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The Euahlayi Tribe Part 17

The old blacks said, 'It is a drought now, but it will be worse. Byamee has sent the manna by the little Dulloorah birds and the black ants, because there will be no flowers for the bees to get honey from, so he has sent this manna.' Each time he has done so, a great drought has followed, and indeed it was followed by one of the worst droughts Australia has ever known. Byamee, it is said, first sent them the manna because their children were crying for honey, of which there was none except in the trees that Byamee, when on earth, had marked for his own.

The women had murmured that they were not allowed to get this; but the men were firm, and would neither touch it nor let them touch it, which so pleased Byamee that he sent the manna, and said he always would when a long drought threatened.

A great chorus of 'My Jerhs' would tell something was sighted.

It might be the track of a piggiebillah porcupine. This track was followed to a hollow log; then came the difficulty, how to get it out, for porcupines cling tightly with their sharp claws, and all a dog can do where a piggiebillah is concerned is to bark, their spines are too much to tackle at close quarters. But the old gins are equal to the occasion: a tomahawk to chop the log, and a yam-stick to dislodge the porcupine, who takes a good deal of killing before he is vanquished.

They say a fully initiated man can sing a charm which will make a piggiebillah relax his grip and be taken captive without any trouble.

The piggiebillahs burrow into the sand and leave their young there as soon as the faintest feel of a spine appears. The baby piggiebillahs look like little indiarubber toys.

The opossums all disappeared from our district. When we were first there they were very numerous and used to make raids at night to my rose-bushes--great havoc the result. It is said a very great wirreenun--wizard--willed them away so that his enemy, whose yunbeai, or personal totem, the opossum was, should die. This design was frustrated by counter magic; two powerful wizards appeared and, acting in concert, put a new yunbeai into the dying man; he recovered.

When the opossums were about the blacks used to see their scratched tracks on the trees, and chop or burn them out. They miss the opossums very much, for not only were they a prized food, but their skins made rugs, their hair was woven into cords of which were made amulets worn on the forearm or head against sickness, and with no modern instrument can they so well carve their weapons, as with an opossum tooth.

Naturally their desire is to see Moodai, the opossum, return; to that end a wirreenun is now singing incantations to charm him back.

Opossum hunters had a way of bringing them home strung round their necks; very disagreeable, I should think, but custom, that tyrant, rules it so. The old gins dug out yams vigorously; some were eaten raw, others were kept for cooking.

To cook them they dug out a hole, made a fire in it, put some stones on the fire, then, when the stones were heated and the fire burnt down, they laid some leaves and grass on the stones, sprinkled some water, then put on the yams, on top of them more grass, sprinkled more water, then more grass and a. thick coating of earth, leaving the yams to cook.

Several other roots they cooked and ate. Raw they ate thistle tops, pigweed, and crowfoot, with great relish. Their game they cooked as follows. Kangaroo were first singed, cleaned out, and filled with hot stones, then put on the top of a burnt-down fire, hot ashes heaped all over them. The blacks like their meats with the gravy in, very distinctly red gravy. Emu were plucked, the insides taken out, and the birds filled up with hot stones, box leaves, and some of their own feathers. A fire was made in a hole; when it was burnt down, leaves and emu feathers were put in it, on top of these the bird, on top of it leaves and feathers again, then a good layer of hot ashes, and over all some earth.

The piggiebillahs were first smoked so that their quills might be easily knocked off. This done, the insides were taken out, then the piggiebillahs were put in little holes made beside the fire, and covered over with hot ashes, as were also opossums, ducks and other birds, iguanas and fish.

Ducks were plucked by our tribe, but in some places they were encased thickly in mud, buried in the ashes to cook, and, when done, the plaster of mud would be knocked off, and with it would come all the feathers.

The insides of iguanas and fish are taken out all in one piece. Each fish carries in its inside a representation of its Minggah--spirit tree; by drying the inside and pressing it you can plainly see the imprint of the tree.

When we go bathing, the blacks tell me that the holes in the creek filled with gum leaves are codfish nests. They say too, that when they beat the river to drive the fish out towards the net waiting for them, that they hear the startled cod sing out.

Mussels and crayfish are cooked in the ashes.

The seagulls, which occasionally we used to see inland, are said to have brought the first mussels to the back creeks.

