world
both for good and evil. When the spirit has departed from the body it
is called "Coodoo," and the body is called "Coudo." Although strange,
some of their magicians maintain that they are able to leave their
bodies in a trance, and in spirit visit other lands and converse with
long-departed spirits.


A TARLOW is a stone or a pile of stones set apart as a hallowed spot,
dedicated to the ceremony of willing that certain things such as
children, birds, animals, insects, frogs, reptiles, fishes, and grass
seeds, etc., be made to multiply and increase, each living thing
having a separate tarlow, all of which belong to the head of each
family, as master of the craft, descending from father to son. To make
it clear, however, say that a family of the Banaka tribe had the
tarlow of the eagle hawk, and wished them to multiply. They must
journey to that shrine; for it cannot be done elsewhere. The head of
the family may be accompanied by any number of Banaka, men he pleases
to take part in the ceremony, but the spell would be broken if any
members of the other three tribes came to the spot. When the elder
Banaka dies, this tarlow would then descend to his sons, the eldest in
particular, who would, of course, be of the Paljarri tribe, which
would then have control in the Banakas' stead. Each of the Boorong,
Paljarri, and Kymera tribes have other tarlows dedicated to their
care, and do not intrude upon each other when such a mission is in
hand. They have not the power to will a decrease in these things, and
can only cause an increase. When a disease breaks out upon the young
children they place them in a special spot set apart for the purpose
in the hope that it may atone for and avert the evil. This place is
kept covered with cajeput bark. They all have a different ceremony in
willing each thing required; in some they hammer the cairn or boulder
with other round stones and go through many speeches but being an
outsider I unfortunately could not induce them to go through the
ceremony whilst I was present. They carry with them when on this
mission whatever weapons or utensils are used in gathering or
procuring the thing to be willed. For instance, if they are willing
grass seeds they take wooden scoops; if kangaroos, spears; if turkeys,
nets, etc. They all dress differently, and make free use of feathers,
charcoal, and white and red clays. The women also take part and
inherit these tarlows.


IN order to follow the life of the natives it is advisable to commence
from their birth. It is wonderful how hardy the native women as a rule
are. During the hottest part of the day they can be found pounding at
grass seeds out in the open without covering of any kind, and as
cooking is required in the preparation of the seeds they have the heat
of the fire in addition to that of the blazing sun. Thus they labour
in all conditions of life, and usually right up to the time of their
confinement. Immediately preceding confinement they are accompanied
while gathering grass seeds by an elderly woman. They seldom rest
before, arid walk a mile or two after the infant is born, back to
their camp, and rarely ever suffer any ill-effects. The child when
newly-born is of a light copper colour, but after a few hours it is
covered with grease and charcoal to keep the skin soft and prevent
suffering from exposure. It is usually covered with and carried in
cajeput bark. There is a small cry amongst the rest of the women in
camp, and their nearest neighbours always pay the mother a visit as
soon as the tidings reach them, bringing gifts of seeds or whatever
they may have. It must be borne in mind that the natives generally
live in families at various intervals of a few miles down the course
of each river and its creeks; while some journey down others go up to
the next waters; in fact they are small families constantly moving
camp a few miles in any direction they please. The same freedom is a
characteristic feature of the natives throughout. The parents are very
fond of their children, and indulge their every fancy. They never
chastise them, and the child often strikes its mother. I have seen
children fully four years old still nourished by nursing. They have no
toys, but their parents bring them small birds, etc., to play with,
which they torture greatly to their parents' delight. The girls when
about five years of age are promised to some man as wife by their
parents, and it is quite surprising how quickly they grow up, budding
into womanhood at about twelve. The children are all very happy, and
learn to swim when very young. Their life in general is made up of one
long holiday, with little to mark the days excepting stories brought
in by the young men from the hunting fields. When the elders meet, the
children are gathered round to pay attention to ancient stories and
traditions, and thus they are preserved through ages. Up to about the
age of fourteen the boys are allowed to eat anything, but they are now
recognised as young men and have to go through the initiation of
manhood, which they call "buckley," known to us as CIRCUMCISION.

