Magic island – Spiritual Warrior

Nicolas Rothwell; 7/5/10  (2 Items)

Just off the marshy coastline of the Northern Territory there lies a magic island, unknown to most Australians, where spirits walk, spells and incantations course through the humid air, and rival bands of traditional doctors wage a constant struggle for supremacy. Elcho Island – better known these days by the name of its main settlement, Galiwinku – is home to almost 3000 Aboriginal people, members of the hyper-cerebral Yolngu group of clans. It is a place of lush natural beauty: the curving beaches are surrounded by deep-red cliffs; the forests of acacia and stringybark stretch away.

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But the community itself is at once remote and overcrowded, it is under-resourced and afflicted by grave medical challenges. Only a single Elcho local is famous in the wider world: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who grew up there, and sings its songs. Once, a Christian mission shaped the island’s trajectory; today, the ever-changing plans for its development are set by shire managers and Canberra bureaucrats. The different phases of this history are still visible. Tall crosses dot the roadside graveyards, alongside traditional funerary carvings, sacred flags and the Intervention’s “prescribed area” warning signs. Cows graze in front gardens, dog-packs maraud hungrily, vast card-games unfold as lightning flickers in the sunset sky: it is a surreal stage-set – indeed, almost anything seems possible, yet the armies of service providers stationed here remain blissfully unaware of the metaphysical currents seething beneath the placid surface of Galiwinku life.
So it has been for years; so it was, too, in the early 1970s, when an inquiring transcultural psychiatrist named John Cawte began making dry-season visits to Elcho, and exploring the mysteries of its spirit life. Cawte’s portrait, titled Healers of Arnhem Land, uncovered a world almost unknown to the missionaries and managers of the North: a world where the fear of sorcery was omnipresent, and a constant paranoia about spells, cursing and malign witch-doctors shaped the pulse of life.
In Cawte’s account, a kind of arms race of traditional medicine was in place across the Yolngu clan realm of North-East Arnhem Land all through the years when he was in the field. Two forces seemed to be contending, and their techniques were always shifting, escalating, in a fluid adaptation to new circumstances. On one side were the “good” doctors, or “Marrnggitj” – figures of seniority, able to comfort and to heal. On the other were the shadowy “Galkas” – malevolent, murderous, responsible for all deaths and sicknesses, sowing terror and anguish in every heart. Some Galka men would use spells, or killing stones, or they would whip up dry, strength-sapping poison winds. Others stole up on their victims secretly, and inserted sharp spines in their bodies. Death would follow, inexplicably, a day, a week or a month later. There were scores of ways for a Galka to kill a man – and just as many methods the Marrnggitj could use in defence. But it was difficult back then to study healers – as Cawte remarked: “They do not run a clinic, or put up a brass plate” – and the secrecy that surrounds traditional medicine is even more entrenched on Galiwinku today, though its grip on the Yolngu population is just as strong.
How, then, to make inroads? There are surface aspects of this magic world: many healers use plant medicines. Gradually, over recent years, a handful of traditional bush remedies have been incorporated into the western medical service, and at the sprawling Ngalkanbuy Clinic in Galiwinku, health education worker Helen Guyupul prepares a large batch of stringybark tea for distribution at the start of each week. It is a bright green decoction, astringent: it removes pain, cures asthma, serves as a tonic, and, in large doses, induces sleepiness. A tree-gall fungus is used to combat vomiting and internal problems, another tree’s leaves heal the liver, another still yields jet-black ash that takes fevers away. Down a nearby side-street, two visitors from Mapuru outstation, Roslyn Malngunba Guyula and Ian Wuruwul Gurrumba, are brewing their own remedies from paperbark and vines.
“When we get sick,” says Roslyn, “we dig a long hole in the ground, and cover ourselves with wet paperbark and hot ant-bed sand. You lie there for seven hours. After that time, after that fight with moisture, you’re healed, you feel like a newborn.” Indeed, newborn children are themselves carefully smoked over gum-leaf fires to give them strength. Behind traditional healing methods of this kind lies a philosophy, one Roslyn explains to some of the more troubled patients who come her way: “You have to heal people, see they need to be healed. You tell them it’s all about stories: good is good. Live the right way, and if you live in the good way, bad forces wouldn’t touch you.”
