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Aboriginal Women & Children

Childbirth itself is strictly the concern of the women. A camp is made apart from the rest of the community and the woman in labour is looked after by other women closely related to her.

The story which follows of the black snake man and his wife the dove gives a lovely account of the birth of a child to two Dreaming heroes from Cape York. The name calling procedure and the presentation of the baby to the father is still practised in these areas.

The Black Snake Man and His Wife, the Dove

The black snake and his wife, the dove, once lived by the river. Each day they gathered bush honey from the trees, laid it on tea-tree bark and carried it back to camp to eat. Some days the dove collected yams as well and her husband speared fish. They would either eat all their food at night in the camp, or wrap some up in tea-tree bark and carry it with them as they walked along the river to their next camp. One day as they prepared to travel further, the dove woman said, 'I'll sit here and rest, my husband, the child inside me is weighing me down heavily and will soon be born.'

Her husband told her to stay in the camp, and said he would go away to hunt until the baby came.

Dove woman knelt there, sitting on her heels, and cried, 'Ei! Ei! It's taking a long time, such a long time to be born . . . Now at last It's coming!'

As the baby's head emerged she cushioned it with her hands, then she called out, 'Ung-a! Ung-a! Now It's really born. Now it's born!' and she drew the tiny baby from her. Then the dove woman held the cord and said: 'I am alone, so I must hold the cord and call names for my baby myself. Who else is there to call for me?' and she called out names, one after the other. As she called 'Yumitya', her husband's name, the afterbirth came away, and she knew this was to be her son's name also.

Dove woman was very tired after the labour and, resting her little son on a soft cushion of paperbark, she lay down beside him and slept

.A little while later, her husband the black snake, came back and made a camp a short distance away from her. He sat down and, not looking in his wife's direction, said aloud, 'I wonder what the baby is.' Because of the taboo surrounding childbirth and the flow of blood at birth, the wife spoke aloud as if to herself, 'It's a man-child.' Gently, she put the baby to her breast and suckled it. For five days she rested there until the heavy bleeding stopped. Each day the husband, who could not approach her, left yams a little way off but within her reach. Neither of the parents could eat fish at this time. The next day she said aloud, 'I've finished with it,' meaning that the red blood had stopped and she was therefore able to find her own food. When the blood flow had ceased altogether, after about eight days, she said to her husband, 'I have recovered and will bring the baby to you.'

Dove woman then gathered yams and small fish and filled her dilly bags to the top; she put on a woven string girdle and covered her face with clay and her body with ashes. She rubbed her baby's skin with black charcoal, putting just a smear of white clay on his nose, and then cut off his dry umbilical cord to give to her husband. Gathering her newborn baby in her arms, she proudly carried him to his father.

Black Snake sat at his camp, and seeing the mother and child approaching, held out his arms to take his new baby. Black Snake sat and Dove came and knelt before him, giving the baby to him. Black Snake gazed down at his child for some time, then fastened the navel cord around his neck. The parents paused a little and together looked at their baby son. Then Dove woman laid her yams and fish before her husband and, picking up her dilly bag, rubbed it across her baby's mouth, saying, 'Don't cry too much.' Then she laid it on his stomach, saying, 'Don't run after others for food, come to us, your parents, and we will always keep together.'

Then husband and wife were reunited again. The wife made a fire and there they slept with their new boy-child.

The Early Years

From its first days in the arms of its mother through the years of early childhood, a child learns the right way to behave through the stories of the Dreaming. He already has his own totem, his family and clan, and his own Dreaming country, but he must be loved and cared for and taught the rules of everyday behaviour daily, as he is not yet a man. As soon as a child can walk, his grandfather or grandmother may then sing to him gently, songs of the land and its animals, rocks and trees, and of its waterholes with their fish, snakes and turtles. The child learns many lessons of daily life listening to cautionary tales from the Dreaming. In the Kimberley area, the Wuduu or 'laying of hands' on infants ensures they will walk strongly, grow tall, and observe the laws of the people. They will be independent and respected members of the community. By the campfires, in the early morning and at dusk, it is still a common sight today, as it was centuries ago, to see a grandmother or grandfather stretch her hands over the fire and gently touch the young child on various parts of the body, quietly and lovingly talking to it as she does so. Sam Woolgoodja speaks to his daughter:

Don't take.
"Wuduu, Wuduu": he showed us the Wuduu that we make.
At the fire I touch you—for the little boys and girls:
I hand you the strength of Wuduu, The men who know still touch them.
Don't let yourself be turned. So each day they learn to grow.
Here on your ankle,
Here on your knee, her two thighs, her two legs, her fingers -
Here on your thigh, The words are put there.
Stay strong, that the Wandjinas gave us.
Don't let your forehead swell. They said to keep on
(wait, wait). And until today these words have lived.
Don't say the words of the men, the Wuduu touching will not stop,
Don't go begging, granddaughter. It is our strength.

