Ni­co­las Roth­well goes in search of the elu­sive Lit­tle People of north­ern Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Top, Mimih Spir­its Dancing, bark paint­ing by Wa­mud Namok

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


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

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