Prior to this season the women store a large quantity of grass seeds,
etc., so in to have a supply in readiness for the feast, which is a
feature of this ceremony. The families then meet at some given spot,
the time being arranged by the stages of the moon, as "new" or "full,"
until the company present is of vast numbers. They then gather round
and of one accord the youths are seized by the elders, a cord of span
hair being fastened around the arm, while the "coolardie" is swung
vigorously in the camp by other men. The coolardie is a flat, carved,
wooden shield--an ancient relic--having a hole in the one end through
which is; fastened a cord of spun hair. The end of the hair is held in
the hand, and so the shield is swung round, making a noise like the
roar of a bull. The elders then teach the novices fully and clearly
all the ancient traditions, and what is expected of them on this
occasion. The latter are then given about three days in camp to learn
the chants and dances in connection with this important initiation.
These consist of a chant and dance by the aged women only, called
"Tunbagey," and another by the men only, known as "Una." They are
intended for hunting, and are used when very much in need of food. The
natives believe that these chants and dances were given them by their
God through His son. The novices are then taught the chants or hymns
called "Nambey" and "Wallawollangoe," which are sung on circumcision
day. During this time they cannot converse with young women or
children, using the coolardie to warn them out of the way, and are
escorted everywhere by two men as guardians. After these few days in
camp their guardians go out on a mission of collecting all those who
have not come in, and bring everyone they possibly can in to the
ceremony and feast, which they call "Nurka." When they have all come
in, which should be within the month, they prepare a couch of boughs
near a flat stone at some spot dedicated to the purpose of
circumcision. Probably they may have as many as eight or ten youths to
initiate, who, with the men only, proceed to the spot, the men being
dressed in full war paint and chanting the "Nambey" and
"Wallawollangoe"; the youths swinging their coolardies, and having
feathers on their arms, a band of spun hair around their brow and
waist (the latter ornamented with leaves). and the body coloured red.
The women cry afar off. The operation is done with a piece of yellow
flint kept for the purpose by each family, and known as "Candemerrah."
Of course the parents do not operate on their own children. This is
done by their uncles or tribal relatives. The mode of procedure is
that the youths are held down by four or five men and the operators
perform their work. The skin is tied into the youth's hair. They then
all journey back to camp and a great feast is partaken of by them and
aged women alone. The younger women and children are not allowed to be
present, but have their feast some distance away. The young "buckleys"
as they are called, may now leave camp, but on approaching it they
swing their coolardie to warn young women and children out of the way,
as it is their belief that if they are looked upon by them they will
suffer greatly. The closing part of this performance is: After about a
month, or when the "buckley" has recovered, they, in company with
their elders, journey into some back creek, where, after further
rites, the elders remove the skin that had been previously fastened in
the "buckley's" hair and now dried, and after raising the bark of a
young tree they force the skin between the wood and bark, the bark
closing back over it. They then express the hope that the youth may
flourish like the green tree, and the coolardies and flints are
returned to their proper places among the rocks until again required.


From this stage in his life the youth is not allowed to eat emu or
turkey until he has been speared or the elders, considering him a man,
invite him to eat with them. Young damsels are also prohibited from
eating emu and turkey until they attain the age of twenty-one or
become mothers.


THE natives in their wild state have no covering for their bodies and
are perfectly nude, possessing no shame. As ornament they fasten rats'
tails, or twist and spin up their relatives' hair, with which they
dress their own, binding it together at the back of the head to
prevent it from falling over their eyes, as they wear their hair long
and greasy, rubbing emu fat, etc., on it. This hair dress is not at
all picturesque. For, owing to continual grease and dirt it forms into
knots, each often matted into five pounds weight, as they have no
substitute for a comb. They also dress their beard in a similar
manner. They spin hair into belts, in which they hang small game,
coyleys, etc., when hunting. They are particularly fond of greasing
their bodies and rubbing on decayed ironstone (ochre), white chalk,
and charcoal. They also use these in painting their shields, and as
colouring for all purposes.

