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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Da:Wajil: a western desert aboriginal rainmaking ritual Tonkinson, Robert


Much of Australia is arid and droughts are common in many-areas. The Aboriginal inhabitants, a semi-nomadic hunting and gathering people, nevertheless occupied the entire continent. Given the highly developed cosmology and magico-religious system of the Aborigines, it is not surprising that rainmaking rituals were an important part of their religious life, particularly in the dry interior regions. Available literature concerning Australian Aboriginal society contains frequent references to rainmaking practices in widely differing areas of the continent, yet detailed descriptions are lacking, and in most of Aboriginal Australia today the traditional religious life has all but ceased to exist. In the relatively isolated Western Desert area, however, there are still communities of largely tradition-oriented Aborigines who continue to perform rituals. At Jigalong, a Western Desert community that is the setting for this study, a rainmaking ritual called the Da:wajil has come to assume major importance in the life of the local Aborigines, despite its relatively recent introduction. An important concern of this study is to present a detailed ethnographic description of the Da:wajil. Two chapters (4 and 5) are devoted to a full account of the background to the ritual, including the circumstances of its introduction to Jigalong, and its performance. Chapters 1 and 2 describe the setting of the study and outline briefly the religious life of Jigalong's Aborigines; they provide the Da:wajil with its social and religious context as a Western Desert ritual. These chapters introduce the ethnographic account of the ritual. In addition to its ethnographic aim, this thesis also explores certain broader problems. Its central concern is to explain why the Da:wajil has assumed such importance in a situation where the survival of the Aboriginal community is no longer dependent upon rain falling in a particular locality. Part of the answer to this question lies in the nature of the ritual itself. It is clear from a survey of available literature on Aboriginal rainmaking that the Da:wajil is in several ways unique. Traditionally, most rainmaking magic was performed by specialists or small groups of men; thus few accounts of large-scale performances exist, and these lack detail. No known rainmaking rituals approach the Da:wajil in scale or organizational complexity, and no other ritual performed at Jigalong rivals it in these respects. One basic reason for the enthusiastic adoption of the ritual by Jigalong Aborigines is that, in their view, it works; that is, it brings rain. But it also has many other attractions. The impressive scale of its performance is one of them. Some but not all the multifold functions it fulfils are shared with other rituals performed at Jigalong, and for this reason the Da:wajil is compared and contrasted with these others (see Chapter 6). In view of its status as a large and unique ritual, it invites analysis as such, so in the same chapter it is examined in terms of some of its symbolic aspects, as well as its relevance to the question of internal dynamism in Aboriginal ritual, particularly the interrelation of myth, songline and ritual. Symbolic analysis of the Da:wajil, however, does not yield the kind of information necessary to answer the question posed in the second part of the thesis, though it is valuable for an appreciation of the nature of Aboriginal religious thought. Keeping in mind the status of the Da:wajil as an imported ritual, and the fact that its annual performance at Jigalong involves Aborigines from at least two different Western Desert areas, analysis leads inevitably into the field of intercommunity relations. It is through an examination of this field, undertaken in Chapter 7, that the reasons for the rise to prominence of the Da:wajil are revealed. The Da:wajil is of great importance to the Jigalong people largely because of their felt responsibility for its continuance, which results from the conjunction of two sets of political pressures emanating from neighbouring Aboriginal groups. At a more abstract level, the prominence of the Da:wajil can also be attributed to its role as a symbolic statement of political relations and aspirations. The ritual, with its unique status hierarchy and highly organized division of labour, serves as an appropriate-symbolic model for any future political organization capable of dealing more efficiently with the acculturative pressures that are constantly being exerted by the wider society.

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