Nicolas Rothwell goes in search of the elusive Little People of northern Australia
THEY are everywhere in north Australia, and nowhere. They are real and unreal; mythical and historical. They are depicted in the rock art, they are in the stories, they are in the minds of men and women from Cape York and the Top End right across to Broome on the distant Indian Ocean’s shore — the Little People. They have a hundred local names — Rai, Janjarri, Mimih — yet the picture we have of them is strikingly consistent. We know they are slight, elusive, magical, mischievous. We are told that they are always nearby, listening, hovering, poised just beyond the edge of our field of vision: they are the necessary companion beings to complete and populate the vast, empty-seeming country of the remote north. Of course we hear about them most often in old, remembered song-cycles: they serve as the puzzling trickster-heroes of many a wildly ramifying Aboriginal narrative. But are those stories simply tales, legends — or do they point to a time now gone when there were diminutive people spread through the lush rainforests and up and down the coastlines of the north? Were the Little People real? Are they still?
Even the briefest journey through the meanders of remote Australian life will quickly turn up their persistent traces and highlight a complex trail of evidence. For the Little People are not a simple or straightforward category. There are different kinds of them, and they move on different levels of reality — the established and the imagined, the past world and the present — and these various populations blend into and reinforce each other, and accentuate the particular atmospherics of the north, where nothing is quite what it appears to be, and haunting presences seem to lurk constantly just out of reach.
Let’s begin with a handful of intriguing stories: stories so similar they seem linked for sure, though they stem from different cultural regions and from places hundreds of kilometres apart. In Bardi country, at One Arm Point, on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, it is well known that a climactic battle took place “in early times” between two groups: a tall tribe, perhaps forebears of today’s people, and a smaller tribe whose memory is preserved in dance and tradition to this day. In the Roper River region of southeast Arnhem Land a similar conflict is remembered — and there are traces of just such deepseated rivalries between two separate, physically different groups as far afield as north Queensland and the coastal community of Yarrabah near Cairns.
One of the most precise and detailed narratives of a clash of this kind between cultures can be heard on Groote Eylandt in the western Gulf of Carpentaria. Today, Groote is home to the tall, thin, ritually conservative Anindilyakwa clans, keen protectors of the records of their past. Many strange tales are told on the island. Many were recorded by the unsung hero of Groote studies, Canadian anthropologist David Turner, who had a particular interest in auditory hallucinations, and who devoted several books and papers to renunciation, psychic transport and spirit flight. Few of those stories are odder or harder to pin down than the case of the lost clan chief who is believed to have been abducted by a foreign submarine shortly before manganese mining on the island’s southwestern shore began. Groote, then, is a place of sagas, and murky episodes, where old events are plumbed for their hidden meanings, and their retelling is veiled in swaths of allegory.
At the aged-care centre in little Angurugu, Murabuda Wurramarrba, one of the great patriarchs of the Anindilyakwa, lays out the deep story of the island’s past. Murabuda is among the best-known exponents of Groote’s austere bark painting tradition, quite different in its aesthetic from the much more widely disseminated cross-hatched styles of neighbouring Arnhem Land, but one theme rarely treated in his work is the contested occupation of Groote: a topic that has suddenly become the focus of intense interest among genetic scientists seeking to trace the origins and spread of an illness
THE MIMIH ARE CONSTANT PRESENCES IN THE FRESCOES
newly present in the region — the crippling, degenerative Machado-Joseph disease. Murabuda is explicit. In the relatively recent past, his Anindilyakwa ancestors lived on the mainland of the Northern Territory, in the region around today’s community of Numbulwar, the former Rose River mission: it’s not far away. On a clear night, from the manganese loading jetty, you can see its lights gleaming across the deceptive waters of the gulf. The Anindilyakwa speak a variant of the mainland’s Nunggubuyu language and still have close ties to their old country. In those early days they travelled on long trading missions by dug-out canoe, ranging widely down the coastline, and thus came to Groote. There they found a population of little people, speaking a language they did not know, and adhering to dreadful customs: the islanders were intimate with their own children, and with their dogs. Relations between the two groups were far from smooth: tensions grew.
There was a pitched battle at the aptly named stronghold of the original inhabitants, Sexy Beach, on the island’s southeast coast — the Little People were wiped out. And this might be put down as an unlikely fable, as some half-jumbled, halfforgotten tale, were it not for the fact Sexy Beach exists. According to the children of missionaries who were on Groote four decades ago, when it was a simple thing to roam freely across the farthest reaches of the island, telltale traces of a conflict at the site were in evidence back then. Along the low cliffs and prominences that face out into the gulf there are well-masked caves and sheltered nooks and crevices. Many were filled with burials: mummified bodies, wrapped in shroud-cloths of some unusual kind, and the skeletons of those men, women and children were all short in stature, slight in scale.
Slightness is the defining characteristic of the best-known of the Little People of north Australia, the Mimih spirits who live in the stone country plateau of the Top End. This is the stronghold of the Kuninjku-speaking clans, creators of much of the most keenly collected indigenous artwork of our day: art showing thin, supple Mimih figures in a range of dramatic poses. The inspiration the artists draw on is evident: the Mimih are constant presences in the rock art frescoes of the ranges behind Gunbalanya and Maningrida, old decorative complexes that festoon the region’s shelters and overhangs, and stretch down river channels for kilometres on end. There are slender rock art figures reminiscent of the Mimih as far afield as the Victoria River district, the north Kimberley and the Pilbara, and extant stories that describe their lives. Almost always these creatures are spirit beings, occupying another dimension of reality, yet inquisitive, engaged with mankind, within easy reach. “Clever” men, magic men are able to make contact with the Mimih: some have visited their camps, learned their ways, heard their songs and seen their secret places. The Mimih have exactly the same elaborate kinship system as the Aboriginal residents of the stone country and speak the same languages. On occasion, Mimih will seek out Kuninjku hunters in the bush and lead them off to the other world, where the hunters fall in love with Mimih women and linger, ensnared in fantasy and unwilling to return to their own camps and homes. These ambiguous beings are not, then, hostile, but neither are they entirely benign: in fact they are a striking mirror population on the margins of the human realm.
As it happens, this strong relationship between the world of men and the parallel, unseen