Marriage Laws

As we have seen before, the marriage laws are very strict, and are by
tribe as follows:-

1. BANAKA marries BOORONG.
  Their children are PALJARRI.
  Their children are BANAKA.
3. BOORONG marries BANAKA.
  Their children are KYMERA.
  Their children are BOORONG.

It will thus be seen that brothers' children can not inter-marry,
neither can sisters' children. The only consanguinous marriages
allowed are brothers' and sisters' children, who may be relative
cousins or only tribal cousins, in which case they are entitled to
each other under the rights of "Nuba"--meaning tribal wife or tribal
husband. And so a man could not marry any other relative than an
aunt's daughter or a tribal cousin. He could not marry a tribal
granddaughter though she were of the right tribe and age; for a tribal
granddaughter is a tribal daughter's daughter, and not a tribal aunt's
daughter. When the young people are betrothed the nephew or future
son-in-law must not converse or associate with his aunt or future
mother-in-law, who is called "Tuer"; and when necessity compels them
to speak to each other, they stand with their backs turned, and the
interview is as short as possible. After the marriage this rule is not
quite so strict. Should death occur to the man, the next in right
takes his wife. This fortunate person is very often the deceased's
brother, who may already have two or more wives and does not care to
take upon himself another responsibility; for surely it is so, seeing
he has to avenge their affronts and defend them; in which case he has
the right to pass her on to one of his younger brothers or any tribal
"Nuba." Should she not care to accept the choice he has made for her,
a term is arranged in which the "Nuba" may try to win her, and it
usually transpires that she accepts him. In some cases another man of
the right tribe runs away with her, and this nearly always brings
about a quarrel in which many kinsmen of both sides are wounded.
Sometimes the elders allow this man to keep her after Spearing him,
and at others they take her away. Should the lover not be of the right
tribe, they always kill him, and the woman is taken by right as
captive so long as the captor is of the marriageable tribe. The captor
is usually the "Nuba" who has been chosen previously by her people.
The captive woman is generally chastised. The women generally find it.
better to have no heart in marriage, and thus save much fighting and
suffering. Every woman is always subject to ill-treatment by her man
when he is of a cruel disposition. They always have to gather and
prepare the grass-seeds for their families' uses. There is no marriage
ceremony. When the man considers it is time that he should take the
damsel promised to him, he makes a demand to her father or uncle, and
they order the girl to go to his camp, called "Youllo," which is
pitched some short distance away, and formed by a few boughs laid on
the ground in a half circle. It is merely a break-wind, and is moved
in the direction of the wind each night. The natives have no permanent
place of habitation, and only stay a few days at each water hole.
They, however, do not go far off the rivers, and by means of this
frequent moving about they get game more readily. They have no shelter
from the storms, except that found among the hills or caves. It must
not be thought that the women possess any chastity or virtue towards
their husbands, beyond waiting upon him, attending to all his wants,
and living with him. It is true the men quarrel over the women, but
the motive is jealously and not honour--for there is no stain on the
woman's character thereby--though her man ill-treats her to maintain
his brute force. A man may marry two or more sisters.

The following are the native names for relatives:--


"Tuer" or "Yaro"--Aunt
"Nuba"--Husband or wife
"Buckley"--Young man
"Coorie"--Woman without children
"Boothong"--Woman that has had children


THE men do the hunting for such as turkey, or emu, kangaroo, &c. In
the case of birds or wildfowl, they are experts in snaring. This is
done by placing a light frame of sticks over the birds' nests, or if
snaring small game over a water-hole. A net made for this purpose from
the reeds that grow by the water's edge, with meshes varying in size
up to three inches square according to the nature of the game, is
fastened over the frame, leaving an opening for the bird to enter. The
native hides some few yards away, and as soon as the bird enters, the
native rushes up to the opening and secures it.

