Yuendumu Nights

In Yuendumu Everyday: contemporary life in remote Aboriginal Australia (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008) author Yasmine Musharbash deploys modest investigative techniques to tackle a range of issues about life in Yuendumu. She explores deep-seated Warlpiri modes of thought and social beliefs, the confrontation of those modes with Western expectations, and the manner in which private lives and government programs–especially for housing–meet, attract, and repel. 

Although Yunendumu Everydaythis is an academic monograph, growing out of the author’s Ph.D. thesis and reliant on Heideggerian theoretical underpinnings, it is deeply rooted in personal experience, both her own and those of the Yuendumu women whose lives she has shared. It is thus an entirely accessible look at everyday life: it fills out the rounds of daily activities with detail and understanding. And although much of the research on which the book relies took place nearly a decade ago, its conclusions are still relevant in light of the ongoing debates about the need for and the nature of housing in remote Aboriginal communities today.

Indeed, there is a delightful topical coincidence to the event that Musharbash uses to frame her investigations into these questions. One night, the women she camps with are settled down watching Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? after their evening meal outside the Western-style house that is their domestic locus. Asked what she would do with a million dollars, Tamsin, an adolescent girl, fantasizes about a mansion of many rooms, each filled with luxuries including fluffy beds, televisions, and stereos, of which she would be the sole occupant and to which she alone held the keys. This fantasy is so totally at odds with the realities of shared intimacy that govern everyday life in Yuendumu that Musharbash sets herself to explore its power and appeal.

She begins with Heidegger’s triad of building-dwelling-thinking, looking at the ways in which those three concepts interrelate and inform one another in Western thought. Heidegger asserts that all three words stem from the same root in Germanic languages, and reveal “multidirectional connectivity between the physical structures in which people live (building), their social practices (exemplified through their practices of dwelling) and their world view (thinking)” (p. 4). Against this she poses the Warlpiri ngurra, “a conceptual term of profound depth” (p.5). For the Warlpiri ngurra encompasses ideas of country, home, family, and the twenty-four hour period that encompasses “a day,” or a unit of living.

Musharbash counterposes a Warlpiri triad to Heidegger’s, that of mobility, immediacy, and intimacy. These three concepts as expressed in Warlpiri life in Yuendumu today stand in sharp contrast to qualities inherent in Western houses. The house, and its corollary of home ownership, is the antithesis of the mobility that characterized pre-contact Aboriginal living and is still an important feature of life in Yuendumu today. The future orientation of home ownership with its attendant mortgages, maintenance, and inheritance laws is at odds with the immediacy of Warlpiri concerns for food and firewood. Finally, the division of the Western house into private rooms with distinct functions and proprietorship (a bedroom belongs to one person, or perhaps is shared by a very few) is at odds with the Warlpiri emphasis on physical and psychological intimacy.

In the central chapters in her book Musharbash examines each of these three Warlpiri principles in the context of the jilimi, the single-women’s camp, and the lives of the women who form her domestic cohort in Yuendumu. Examining mobility, she looks at the shifting patterns of residence in the jilimi and in the building with its verandah and its yard where the women sleep and eat, as well as spend the daytime hours not engaged by hunting, visiting, or working. Although the house is thought to “belong” to certain of its occupants, this belonging is itself fluid, and Musharbash notes that it “belonged” to entirely different women in the years prior and subsequent to the period of her primary fieldwork. On any given night, a constantly shifting roster of women and children other than the “owners” slept there, and the allocation of spaces in the house’s rooms, verandah, and yard changed nightly as well.

These nocturnal changes reflect events of the daylight hours: who is visiting from another community, whose children are there while a parent is traveling, who has quarreled, who has come to share a meal. Both residence and patterns of use within the residence are dynamic, not pre-ordained, and most assuredly mutable from night to night.

