[Editor: An article on the work of Daisy Bates. Published in The Sunday Times, 11 September 1921.]
Among the Aborigines
A Perth lady’s visit
Mrs. Daisy Bates eulogised
By Miss C. L. Ruxton.
[Recently Miss C. L. Ruxton, of Government House, Perth, paid a visit to Mrs. Daisy Bates and the native camps at Ooldea on the Trans-Australian Railway. At the request of “The Sunday Times” Miss Ruxton readily consented to write her impressions of the visit, which are given below, and will we are sure prove both interesting and instructive.]
When Mrs. Daisy Bates invited me to spend a few days at her native camp in South Australia, I accepted with pleasure. All that I had read about the Australian aborigines had interested me very much, so I was glad to have the opportunity of seeing some of their manners and customs for myself. I left Perth on July 16, and after rather a wearisome journey of 999 miles arrived on the afternoon of the 18th at Ooldea, a lonely little siding on the Trans-Australian Railway, situated on the fringe of the great Nullarbor Plain, and consisting merely of two or three houses belonging to the railway officials.
Mrs. Bates, with a number of her black friends, met me at the siding, and I confess that my first view of the South Australian aborigines was most disappointing. Clad in the motley rags of civilisation, they looked a most miserable, degenerate race; but I rather altered my opinion when I knew them better. After considerable delay and a good deal of chattering, my baggage was put into a camel buggy, which had come into Ooldea that morning, and had been commandeered by my hostess to convey me and my luggage, which consisted, chiefly, of stores for the natives, to our camp nearly a mile distant. We both got in, so did as many of the natives as could find standing room, the rest hanging on behind or running after us with shouts and screams.
The camels set off across the bush at a good pace, which gradually became faster and faster, until I fully realised what the feelings of a shuttlecock must be, and remarked that I had always imagined that camels, especially in harness, maintained a slow and dignified gait. Mrs. Bates informed me that I was enjoying the unique experience of being run away with in a camel buggy, the old native driver muttering that “they soon finissem us up.” However, some very steep sandhills checked their wild-career, and we arrived intact at our little camp, which consisted of an enclosure, surrounded by cut bushes about 3ft. high, two little tents, one having by been kindly sent up from Perth for me by the Government; a table, made out of a packing case, two chairs, a camp stool, and open fireplace with a tripod, a few cooking utensils, and a large number of kerosene tins. Everything was beautifully clean and neat.
As the natives, numbering now about 80, not including babies and dogs, were all standing round outside the enclosure, with looks of eager expectancy, obviously the first thing to do was to unpack the stores, and when I laid on the table a number of old pipes —some given to me by His Excellency, others by Mr. E. Chase, as well as some lbs. of tobacco, a deep groan of wonder and admiration came from the old men, forgetting their good manners, rushed in, grabbing as many pipes as they could, but at a word from Mrs. Bates they put them back on the table, though I saw one of them secrete a pipe in his back hair, and then come forward innocently to receive another. We then distributed tea, sugar, flour, and biscuits. Soon numerous little fires were alight all round our camp, tea and damper being the order of the evening.
As soon as it began to grow dusk, one by one the groups returned to the shelter of their own camp about a quarter of a mile from ours, no native liking to be out after dark for fear of “debbil debbils.”
The incessant chattering, whining of children, and barking of dogs ceased, and all was silent. Such a silence — the silence of the bush — there is no other like it. It was a wonderful evening. The vast Nullarbor Plain, stretching away below our tents into infinity, was glowing with the evening glory; now steeped in crimson, then changing to rose, green, and amber, fading at last away into a delicate mauve, until the rising full moon turned all to silver.
After an excellent supper of eggs, potatoes roasted in the ashes, damper, and tea, sounds of weird music warned us that it was time to set off to the natives’ camp for the e’enma, or corroboree, which was to be given in my honor.
I shall never forget my first sight of the camp by moonlight, with the countless fires, the fantastic shapes of the mallee gums, native cork and black oak trees, the dusky figures creeping in and out of the bushes, was unlike anything I had seen before.