Another very successful method practised by the Shaw River natives is
to find a small water-hole some distance from other water, which is
easily done in our stretches of dry river bed, and place two semi-
circles of boughs around the water, thus leaving an open space at each
end for the kangaroo to enter and pass on to the water. After a few
nights, the animals get accustomed to this, and make quite a pad
through. The natives will then place two upright poles at one entrance
with a cross bar above the height of a kangaroo's head, Upon this bar
is fastened a bag net, about 8 ft. by 4 ft., which is tied down by
reeds, ready for snaring. The kangaroo comes in by the other entrance,
and when he has passed by, the natives (there are generally two of
them) spring from their hiding place. The kangaroo makes up the pad to
the other end he knew so well, only to be bagged in the net. The
natives then kill him with their clubs. They catch three or more in
this way in a night.

The natives have enormous appetites. Many of the stronger men boast
they can eat a kangaroo--usually weighing about 30 lbs.--in three
meals, and from personal observation I quite believe it. Their method
of curing flesh when the supply is greater than the appetite is to
cook the flesh, and, after it becomes cold, part it into thin steaks
or cutlets, and place them in the sun to dry, turning them regularly.
The meat cures very well, although very hard and dry in appearance. To
prepare this, they have to place it in the fire for a few minutes and
then pound it between two stories, when it readily becomes as mince-
meat. Strange to say, they never use salt or seasoning of any kind.

Another method these natives have of catching large game, is by
digging a round hole about 4 ft. deep by 6 ft. in circumference on the
pads to water. They place a few light twigs across this, cover it with
a thin sheet of paper-bark and sprinkle loam or sand on the surface.
As soon as pressure is placed on this spot the twigs break, and the
game falls into the pit which is purposely made narrow as to prevent
the animal getting out.

The manner in which they kill hawks shows how they can exercise
patience. They procure a small rat and tie it to a small rod about 2
ft. long. They then light fires, which attract the hawks, and hide
themselves in it large bunch of spinifex or "torrida grass" The rod is
gently moved in the open with the left hand; in the right they hold a
club called "Wakaboora." The hawk swoops down for the rat, and
receives the club instead. I have seen them get fully a dozen in this
manner in a few hours.

They make their nets for fishing front very coarse spinifex. They
collect all the sharp heads and tie them in small bundles of about 15
inches in circumference, which are then dried in the sun. These are
soaked in water and beaten between two smooth stones when they readily
thread into flax. They then twist them into twine, which is very
strong and lasts a long time. The meshes of the net are formed with
the fingers. For a needle they use a light stick split down about two
inches at each end, and steamed so as to set the points out to hold
the twine at a gauge (sic--jbh) which will pass comfortably through
the size mesh adopted in the net. The knot is exactly similar to the
one used by our fishermen.

It must not be thought that their food is limited, for it is quite the
contrary. They have a variety of roots, berries, and vegetable leaves.
Their method of cooking some of these I thought rather novel. They
tear off a piece of bark from the cajeput tree and place therein the
leaves, which are then sprinkled freely with water. In a fire close by
are stones heated to red-heat. These stones are placed amongst the
leaves, and the latter are turned with a stick. When the stones have
lost some of their fierce heat and have produced a large amount of
steam, the bark is closely folded round to keep the steam in, and
after about twenty minutes the leaves are cooked. In cleaning grass
seeds the women are experts at sifting the foreign matter, such as the
husks and sand, from the grain. They use a large wooden scoop called a
"Thardo," and by a peculiar motion of the wrist and fingers the
substances readily divide a stream of pure grass seeds coming out at
one end and the refuse at the other. I have given them equal parts of
sugar and sand to divide as a test, and the result was the same--the
sugar was quite clear of sand, whilst the operation was accomplished
in a very short time. If the natives were sufficiently resourceful
they could store enough grass seeds to last them through a drought,
but they make very little provision in this way. They do, however,
gather small quantities in heaps, which they cover with bark, and they
find even this a great stand-by. They can light a fire by means of two
sticks. One of these, with a hole and grooved partly on one side, is
laid on the ground. Then an upright piece is worked in the hole by
downward pressure of the palms of the hands, and the friction produces
fire. For the purpose of lighting tires they carry amongst their
belongings the most suitable sticks they can obtain.

