National Geographic : 1953 Jan
From Spear to Hoe on Groote Eylandt He tried new ideas, drew up his own regula tions, and aimed at a fair deal for all. But native customs, strong enough to endure untold centuries, didn't die overnight, or even within a decade in some instances. Umba kumba women continued to take a back seat. Upon one thing Gray rigidly insisted, and in it he singularly succeeded: one wife per man. Polygamists had to clear out. Although it might appear that men gener ally had more privileges than women, they got only what they earned at Umbakumba. A man worked hard; if not, no food or to bacco. He had his choice: either back to the garden or back to the bush. The settlement asked less of a woman. So earnest laborers ate well and rested after dinner. Then glistening black backs bent again in the fields. Small dark heads leaned over lined papers, birdlike hands busily scratching away at the alphabet. School Out, Children Play An awkward flight of white cockatoos squawked raucously in the quiet of later after noon. Marjorie dismissed the class. Some boys rushed to the beach to play soccer, others to the lagoon with toy sailboats. Sitting in a circle on the sand, girls turned sticks or stones into dolls dressed in scraps of bright calico. Toward sundown I walked in from the garden with Fred. We followed a fellow carrying a boomerang. "But Groote Eylandt natives don't use boomerangs, do they?" I asked. "Only to fight with," Fred said. "There are rumors that a mainland tribe plans to attack Umbakumba, and some of our boys are merely getting ready." "What would they be fighting about?" I asked. "The mainlanders believe that one of the women here in the settlement really belongs to them," Fred told me, "and they're coming over to get her. The Umbakumba natives won't let her go without a fight. It's the same old story-squabbling over a woman." Because of the possible attack on Groote Eylandt, Fred let the men put their spears in fighting trim. They prepared shovel-nose and wood-barbed types. The former was made by arduously pounding a steel rod into a flat blade about a foot long. Slightly rounded at one end and sharpened at the edges, this head fitted into a slender wooden shaft. White man's steel had replaced quartz ite of the Stone Age. The other type consisted of a dozen barbs carved along the business end of a wooden spear somewhat longer than the shovel-nose kind. Savagely inextricable, it dated from who knows when. When finished with their weapons, the natives had to turn them over to Fred. They could reclaim them only in the event of tribal war. If allowed to keep these spears in camp, men sometimes used them to win a point in disagreements among themselves. Gray's ruling did not apply to lighter jave lins used for stabbing fish. False Alarm; Weapons Returned Once, in Fred's absence, the defenders of Umbakumba had gone to Marjorie for their fighting spears. They had seen fires to the northwest and believed the enemy assembled there. It all pointed to an attack on the settle ment. So Marjorie handed over the weapons. "And be sure to bring them back as soon as you've finished," she said, as if lending children scissors to cut out paper dolls. Shortly afterward, the blackfellows sol emnly returned the borrowed goods. Another false alarm. They withdrew to the garden and began to hoe sweet potatoes. I stopped by the goat pen to watch boys at evening milking. A restless nanny kicked over a partly filled pail. "Ah, naughty girl," scolded a boy. "Wast ing milk!" All too often while watering flowers by the homestead, he himself had heard the repri mand, "Ah, naughty boy, wasting water!" But now he could exercise his authority over an unruly goat, and he didn't miss the oppor tunity. After supper, children gathered regularly in the Grays' dining room for the customary handout of candy-two lollies per child. One day Marjorie told the whole class there would be no candy that evening; all had behaved badly in school. Nevertheless, they showed up as usual after supper. "What did I say to you at the end of class today?" Marjorie remonstrated. "You said, 'Good afternoon, children,' " volunteered one of the smaller boys with a very innocent expression. Who, in her place, could have withheld the lollies? A Session with Magazines Later, some boys asked permission to look at magazines. In groups of three or more they huddled on the floor, earnestly discussing each picture. They particularly liked color photographs in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. The fully lived day at the settlement ended only when native singing and dancing died in the deepening night. Then I listened to Little Lagoon whispering to an empty beach. And I heard an owl outside my window con tradict the quiet.