Here, still well-masked, is a faint hint of the elaborate belief-system that holds sway on Elcho and across Arnhem Land: a balanced, complex set of ideas and values that provide a framework for interpreting the joys and the pains of life. It is tempting to paint it simply as a form of dualism: light does battle with dark, good contends with evil. Much in this schema involves hidden forces, spirits and ancestral power. Most of it is kept veiled from outside eyes.
Of course, the westerners on Elcho understand the island is a fairly unusual place, where the locals perform ceremonies, carve totemic animals, make hollow log coffins and conduct dance-glutted funerals that last for weeks on end. The largely mainstream-staffed medical services at Galiwinku are the membrane where Yolngu and western ways of thinking come into closest contact. Nurses are often warned in dark tones about increased witch-doctor activity: “Lock your doors,” they are told, in peremptory fashion. “No questions!” Or the instruction comes to conceal all the syringes and needles at the clinic, because the Galka sorcerers like using them, or there is a sudden need to count the store of body bags, in case the Galkas have been secreting them away.

Fear of the dark
Are the Galka real, or not? To visitors or new arrivals, belief in them may seem mere superstition – but the consequences are real, and deep. One of the island’s best-known ceremonial leaders vanished a few years ago, while walking on a quiet beach: the body was never found. Police assumed he’d been taken by a crocodile, but his family were devastated, and the tensions caused by the disappearance and the ensuing recriminations linger to this day.
Deaths are always followed by blaming: the attempt to find a meaning and a cause for death is pervasive in the Yolngu world, where so many die young, without obvious cause. And the deceased linger, long after their funerals, in the form of Mokuy, or spirits, who can be seen from time to time on distant promontories and sensed very often as presences in rooms they once frequented. You can smell the scent of their cigarettes, or they make themselves felt by mischievous pranks and little jogging gestures: the mysterious removal of keys, for instance, is a constant problem. Given this state of affairs, it is natural for men of prominence to arm themselves with healing magical authority, or the air of it: and it is very widely assumed in Galiwinku that senior men have special powers.
“It’s a culture of anxiety and paranoia,” says Michelle Dowden, manager of primary health care at Ngalkanbuy. “There’s constant worry in people’s lives: worry about who might come in the night.” Fear of the dark is universal among the Yolngu, and intense, so in the days before street-lighting families tended to stay together, clustered, bonded, telling stories. It was only with the arrival of street-lights that young people began roaming around at night, and drugs and social anomie took their present hold.
But even the noontime is no sure guarantee of safety. The mere suggestion of the presence of Galkas is enough to strain the health of the sick, or induce suicidal thoughts – and given their grip on the popular imagination, it becomes essential to devise counter-measures. One Yolngu health-worker likes to explain the problem in terms of a mafia. Today’s Galka man is no longer believed to be just malevolent: he is also a mercenary. Thus it is said that one can buy the services of a Galka, and once such threats are invoked, desperate steps are necessary. It is helpful to find a Marrnggitj, a good doctor, for your defence. Such protection, though, is hard to come by, for the great healers are much sought after, and they tend to live far from town, on remote outstations in the vicinity of the Arafura swamp. Procuring a Marrnggitj can be like finding a top-notch lawyer: you have to ask around. Maybe there’s one down at First Creek, a silent man, wearing a tall hat. But at First Creek, the news is bad: the Marrnggitj went back to his home in Milingimbi Island a week ago: and anyway, who’s asking, and why, exactly?

Curses in the digital age
At such a juncture, it helps to bear in mind the multiple pathways that lead to medicine, as well as the close parallels Yolngu people like to trace between traditional doctoring and modern technology. In John Cawte’s days, Marrnggitj and Galka powers were often compared to the magic of the radio telephone, or to radiation from uranium mines in far west Arnhem Land. Today, the strong link is with mobiles: they can send words from afar, and make the hidden visible. Take the mystic water-snake that swims from Milingimbi across to Elcho once every seven years. It has just made its latest spirit journey, and an aerial photo, snapped by mobile from a Mission Aviation Fellowship flight, shows its long, sinuous shadow, immersed in the wave-caps as it heads towards its destination.