A weed which grows amongst the rocks the natives use as tobacco. After
breaking it up fine they mix it with hot ashes and a few drops of
water, rolling it up in a light covering of fibres that are obtained
from the roots of some grasses. They chew the quid, swallowing the
juice. After each man has taken a few draws--which is generally
sufficient--it is passed on to the women.

The natives of these parts--I am referring to civilized ones--are very
dirty in their habits. They have a great love for new clothes,
especially for those of brilliant colors. It is with the greatest
difficulty they are made to keep themselves clean, even when they are
sufficiently domesticated to become housemaids.

They have no cooking utensils such as pots and pans, all the cooking
being done in the ashes or coals or by heated stones.

It is most wonderful how these natives know each others tracks by some
peculiarity they detect in the impression. It is impossible to deceive
them, as they have only to see ones footprints a few times to know
them, and they can pick out any natives' tracks from dozens of others.
This they can do also with horses and other stock.

They have a name for every hill, river and its branches, and for
everything. The cajeput tree they call "Talgue," the trunk they call
"Cuddarah," the roots "Culka," the branches "Gualle," the twigs
"Gnallera," the leaves "Barngher," the flower "Cullobin," the nut
"Buller," the bark "Millie." They also have every portion, bone, and
organ of the body named.


WHENEVER the natives congregate for an purpose they always have
amusements of all kinds and a grand ball called a "Corroborie," which
everyone attends. The men dress as follows: The body is greased, and
then stripes of white down feathers, red ochre, white pipe clay, and
charcoal are affixed to and painted on the body perpendicularly, but
on the thighs the stripes are horizontal. The hair is dressed with
white feathers and wood shavings. In each hand is carried a stick
about two feet long with shavings along them at regular intervals.
They wear a bunch of emu feathers on each arm and a larger bunch
fastened as an appendage to the back of the belt. The master of
ceremonies is also in full dress, but has his head-dress of shaved
sticks, laced and interlaced with spun hair, to which are adhered down
feathers. The songster has two flat smoothly-hewn thin half-circles of
wood called "Coyleys." These are held one in each hand and beaten
together like the rattling of bones in a christy minstrel performance,
excellent time being kept. When the song starts the men are about
twenty feet away. The M.C. rushes out to the front followed by the
whole company in single file, who then dance into a square. At times
they are four deep and at others eight, and they are clever in forming
squares and changing into lines so readily. They have no partners.
Each raises his foot at the same moment about two feet high and brings
it down with great force. The soil is usually soft, and the thud
caused by so many feet striking the earth at the same time can be
heard some distance away. The women join in the dance on the outer
edge, but they do not lift their feet as the men do, keeping time by
gliding from right to left, their arms swinging to time also. The
women do not dress for the occasion. At the close of the dance the men
shake their bodies as though shivering with extreme cold, and whoever
can thus rid himself of the most feathers is considered the best

For pastime they throw the coyleys, which owing to their peculiar
shape return to the spot from whence they were thrown after taking two
or more complete circles in the air. They also throw their spears for
practice at something soft, such as a light sheet of bark at about 15
to 20 yards. Their game, however, is usually speared at a much shorter
range. They pick sides and throw blunted miniature spears at each
other. They can either dodge these spears or turn them off with a
small stick held in the left hand, and they seem to enjoy this sport
immensely. After sharpening these spears they throw along the ground
round pieces of gum bark with all the speed they can, and as the bark
passes by, those on the opposite side have to spear it while in
motion, but as they have no way of counting neither side wins or
loses. They cannot count above three, their numeration being as
follows: "Cungerie," one; "Coothera," two; "Bruggo," three. They also
find amusement in a programme of songs in which all take part. For
keeping time they use their throwing stick, which has a number of
small notches on its side for this purpose. With a two-pronged stick
they scrape three beats, as up, down, up, along the small notches. At
other times they mark time by clapping their hands together.


