IT is very strange to me to hear the average white person speak of the blacks collectively as having no individuality, for really they are as diverse in characteristics as possible; no two girls I had in the house but were totally different.
There has been too much generalisation about the blacks. For instance, you hear some people assert all blacks are trackers and good bushmen. That there are some whose tracking power is marvellous is true, but they are not the rule, and a black fellow off his own beat is often useless as a bushman.
So with their eyesight; what they have been trained to look out for they see in a marvellously quick way, or so it seems to us who have not in their lines the same aptitude. Of course, for seeing things at a distance a black has the advantage, unless the white has had the same open-air life. Some white bushmen are as good as any blacks.
Nimmaylee, a little black girl who lived in the house, used to tell me all sorts of bush wonders, as we went in the early summer mornings for a swim in the river. She was a great water-baby, with rather a contempt for my aquatic limitations. Then she thought it too idiotic to want to dry yourself with a towel,--just like a mad white woman!
White people were an immense joke to Nimmaylee. She conformed to their rules as one playing a new game. She has a little brother as black as herself. She has a substantial pair of legs, but his are so thin and his little body so round that he looks like a little black spider.
Nimmaylee is quite an authority on corroborees, knowing ever so many different steps, from the serpentile trail of the codfish to the mimic fight. The songs she knows too. She used, when she lived in the camp, to marshal in a little crowd of camp children, and put them through a varied performance for my benefit.
These performances were of daily occurrence when the fruit was ripe, for Nimmaylee's capacity for water-melon was practically unlimited.
Nimmaylee was a wonderful little fisherwoman; she delighted in a fishing expedition with me. Off we used to go with our lines, worms or frogs for bait, or perhaps shrimps or mussels if we were after cod. If we were successful, Nimmaylee would string the fish on a stick in a most professional manner, and carry them with an air of pride to the cook. She attributes her fishing successes to a charm having been sung over her to that end as a baby.
Accompanied by some reliable old 'gins' and ever so many piccaninnies, I used to take long walks through the 'bush.'
How interesting those blacks made my bush walks for me! Every ridge, plain, and bend had its name and probably legend; each bird a past, every excrescence of nature a reason for its being.
Those walks certainly at least modified my conceit. I was always the dunce of the party--the smallest child knew more of woodcraft than I did, and had something to tell of everything. Seeing Oogahnahbayah, a small eagle-hawk, flying over, they would say, 'He eats the emu eggs.' He flies over where the emu is sitting on her eggs and makes a noise hoping to frighten the bird off; having done so, he will drop a stone on the eggs. If the emu is not startled off the nest, the hawk will fly on, alight at some distance, and walk up like a black fellow, still with the stone in his beak, to the nest; off the emu will go, then the hawk bangs the eggs with the stone until he breaks them. He throws the stone on one side, has a feed of emu eggs, and goes off, leaving poor Moorunglely, the sitting emu, to come back and find her eggs all destroyed. As the narrative ended, the little would look quite sad, and say 'Nurragah!' 'Poor thing!' at the thought of the domestic tragedy in bird life.
I had to hear the stingless little native bees humming before I could see them; and as to knowing which tree had honey in it, unless I saw the bees, that was quite beyond me, while a mere toddler would point triumphantly to a 'sugar-bag' tree, recognising it as such by the wax on its fork, black before rain, yellowish afterwards.
This honey is good strained, but as the blacks get it, it is all mixed up with dirty wax and dead bees.
I deplored the sacrifice of the bees one day, but was told it was all right. Whoever had chopped the nest out would take home the waxy stick they had used to help get the honey out; they would throw the stick in the fire, then all the dead bees would go to a paradise in the skies, whence next season they would send Yarragerh Mayrah, the Spring Wind, to blow the flowers open, and then down they would come to earth again. One year the manna just streamed down the Coolabah and Bibbil trees; it ran down like liquid honey, crystallising where it dropped.
