Eye of the Beholder: Top Enders

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More than 44,000 years ago, the two most prominent things found in the Northern Territory of Australia: man and sea-cucumbers. Only about half a century ago did contact with other populations begin, and it was with Makassan traders of Indonesia eager for this sea-cucumber or trepang, a prized invertebrate used for its strong healing potential in Chinese medicine.

The British came next, though they were less interested in procuring trepang than colonizing the land. But tropical cyclones and hostile terrain made a century of effort virtually futile. In 1860 they managed to hold their ground and build the city of Darwin, now the capital of the Northern Territory.

During these waves of settlement, the aborigines kept to themselves as much as they could and the significance of their traditional ceremonies grew in strength upon the encroachment of outsiders.

Body art and dance rituals, still performed devoutly, take days to prepare. Relatives paint the dancers’ bodies with pigments taken from the earth to represent the relationship between man and his environment. Ochre and clay are mixed with animal fat to make the designs last longer and color schemes vary according to region.

As the body is painted, the spirit is awoken, and the painted dancer is seen to embody a spiritual ancestor, or goanna. In Dreamtime, the aboriginal term for the period of the Earth’s creation, these ancestors gave birth to peoples and gave names to animals, plants and land elements, stressing human existence as part of rather than separate from nature. The goanna who emerged after Dreamtime did not have fully formed bodies, but rather could slip into human form or that of an animal just as easily.

Each aboriginal family has a totemic association, or a myth of their lineage and the goanna from which they come. Body art tells this story. The designs are also chosen according to the social and familial status within the tribe. There are ceremonies and designs meant to encourage breast-growth in young women and others that commemorate a rite of passage from boy to man. Each motif has its purpose and its meaning, so they cannot be altered in any way. Deviance from the design would defile the goanna, and in aboriginal life there is no greater offense.

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