The men and boys who were to take part in the corroboree had discarded their rags, and I had sent word to say that I did not want them to dance in “whitefella” clothes, so they were in full warlike attire, which consisted of a great deal of red and white paint in various designs, according to the totem to which they belonged — a girdle made of dozens of strands of soft string, spun from wombat or rabbit or human hair, when procurable. I believe that the hair of every mother-in law becomes the son-in-law’s property as soon as he is betrothed, and must be delivered up when asked for. A tassel fastened to the girdle, a piece of pearl shell round the neck or a string of human hair, and a polished white bone about six inches long through the nostrils completed the costume.
Many styles of hairdressing were in vogue; some ornamented with colored bands, drawn tight across the foreheads; some with white and red feathers; and others had white rosettes over each ear, made of green sticks peeled to within an inch of the top, the curled white shavings, like plumes, were most effective. They all had kajji (spears), jurding (clubs), and dharra (shields), and looked very different from the tatterdemalian crew I had seen that afternoon at the siding.
The old men and women sat round in circles, beating on the ground with their clubs, and really making rhythmical sounds, singing at the same time what sounded like a strange Gregorian chant. At first the music was soft and slow, growing louder and faster until it reached its highest pitch, and then the dancers dashed out of the bushes with astounding cries, brandishing their weapons and performing several grotesque kinds of dances. One of these interested me very much.
A man, supposed to be a kangaroo, lay on the ground asleep, while several others, representing dingoes, danced around him, uttering short barks and howls, keeping time with the music, and trying to strike him with their spears and clubs, but he always managed to hop away. We were then told to turn our backs and not look, and after a brief interval we were requested to turn round again, but neither kangaroo nor dingoes were visible. However, presently we saw the sand in front of us moving; out came the head of the kangaroo man, and then the rest of his body; he then disappeared from sight into the bushes. The meaning of this totem dance is, briefly, this: No man of the kangaroo totem can die, for even though put into the ground he will rise out of it, and if he has kept his tribal laws and has been good “blackfella” he is taken up by the Great Spirit of his Totem, who lives in one of the constellations. A legend touching rather closely on to our Christian belief.
A great honor was paid me. I was told that I might look on at one of their secret spirit dances, which no woman may look at on pain of death. At a given signal every woman and child in the camp had to retire some distance, turn their backs, and hide their faces in the sand.
The old men then started a most dismal dirge. About a dozen little fires were rapidly lit by two men running in front of the others, while the rest of the performers, with the strangest of gestures and gyrations, danced in and out of the fires, making a curious hissing noise. It was certainly a very creepy performance, and I believe Mrs. Bates and I are the only women who have seen it.
This finished the corroboree. It was past 11 o’clock, so we walked back in the beautiful moonlight to our lonely little camp.
Next day we paid a visit to the Ooldea Soak, about four miles distant. Mr. Murray having kindly telegraphed that I might keep the camel buggy for another day, we set off in it, accompanied by two small boys. The Soak is well worth a visit. In the centre of a valley surrounded entirely by very high sandhills, any amount of good fresh water is to be found quite near the surface, though a few feet further down it becomes bitter and undrinkable. Many wells have been sunk, a pumping station has been established, and I am told that 10,000 gallons are pumped daily down to Ooldea to supply the stations on the line.
We halted in the bush for our luncheon of cheese, damper, and tea without milk. The boys dug up a very large bardee, or milberte, as they call it, which they brought me as a great delicacy. It was a fat white grub, about four inches long. They expected me to eat it then and there, but I insisted on cooking it in the hot ashes, and it took a good deal of courage to eat part of it, although it really tasted like an oyster flavored with almonds. They brought me also a little snake, six inches long, with yellow and black stripes all round its body. This I flatly declined to eat, and managed to get it into a matchbox, which I filled with sand. I brought it back to Perth alive, but as it did not prove a welcome guest I took it over to the Zoological Gardens, and presented it to Mr. Le Souef, who told me that it was a rainbow snake, very venomous, and it was the first one he had seen. The legend attached to it comes from the North. There was once a violent hailstorm, and the natives, who had never seen hailstones before, watched them disappearing into the ground, and concluded that they had burrowed in.
One of them, more enterprising than the rest, began to dig, and instead of the little white stones, found a number of tiny snakes with colored lines round their bodies. A rainbow appearing at the same time, they decided that the hailstones were the rainbow’s eggs, and hatched out into snakes in the ground; so they believe that a rainbow snake brings hail and rain, and, curiously enough, the day after I brought my little snake back to Perth there was a heavy hailstorm.
