Nurturing the Sacred in Western Arnhem Land: The Legacy of Shaman, Healer and Mentor Paddy Compass Namadbara

Western Arnhemlanders, today predominantly speakers of either Kunwinjku or Iwaidja (as well as English), have faced a flood of change over the last 70-80 years. While they are now legal owners of this former Arnhem Land Aboriginal reserve, the location and population mix of their community centers is largely a product of past government and mission and also big industry influence. Located on their traditional lands are several significant uranium deposits and uranium mines, as well as the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually (see CSQ 25:1, p 51). Over the years, then, Western Arnhemlanders have tried continually to come to terms with these powerful impacts on their ways of living and world understanding, and to deal with accelerating cultural and social change.

One might ask: How have the Western Arnhem Land communities kept their heads above the waters of this flood of change? Part of the answer lies in their indigenous leaders. Among them, from time to time, certain outstanding individuals--"clever" ones, or "shamans," to use the term loosely--have been able to incorporate outside influences into the indigenous ideology and, by focusing on the collective, empower a whole community to believe in itself and its ability to ride these times of rapid change. This article offers a glimpse into the life of one such man who, through his special abilities and wisdom, nurtured the capacity within his community to continue to deal on its own terms with the increasingly impinging Western world.

His name was Paddy Compass Namadbara. He was born at the end of the 19th century--at a time when the Western world had scarcely touched Arnhem Land--and died in 1978, having lived through his community’s reorientation to the penetrating Western socioeconomic and cultural system and its accommodation of the dominant Christian ideology. Namadbara had the reputation of being not only a powerful healer, but also a wise man from whom people, for many reasons, would seek advice--especially his visions and prognostications of the future. He was a seer and a man attributed with considerable psychic or "other-worldly" powers. In Western Arnhem Land such people are known as marrkidjbu. Among marrkidjbu, however, there are degrees of power, and Paddy Compass was considered to be of the highest rank. Australian anthropologist A.P. Elkin famously described (1948) such men as "Aboriginal Men of High Degree." Those who tell Namadbara’s story point out that there is nobody with such stature and "power" alive today. Among his achievements, he devised a ritual to help the community believe in itself in the face of otherwise debilitating control by missionary and government authorities.

A young Gunbalanya man, speaking in general about the practices of marrkidjbu, groups their functions into three categories: healing, sorcery, and what he calls in Kunwinjku language kumula, translated as "giving purpose to that job." Elaborating, he says it entails "giving power to people to enhance their [already existing] skills." A prominent elder in present-day Gunbalanya community, Jacob Nayinggul, remembers Namadbara’s influence on him and on the wider community, essentially through this kumula.

One day, when Jacob was still a teenager and being looked after by Namadbara, they were out hunting together, looking for crocodile eggs along the banks of a river. Their dogs put a wild cat (a feral domestic cat) up a tree. Namadbara told Jacob to spear it. Reluctantly, he did so. The cat was still growling when Jacob went up to it, put his foot on its head, took out the spear, and then, under Namadbara’s instructions, cut open the cat’s side and took out some of its fat. By this time the cat was just about dead. They left it lying there at the side of the river near the bank and Namadbara told him to stand back. Sit down, he said, "Don’t move, don’t blink, don’t scratch or do anything." He instructed Jacob to keep his hands firmly cupped over his testicles. The old man--heavy footed, bent-kneed--then went forward and backward several times from the river bank toward the cat and back again. From out of the river and up from behind the old man’s back then came a little whirlwind. It went straight to the cat and then continued on past Jacob. The old man now told him to go up to the cat. When he did so, "the cat got up--groggy, groggy--and then suddenly jumped up and climbed back up the tree just like a wild cat again."

