National Geographic : 1953 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine My legs, heavy as kegs of nails, ached with each step. Finally at dusk we emerged from the scrub and could see the garden. It made me feel suddenly as fresh as it looked, except for my gnawing hunger. The moral of all this is: If you go walkabout with natives, take your own food and eat it; aborigines know how to look out for them selves. On a real walkabout without white company, they carry absolutely no food at all, not even tea. They depend upon their spears, the sea, and the bush to supply them. Occasionally I went out to the garden just to visit Kulpija, one of the older men. If an aborigine could look like Abraham Lincoln, he came closest of any I saw. His pet corner of the field, and mine too, lay beside a billa bong. There the banana grove felt cool as a cathedral. Close by grew choice vegetables in the "kitchen garden," specially cultivated by Kul pija. In clever pattern he had laid out rows to take every advantage of gravity should the water pump fail, and he kept a large sprin kling can on hand in case the reservoir level fell too low. Pausing briefly for a smoke in the shade with me, Kulpija seldom spoke. I admired his dignity while he wondered about gravity. He carefully smothered a cigarette between his fingers, put it gently behind an ear, and left to plan a new irrigation channel. In another section I saw a group of women gathering long grass cut by men clearing ground. They laid the stuff in furrows of a field to be planted to sweet potatoes. Plowed into the earth, the grass helped form humus. Rewards Make a Difference I tried to photograph these women at work, but their shyness said no. They hid behind one another or their bundles, stopped in their tracks, or turned their backs. At first, in fact, my cameras put all natives on the defensive. Even men and boys reacted like wild animals at the flash of a hunter's gun, and little girls showed positive fear. I used a meter to determine exposure, point ing the instrument directly at my subject. To aborigines who had never before seen one, the thing had an evil eye. (If they level a certain bone at a member of their tribe, he is a goner; he goes off by himself and lies down to die.) But as time passed, the natives got used to me and my curious equipment. Males became nonchalant, taking light meter and lenses lightly, and the females ceased to run away. For being in pictures, I customarily re warded adults with tobacco, children with lollies. And when they found that I never let them down, their reserve disappeared like smoke in the southeasterly breeze. Soon they were going out of their way to supply human interest in my photographs. In the end, it was I who sometimes had to dodge the natives. Work in the garden started later than usual when the Grays set up shop at one end of the schoolroom. Once or twice a month they laid out knives, calico, needles, cotton thread, plug tobacco and the roll-your-own kind, along with other sundries. All the men at the settlement poured past me into the room when it opened for business. They laughed and chattered as they usually do in a gathering, but showed nervousness. The atmosphere was tense. Problem: What to Buy? With so little money to spend for so many things they wanted, the blackfellows had to strain their sense of values. I watched them thinking painfully hard about whether they could give precious silver pieces for this or that. Obvious relief followed the most trivial purchase. Several men I had not seen before showed up this morning at the store. They had jobs outside the garden. One of them was the tall, stringy, bush-headed cattleman. An elderly native known as Number One, he lived like a nomad with a herd of 20 head to provide Umbakumba with beef. He looked wilder than the beasts he pastured in the north half of Groote Eylandt. The shopping orgy spent itself within an hour. Comparing purchases, customers left by one door as children entered by another. The store reverted to a schoolroom; the settle ment returned to regular routine. Number One and the cattle moved off through the scrub as a friarbird called, "More tobacco, more tobacco." With Kulpija I walked toward the banana grove by the billabong. "What name your country?" he asked. I told him I came from America. "Longa that place-they bin got 'im good garden like this one Umbakumba?" Notice of change of address for your NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE should be received in the offices of the National Geographic Society by the first of the month to affect the following month's issue. For instance, if you desire the address changed for your March number, The Society should be notified of your new address not later than February 1. Be sure to include your postal-zone number.