There happened to be a larger mob of natives than usual in the Ooldea camp, consisting of families from several different groups — some from the Musgrove and Everard Ranges and from the local Ganggungarra, Beejinjarra, and Gagganumgri groups. They are a wandering people, journeying from water hole to water hole, seldom staying long in any place, and subsisting chiefly on reptiles, insects, roots, and berries.
In the summer their dwellings consist merely of a few cut bushes to serve as break wind; in winter they build beehive huts of branches, and have a fire always burning in front.
Their relationships are quite beyond me. Only three generations count — child, parent, grandparent. When these are finished they begin again, and your great-grandmother becomes your child! I am told that when once I get to the root of the matter, it will be quite easy to understand why a grown man will call a boy “uncle” and a baby girl “mother,” but I doubt my intellect ever being able to grasp these complicated relationships. Mrs. Bates is “kabbarli” (grandmother), and I am “kabbarli mallaing” (grandmother’s younger sister) to the whole tribe.
I cannot speak too highly of the courtesy, good manners, and honesty of these natives. If any of them came to our camp while we were having a meal, they always retired to some distance and turned their backs. The day we went to the Ooldea Soak we were away for several hours. Not a thing had been touched, though all the stores were quite easily got at. Nothing was locked up, but there was not a footprint on the sand. Not a soul had been inside our enclosure, which I think speaks well for Mrs. Bates’ teaching. They were always ready to help to carry water and fetch the firewood. They brought me all kinds of things to eat — roots and berries, some of them quite edible; reptiles of all sorts, iguanas, snakes, and even a barking lizard.
The old men came over one morning and showed me how they spin rabbit and wombat fur into string, by rubbing it on their bare legs, then winding it on to a spindle made out of willow sticks. They also taught me how to make a fire by rubbing a hard and soft wood together in the sawing method, and as a great favour allowed me to see them use the “kalligura” or bull-roarer — an instrument of a very mysterious and sacred nature. It is a piece of wood slightly hollowed out on one side, about 18 inches long and a quarter of an inch thick. A string is passed through a hole at one end: the man swings it round his head until the string is taut. It makes the most unearthly sounds imaginable, which carry a great distance. This kalligura is always carefully hidden from the women and children, and whenever it is heard they know that they must not come near. I cannot end this inadequate account of my very interesting visit to the Ooldea Native Camp without saying a few words about the work which Mrs. Bates is doing among this remnant of a fast-dying race — one of the most ancient races in existence.
Her great object is to bring some little comfort and happiness into their lives, the women being her special care, for their lives are indeed miserable. Every cruelty is practised on them; every burden is laid upon them. They are the last to be fed; even the dogs are of greater account.
Mrs. Bates tries to teach the natives honesty. By her courtesy to them she teaches them to be courteous. She impresses upon them the terrible evils of cannibalism, cases of which occurred in the camp not many months ago among natives who recently came down from the ranges. She does her utmost to prevent them mixing with white people, and urges them to keep their tribal laws, which are very strict as regards marriage, but which are rapidly being cast on one side. All day long they come with their troubles and ailments to her tent. “Kabbarli, Kabbarli,” is the never-ceasing call. She listens to them with the greatest patience and kindness, and she has a wonderful influence over them. One night by her tact and her wonderful knowledge of their ways and dialects, she prevented what would have been a fight between two groups certain to have ended in bloodshed.
Very few realise what a lonely, self-sacrificing life she leads, and when I saw her kneeling, as I often did, in the sand, beside some of these poor, suffering creatures, rubbing their chests with linaments or dressing some wounds, I felt sure that the words “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto Me,” were true in her case.
The day I left the natives came to bid me good-bye, bringing me many beautiful specimens of weapons, etc., and when the train left the little siding of Ooldea I felt that the interest of my four days’ visit would more than repay me for the 2000 miles of railway travelling.
The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 11 September 1921, page 13
tatterdemalion = someone dressed in tattered clothing; being in a dilapidated, ragged, shabby, or unkempt condition
[Editor: Corrected “rythmical” to “rhythmical”. The word “repay” is unclear in the scanned text, but it is estimated that it is the correct word.]