It was two or three months after this incident that Jacob ran into Namadbara again back at Gunbalanya (aka Oenpelli). Namadbara was asking him what he wanted to do with his life. Jacob’s father had not long since died and he was leaving the bush where he had grown up and coming into the Oenpelli mission settlement for the first time. He was in his mid-teenage years, a late starter at school, and consequently a long way behind the other, younger students in school abilities, especially in English. So he told Namadbara he wanted to learn at school and especially to learn to speak English. Namadbara said, "Mah [okay], we’ll do it," and brought out a little wooden object, with a hollow, carved from a piece of milkwood tree. Jacob describes the whole thing as a "radio." In the hollow was some of the cat fat (kunbalem) from their previous hunting trip; the whole wooden object (kundulk) was now imbued with its power. Jacob was instructed to take two specially prepared short lengths of fencing wire, heat them in the fire until they were red, stick them into the kunbalem, and at the same time talk into the wooden radio, putting into it his words about what he wanted for his future. Namadbara told him he would receive the power to succeed in his undertakings. And so it happened. He soon surpassed the other students at school and before long was a teacher himself. Jacob attributes his consequent success to this beginning.

It was around that time, in the 1950s, that Namadbara devised a ritual involving the whole community that centered around the wooden radio with its empowering kunbalem. One night he invited all the Banyan people to come to a meeting outside his house. They danced first and then, while they were resting, were told what he wanted them to do. Jacob tells the story.

"And there, in his room, in his house, he had the radio, kundulk. He had a little fire, and two wires burning, like hot, to melt that kunbalem in that wood. He told people . . . (I was a sort of worker for him)'--he told everyone [who came], daluk and bininj [women and men], one by one--to go into that room and he told them what to do.

"'Pick up this wire, and when you put that wire into that radio--that hole--to melt the fat, you also talk. Say what you want for this Gunbalanya. Just say what you want.’

"Most of the people said, ‘I want house, more better—what’s a name—conditions, more better treatment from missionaries, from balanda [white people].’ And when one person had finished, she went out, or he, and another came in—same thing. But everybody went for better conditions."

Soon after this, when the old man was ready, he sent word around that everybody should come together for a further meeting. Says Jacob:

"They all came down. All came down, where everybody had corroboree (dance), and then he made a speech--big talk. He told a story about what’s going to happen now, and about that power. He told people that it will work on this country, to make it a better town. And everybody went, ‘Yoh!’ [Yes!]."

Following this, the kundulk with the empowered kunbalem was put into a flour drum and buried in a specially dug hole in the Banyan area.

"And all that word, that kunwok, from all different people--it was built up into one, in the radio. But Namadbara warned everybody not to expect the things they had asked for to happen immediately. He said, ‘It will take a long time. But you will see it happen.’"

In recounting the story about these rituals, people recount how there were no decent houses before this, but since the burial of the drums with Namadbara’s "power," houses have been built all around the vicinity, exactly as Namadbara predicted. Even today the power in the drum buried at Banyan is considered as potent as it was then, and new houses are sited carefully to avoid disturbing the drum burial site.

The ceremony was repeated in other parts of Gunbalanya and also at Minjilang (Croker Island). People say that the fat is leaking out slowly so that the power is evenly distributed for the controlled and regulated development of the communities. If the site was to be disturbed, the community’s development might go awry.

Namadbara carried out another, slightly different, procedure, again involving drums buried at specific sites, and again containing all the “words” of the people, though in this instance they were words written on paper rather than spoken. Says Jacob:

"He did it another way, too. He made them have djura [pieces of paper]. They got djura. And … then he had people writing [they had to write out a series of letters joined together to resemble European writing], simple, like this [demonstrating: eeeeeeeee vvvvvvvvv aaaaaaaaaaa], and while [a person was] doing this that person had to talk [saying what he or she wanted]. And all this had meaning.

All the "words"--the papers--were then put into a drum and ceremonially buried.

And so Namadbara continually sought to engage the community in coming to terms with its own potential role in shaping its future, despite an outlook increasingly dominated by European processes. Clearly, the drum empowerment procedures were a part of this community engagement. Says Jacob:

"Nobody did that before him--he was the first. He was the only one to come up with that idea, that power, like marrkidjbu power. But not the same as that marrkidjbu that makes you better. Not [simply] that healing side of marrkidjbu. This one was another side of marrkidjbu. Marrkidjbu, but different way … stronger … and something else."

