Rit­ual re­vival

For the first time in more than 40 years, Arn­hem Land com­mu­ni­ties per­form a tra­di­tional Dow cer­e­mony to boost fish num­bers and honey sup­plies.

Australian Geographic - - CONTENTS - STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID HAN­COCK

For the first time in more than 40 years, Arn­hem Land com­mu­ni­ties per­form a tra­di­tional Dow cer­e­mony to boost fish num­bers and honey sup­plies.

ASTHE DRY-SEA­SON sun sets over a re­mote Top End wa­ter­hole, an Abo­rig­i­nal ranger lights a pile of wood stacked high in a sandy arena. Be­fore long, huge flames flare up­wards into the cobalt sky and em­bers of dried leaves and twigs rise like thou­sands of danc­ing fire­flies. Young boys from clans of the Dal­abon and Rem­barnga lan­guage groups of cen­tral and south­ern Arn­hem Land are led to the fire­light and urged by their par­ents to run around the blaze.To the adults’ de­light, the boys be­gin chas­ing one an­other, fall­ing, jump­ing, and scoop­ing sand into the flames to send up sparks.

Sud­denly, from be­yond the cir­cle of fire­light, a painted fig­ure wear­ing an owl mask springs from the dark­ness and grabs one of the chil­dren. The boys squeal with ex­cite­ment and quicken their pace as the cap­tured child is laid at one end of the arena.

As the ac­tiv­ity con­tin­ues, var­i­ous men take on the role of malev­o­lent owl un­til all the boys are cap­tured and laid out on their backs, wrig­gling their legs to sym­bol­ise the move­ment of fish. Mean­while, young girls join the group and women empty bas­kets of imag­i­nary fish onto all the wrig­gling lit­tle bod­ies.

And so passes the first stage of Dow (pro­nounced ‘dough’ in English), a Rem­barnga cer­e­mony that takes place dur­ing yekke (early to mid-dry sea­son), in years when nadi­jr­rkku (glass­fish) num­bers and sug­arbag (honey) sup­plies are low. It is a rit­ual that peo­ple per­form to will fish num­bers and honey sup­plies to in­crease.

UN­TIL RE­CENTLY, THE DOW cer­e­mony had not been per­formed in Arn­hem Land for more than 40 years. How­ever, last year it was res­ur­rected by el­ders Otto Bul­maniya Campion, Robert Red­ford and Jack Naw­ilil.The three men live in dif­fer­ent parts of Arn­hem Land: Otto near Ramingin­ing in the cen­tre, Robert near Bulman in the south and Jack near Man­ingrida on the north coast.

Otto, Robert and Jack all ex­pe­ri­enced Dow as chil­dren, en­joyed it im­mensely and were un­happy to see it go from their cul­tural land­scape. To­gether, they came up with the idea at an in­dige­nous rangers’ meet­ing to bring Dow back. Last year, mem­bers of the Dal­abon and Rem­barnga came to­gether at the small out­sta­tion of Mo­barn (also known as Blue­wa­ter), close to Weemol in south­ern Arn­hem Land, to per­form the cer­e­mony.

Robert re­mem­bers Dow be­ing per­formed in yekke, a time when tra­di­tional early burn­ing would be com­pleted be­fore the start of the windy mid-dry sea­son, which is when fires can travel for many kilo­me­tres and burn for days.

Yekke, which usu­ally oc­curs in May and June, is the time for com­plet­ing the care­fully planned tra­di­tional burns that con­tain and re­strict de­struc­tive late dry-sea­son wild­fires.

If peo­ple do not see glass­fish in the wa­ter­holes by yekke, they know some­thing is wrong.“If we don’t see all those small fish nadi­jr­rkku, we know we have not been burn­ing the coun­try prop­erly and need to per­form the Dow cer­e­mony to make the fish and honey in­crease again,” Robert says. “If that owl is not happy with what hu­mans have done with fire, he will hide the fish from us so we know we need to per­form the Dow cer­e­mony again.”

AF­TER THE FIRST PHASE of the cer­e­mony, all the chil­dren stand and pre­tend to be trees with sug­arbag hives in­side them.The owl-man is now a hunter look­ing for honey. He sym­bol­i­cally chops into the chil­dren’s bod­ies with a stone axe and they chant as they lean from side to side, their voices hum­ming in cho­rus, be­fore they fall to the ground.As the owl-man pre­tends to chop into their bod­ies and eat the sug­arbag in­side, he calls out the name of the honey and bee species he finds.

Fi­nally, the en­tire group stands, and in turn they visit each of the four com­pass points of the cer­e­mony ground. At each point, they chop at a tree with their hands to ob­tain sug­arbag. “When all the peo­ple come to the trees, they rake the sur­face of the tree trunk with their hands just like that bird ngan­gangh-nganga [the gr­ey­crowned bab­bler], as it climbs,” Otto says. “This is an in­crease rit­ual for honey. If that rit­ual is not per­formed then there will be no honey that sea­son.”

Once the fourth tree has been vis­ited, all the par­tic­i­pants grab fire­brands from the bon­fire and hurl them into the sky while call­ing out the names of coun­try – by site and clan name – where they want fish num­bers and honey sup­plies to in­crease. By throw­ing burn­ing branches, they recog­nise their need to con­trol fire at this time of year so it doesn’t de­stroy the bees that make the honey.

“If that owl is not happy with what hu­mans have done with fire, he will hide the fish.”

A rag­ing fire lit soon af­ter sun­set is the cen­tre­piece of the cer­e­mony, and young boys are en­cour­aged to have fun and run around it (above left). Then a masked owl crea­ture swoops from the sur­round­ing dark bush and cap­tures a small boy, cre­at­ing havoc among the group and in­creas­ing the pace of the cer­e­mony (lower images, L–R).

The masked owl crea­ture con­tin­ues (of­ten with dif­fer­ent men tak­ing the role) pur­su­ing the boys un­til they are all cap­tured and laid to­gether.

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