They have very many rock carvings; every hill that has suitably hard
stone will have some kind of figure tattooed thereon. They do not
choose the softer rocks, and mainly prefer the basalt and granite. The
method adopted is to draw the outline with chalk or ochre and with a
sharp hard stone hammer within the outline until the rock is fretted
away about one-eighth of an inch deep. Some of the figures are very
large, whilst others are small. None of the outlines show much
aptitude for drawing. The head is round, then a straight line much
smaller than the head represents the trunk of the body. A slighter
line on each side represents the arms, with a bend for the elbow, and
a large ball at the end of each of these line, represents the hands.
Each leg is the same size as the body, with enormous feet, the whole
being greatly out of proportion. Some, however, are done a little
better, but others so badly that they require explaining. The carvings
are mainly representative of men, kangaroos, rats, opossums, emus,
turkeys, fishes, spears, shields, native weapons of all kinds, and
many men and women in a variety of vulgar attitudes.


THEIR mode of fighting is most cruel. They have long spears barbed in
rows and, sometimes double rows for one foot from the point. In the
case of a quarrel between two men, they stand about 20 paces apart,
and each throws his spears at the other's thighs. For warding off
these spears each warrior has a shield made of light wood, which is
used with the utmost dexterity. After a few turns they close in, and
each man offers first his left thigh to the other to be stabbed with
the larger spear. This they continue in turns, and the one who falls
first is the vanquished, but often the combat ends in a free fight in
which many men are wounded. The relatives grow angry and resentful as
the combat proceeds, and then clubs, firesticks, stones, etc., as well
as spears are used. The victims are sometimes crippled for a few weeks
and suffer greatly. Charcoal is rubbed over the wounds to keep the
flies off. The fragments of the spears which have broken off in the
flesh cause festers, but the rapidity with which the wounds heal is
marvellous. In these "camp fights" it is the law to avoid spearing
each other above the thigh, though of course in tribal battles this
does not apply.

The natives are divided into many tribes, having their boundaries
defined. They are in constant dread of being killed, and do not allow
that any man dies from natural causes, holding that his death is
occasioned by the evil spirit or witchcraft of some other tribe, which
must be revenged. No doubt by this means they keep the fighting
strength of the tribes fairly equal. The method of deciding which
tribe has, worked this spell is as follows: All the warriors gather
round at a cleared patch of ground, dressed in full war paint--that
is, their bodies greased, then red ochre daubed all over with
occasional strips of white down feathers in the hair, red being the
predominant color. A lock of hair taken from the dead man's head is
curled and twisted up tightly by one of the magicians, who after a
lengthy address suddenly releases the hair, which owing to the
twisting it has received spins round in all directions. The victim for
revenge is considered to be located in the direction which the pointed
end of the hair finally indicates. The warriors accordingly set out,
and will travel for days, gathering strength as they go. The other
tribes, upon hearing of this, all muster for protection; and should
the two armies meet by mischance there is a battle. But this the
avengers try to avoid, as their mission is to kill one man isolated
from the rest and who is in all probability quite unaware of their
loss. Among the many tribes of the North-West district, a few are as

near Roebourne.

on the Yule River.

on the Shaw River.

on the Tableland.


head of the DeGrey and Oakover and Fortescue Rivers.

The natives' physicians are supposed to be able to cure their
illnesses and drive away the evil spirits of other tribes, providing
they have not used any exceptional witchcraft. When his attendance is
required the physician stands over the patient and groans aloud, and
then makes a noise resembling the hushing of a child to sleep. Next,
he stands with one foot upon the affected part, and then briskly rubs
and squeezes it with his hands. When he considers this massage has
been sufficient he puts his mouth over the affected part and proceeds
to draw out the evil spirit, calling it a "Warloo." After all the evil
spirits have been drawn out he runs some little distance with them in
his hand and carefully buries them; then be returns, puts his hand to
his side, draws out a good spirit, and inserts it into the patient.
The physician makes a clicking noise presumably with his finger
nails--which the natives of course believe is the spirit being drawn
out. When they have rheumatism, neuralgia, or headache they bind the
affected part with runners or creepers, but have very few decoctions
of herbal remedies.