The Galkas seem to favour the mobile network: it offers instant dissemination, and visual proof of their disquieting powers. With this convenient method of information transfer available, the inevitable has happened: magic force can now be transmitted by phone, and indeed by text. Curses, the bane of Galiwinku life, can be sent with the push of a button from Darwin, where increasing numbers of Yolngu have taken refuge from the wild affrays of the local spirit realm.
Since daily life has become so full of hazard, it pays for each clan to have its own set of healers, curse-lifters and specialist magic doctors: a spiritual defensive cadre. Responsibility for plant remedies tends to fall on women: the tasks of the doctor, though, are often seen as male, and they are strongly linked to clan authority. In the world of the Gumatj, perhaps the best-known of the clan groups on Elcho, the dominant figure for the Burarrwanga family line is Charlie Matjuwi, now in his late 70s – blind, profoundly deaf, yet still grand and regal in his bearing, and still one of the region’s chief ceremonial singers. Matjuwi had several sons, among them George Burarrwanga, lead singer of the Warumpi Band, who died three years ago; the prominent artist Peter Datjing; and the subtle, tradition-minded Layilayi, who serves now as his father’s daily healer, protector and guide. Layilayi is a striking figure, even by the histrionic standards that prevail on Elcho. Tall, thin, mantled by a dust-pink peaked cap, eyes veiled by white-framed wrap-around dark glasses, he can generally be found at the Galiwinku aged-care centre, where his natural bent for therapy finds free expression. But his ceremonial responsibilities are increasing, as are his medical tasks.
A Yolngu doctor’s procedures can seem, by western standards, unusually personal. The healer and his patient enter into a close, wordless bond, for illness is understood primarily as an affair of spirits: disturbance of the afflicted body by a spirit substance, which must be found and taken out. The patient lies prone before the healer, and explains in detail the nature of his symptoms. The healer, whose hands have been dipped in fresh, cleansing water, begins his assessment. He sees an aura, as much as a corporeal form: “I touch, and heal,” says Layilayi. “If I touch that spirit, I take that sickness into me. That man before me, when I touch him he feels something like a cold fire going into his body; he feels light, and then the pain will go away. It is real, for the whole world, when we believe with heart and soul: that spirit is always there.” The healer takes the distemper from the patient into himself, then he vomits it back out,  in the form of blood and bile.
When he was younger, Layilayi kept a small dillybag with healing accoutrements, a familiar feature from descriptions of Marrnggitj practices in years gone by. Among them were spirit stones, and stones that gave the power to see far, and carved objects that ward off evil spells. Layilayi, though, left the magic dillybag in Yuendumu, in the central desert, where members of his family live, and embarked on a medical path largely unaided by such props.
Treatment at his hands makes a strong impression: the patient feels the healer at his side, feels the touch of fingers, moving upon his skin. They press inwards, they probe. How cold they are! And then a lightness comes, a dizziness, a depleted tiredness, a need to sleep, which persists for almost an hour, only to give way to clarity, balance, a feeling one has a new path ahead. This sensation explains the demand for such services: the healer holds the keys to coherence, to a sense of order amidst the chaos of community life. He can also gauge the emotional climate around him, and Layilayi is constantly advising his father to stay within his rundown, crowded dwelling in the heart of town: not to go outdoors, where spells and curses threaten. “This is the worst place, here, Galwinku,” Layilayi says, with intense feeling. “People do anything; they do cruel things. There’s always jealousy in the Yolngu background. Too many divisions! They’re doing Galka way, people killing each other. It’s the jealousy at the heart of it – trick stories. We know: we can read people’s heads.”
Layilayi and other members of his clan have just returned from Maningrida, from the funeral of a young Elcho man who committed suicide. The death is firmly ascribed to magic “cruelties”, and the collapse of moral standards in the region’s life. Hence, undoubtedly, the strong emphasis on healing in recent times, across the communities of North-East Arnhem Land, as the upholders of tradition attempt to ward off the black-magic plague. Healing ceremonies are the natural defence, and younger Marrnggitj doctors have been flocking to large, secret gatherings where they can gain access to the higher aspects of their craft. Those mysteries lie buried close to the core of the Yolngu world. What are the powers? Where do they come from? How did the dark side grow so predominant?
Instrument of payback
When explorers, missionaries and anthropologists began probing the remote beaches of Elcho Island and its surrounding archipelagos they were struck, of course, by the complexity of the religious system and the influence it wielded over day-to-day affairs. The pioneer researcher in the region, Donald Thomson, was quick to spot the ambiguous relationship between the “good” Marrnggitj doctors and the forces of Galka. He reported, in a very early paper, that black magic seemed to be a recent, cultic import, which had its origins far to the west, in the swampy country where Maningrida lies today.  But healer magicians have long been a feature of the Yolngu realm, and Cawte’s book includes a striking cameo of his encounter with Djipuru, the great Marrnggitj of the Arafura Swamp. Djipuru shows Cawte his instrument of payback, a carved wooden amulet with two projections that represent the horns of the buffalo. Cawte is surprised: the buffalo, after all, is an introduced species in Arnhem Land, though it now runs wild in vast numbers. But eventually he accepts the logic: why not choose “the long strong horns of this powerful animal” as a symbol of retaliation in the magic wars?
The shadow of Djipuru looms over Galiwinku. He died recently, but his descendants and relations revere him, and his memory is still very much present in their world, as are the lessons he taught about the Marrnggitj power and its place in the social order. Djipuru was “second father” to Ian Wuruwul Gurrumba of Mapuru. Wuruwul was raised by him, in happier times, when Yolngu men were healthy and strong, and lived quite free from western medicine. Indeed, when Djipuru passed away, aged 100, Wuruwul received “a half spirit” – half the old man’s Marrnggitj powers. “That’s why,” says Wuruwul, “if someone has a cough, or headache, today, I can put my hands in water and then heal them, with nothing, without any spirit tools. I can touch the body and make it better.”
Djipuru’s own gifts, however, were of a quite different order: he was a “bush clever man”. Everyone came to consult him and receive treatment from him; Milingimbi people used to make the trip by plane, and car, to see him at his remote home and have their devil spirits removed by his hands. When Roslyn Malngunba was struck by lightning 15 years ago, and she found herself convulsed by sickness and constant pains, it was he who healed her. “He concentrated all his power in the palms of his hands, he took water into his mouth, he touched me, then he expelled what was inside me: he spat it out,” she says.
There is a sense, often, in accounts of such treatments, that the blood of the sick patient is recycled, purified, by the doctor, who serves much the same function as a dialysis machine. But the healing process, at its highest level, is also emotional: it relies on insights, courage, will. Djipuru, in fact, was something more than merely human: he could manifest as a pig or a jabiru, an emu or a stone curlew, but above all he chose the buffalo as his favoured form, and still today when a buffalo comes towards Wuruwul’s outstation house he knows it is his second father’s spirit drawing near. There was proof of Djipuru’s persisting presence in his old haunts only recently, when a local at Naliyindi homeland was taking a quick video with a mobile phone in the bush. When the clip was replayed, there, on screen, in clear definition, was Djipuru, standing, wearing a hat, his camp-dog at his side – inevitably, for Naliyindi lies in country shaped by dingo ancestors in the far-off creation times.
The most spectacular instance of Djipuru’s shape-shifting is, oddly, the best documented. In the 1970s, he manifested near Nhulunbuy, the mining town just down the road from the Yolngu community of Yirrkala: he was wallowing, in buffalo form, in a billabong when he was spotted by a member of the Gumatj clan, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. She swore at the buffalo; Djipuru charged and gored her – but then felt, apparently, a rush of contrition. The buffalo proceeded to gather up Nyapanyapa on his long horns, much like a forklift, and conveyed her gently to the nearby hospital and lay there, docile, as the nurses and doctors gathered round. Nyapanyapa went on to become a prominent bark painter, and her autobiographical picture of the attack, accompanied by a dramatic video reconstruction, won the 3-D prize in the 2008 Telstra Aboriginal Art Award.

Power of life and death
The capacity to travel great distances instantaneously; the ability to see spirits and assume the guise of totemic animals: these are distinctive gifts, and the way Djipuru acquired them was also distinctive. Indeed, the story gives a clue to what lies behind the skills of traditional medicine. Mitjarrandi Wunungmurra, who knew the old man well, explains how one day, when out hunting with a group of men near Oenpelli, Djipuru became lost. He was camped alone beneath a rock overhang when he heard a strange flapping sound. It drew near, nearer, until a giant spirit, a birdman, with flying-fox wings, pounced on him, picked him up and carried him away to a distant mountain. He was kept there, by the bird-men: “His language was changed,” says Mitjarrandi, “so he could speak their words, and understand them. That’s the place where the winged spirits offered him the magic stones. One makes you invisible, one can turn you into an animal, one heals you. Each stone had a name.” Possessed of these powers, Djipuru was able from that time on to sense marauding devil-spirits from far away. He held the power of life and death distilled inside him: Mitjarrandi’s mother once saw him kill and then revive a man. And if one probes a little deeper it becomes plain that he was both a Marrnggitj and a Galka – the two roles were mingled in complex ways in him; the power he held to heal was also the power that could kill.
Here, at last, we break through to the heart of things: in the Yolngu cosmos, light and dark belong together – they should support and define each other. The doctor’s gift partakes of both; it is simply life’s force, channeled, intensified: the strength of nature, passed through man. It seems clear that when the Galka men first made their appearance in Yolngu life, they had their natural place, they served as a regulatory power: far from being dread black magicians, skulking in the shadows, they were a form of sanction, they were almost agents of the law. People who infringed key social rules were confronted by them and told, openly, to conform or die. And even today, men or women with magic powers can choose which way to use them: for good or ill. Marrnggitj and Galka, then, were not at first opposing forces at all; they were once in harmony, and should still be in equilibrium – balance, in North-East Arnhem Land, being everything.
But the system has broken down on Elcho: the stresses of modernity are in the ascendant: drugs, kava, violence between men and women. Life on a large Yolngu community today is a life of troubles, and the surge of Galka magic can be read both as symptom of the collapse of the old, strict social order and as contributing cause. The rise of the Galka also parallels the growing sense among the Yolngu that they have lost power and control over their own lives. Galka magic has gone from being a force wielded by a handful of well-known individuals to being a noxious, terrifying mood in the social landscape, a state of generalised fear that keeps men and women locked indoors in fright.
What lies behind this shift? For centuries, the Yolngu lived by their own, hard laws; for decades, they lived under missionary control; then – nothing well-defined, no rules, no work, a flow of welfare, minutely administered, indefinitely prolonged. It was several years ago that Galiwinku first emerged as the capital of cursing and spell-casting – perhaps because of its isolation  and its crush of population and the resultant social strains. There were strange tales of anti-Christ cults and hidden sects. The fear of Galka became almost as important as the phenomenon itself. And, as a natural counter, a fresh revival of tradition began. Elcho had always been an island of ceremonial dance, much loved by anthropologists. Under the surface layers of community life, that trend intensified. Marrnggitj healers gained in prominence. “We all go to them, quietly, of course,” says one Yolngu teacher. “We all use them these days. All the time.”
The light is softening in the eastern sky; blue cloud-banks ride far out to sea. The waves are lapping at the rocks; a ramshackle troop-carrier, laden with young dancers, pulls up. Several fan out through the sandy bush, clutching axes, and begin felling pandanus trunks. Others prepare the white clay needed for their body-paint. Old Charlie Matjuwi, head of the Burarrwanga Gumatj line, feels the salt breeze on his cheeks, and at once begins to sing, and tell stories: it is his first visit to this beach in the six years since he went blind. Gum-tree leaves are gathered up and lit: a sturdy platform of branches has taken shape in the scrub, and on it lies a young man, white-painted, ready for traditional medicine to take its course.
From the shadows of the forest, dancers converge, step by step, their movements full of grace. Full of menace, too, for this is the crocodile dance: the Gumatj dance of cleansing fire. The clapsticks are sounding, Matjuwi is singing, chanting, smoke billows into the air; it envelops the patient. Now the Marrnggitj healer approaches: Layilayi Burarrwanga himself, elaborately painted, transformed into a new creature, sinuous in his movements, reptilian. His head and his arms are festooned in feather-bands of red and orange; he holds clan symbols and two decorated spears. Nearer he draws, nearer, with spasmodic steps; a sacred bag is clutched in his teeth. He makes smooth gestures with his hands; everything is balanced, the voices and the clapstick rhythms join together and swirl into the air. From a distance, the gathered women look on. The sun quivers on the horizon. The ritual takes its course. Night descends. The dancers gaze out, quiet now, and calm. The sea-breeze drops away. All ills have been healed, at least for the moment: the Yolngu universe is calm and whole again.
More than a poseur’s multicultural exercise
Tim Soutphommasane; 8/5/10;;
Should one feel uncomfortable doing yoga if one doesn’t also subscribe to the Hindu traditions from which it originated? All you New Age spiritualists may like to think twice next time you go to yoga. As you stand there in your studio, greeting one another with “Namaste” and chanting “Om”, have you considered that you may be complicit in the moral theft of an ancient practice? That, at least, is the challenge some Hindus in the US are laying down to the nearly 20 million Americans who have taken up yoga. For these Hindus, the spiritual abuse of yoga is no laughing matter.
According to Aseem Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation, “the severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride”. Hinduism has become “a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism”.
American Hindus may have a point. Recent reports in the Los Angeles Times reveal many Christian and Jewish yogis are introducing non-Hindu prayers and teachings to their classes. “Christ is my guru” is the mantra of one such Christian yogi. Elsewhere, in so-called kabbalah yoga classes, students chant “Shalom” rather than “Om”, and recite Jewish prayers as they do their sun salutation poses.
Whether there is a moral crime involved in such appropriation depends — to state the obvious — on how seriously you take your yoga.
For many in the West, the practice of yoga largely concerns the combination of posture (asana) and breathing (pranayama) exercises.
For the purists, however, yoga isn’t simply about physical exercise. Rather, the ultimate goal of yoga is moksha, a form of liberation from worldly suffering.
There is at play here a question of authenticity. Given that the philosophical basis of yoga can be found in the Yoga Sutras of the ancient commentator Patanjali of the second century BC, some Hindus may understandably believe only a holistic approach to yoga can count as authentic.
Yet one can never have an authoritative viewpoint from which to judge authenticity. Cultural traditions will inevitably mingle with others and evolve with time.
The Western appropriation of yoga is an example of what Australian National University philosopher Robert Goodin has labelled “polyglot multiculturalism”.
Whereas some forms of multiculturalism seek to protect minority cultures and traditions against the intrusions of the majority, a polyglot multiculturalism allows for a majority to expand its choices by having more cultural traditions upon which they can draw.
It is perfectly acceptable for people to borrow from other cultures without “living in” them.
Of course, any polyglot multiculturalism should be qualified in one sense.
If taken to the extreme, Goodin’s view can encourage us to exoticise other cultures. It suggests that we should value a cultural tradition only because it can enhance a majority group’s set of choices; that we should, for instance, value Chinese people only insofar as they provide good Chinese takeaway.
This goes to the real complaint some American Hindus have with the disassociation of yogic practice from its Hindu roots. Modern yoga may have the effect of devaluing an ancient tradition, reducing it to little more than consumerist fashion.
It seems disingenuous, indeed, to believe that yoga has no connection at all with Hindu spirituality.
Hybridity can be a good thing, but it should happen with the right dose of respect and understanding.