These changing patterns are indices of immediacy. They are both to a degree spontaneous while also the product of subtle and usually unspoken negotiations among the residents. Musharbash kept detailed records of sleeping arrangements in the jilimi, of the ways in which residents nightly regrouped themselves in a yunta, or row of swags, in which one to two dozen women and children subdividied their numbers into smaller groups each evening. (The yunta reflects earlier camping arrangements in which a small number of individuals aligned themselves behind a windbreak and between sleeping fires each night; groups of yunta constitute the jilimi’s geography each evening.) Weather conditions also play their part in these arrangements as the women cluster inside the house or on the verandah during periods of cold or heavy rain, although the preference is still for sleeping away from the structure as much as possible.

Whatever the particular arrangement on a given night, there is intimacy expressed in these sleeping arrangements. The notion of sleeping alone, or of a single person in the jilimioccupying a single room, is one that would strike these women as unnatural. Where “privacy” might be an important governing principle in the Western home–either the privacy of the nuclear family insulated from its neighbors or the concept as expressed in a “private” room, the concept of marlpa governs Warlpiri habitation. Company and companionship carry a high positive value to the degree that forgoing such marlpa is nearly inconceivable and would almost certainly constitute suspect behavior.

After examining expressions of mobility, immediacy, and intimacy through sleeping arrangements, Musharbash turns her attention to daytime activities and briefly surveys these concepts in diurnal movements. A frequent complaint in ethnographic writing and even more so in the stories of whitefellas who live and work in Aboriginal communities is the frustration experienced in organizing even the simplest of expeditions: hunting, visiting, shopping. The distance between point of origin and destination is measured in circuits and redundancies, not in straight lines. The composition of any group thus engaged is likewise highly variable in the period of time, often extended, which elapses between the decision to go and the final departure for the destination.

Musharbash brilliantly deconstructs one such expedition in search of yams by documenting the “hither-and-thithering” involved in preparing for it. She diagrams (p. 130) the fifteen separate stops within the center of Yuendumu and chronicles the shifting cast of characters and the amount of time required to prepare for the trip. In doing so, she lays bare the logic that determines this multi-stage agenda: the need for consultation with the owners of the country where the yams are to be sought, the decisions about who should appropriately take part, the need to accommodate the wishes of the travelers and their relatives. These expressions of intimacy and the attendance upon the protocols required by such intimacy result in a great deal of movement and change: mobility. That mobility is wrapped up in immediacy as well, as chance encounters along the fifteen stops lead individuals to alter plans and re-evaluate decisions. In turn, these changes in plans can result in further rounds in the camp before a group coalesces and takes off in search of the yams that will be cooked and eaten around the evening campfire in the jilimi in a meal that may determine sleeping arrangements for the night.

In her concluding chapter, Musharbash returns to Tamsin’s fantasy house and sees in it an expression of the Warlpiri desire, not to vitiate marlpa, to abandon immediacy and intimacy, but to exert a degree of control over the circumstances of daily life. Such control is made difficult by the confrontation of traditional Warlpiri values with the exigencies of twenty-first century life in a community that incorporates significant elements of non-Warlpiri culture. Stores and houses foreground the alien elements that have become part of daily life for these people. The television itself brings the outside world into the community, and along with fantasies of being a millionaire, also reinforces the marginal status of the Warlpiri as Australian citizens.

In a socio-political climate intolerant of difference, the desire for houses is a desire for sanctuary from public, policy, and political disregard for alternative practices of dwelling and thinking. Wishing for a house is to use a metaphor that Westerners can understand. Wishing for a house expresses a desire for acceptance by the large and powerful encompassing society, as represented in the first instance by the state. This is not, I believe, a wish to be what is considered normal (live within the Western sense of building-dwelling-thinking) but a desire to be considered normal. Furthermore, houses, because of their great metaphoric potency, also stand for those things that non-Indigenous Australians have and that Warlpiri people lack: good health, low mortality rates, good education, good incomes and so forth …. the desire for a house here symbolises a desire for equality (pp. 156-157).

It is something of a truism that good ethnographies illuminate the differences between societies as well as the common humanity that binds them. Yuendumu Everyday delivers on both accounts. Musharbash offers a rich exposition of profound details of daily life and a respectful gloss on their meanings. She helps us to see both the Warlpiri’s view of themselves and our perceptions of them. But best of all, she succeeds in bringing those two perspectives into closer alignment.

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