National Geographic : 2013 Jun
First Australians 81 them. But she does believe she’s related to them. She calls them her grannies. “I tried to have a nap,” she once told me, “but my grannies were all there.” She was being funny—she said it with a smile—though her meaning was serious. Sand flies might torment her, but they are part of her land and therefore imbued with a meaning and a spirit and an essential purpose. The purpose that day, she suggested, was to prevent her from nap- ping, to help her understand that life is not easy. According to Aboriginal lore, all the Earth’s surface was once a featureless expanse of mud or clay. Then ancestral beings emerged from beneath the surface or from the sky, assumed the form of an animal or plant or human, and journeyed across the land, performing great deeds of creation, shaping the mud into rivers, hills, islands, caves. This took place in an age known as the Dreamtime. And the path each of these beings took, the countryside they molded before burrowing back into the ground, is called a Songline. The ancestral beings also gave birth to all liv- ing things, including humans. They bestowed language, knowledge, ritual, and faith. Every Aboriginal has a Dreaming—the ancestor that gave rise to him or her, be it snake or turtle or yam. One of Batumbil’s family’s Dreamings is the dingo, the wild dog of Australia, which is why she loves to be surrounded by dogs. It’s es- sential, Batumbil says, to know the Songline of your Dreaming, to be able to follow the route of your particular ancestral being, to speak its language, to learn its music. This all-encompassing spirituality is not ex- pressed overtly. People in Matamata don’t go around constantly praying or singing. In daily life, in fact, there seems to be no obvious ritual at all, though there are superstitions. Walking alone, it’s believed, makes you vulnerable to sor- cery. Even when someone in Matamata goes to the bathroom—there are outhouses—it is stan- dard to take a partner along. At the Matamata cemetery, the grave sites piled with plastic flow- ers, the only religious symbol is a Christian cross with the words “I Am the Way” written on it in English, evidence of the Methodist missionaries who arrived in Arnhem Land in the early 1900s. There are two main occasions when the full force of Aboriginal beliefs is on display: at a boy’s ini- tiation ceremony, which takes place around age ten, and at a funeral. I’m invited to join several people from Mata- mata at a funeral for a respected Yolngu elder, held on an expanse of beach sand near the town of Yirrkala. The men smear their faces and bod- ies with white clay and move onto the sand in a large group, carrying ceremonial spears. They stand before a specially constructed cloth-walled tent in which the body lies. Older men provide the music—a rhythmic crack of clapsticks, a trilling chant, the thrumming drone of the didgeridoo. Then the dancers, like the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime, seem to shift shape before my eyes, contorting their bodies, elongat- ing their necks, stomping their feet and thrust- ing spears, all moving together, a many-legged creature, sand flying, sweat streaming. Each dance, mimicking an animal or a natu- ral event, is short and intense. There’s the white seagull dance, the octopus dance, the north wind dance, the cockatoo dance. Some are performed only by women. The dances last all day, and an- other, and another—the funeral carries on for ten days—as people stream in from commu- nities across the bush to pay respect, to dance some more, to set the soul on its journey with the grandest possible send-off. I ask a couple The dancers seem to shift shape before my eyes, contorting their bodies, elongating their necks, all moving together, a many-legged creature.