Notes on “Daughters of the Dreaming” by Diane Bell

Cecilia started her anthropology course earlier this month, gained access to the university library, and borrowed for me the 1993 edition of Daughters of the Dreaming. The book was authored by Diane Bell, a white Australian feminist anthropologist who lived with and studied the Warlpiri (mostly) and the Kaytej (to a lesser degree of exposure) in the late 1970s. One incredible criticism that I skimmed in the epilogue concerned Bell’s evident “bias” towards gendering, as she had been confined to studying the women (by the tribal council that allowed her to live with and study them), and therefore she was not documenting an accurate picture of the whole people…unlike male anthropologists who were barred from women’s spaces and took it along with the reader as a given that their notes would not be gendered?

But from what I’ve read of this (the first and only book I’ve read about Aboriginal culture) Warlpiri culture is so binary gendered that I can’t believe Bell could possibly have made up something she was looking for that wasn’t there, not when it comes to the presence of binary gendering at all. Bell does acknowledge that it’s impossible to retrieve for comparison Aborigines culture before colonialism, although she notes the elements of colonialism now: alcoholism, poverty, imperialistic education, exploitation and sexual abuse in both educational and professional spaces usually by white people to Aborigines, and even demonstrates how imposed welfare and food rationing shifts the power to patriarchal from the practice of hunting and gathering (both of which had been considered women’s work, and very important work because the women were gathering food and some still did at the time she studied these people.)

But the spheres of responsibility in the society the Bell studied had very clear lines between male and female, so clear that they had been very complicatedly organized in order to keep it clear that the masculine spheres of societal responsibilities and the feminine spheres of societal responsibilities would not overlap over generations. This was not merely a matter of patrilineal or matrilineal, but of patrimoiety and matrimoity, and of course many Warlpiri words for concepts of organization that require spidery charts and graphs for outsiders to understand.

Then again, Bell also wrote that colonialism had sparked skirmishes that often targeted warrior men as a matter of state policy. The only way that the culture could have survived as it did were that the majority-female survivors could pass on knowledge of the masculine responsibilities to their sons. This must have been what happened, and yet cross-gender knowledge and interactions continues to be more verboten than not. Early on in the book, Bell recounts the story of a Warlpiri woman that she drove back to camp, and took a wrong turn because wasn’t “enough room” in that part of the camp; physically, there was plenty of room, but customarily a woman wouldn’t dare go so close to her son-in-law and they would not even be allowed to speak to each other.

Bell wrote that the culture at the time she studied still did not have the concept of an “old hag” as white people do for women who have outlived their primary purpose of sexual object in society, but that the most wrinkled of Warlpiri women still consider themselves desirable because of the separate-but-equal genders of tribal culture. Bell wrote that Warlpiri women had a patronizing view of masculine violence as expressions of infantile insecurity, never as a real threat but an inconvenient fact of life that boys will be boys. Bell wrote of the culturally-accepted commonplace extramarital affairs of Warlpiri women. All this, it seemed to me Bell insisted rather than merely noted, while later also describing the Warlpiri women she sheltered in her house because they feared the violence of their drunken husbands returning home.

Bell can blame colonialism for alcohol and conditioning women to civilized passivity of character that traditional Aborigines life wouldn’t have had (I imagine that wouldn’t help the cause of coexisting with some of the deadliest flora and fauna on the planet) but such inconsistency does give me suspicions about how deep the roots of the empowered Warlpiri feminine really did go. What Bell portrayed as female empowerment that is old as dirt seems more likely to me to have been the desperately ironic sass-filled bubble of women’s spaces that sometimes form in a man’s world, or the rose-tinted goggles of a hopeful feminist of the 1970s who aimed to enter some exotic (endemic, really, but othered) world that hinted at some bygone world of matriarchy, if not egalitarianism.


Then again, I’m no peer to review this. I just wanted to look up the magic, even as I know that “magical tradition” is a modern and ethnocentric distinction. The importance of understanding the cultural context of what “magic” I’ve decided is magic and want to look up is something I do my best to keep in mind when researching seidhr or the process of laying a geis…and it’s something wholly in my face when I’m reading about Warlpiri Dreamtime or Dreaming. I don’t know how much is owed to Bell’s organization style, but far more obviously than any study I’ve read comes through this fact: the rituals of these people aren’t a product of culture, the Dreaming is not a philosophy or theory that is a product of culture. It is culture and more than culture. It is World As Is.

Much of it is also secret, not only from other tribes or those of the other gender in these couple of tribes…but through time, and even vocabulary. The Warlpiri and Kaytej had divulged some forbidden rituals and information to Bell, who has kept the particulars honorably secret, and the generalities that she had been allowed to publish gave me a lot to think about: the designated significance of symbols, the reunion of the spiritual with life and land, and especially the significance of performance storytelling.

As Bell writes:

On several occasions I have read back to the women my rendition of the myths; they have nodded assent but declared my version to be a written text which constitutes another form, one peculiar to whites. Their telling of the myth in ritual emphasizes the richness of country rather than the development of plot or character: two cultural views are thus encapsulated in ‘myth as action’ compared to ‘myth as text’

Of course, Bell did not provide anything like a “How To Do The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram” except instead of the LBRP it’s maybe one of the rituals of yilpinji (a category of ritual that translates roughly to “love spell” or “sex magic” but really isn’t.) Any such research would certainly be appropriative, making the particulars of an intensely secretive practice widely available. (At least, it was intensely secretive in the 1970s, which is what I’ve got to go by, but Bell portrays the secrecy as so intense and ingrained that I would be surprised if that’s changed.) However, my own developing ideas based on Bell’s representation of the general nature of Dreaming is, I propose, well within my bounds. Grant, of course, the disclaimer that the moment I type some analysis of this “nature” of Dreaming, it is not entirely true. The Dreaming is not something that can be written.

