In the

The dis­ap­pear­ance of a pow­er­ful desert artist and magic man of­fers a rare win­dow into the hid­den realm of tra­di­tional in­dige­nous be­liefs, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

ONE morn­ing in mid-April this year, se­nior desert law­man Spi­der Kal­by­bidi walked out of his house in the re­mote north­west com­mu­nity of Bidyadanga and van­ished into the back coun­try, pre­cip­i­tat­ing a long and fruit­less search. With him, that cool day, Spi­der took a cou­ple of blan­kets, and a back­pack, which West Aus­tralian po­lice teams soon came across, to­gether with his clothes.

But that was the point where the mys­ter­ies be­gan. His tracks in the red dirt lead­ing in­land sim­ply stopped, as did those of two wild dogs that seemed to be ac­com­pa­ny­ing him.

Spi­der was well-known as an artist. He was one of the stars of the Yul­par­ija paint­ing group, based at Broome’s Short Street stu­dio: mas­ter colourists, old men and women born in the Great Sandy Desert, who had lived in ex­ile from their coun­try for years.

But in the Abo­rig­i­nal do­main, Spi­der was prom­i­nent be­cause of other, less ob­vi­ous gifts: he was a Ma­parn­jarra , a tra­di­tional doc­tor, a healer of great power. Sick men and women from far-off com­mu­ni­ties came con­stantly to seek his help. More than this, he stood at the apex of the desert’s re­li­gious sys­tem: he was a man of high de­gree, with all the pow­ers that ex­alted rank im­plied. It was widely be­lieved that he could project him­self across great dis­tances, that he could make him­self in­vis­i­ble and see deep into the fu­ture and the past.

Spi­der’s dis­ap­pear­ance, and the events it pre­cip­i­tated, of­fers an un­usual glimpse into the hid­den realm of tra­di­tional in­dige­nous be­liefs, be­liefs that still sur­vive, in the shadow of moder­nity, across much of the cen­tre and the far north. Of course, the miss­ing per­son posters that went up in Broome and the brief ar­ti­cles in the lo­cal pa­per dwelled on rather dif­fer­ent as­pects of the case: that Spi­der had wan­dered off twice be­fore, that he was well over 80, and that he had failed to take the tablets on which he de­pended. But his fam­ily, and all the Yul­par­ija peo­ple at Bidyadanga, knew bet­ter. Strange things be­gan hap­pen­ing the mo­ment he van­ished. There were brief sight­ings of him, at dusk, in the com­mu­nity, and in the coun­try. His clas­si­fi­ca­tory sis­ter, the fa­mous painter Weaver Jack, was sure that he was still alive, and there was even some­thing like proof: for now he was ap­pear­ing rou­tinely, if fleet­ingly, in Yul­par­ija dreams. The search went on. It was a time of high emo­tions; it seemed im­pos­si­ble that he was gone.

Word soon spread through the bush. Other men of power came and searched, among them two of the most se­nior law­men from the Martu re­gion, Muuki and Wokka Tay­lor, who trav­elled

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