The old blacks said, 'It is a drought now, but it will be worse. Byamee has sent the manna by the little Dulloorah birds and the black ants, because there will be no flowers for the bees to get honey from, so he has sent this manna.' Each time he has done so, a great drought has followed, and indeed it was followed by one of the worst droughts Australia has ever known. Byamee, it is said, first sent them the manna because their children were crying for honey, of which there was none except in the trees that Byamee, when on earth, had marked for his own. The women had murmured that they were not allowed to get this; but the men were firm, and would neither touch it nor let them touch it, which so pleased Byamee that he sent the manna, and said he always would when a long drought threatened.
A great chorus of 'My Jerhs' would tell something was sighted.
It might be the track of a piggiebillah porcupine. This track was followed to a hollow log; then came the difficulty, how to get it out, for porcupines cling tightly with their sharp claws, and all a dog can do where a piggiebillah is concerned is to bark, their spines are too much to tackle at close quarters. But the old gins are equal to the occasion: a tomahawk to chop the log, and a yam-stick to dislodge the porcupine, who takes a good deal of killing before he is vanquished.
They say a fully initiated man can sing a charm which will make a piggiebillah relax his grip and be taken captive without any trouble. The piggiebillahs burrow into the sand and leave their young there as soon as the faintest feel of a spine appears. The baby piggiebillahs look like little indiarubber toys.
The opossums all disappeared from our district. When we were first there they were very numerous and used to make raids at night to my rose-bushes-great havoc the result. It is said a very great wirreenun-wizard-willed them away so that his enemy, whose yunbeai, or personal totem, the opossum was, should die. This design was frustrated by counter magic; two powerful wizards appeared and, acting in concert, put a new yunbeai into the dying man; he recovered.
When the opossums were about the blacks used to see their scratched tracks on the trees, and chop or burn them out. They miss the opossums very much, for not only were they a prized food, but their skins made rugs, their hair was woven into cords of which were made amulets worn on the forearm or head against sickness, and with no modern instrument can they so well carve their weapons, as with an opossum tooth. Naturally their desire is to see Moodai, the opossum, return; to that end a wirreenun is now singing incantations to charm him back.
Opossum hunters had a way of bringing them home strung round their necks; very disagreeable, I should think, but custom, that tyrant, rules it so. The old gins dug out yams vigorously; some were eaten raw, others were kept for cooking.
To cook them they dug out a hole, made a fire in it, put some stones on the fire, then, when the stones were heated and the fire burnt down, they laid some leaves and grass on the stones, sprinkled some water, then put on the yams, on top of them more grass, sprinkled more water, then more grass and a. thick coating of earth, leaving the yams to cook.
Several other roots they cooked and ate. Raw they ate thistle tops, pigweed, and crowfoot, with great relish. Their game they cooked as follows. Kangaroo were first singed, cleaned out, and filled with hot stones, then put on the top of a burnt-down fire, hot ashes heaped all over them. The blacks like their meats with the gravy in, very distinctly red gravy. Emu were plucked, the insides taken out, and the birds filled up with hot stones, box leaves, and some of their own feathers. A fire was made in a hole; when it was burnt down, leaves and emu feathers were put in it, on top of these the bird, on top of it leaves and feathers again, then a good layer of hot ashes, and over all some earth.
The piggiebillahs were first smoked so that their quills might be easily knocked off. This done, the insides were taken out, then the piggiebillahs were put in little holes made beside the fire, and covered over with hot ashes, as were also opossums, ducks and other birds, iguanas and fish.
Ducks were plucked by our tribe, but in some places they were encased thickly in mud, buried in the ashes to cook, and, when done, the plaster of mud would be knocked off, and with it would come all the feathers.
The insides of iguanas and fish are taken out all in one piece. Each fish carries in its inside a representation of its Minggah--spirit tree; by drying the inside and pressing it you can plainly see the imprint of the tree.
When we go bathing, the blacks tell me that the holes in the creek filled with gum leaves are codfish nests. They say too, that when they beat the river to drive the fish out towards the net waiting for them, that they hear the startled cod sing out.