Namaaraalee is highest, he made it all,
We must keep those ways he pointed out.
Now that I have told you
We are walking to the place his body was cradled.
He is in the sky.
This half moon we will go to him.

Daisy Uternara, who is also from the Kimberleys, explains the significance of touching each part of the child:

'Now, the children had their lessons every day. Early morning and in the evening their grandmother and their mother warmed their hands and touched their forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and right down to their feet, which meant wuduu, the warming of hands. When they touched the forehead, that meant to give; and the nose, not to go around to another person's fire; eyes, not to see evil things and not to love up with any strangers; mouth, not to use bad language; hands, not to steal what doesn't belong to you; and the feet, not to trespass on other people's land. Now the father told the children about the wunun, which meant the sharing with other people. The father and mother and grandmother told them about sharing everything—the last thing you have, you must give."

David Mowaijarli's account of the wuduu explains the different instructions given to boys and girls:

'You were not just born for me, you were born for the whole neighbourhood. They rejoiced when you were born, oh, you are a real man born to us,' they tell you, and they pressed your hands. You might like adulterous ways, so they press your genitals; if you do, your testes might grow larghetto her, the young girl, they say, as they press her breasts, 'Don't sway about and don't concentrate on men with your gaze.' Then they press her pubic area. They say to them, 'only recognize one in-law, then become married'. 'Trouble and accidents occur when a kangaroo has a spear put through his buttocks and the spear breaks off and sticks out unexpectedly. 'I hit him with a stick,' they say, suddenly the kangaroo jumps and the spear takes off from the kangaroo and we are pierced, we get bumped onto the ground. We die. Then there is no neighbour about to help us in the bush. That's the accident that might happen. Don't neglect your neighbour.'

Stories told to children from the Dreaming may simply enrich and enhance their knowledge of their environment and the animals around them, explaining how all the creatures took on their present form, or they may serve to explain the right way to behave, the respect due to elders or the need to share food. A large body of oral literature of stories told to children deals with the responsibility of adults to care for children, and the necessity therefore for children to follow the advice and instructions of their parents carefully and to play close to the camp. Most Aboriginal communities instill the fear of evil spirits or devils in their children at an early age. These spirits often lurk in dark wooded areas, in caves, or at waterholes. They most frequently roam around at night but wayward children can be seized at any time. Mrs Elkin Umbagai's story of the Agula, the evil spirit or devil who eats children in the Kimberleys, is one such story.

How the Agula Swallowed the Two Boys

One day a man took these two little boys out hunting. He was their Gundi. They both went out with him, then at a certain place he told the boys to wait while he hunted. They were both playing and at the same time they were expecting the man, but instead of the man coming it was this Agula. The two tried to run away and hide but he soon got hold of one first and swallowed him and then the other one. Then he walked away. It was time for their boss to come back now. He called out to them but there was no answer. He said, 'This is the place where I left them both and they should be around.'

When he came closer he could see the tracks where the two boys tried to run away and hide. He looked carefully on the ground to see whose tracks they were. Then he saw these funny tracks on the ground and he knew it was the Agula. This man started to take a short cut. When he came to the place where he thought Agula had crossed he could see the footprints. This he did for quite a while. At last he got right ahead of this Agula. He came across the path where he thought the devil would pass. He looked for footprints but he couldn't see any so he thought he'd hide and wait there. He waited. First of all he heard parrots screeching, then he said, 'Well, he's on his weather he heard a cockatoo screeching. He then knew that the devil was coming closer. After the cockatoo, very close he could hear a rock pigeon flutter. Then he hooked his spear with his spear-thrower. The devil came by closer. The man waited till he passed just a few yards away. Then he speared him through the head, then again he put another one into him. He didn't want to spear the body, he knew the two boys were in there.

When the devil had fallen down the man cut the Agula open with a stone. He knocked out pieces from the rocks and cut him open with that. He took one of the boys out first. He found a nest of ants. Then he took the other boy out and put him on the same nest of ants, then those ants started nibbling at the boys. When they felt the pricks from the ants they started wriggling. The man watched. The more they wriggled the more ants got on them and bit them. At last both opened their eyes and they saw their own friend, the boss. Then he asked them what had happened. They didn't know.