Emu eggs the blacks roll in hot ashes, shake, roll again; shake once more, and then bury them in the ashes, where they are left for about an hour until they are baked hard, when they are eaten with much relish and apparently no hurt to digestion, though one egg is by no means considered enough for a meal in spite of its being equal to several eggs of our domestic hen.

Not only are the blacks very particular in the way their game is carved or divided, but also in the distribution of the portions allotted to each person. The right to a particular part is an inherited one. No polite offering of a choice to an honoured guest, no suggestion of the leg or wing. You may loathe the leg of a bird as food, but at a black fellow's feast, if convention ordains that as your portion, have it you must; just as each rank in society had its invariable joint in early mediaeval Ireland.

The seeds of Noongah--a sterculia--and Dheal, were ground on their flat dayoorl-stones and made into cakes, which they baked, first on pieces of bark beside the fire to harden them, then in the ashes. These dayoorl, or grinding-stones, are handed down from generation to generation, being kept each in the family to whom it had first belonged. Should a member of any other use it without permission, a fight would ensue. Some of these stones are said to have spirits in them; those are self-moving, and at times have the power of speech. I have neither seen them move nor heard them speak, though I have a couple in my possession. I suppose the statement must be taken on faith; and as faith can move mountains, why not a dayoorl-stone?

The so-called improvident blacks actually used to have a harvest time, and a harvest home too. When the doonburr, or seed, was thick on the yarmmara, or barley-grass, the tribes gathered this grass in quantities.

First, they made a little space clear of everything, round which they made a brush-yard. Each fresh supply of yarmmara, as it was brought in by the harvesters, was put in this yard. When enough was gathered, the brush-yard was thrown on one side, and fire set to the grass, which was in full ear though yet green. While the fire was burning, the blacks kept turning the grass with sticks all the time to knock the seeds out.

When this was done, and the fire burnt out, they gathered up the seed into a big opossum-skin rug, and carried it to the camp.

There, the next day, they made a round hole like a bucket, and a square hole close to it. These they filled with grass seed. One man trampled on the seed in the square hole to thresh it out with his feet; another man had a boonal, or stick, about a yard long, rounded at one end, and nearly a foot broad; with this he worked the grass in the round hole, and as he worked the husks flew away.

It took all one day to do this. The next day they took the large bark wirrees, canoe-shaped vessels, which when big like these are called yubbil. They put some grain in these, and shook it up; one end of the yubbils being held much higher than the other, thus all the dust and dirt sifted to one end, whence it was blown off. When the grain was sufficiently clean, it was put away in skin bags to be used as required, being then ground on the large flat dayoorl-stones, with a smaller flat stone held in both hands by the one grinding; this stone was rubbed up and down the dayoorl, grinding the seed on it, on which, from time to time, water was thrown to soften it.

When ground, the grain was made into little flat cakes, and cooked as the tree-seed cakes were. When the harvesting of the yarmmara was done, a great hunt took place, a big feast was prepared, and a big corroboree held night after night for some time.

The two principal drinks were gullendoorie--that is, water sweetened with honey; and another made of the collarene, or flowers of the Coolabah (grey-leaved box), or Bibbil (poplar-leaved box) flowers, soaked all night in binguies (canoe-shaped wooden vessels) of water.

Just about Christmas time the collarene is at its best; and then, in the olden days, there were great feasts and corroborees held.

The flat dayoorl-stones on which the seeds are ground with the smaller stone, are like the 'saddle-stone querns' occasionally found in ancient British sites. These primitive appliances preceded the circular rotatory querns in evolution, and as the monuments prove were used in ancient Egypt. I cannot say whether, amongst the Euahlayi, there was a recognised licence as to exchange of wives on these festal occasions, or at boorahs. If the custom existed, I was not told of it by the blacks; but it is quite possible that, unless I made inquiries on the subject, I would not be told.

CHAPTER XIV

COSTUMES AND WEAPONS

I have seen a coloured king simply smirking with pride, in what he considered modern full dress--a short shirt and an old tall hat.

And I suppose, as far as actual clothing went, it was an advance on the old-time costume of paint and feathers. A black woman's needle was a little bone from the leg of an emu, pointed. Her thread was sinews of opossums, kangaroos, and emus; that was all that was necessary for her plain sewing, which was plain indeed.

Her fancy work consisted of netting dillee, goolays, or miniature hammocks to sling her baby across her back, or, failing a baby, her mixed possessions, from food to feathers; her larder and wardrobe in one.