The dogma of Dreaming states that all the world is known can be classified within the taxonomy created by the ancestral heroes.

As the custom forbade the speaking of any deceased person’s name, even for the census, even referring before the time of those by whom the deceased is survived, it would perhaps be a different sort of ancestral veneration from, say, some Chinese practices I’ve just sort of picked up from osmosis. The Warlpiri have gotten along fine with this seeming contradiction, among many other people. The terms of kinship among the Warlpiri are entirely different from the “mother, aunt, sibling, cousin” usually used in English, too: in the Warlpiri worldview, first, there would be no wriggle room for me being anything but a female girl-woman, thus my mother’s sister’s children would be considered my siblings (or the Warlpiri language word for it), but my mother’s brother’s children would be considered my cousins (in the Warlpiri language word for it). It’s far more elaborate than that, and the distinction of “skin names” is another important feature in Bell’s study that I never understood, not even with one map (that suggested skin names were linked with region maybe?) and several pages of diagrams that I didn’t even know what kind of diagrams to call them (that suggested these were complicated.) But from what I gathered, Australian anthropologists who are given skin names before studying the Aborigines have that through their mentors’ observation of their disposition in sort of halfway-house environments that serve as buffers against culture clash? That seemed to be the case with Bell, at least.

In any case, regions of land could be considered Dreaming as pertaining to territorial classifications. That Bell writes of “intersecting” territories that go on to different parts of the country, rather than “overlapping” suggest that I personally don’t understand something even that simple. So, while I did read of Kangaroo Dreaming, Honey Ant Dreaming, Dog Dreaming, Bush Berry Dreaming, Rainbow Dreaming…I couldn’t confidently say that there is a Bush Berry and Rainbow territory of Dreaming, because I read of the latter ones only in the context of how these classifications were carried rather than projected by people.

Dog Dreaming was a territory but also an affiliation and relationships with actual dogs, for example. That was easy enough for me to grasp, that people with a relationship with dogs that has settled in a particular region, would then call it Dog Dreaming…and, impounds or extermination of these sacred animals of the people of that region would naturally be considered bad luck, the cause of far worse physical diseases in the community than the white exterminators tried to protect the tribespeople from by treating the sacred animals as disease vectors. The tribespeople suggested veterinary care of the sacred dogs as a middle ground next time.

In another case, Bell recounts the story of a man who laid a sort of curse on several women who had scorned him (because he expected to dally with several wives, although that was not the custom, and everybody else who knew what he was up to disapproved.) One of his targets had recurring dreams of water. Her friends encouraged her to tell the elders, who diagnosed the affliction as having been brought about through Rain Dreaming, and enacted rituals that involved counteractive forms of Dreaming.

From those accounts of Dog Dreaming and Rain Dreaming, I got the impression that while influencing the world through ritual did have its specialists, healers who could diagnose the Dreaming and perform the appropriate rituals, it was also something that almost anyone can do. It was also something that happened to everyone, that everybody participated in as being surrounded by bad relationships could also cause ailments. There also appeared to be very little to no distinction between physical, emotional, or spiritual ailments. A harmful Dreaming was a harmful reality, whether it was a child sick with rabies or a lady with recurring dreams of rain who felt bad about rejecting a suitor who didn’t respect her. Dreaming featured in both.

While troubles in a community beget more troubles in the community, and that is in some ways Law and some ways Dreaming, another one of Bell’s histories records a woman who made amends to the people who had caused her troubles (as a natural consequence, it seemed, for the troubles she had caused them by getting into a physical fight with one that drew blood) by teaching them specific rituals and stories of the Dreamings that she knew, and giving them ritual items related to another Dreaming. As she knew a great variety of Dreaming and seemed to me to continue to bribe the other women not to curse her, I conjecture that 1.) the ritual stories of the Dreaming were not purely territory, and 2.) that they were not necessarily power, or else why would a ritual performer who had so many Dreamings be the victim of harmful Dreaming from people who didn’t have those Dreamings? Perhaps the effects of Dreaming without ritual are different than the Dreamings that are expressed ritually, unless the cursing ritual was implicit. I couldn’t even read a hint of something as concrete as an “evil eye”; only the abstract troubles that can be generated between people.

Sharing of ritual knowledge, I conjecture, is only so valuable in this way for secrecy concerning the rituals is so strict and yet everybody participates in ritual at all. Bell wrote of the stories only being real through ritual, and that the performances did not only reaffirm identity and identification with the land or history or articulate nascent thoughts or affirm particular feelings, but also influenced the world. The book provided photographs of Aborigines body painting: ovals over the breasts to symbolize bird wings, ovals over the stomach to represent fullness; a board decorated with a wavy line to represent the journey of the Rainbow Serpent, and dotted to represent the presence of birds. Bell wrote about some healing rituals that involved massages with witchetty grub oil, and songs. Any more detail than that is verboten, although the author admits to being admonished by some Warlpiri women when Bell referred to one ritual item as a “bull-roarer” simply because that was not the name for it; however, as she was forbidden from naming any of the ritual items at all, she referred to it in the book as a “bull-roarer” with, it seemed to me, the reader’s full understanding that the name was not what it was and therefore the item was not as named.

While the various notions of Dreaming are not considered or confined to a modern category of “magic” or spiritual tradition, there seems to be a Dreaming as described, and a Law for most other aspects of life. Kirda and Kurdungurlu seem to relate more to Law, meaning the responsibilities, lands, and Dreamings related respectively to the patrimoiety and the matrimoiety.