All they knew, the Agula came towards them and he had swallowed them both. He then showed the boys this Agula. The two boys threw stones at the devil all day. When he took them out of the devil's tummy he rolled them both in the sand before he put them on the ants' nest. When they were awakened by the ants he made a fire, broke down bushes, green leaves, then smoked them both. They would have had a shock. They left the body of the devil there and he took the boys back to the camp where they were camping at the time, and they went and told the parents of the boys that they were swallowed by this Agula. It happened while the man was out hunting and they were both left at a certain place to wait for him.

Since then, they don't leave children alone in the bush without adults. A group of men went back to have a look at the body of Agula. Not there, disappeared, that's how they knew he wasn't an ordinary man. A similar story told by the Kuhn in Victoria contains a dual moral to both parents and children:

The Old Woman Who Stole Children

"Not far from where Mansfield now is, there lived a hideous old hag, all alone in the bush. She was wicked, and used to find and keep little boys and girls who wandered away from the camps. In one of the Kuhn camps some distance away from her there was a very nice little boy, so nice that he was everyone's favourite. Since everyone liked him, he thought he would be safe anywhere, so he went from one camp to the other all by himself. When he got there people would welcome him and give him pieces of possum to eat. But one day he disappeared, and no-one knew where he was, until they remembered the wicked old woman who was always taking children. But she would not give him back, as she had hidden him underground. In their distress, the Kuhn went to Bunjil, the All-Father, and asked him to restore the little boy to them.

Bunjil was very sorry for them, and told Kowurn, the spiny ant-eater to go and find him. So Kowurn burrowed down under the old witch's camp and found the boy, who was not hurt but very frightened.

And Bunjil said to the Kuhn, 'You must not let little children wander away from the camps.' And then he told the child, 'Let that be a lesson to you,' and he went back to his own camp which is in the sky."

Every Aboriginal tribe has many such simple stories which are told at night around the campfire or at other times when they see a bird or animal which reminds them of a tale from the Dreaming. Most stories contain references to many facets of life woven into one simple narrative. The following children's story is told by the Wogait people, or 'sand beach people' of Western Arnhem Land, and tells the story of the sea-mammal, or dugong, when she lived as a woman. Dugong have fascinated mankind since the earliest times, many researchers being convinced that the female dugong, which has breasts and suckles its young and which also carries its young on its back, gave rise to the early European sailors' legends of mermaids. To the Wogait people, however, the dugong is a woman, Mamanduru, a jealous woman who once stole the beautiful baby belonging to her friend, Moodja.

The following story warns against jealousy and deceit and incidentally teaches the young girls how children are conceived by their mothers when they wander near the 'baby-shades', the spirit centres of children.

The Dugong Woman Steals a Baby

"A long time ago, two very good friends, one called Mamanduru and the other Moodja, were out gathering cockles on the mud-flats at a place called Dartpur, which is the Frog-Dreaming stone a little out to sea from a well of fresh water on a mangrove and sandy beach called Bin bin ya. Each one had a little baby which she carried on a clean sheet of paperbark under her arm, as the hunting women carry their bark dishes when out gathering yam and lily-bulbs.

Outwardly, the two women seemed to be happy as they went their way, laughing and chanting the tribal songs, but inwardly Mamanduru was very jealous of her friend Moodja. Moodja's baby was so pretty that everybody in the camp would come over to tickle it and to see it smile, but Mamanduru's baby was as ugly as old Frogmouth the bird, who sits all day on a tree.

Mamanduru and Moodja put their sleeping children under a nice, shady hibiscus tree and when it was low tide they went out to gather closed-mindedness said to her friend: 'I've got plenty of cockles now; I'll go to the shady tree near the well to cook them ready for you to eat with that honey we cut from the tree...' But that rubbish one, Mamanduru, lied to her friend; she had only a little tucker in her bark carrying dish. All she did was to go back and steal that pretty little baby of Moodja's and go off into the bush.

Well! That Moodja woman came out of the mud flat with plenty of cockles, and that poor thing cried and wept when she found out that her pretty baby had been stolen and the ugly one left behind in its placement had a hard time following Mamanduru's tracks; she would constantly double back on her tracks and walk on stone and in water to cover up her foot tracks. She was a very cunning woman. But the mother kept going and at last found Mamanduru and her baby in a big clump of pandanus trees beside a big saltwater beach.