On one level at least, this series of rituals can clearly be interpreted as Namadbara’s attempt to wrest control of the situation at Oenpelli and place it back in the hands of Aboriginal residents; to empower them with a confidence to participate in shaping their future, rather than letting them feel like helpless pawns of Mission and government policy.

As a part of Namadbara’s giving kumula--"purpose for that job"--he sought to make leaders in the community. As Jacob puts it, "bininj being boss for bininj people." He wanted people who would not be overwhelmed by the Mission balanda. Jacob describes observing Namadbara one day using his "writing method" to do this:

"And he made himself three or four pages, like a book. He sat down and I watched him talking when he was doing it: ‘And make me leaders for this community….’"

Jacob goes on to name a number of Gunbalanya people who were put into leadership roles in the community, assisted by what was considered to be Namadbara’s empowering kumula. Likewise, at Minjilang it is acknowledged that Namadbara made leaders through such kumula empowerment; two of the leading women there believe that Namadbara’s “help” gave them the impetus to develop their leadership abilities.

Namadbara increasingly focused on the health of the community—on the collective spirit. He would send out a message, call a meeting together, and address the people, making prognostications about the future according to his dreams/visions, always about what was happening in the village. Says Jacob:

"Then, after … dancing, [when] everybody [was] happy, right (everybody sitting down having a spell), then he told people what’s going on, how he felt, what sort of dreams he had had. Because all his dreams, nearly, [were] connected to what was going on--life. And he could work it out from that dream."

On the basis of one such vision, prior to the establishment of the Land Rights Act, Namadbara advised a family group long resident in Darwin that they should return to their traditional Iwaidja country and fight for their land. Otherwise, he said, "the white fellas will take it all." He sent a message: "At this stage it’s going to be your land, but if you don’t come and claim [it], you’re going to lose it." And so they returned and eventually achieved ownership.

Prior to the protective land rights legislation, Namadbara was also instrumental, with other Western Arnhem elders, in creating a strategy to set up an Aboriginal mining company (FAMCO—First Aboriginal Mining Company]) partly in an attempt to keep outside mining companies out of key sacred areas under threat.

Namadbara, then, was initially a healer, but his activities encompassed much more and his reputation grew accordingly. It could be summed up as being based on his ability to bring security into people’s lives, especially during times of turbulent change, by providing the assurance of confident answers to otherwise uncertain outcomes and engaging people in actions that, if undertaken correctly, would ensure a positive outcome. His reputation was based on demonstrations of his knowledge of the future--his ability to "see" what lay ahead for the community--and through his wisdom in providing guidance to people, particularly in their unavoidable engagement with an outside and dominating culture.

Though no one of Namadbara’s stature and "power" is alive today, his legacy lives on in the leaders he helped mould and in the respect and pride in bininj culture, bininj knowledge, and bininj ways he engendered among both black and white people. Such respect serves to nurture the sacred. In Jacob’s words, "He set the foundations for the future; black and white going hand in hand together."

Ian White is a senior anthropologist with the Northern Land Council in Darwin, Northern Territory. Research for this article was conducted in 1995 and 1996. Jacob Nayinggul is a prominent elder within the Kunwinjku community at Gunbalanya, Western Arnhem Land, and a Manilakarr clan leader.

References & further reading

Berndt, R.M. & Berndt, C.H. (1970). Man, Land, and Myth in Northern Australia: the Gunwinggu people. Sydney: Ure Smith.

Berndt, C.H. (1964). The role of native doctors in Aboriginal Australia. In Kiev, A., ed. Magic, Faith, and Healing. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe. Pp 264-282.

Berndt, R.M. (1947). Wiradjuri Magic and "clever men." Oceania 17:4, pp 327-365; 18:1, pp 60-86.

Elkin, A.P. (1977 [1945]) Aboriginal Men of High Degree. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

McIntosh, I. (1994). The Whale and the Cross: Conversations with David Burrumarra. Darwin: Historical Society of the Northern Territory.

Reid, J. (1980). Sorcerers and Healing Spirits: Continuity and Change in an Aboriginal Medical System. Rushcutter's Bay: Permagon.

White, I. (1996). Paddy Compass Namadbara: Portrait of a Western Arnhem Land “Clever" Man. Unpublished. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

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