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
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