In the book Daughters of the Dreaming, Diane Bell examines the lives of Aboriginal women in Central Australia by focusing on the nature and structure of women’s ritual in the region. Her observations challenge the popular anthropological characterizations of women’s lives as male-dominated and centered in the life of the camp with small religious ceremonies of little community importance (229). Bell explores “women’s rights and responsibilities in land, the nurturance themes celebrated in ritual, and women’s power to exclude men” (230) and finds that they are not fantasies or lost positions of autonomy and independence. Rather, women operate as their own agents within the structure of all Aboriginal society. Central to her analysis is the Law of Dreamtime (or jukurrpa), the rituals used by women to maintain social structure through jukurrpa, and the complexity of social relations within the structure of Central Australian Aboriginal society.
The idea of jukurrpa is vast, subtle and complex as well as way beyond the scope of this précis to articulate. In short, it is The Law that all the social factions revere as authoritative and through the dreaming, each generation interacts with the past—and each other (91). Through the jukurrpa, women keep the land alive and nurture the relationships of the living within their society (94). In fact, for Bell, the land is truly the power base of women and through the maintenance of responsibilities and the exercise of the rights to maintain the land (via jukurrpa), women have long enjoyed autonomy within their society (59, 95). Important locations, such as ‘ring places’ (110), are sites located at intersecting ‘dreaming tracks’ (138) at which rituals can be preformed that reflect the authority of women to try social offenders and resolve disputes, to offer healing and refuge, and to discuss matters of importance or give and receive counsel (124).
If the land provides the power base of autonomy for women within the Aboriginal social structure, it is through ritual that this autonomy is expressed and reified—all within the context of jukurrpa. For instance, when the yawulyu, a ceremony comprised of ‘women’s business’ (11), is preformed no men are allowed to observe; in fact they fear it. This ritual affords a time for “distant people [to] come together to exchange and assert their common bonds of responsibility to country” (126). Women lead the ritual, through the positions of kirda (who is responsible for certain knowledge encoded in the various aspects of the ritual) and kurdungurlu (who is responsible for the safety of the ritual objects; 139), informing the participants of the country and enacting the dreaming story through dance and visual markers displayed on the sacred painted boards. These visual cues may instruct observers about the country but only if the observer in schooled in the dreaming (127). This ceremony embodies three major themes: land, love and health—all within the context of jukurrpa (128). Here, fat is the central symbol that links these three themes as the past heroes rubbed the fat on their bodies to inspire beauty and demonstrate ‘glowing health’ (130). Through ritual and women’s interaction with the land, the jukurrpa is reaffirmed and reactivated.
Through the social links established by women, knowledge of the jukurrpa is transmitted and ritual reciprocity is established. Yilpinji, or ‘love rituals’ (162), are means in which women may influence marriage arrangements and find a husband. Missionaries have maligned these complex rituals (such as Phillip Creek) as ‘love magic’ and some Aboriginal men have continued this hegemony in order to defuse the influence of yilpinji (162). Bell explores two inter-related myths that embody the yilpinji: the kurinpi (or old women dreaming) and the ngapa (or rain) dreamings (164). Both dreamings consist of the exploration of the fears of women as they marry: (1) the loss of autonomy and (2) the desire for social intercourse (174). In both dreamings, women are either seduced or compelled into leaving their land and becoming isolated from family. Yilpinji is preformed to establish correct unions between men and women “and this is why it is feared by men: it impinges upon the set relationships which men claim to control through marriage alliances” (176). Through this ritual, women can overturn the plans of men and establish male-female relationships deemed legitimate by their society (177). Bell argues that this ritual should be understood within the context of land and as achieving socially approved ends (178). “In acting out the responsibilities the Law confers upon them as women, women engage in work which is distinctly theirs” which also allows them “to control this world and exclude men from this domain” (179).
Although men and women do compete in displays of knowledge of the jukurrpa, Bell argues that both men and women are united in the maintenance of their society in accordance with the Dreamtime Law and each maintains both a symbolic and a physical presence in each other’s rituals (183). Ceremonies known as yungkurru enable men and women to “make public statements about their own rituals and to allow the other to approach and to handle ritual objects” (184). This forum allows women to demonstrate their knowledge of the jukurrpa without providing men the opportunity to gain control of women’s autonomous world. Each group is allowed to demonstrate their unique contribution to the jukurrpa while also being able to monitor the content of the other’s ritual world (191). Each prepared songs, boards, and designs but only brought a fraction of the knowledge they had prepared to the yungkurru. However, each knew something of what the other had practiced in their respective work areas. Bell observed that during this ritual, women were not only able to direct men but were often the initiators of ritual action (193). Each was afforded opportunities to observe the ritual activities of the other.
In addition to coeducational ceremonies within a given community, Bell observed a yungkurru in which “the dreaming was extended to the east” (195) and another community was invited to participate. The women navigated the complex structure of Aboriginal society in order to ensure that men from both communities were included in the yawulyu (or women’s business) component of the Neutral Junction gathering. This joint ritual allowed people to exercise their responsibilities in the jukurrpa and this make public their rights in country (198). Although women took a decisive roll in choosing how much knowledge was displayed, women celebrated the interdependence of the roles of kirda and kurdungurlu as well as the inter-relations of the dreamings of ngapa, wardingi and yawakiyi while sharing knowledge with another group—and receiving instruction in a different understanding of the jukurrpa (201).
By extending their dreaming range and organizing ritual relationships with one another, women attempt to consolidate their position within the structure of Central Australian Aboriginal society at large (231). For Bell, settlement life is the greatest impediment to this consolation of women’s power of autonomy within their society. In the past, women “enjoyed a complex set of rights which were validated by their direct access to the Dreamtime and the use to which they put the land” (95). As white settlers and Aboriginal peoples began competing for resources (such as water for cattle), conflict between whites and Aborigines escalated into massacre (Coniston; 67), fewer foodstuff and water resources (69), and active conversion attempts to Christianity (64). The Australian government began distributing food (65) and soon Aboriginal people found fewer opportunities to work and were forced into vocations that reflect white ideals of the roles of men and women (86). Once, women could depend on the resources provided by the land for subsistence but governmental institutions began to narrow the opportunities of women (70) and although aspects of settlement life is incorporated into the ritual lives of women (example: Warrabri dreaming; 147), the autonomy women once enjoyed is severely limited by life in the settlement.
In order to create some autonomy, Kaytei women created a jilimi (single women camps; 11) where women could escape bad marriages and socialize with other women (84). This separation of the sexes and women’s independence are no longer mutually reinforcing values (84) as women are denied the freedom of unlimited access to resources provided by the land. Shifts in marriage systems of kinship, ritual transformation and the strengthening of male links between generations result in disequilibrium whereby men’s domain intrudes into the autonomy of women. As Bell observes, “it is the shattering of the ritually maintained nexus of land as resource and spiritual essence that I have located a shift from female autonomy to male control, from independence to dependence” (247). Men and women once negotiated roles but now women’s autonomy is lessened due to the loss of land over which to forage. By looking at the historical record of the past century, Bell argues that the material conditions have changed dramatically and this change is “reflected in ritual, both in terms of the way in which ideas are incorporated within the Law of the dreaming and in terms of the opportunity to stage rituals” (249).
Bell, D. (1993). Daughters of the Dreaming. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN: 0-8166-2398-8