That baby frog made plenty other frogs in that tree, and these are friends of all the baby shades that belong to us black people. All together they sit down in pandanus trees and wait for a mother to go by, then they jump at them and go inside that mother's belly and when born they are proper children.

Well, those two women fought with their wooden fighting sticks and that poor Moodja got hit on her knees with a stick and as the stick hit, her legs broke and she hopped off into the jungle like a wallaby, but before she changed into a wallaby she gave that Mamanduru a proper good beating with a fire stick that she picked up from the fire that Mamanduru was using to cook her cockles. That fire stick was covered in ashes and these went into Mamanduru's eyes so she ran blind-eyed into the saltwater with Moodja's baby on her back. After that time wallabies keep in the scrub, dugong live in the sea, and frogs cry, cry at night in trees. Dugong and wallaby give us tucker and frogs give us babies.

Wogait, Western Arnhem Land

The following two stories reflect on the punishments which still befall parents or grandparents if they harm the children in their care in any way. In the first story, told by Mrs Elkin Umbagai, the children were killed for foolishly making fun of their father. This was much too severe a punishment and as a consequence the mothers took revenge.

In the second story, from Cape York, Far North Queensland, a wicked father eats his children when the mothers are out gathering food. His punishment is harsh but just.

The Two Boys and Their Father

"The two mothers went off and left the two children with their father. They made a bough shed and it was a fairly big one, and their father was making spear points.

Every time he chopped off a piece to make the edges it would go tick. As he made a noise they'd say to their father, 'You are letting out the wind.' Every time he chipped off a piece they'd both say those words. Dad didn't want to hear any more of this so he got his stick and hit them across the necks with it and killed them both, and he got paperbark and covered the bodies. He went on with his spear heads till finished, then rested. His two wives came back. They had little possums for the two children to play with. They wondered what had happened to the children because they didn't run to meet their mothers. When they came to camp they asked the father. He said, 'Just look under the paperbark.'

So the two mothers lifted the paperbark and tried to wake them up, but the children didn't wake up and the mothers knew they were dead. They asked their husband what had happened. He said: 'Those children were making fun of me. You didn't teach them enough how to behave.'

So they made a big fire and they roasted their yams and other roots, cooked up their meat—possums, bandicoots and goannas and snakes. They made sure he had a good meal. After having his tea he lay down. The two women made another fire, and while they were waiting for the second fire to settle down they both went and buried the two children. The man was closing his eyes when the two women came back after burying the children. They both said, 'We will kill the man too.'

They got two flat sticks like boards and while the husband was lying down with his eyes closed the two women collected a lot of hot ashes with these flat boards and got the ashes and threw them over his face. He jumped around and cried with pain. They put more on all over his face, and they put more all over him until he died. Then they both ran off to their own people."

Elkin Umbagai, Mowanjum

The Wicked Father

"Long, long ago before the coming of the white man, Nargeearr the Rainbow lived in his little mijjaa, a few miles away from Dallachy Creek. He lived with his two daughters and two little grandsons. They were very happy for many years until Nargeearr became old and feeble and could go hunting no more. He depended on his two daughters to feed him, and as game grew scarce after one very dry season, they had to go further and further afield in search of food.

"One day the little boys told their mothers that they were tired of walking and would stay at home that day with their grandfather. The sisters set off for Dallachy Creek, Doolurah, in the hope of finding some fish. It took them two days to find enough for the whole family, so on the second night they trudged wearily home with their burden, anticipating with joy the reunion with their little sons.

"As the sisters approached the camp, they noticed that all was quiet and their boys were not to be seen. Their father lay asleep in a corner of the mijjaa, and they woke him quickly and asked about the children. For a long time the father refused to speak, but at last the dreadful truth was told. The father had become desperately hungry and, thinking some accident had befallen his daughters, had killed and eaten the two infants.

"The two sisters went away, distraught with grief. A great hatred welled up in their hearts and they began to plan his death. They waited until the sun was going down and crept up to the little grass mijjaa. When they heard the sound of snoring coming from inside the humpy, Elder Sister took her fire stick and twirled it until the smoke curled up in the evening air. Then she set the dwelling on fire and she and Younger Sister ran away as fast as they could. When they looked back over their shoulders, they saw that their grandfather had turned into a ball of fire which flew into the sky in a great arc. It rolled across the sky until it reached Gould Island, and then sank into the ocean, where they saw it no more.

"Whenever we see the rainbow, we are reminded of the great punishment to the wicked father."


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