People of the Dreamtime

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“People of the Dreamtime,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1981, 6

People of the Dreamtime

For many hundreds of years the People of the Dreamtime have lived in Australia. They are called aborigines, which means the first or original people of a land.

A great deal of Australia is barren desert land. And the dusky skin of the aborigines gives them some protection from the blazing sun. But more than anything, it is their wisdom of the earth and their remarkable self-discipline that make it possible for them to exist under such harsh conditions.

In the Australian outback the aborigines don’t raise any crops, nor do they have domestic animals or beasts of burden to tend. The people do no weaving, make no pottery, and very seldom have any surplus food to store. They have to spend most of every day hunting and gathering food. Some days no food is found.

At a very early age, children learn to be food-gatherers, and as soon as they can walk, a young woman of the camp takes the little tots out some distance into the bush to teach them how to survive. The first lesson they learn is how to read messages printed on the ground by walking feet. By the time an aborigine child is two or three years old, he can find his own mother’s footprints among all the tracks of the camp. The ground is so bare you and I might not be able to see any footprints at all! Soon the little ones are following trails of spiders and insects and small lizards. Now they will not starve or be lost if they are ever on their own.

All the lessons teach the children how their lives must follow the rhythm of the land. They learn when the food plants ripen, when the reptiles awake from winter’s sleep, when the migrations of birds occur and the meanings of their calls, and how to locate water and food when it seems there is none to be found. The children like all things the earth provides for them to eat.

There are usually about a dozen or so people in a camp, all part of a larger tribe. They roam in small groups and live off the land. The men hunt kangaroos, emus, and other big birds with boomerangs, spears, and woomeras. A woomera or spear thrower is a device made from a piece of wood with an attached thong that helps a hunter give his spear a more powerful throw.

The women and children hunt smaller creatures that cannot so easily run away. They might be able to kill a snake or goanna lizard with stones or snare a bird. Everyone shares in the food, no matter who provides it. The successful game hunter gets a smaller portion. He has the glory of providing food for the camp and making his family proud and honored. The people know that if they do not share and help each other, none could survive.

When food is scarce, the camp has to move every day. Most animals forage during the cool of night, so the aborigine hunters glide off into the chilly dawn mists with weapons ready to stalk the creatures before they return to their daytime sleeping places. A little later the rest of the camp follows, staying far behind so they will not frighten off any game animals.

The women and children carry the family’s possessions: digging stick, grinding stones, dilly bag, and coolamon. A dilly bag is a net pouch tied to a string around the waist, and it holds small treasures such as totem charms. A coolamon—used for holding food, fuel, or a baby—is a long bowl made from a small hollowed-out log.

As they travel, the aborigine women and children watch for signs of food. They dig among certain roots for plump white witchetty grubs that are delicious either roasted or raw. They stalk goannas and other lizards and gather seeds and berries. Some women are skillful at unearthing an ant bed without completely destroying it. They dig alongside the main tunnel, being careful not to break through until they come to the chambers laden with sweet ant eggs. If someone finds a honey tree, the whole camp stops while it is harvested in an ancient way by the honey gatherers. They thank the bees for their hard work and ask permission to share in the honey. Then everyone has a delicious treat.

Sometimes it does not rain in the desert all year; sometimes not even for two, three, or four years. Not a drop! Whenever such a drought occurs in this arid land, the cattle on the great stations, or ranches belonging to nonaborigines, die of thirst and starvation. While the hungry aborigines roam the parched land, searing cliffs, and drifting sand, searching and searching for food, they remember where there are ancient and sacred water holes among the rocks that can be used in time of great need. They keep these basins of water carefully covered so that the life-giving liquid won’t evaporate or be fouled. Each drop is rationed, for it is a terrible crime to waste such precious water.

The rivers and lakes dry up soon after the infrequent rains, and the birds and animals are forced to leave. Sometimes the aborigines search the dried mud beds of lakes and rivers for tiny air holes, a sign that frogs have burrowed deep in the damp earth to wait till the rains come again. The people dig them up and squeeze out the life-saving fluids the animals have stored in their bodies.

When the rains come pounding and pouring again, rivers may flood over miles of open country. The land springs into life once more, and seeds sprout and grow practically overnight. For miles the earth is covered with a flower carpet of glowing colors. The animals grow healthy and have more young. Ducks, herons, and geese gratefully return and almost cover the brimming lakes and billabongs (ponds made by flooded rivers and lakes). Flocks of parrots, budgerigars (parakeets), and lovely pink and gray galahs (cockatoos) flash rainbows of color over the watering places and gentle green plains.

Food is plentiful for a while. The People of the Dreamtime live more easily. The men make new hunting weapons and repair broken ones. The young boys watch and make their own play weapons. The girls learn from the women how to knot fibers into dilly bags.

Chanting and dancing to the rhythms of didgeridoos (musical bamboo pipes) and clickety sticks, the people hold ritual corroborees (celebrations), whose beginnings reach far back into the dreamtime, the time before the time of this earth. Sometimes it is a corroboree of thanks for the rain and successful hunting. Another time dancers are costumed and painted to represent emus or animals. The dance mimics the creatures’ habits and the ways man can outwit them in the hunt. Sometimes it is a sacred and secret corroboree in which grown boys have their hardest lessons and tests, initiating them into manhood.

During this fertile season, there is more time for children to play. They pretend to stalk game or run races and have jumping contests. They play a game like jacks with small stones. When there is enough water, the children splash in it all day long. Swimming seems to come naturally to them. One way they hunt ducks is to swim silently underwater where they grab the ducks’ feet and pull them under, one after another, before they are scared off.

At night around the fire they sing and tell tales—maybe retelling the details of the exciting hunt that put a fat kangaroo on the roasting fire that day. They may relate mystical stories of tribal ancestors represented by a turtle, kangaroo, emu, snake, or lizard. Or tales may be told about the spirit people of the dreamtime, stories as old as the world, but ever new with each telling.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney