Daughters of the Dreaming
Marcia Helene Hewitt 10436125
University of Western Australia
22nd March 2008
Book Review of Daughters of the Dreaming
Author: Diane Bell
From the moment I started reading this PhD thesis I knew that Diane Bell had
entered into different territory than other ethnographers in regards to Women’s Business
and the sacred things of women in Central Desert culture. Firstly it was easy to read without all the abstruse conceptuality that anthropologists often indulge in; it is readable and accessible. Secondly, she is White, and it is quite remarkable that she was allowed in as ‘close up’ as she was, and therefore can tell such good stories about what she saw.
The jilimi is the focus of her study. Diane Bell is accepted into the jilimi. Jilimi is a Warlpiri term also used by the Kaytej and is often translated as “single women’s camp”. However this definition has pejorative overtones of the place being peripheral, transient, juniour and lacking power. In fact the jilimi is home to the ritually important seniour women. It is a symbol of women’s independence, a refuge, the locus of daily activity & information exchange. (Bell, 1983, pp 16-17, 82-84, 110-36). At any given time up to 25 per cent of the adult female population of the settlement could be found there. At the residential core of the jilimi were the older and respected ritual leaders who are usually divorced, widowed or separated, and their dependant female relatives, women visiting from elsewhere.
Women associated with the Kaytej jilimi were the moral watchdogs of the entire camp. These women would unhesitatingly censure unseemly behaviour even in adult sons. Bell tells the story of one woman who shouted and shamed a son who was planning to engage in a fight with his estranged wife...his mother had the right to interfere by virtue of both her authority as land owner and her responsibilities as mother in law to the girl. (Bell, p.110, 1982).
Bell’s writing is humble. This humility she has gained from living and working with Aboriginal women. One really could not write these stories in any other mode other than the mode they are lived in. She also realises what a privileged position she has in being accepted to such a degree by the women in the Walpiri community.
LAND, LOVE AND HEALTH
Ceremonies of Kaytej and other women in Central Australia center around three major themes within the context of jukurrpa heritage. Bell certainly brings to light Evans Pritchard’s central idea that ‘all religious activities have a social and therefore rational
function.” For example, the ‘ring place.’ The ‘ring place’ is an area where women’s authority is predominant.. Men travel long distances even to avoid seeing the area. And women, if disturbed there by children during ritual activity, will carry through disciplinary threats which at other times are not enforced. Important meetings are held in this place. When a woman lawyer came to discuss with Kaytej women some land rights issues, it was the ‘ring place’ which was chosen. Bell’s illumination of gendered politics is well described in this section, and she builds on Annette Hamilton Timeless Transformations: Women, men and history in the Australian Western Desert 1979 in her descriptions of meeting places, legal transactions and dance to ‘keep country up.’
Bell also mentions that she was aided by Kenneth Hale of MIT in preparing her Warlpiri
Language. (letter from Noam Chomsky about Ken Hale included).
This essay was published in 1983. Bell writes with passion and courage of the rights of Indigenous women, particularly focusing on the ritual lives of Kaytej women of the Warrabri (now Ali Curang) area of central Australia. Even though it is written twenty years ago it remains relevant in its acknowledgement of the outstanding activities of Aboriginal women in relation to their participation of ritual ceremonial activities, their rights of law and order within their own society..
Bell offers historical statements and remarks from other anthropologist’s research that is interesting and relevant to her findings, noting their inability to acknowledge Aboriginal women by treating them as ‘invisible ‘ beings in a sacred traditional Aboriginal man’s world. This is particularly apparent in their almost total disregard of Aboriginal women’s ritual roles within the male/female traditional society of combined laws of traditional lands. Bell mentions that this was subject to the times, that male anthropologists of the 1970’s still regarded women both indigenous and white, with a Victorian view of how woman should behave. Bell also seeks out questions and answers to the impact of colonization offering insights and changes of traditions by their adaptation of white habitation within their lives.
Daughters of the Dreaming is an excellent and interesting research into the traditional lives of Aboriginal women of the central desert area. The epilogue written by Bell in
1992, offers a detailed testimony of the difficulties and pressures Bell faced at the time of publication, as Bell was thought to be a controversial writer for many years and still remains so today. Not everyone agrees with her, but through her detailed research and insight, her work cannot be overlooked by scholars and anthropologists..
Evans-Pritchard, EE. 1965. “The position of women in primitive societies and in our own” as cited in: The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and Other Essays in Social Anthropology. Pp. 37-58. Faber and Faber. London.
Hale, Kenneth. 1974. ‘Warlpiri-English vocabulary prepared for use in the Yuendumu Warlpiri language programme. MIT. Cambridge. USA.
Hamilton, Annette. 1979 Timeless Transformations: Women, men and history in the Australian Western Desert, unpublished PhD. Thesis. University of Sydney. NSW.
Letter included from Prof. Noam Chomsky about Ken Hale’s death.