The natives tell me that the tribes used to wage war against each
other, the victors taking away the women and children, and that there
are many battlefields in the district. The weapons used were spears,
coyleys, shields, and clubs. Many would be slain on the field, and the
weaker side would have to flee for their lives. As they took no
prisoners and gave no quarter, all the wounded enemy would be slain,
and parts of them eaten, whilst their women would be taken captive.
Those who ran away would gather forces again and set out to overtake
the victors, have their revenge, and bring back their women. The
retreating force would consequently have to leave the rivers and
plains and work their way home through the hills and ranges, and in
this way were not always overtaken. The natives have to keep their
women fairly near them when marching to battle, as if they were left
behind a tribe from some unexpected quarter might kidnap them. They
offer up some portion of their slain kinsmen--usually the arm--to
fire, and go through a ceremony of sacrifice to will that plague and
disease may overtake their enemy. They do not bury the dead, but leave
them on the field. It must be borne in mind that, all the natives of
the North are cannibals. and eat some portion of their victims.
Sometimes when kinsmen meet they cut a vein in each other's arm,
collecting and mixing the blood therefrom in a shell or other vessel,
and pass it around, each taking a deep draught.


WHEN a death occurs in the camp the men and women throw themselves on
the ground, run a few paces, and prostrate themselves again, beating
their heads with shells and stones,--the men using the ends of their
throwing-sticks, in each of which is set a piece of flint for cutting
purposes with spinifex wax called "Bulga." It is quite usual to see
streams of blood pouring from their heads. They lie upon the body to
signify they would like to restore life. The near relatives cut off
and keep the deceased's hair, often dressing their own hair and beard
with it. In memorial they gather round and cry every time that stage
of the moon returns, as they mark the time by new and full moon. This
is done every month until the season changes, as although they cannot
count, they know the periods of summer and winter--not only by the
heat and cold, but by the difference in the vegetation. They have no
regular hour of burial. The body is placed in a grave about four feet
deep, generally in a sitting posture facing the direction of its
birthplace, and is covered over with paper bark. Then the grave is
filled in with earth. If the deceased has been a good warrior they
encircle the grave with boughs and decorated with a few relies. All
men attending the burial are in war paint, and on some occasions the
body is similarly dressed. If the deceased has been a good sportsman
they often place his body among the rocks, and after a time his family
circle gather and keep in their possession his small bones, which are
supposed to impart to them his skill in hunting. The near relations,
as a semblance of mourning, refrain from eating fish or kangaroo,
unless the latter is a very small one. This they call being "Chadgie"
until the season has passed, when one of the elders terminates the
observance by rubbing them across the mouth with a piece of kangaroo
flesh, when the fast is broken.

On some occasions all the elders are through unavoidable causes not
present at the death and burial, and on their arrival a very
interesting display of sympathy is witnessed. The visitor, who is
fully armed but not in war paint, approaches within about thirty yards
of the camp and awaits the coming of an elder, who is likewise armed.
They assume attitudes of defiance, and parley over the cause of death
until the visitor is in possession of all the circumstances. They then
drop their weapons and rush into each other's arms, weep together in a
loud voice, and finally the younger thrusts his hand under the thigh
of the elder, whilst the relatives gather round and offer their legs
to the visitor to spear. He takes his spear and after a mock attack
touches or pricks their legs with the point. Sometimes, however, if he
finds anyone is directly responsible for the death, the visitor spears
him severely. The women gather with their visitors, sitting in a close
circle on the ground, crying loudly together, and striking each other
gently on the neck. They sing no chants or songs in connection with a
death or burial.


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