Mussels and crayfish are cooked in the ashes.
The seagulls, which occasionally we used to see inland, are said to have brought the first mussels to the back creeks.
Emu eggs the blacks roll in hot ashes, shake, roll again; shake once more, and then bury them in the ashes, where they are left for about an hour until they are baked hard, when they are eaten with much relish and apparently no hurt to digestion, though one egg is by no means considered enough for a meal in spite of its being equal to several eggs of our domestic hen.
Not only are the blacks very particular in the way their game is carved or divided, but also in the distribution of the portions allotted to each person. The right to a particular part is an inherited one. No polite offering of a choice to an honoured guest, no suggestion of the leg or wing. You may loathe the leg of a bird as food, but at a black fellow's feast, if convention ordains that as your portion, have it you must; just as each rank in society had its invariable joint in early mediaeval Ireland.
The seeds of Noongah--a sterculia--and Dheal, were ground on their flat dayoorl-stones and made into cakes, which they baked, first on pieces of bark beside the fire to harden them, then in the ashes. These dayoorl, or grinding-stones, are handed down from generation to generation, being kept each in the family to whom it had first belonged. Should a member of any other use it without permission, a fight would ensue. Some of these stones are said to have spirits in them; those are self-moving, and at times have the power of speech. I have neither seen them move nor heard them speak, though I have a couple in my possession. I suppose the statement must be taken on faith; and as faith can move mountains, why not a dayoorl-stone?
The so-called improvident blacks actually used to have a harvest time, and a harvest home too. When the doonburr, or seed, was thick on the yarmmara, or barley-grass, the tribes gathered this grass in quantities.
First, they made a little space clear of everything, round which they made a brush-yard. Each fresh supply of yarmmara, as it was brought in by the harvesters, was put in this yard. When enough was gathered, the brush-yard was thrown on one side, and fire set to the grass, which was in full ear though yet green. While the fire was burning, the blacks kept turning the grass with sticks all the time to knock the seeds out. When this was done, and the fire burnt out, they gathered up the seed into a big opossum-skin rug, and carried it to the camp.
There, the next day, they made a round hole like a bucket, and a square hole close to it. These they filled with grass seed. One man trampled on the seed in the square hole to thresh it out with his feet; another man had a boonal, or stick, about a yard long, rounded at one end, and nearly a foot broad; with this he worked the grass in the round hole, and as he worked the husks flew away.
It took all one day to do this. The next day they took the large bark wirrees, canoe-shaped vessels, which when big like these are called yubbil. They put some grain in these, and shook it up; one end of the yubbils being held much higher than the other, thus all the dust and dirt sifted to one end, whence it was blown off. When the grain was sufficiently clean, it was put away in skin bags to be used as required, being then ground on the large flat dayoorl-stones, with a smaller flat stone held in both hands by the one grinding; this stone was rubbed up and down the dayoorl, grinding the seed on it, on which, from time to time, water was thrown to soften it.
When ground, the grain was made into little flat cakes, and cooked as the tree-seed cakes were. When the harvesting of the yarmmara was done, a great hunt took place, a big feast was prepared, and a big corroboree held night after night for some time.
The two principal drinks were gullendoorie--that is, water sweetened with honey; and another made of the collarene, or flowers of the Coolabah (grey-leaved box), or Bibbil (poplar-leaved box) flowers, soaked all night in binguies (canoe-shaped wooden vessels) of water. Just about Christmas time the collarene is at its best; and then, in the olden days, there were great feasts and corroborees held.
The flat dayoorl-stones on which the seeds are ground with the smaller stone, are like the 'saddle-stone querns ' occasionally found in ancient British sites. These primitive appliances preceded the circular rotatory querns in evolution, and as the monuments prove were used in ancient Egypt. I cannot say whether, amongst the Euahlayi, there was a recognised licence as to exchange of wives on these festal occasions, or at boorahs. If the custom existed, I was not told of it by the blacks; but it is quite possible that, unless I made inquiries on the subject, I would not be told.