Her costume being simple in the extreme did not require much room. It consisted of a goomillah, which was a string wound round the waist, made of opossum sinews, and in front, hanging down for about a foot, were twisted strands of opossum hair. A bone, or on state occasions a green twig, stuck through the cartilage of her nose, a string net over her hair, or perhaps only a fillet, or a kangaroo's tooth fastened to her front lock, gum balls dried on side-locks, an opossum's hair armlet, and perhaps a reed bead necklet and a polished black skin, toilette complete, unless for certain ceremonies a further decoration of flowers or down feathers was required.

The principal article of the man's dress was called waywah. It was a belt, about six inches wide, made of twisted sinews and hair, with four tufts about eighteen inches long hanging back and front and at each side from it, made of narrow strips of kangaroo or paddy melon skins.

For warmth in winter they would wrap themselves in their opossum-skin rugs. Sometimes both sexes adorned themselves with strings of kangaroo teeth fixed into gum, in which a little hole was made, round their heads and necks--yumbean they called them; or forehead bands with hanging kangaroo teeth, which were called gnooloogail.

Pine gum they rolled into small egg-shaped balls, warmed them and stuck them in dozens all over their heads, where they would be left until they wore off, hairdressings being only an occasional duty. The gum they used for sticking the kangaroo's teeth was that of the Mubboo, or beefwood tree.

Sometimes wongins were worn; they consisted of cords round the neck and under the arms, crossing the chest with a shell pendant at the centre of the cross. A shell is still a most prized ornament.

The corroboree dress is one of paint; the feature of it being its design, a man can gain quite a tribal reputation for being an originator of decorative designs.

Their original paint colourings were white, red, and yellow; occasionally they said they got some sort of blue by barter, but very occasionally, as it came from very far. White was from Gidya ash, or gypsum; red and yellow, ochre clay; but they also got both red and yellow from burning at a certain stage certain trees, gooroolay for red; the charcoal, instead of being black, having red and yellow tinges. But since the white people came the blue bag has put yellow out of fashion, and raddle is used for the red.

Their opossum rugs used to have designs scratched on the skin sides and also painted patterns, some say tribal marks, others just to look pretty and distinguish each their own.

Feathers tied into little bunches and fastened on to small wooden skewers were stuck upright in the hair at corroborees, also swansdown fluffed in puff balls over the heads.

The Gooumoorh, or corroboree, is a sort of black fellow's opera; as to the musical part, rather, as some one found an oratorio, a thing of high notes and vain repetition.

The stage effects of corroborees are sometimes huge sheets of bark fastened on to poles; these sheets of bark are painted in different designs and colours, something like Moorish embroideries. Sometimes there is a huge imitation of an alligator made of logs plastered over with earth and painted in stripes of different colours, a piece of wood cut open stuck in at one end as a gaping mouth. This alligator corroboree is generally indicative of a Boorah, or initiation ceremony, being near at hand. Sometimes the stage effects are high painted poles merely.

At the back of the goomboo, or stage, are large fires; in the front, in a semicircle, sit the women as orchestra, and the audience; a fire at each end of the semicircle, as a sort of footlights. The music of the orchestra is made by some beating time on rolled-up opossum rugs, and some clicking two boomerangs together. The time is faultless. The tunes are monotonous, but rhythmical and musical, curiously well suited to the stage and layers. These last have a very weird look as they steal Pout of the thick scrub, out of the darkness, quickly one after another, dancing round the goomboo in time to the music, their grotesquely painted figures and feather-decorated heads lit up by the flickering lights of the fires around.

As the dancing gets faster the singing gets louder, every muscle of the dancers seems strained, and the wonder is the voices do not crack. Just as you think they must, the dancing slows again; the voices die away, to swell out once more with renewed vigour when the fires are built up again and again; the same dance is gone through, time after time--one night one dance, or, for that matter, many nights one dance.

The dancers sometimes make dumb-show of hunts, fights, slaughters, the women sometimes translating the actions in the songs; sometimes the words seem to have nothing to do with them, and the dances only a series of steps illustrating nothing.

Corroborees seem to fit in with the indescribable mystery of the bush.

That the spirit of the bush is mystery makes it so difficult to describe beyond bald realism, otherwise it seems an effort to seize the intangible. Poor Barcroft Boake got something of the mystery into words.

Chapter end

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