Finding Spirit: Ontological Monism in an Australian Aboriginal Desert World Today

“Government-aku Law nyiringka ngarapai. Ananguku Law katangka munu kurunta ngarapai. Nganana Tjukurpa nyiringka tjunkupai wiya. Tjukurpa panaya tjamulu, mamalu, ngunytjulu nganananya ungu, kurunta munu katangka kanyintjaku.”

“Government law is written on paper. Anangu carry our law in our heads and in our souls. We don’t put our Law onto paper. It was given to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers, out fathers and mothers, to hold into in our heads and in our hearts.”

By Dr. Ute Eickelkamp
Professor of Anthropology
University of Sydney

7:1 (2017)


Anthropology’s philosophical interests of late invite reflection on subject-object relationships under duress. I suggest herein lies an opportunity to recover and engage through the prism of ethnography the heritage of modern philosophies of mind and nature. Taking tentative steps in that direction I venture to discern epistemic alignments between the self-world relationship as envisaged by the Aṉangu living at Pukatja in the eastern part of Australia’s Western Desert, Friedrich Schelling’s idea of a first nature, and Sigmund Freud’s notion of the life and death instincts. My discussion, focused on the emergent Aṉangu perspectives on nature, explores an ontological monism facing uncertainty. I approach its vicissitudes by examining the metaphoricity in the Indigenous figuring of the link between spirit and being, including inflections through Christianity that the Aṉangu are juxtaposing with the reality of Dreamings.

Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible Nature.

—Friedrich Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 1797

Tjukurpa mantatja [Story of the land/Dreaming] cannot be given up, spirit is bound to it.

Big Dreamings are inside the ground.

—Senior Aṉangu man, 2015

In Genesis, life was in the still water and it began to move—like a baby in the tummy.

—Peter Nyaningu, Aṉangu Minister of the Uniting Church of Australia, 2014[236]


Australian Aboriginal “metaphysics” appear unconcerned with nature and its “beyond,” or with explanations of being as being, or with questions about First Principles. Yet if there are no verbs or nouns in the Western Desert language (nor in many other Australian languages) signifying either on (being) or physis (nature), the complex totemic worldview that the Aṉangu call Tjukurpa, what is commonly referred to as “the Dreaming,”1 is nevertheless an expression of a distinctive cosmo-onto-logical orientation. Its object is to grasp being—or more precisely, a being or beings—as dynamic localized presence. Such is expressed at the most basic lingual level in the postural modalities in which particular Dreamings endure in their situated singularity—nyinanyi (sit), tjilinyanyi (squat), pupanyi (crouch), ngaranyi (be in a standing position), ngarinyi (be in a lying position), kumpini (be concealed), and so forth. In its totality, Tjukurpa is unfolding across all time, from the beginnings of the phenomenal world into the future, assimilating “new” phenomena along the way. The temporal flow of connections is bidirectional. On the one hand, people “look back” to follow the laws established by Dreaming beings who shaped the land and brought forth their human and nonhuman progeny, languages, and customs. On the other, Dreamings “look forward” in time by following people and other life forms; they incarnate themselves in each generation anew, enter ritual space, and erupt into the everyday. This temporal dynamic is closely connected to yet another movement: the Dreamings’ indexical being between presence and absence in the register of the mark, imprint, or trace (Munn 1970; Biddle 2001; Glowczewski 2007; Varzoon-Morel 2016). Simultaneously being there and not being there, the trace exists through concealment and revelation. Correlative is the human effort to bring forth and reveal (utini) through reflection, recollection, and mobile iterations in the forms of mark-making on ground, skin, and canvas, ritual song and dance, dreams, and visions, what lies beneath even the most solid of surfaces—“spirit.”

For the Aṉangu, the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1930s altered the epistemic landscape, and many have since embarked on a journey of searching reflections about what the “Good News” of the Bible might mean for their long-held ideas about the life forces. For the anthropologist, this reflexivity invites comparison with other Indigenous communities engaging and interpreting Christian spirituality in their own terms (e.g., Magowan 2016 on Yolngu performance). My primary interest here, however, is to extend the comparative hermeneutic beyond Indigenous contexts. I will have occasion to draw on Friedrich Schelling’s idealism of nature2 and on Sigmund Freud’s metapsychology of life and death, keeping [237]center stage the evolving thought traditions of the Aṉangu. Specifically, my interest is in the idea that nature shares the structure of subjectivity—which immediately begs the question if nature and subjectivity exist as distinct ontic categories in the Aṉangu cultural imaginary, or if these are emerging novelties that, at least for now, resemble only superficially the traditional conception of the self-world relationship. To seek out such differences is important given that the Aṉangu are in the midst of those processes of translation and mutual rapprochement that forge a vernacular Christianity. As Diane Austin-Broos (2016: 130) alerts us to consider, “indigenous groups commonly identify elements of shamanism in charismatic Christian practice . . . [while] assumptions about the necessary relation between an animated nature and the immanence of a high god have encouraged more than one missionary in his or her task.” Most Aṉangu Christians are reluctant to articulate and practice a syncretistic religion; that is, they tend to keep apart, maunta, the two great “Stories” in their lives (Eickelkamp forthcoming). And yet, the Christian worldview and temporality, especially as conveyed through alphabetical literacy and written Bible translations, is a significant factor in the Indigenous conceptualization of living matter.

In elucidating these processes of cultural translation, I will draw on Roy Wagner’s (1977) semiotic assessment of the idea of the innate. Of special relevance is his view that both literal (Western scientific) and figurative (indigenous) symbolizations of a being need the alternative modality as context in order to be meaningful. The question of the mode of interpretation inherent in culturally specific conceptions of the self-world relationship is also at the heart of Paul Ricoeur’s (1995) analysis of the sacred. I therefore take recourse to his distinction between two forms of religious language, manifestation and proclamation, which posits a polarity of semiotic modalities. I see Wagner’s scheme to correspond in some respects with Ricoeur’s, where one figuration of the sacred (the metaphoric) is closer to nature than the other (the literal), which is removed from landscapes and idols and realized instead in the proclamation of His Word.

Christianity, which has become a significant source of knowing and living in this part of Australia’s Western Desert, brings new ideas into the Aṉangu cultural imaginary and as such is shifting the figure-ground relationship of semiotic modalities. This openness toward the new is not just the result of coercion from without, let alone of a linear development from a totemic toward a naturalist orientation. Rather, the shift is enabled by certain correspondences between the ontological structure of Christ on one hand, and of Dreamings on the other: both exist through revelation and manifest as dream, word, body, mark, place, and spirit, both are extraordinarily powerful and eternal, yet quintessentially human (and in this sense proximal), and both are centrally concerned with an ethic of care. It is these correspondences that account for the receptivity to the idea of Christ.3 By the same [238]token, however, and in concert with its secular derivations, the figure of Jesus that unifies human history into a single universal truth of progress toward the end of time becomes a formidable challenge to the faith “in” the totemic Ancestors who will abide forever in the land, or else all life will come to a cataclysmic end. It is hardly surprising that the promise of equality and hope for future salvation are important in dealing with political marginalization, racism, socioeconomic hardship, and associated stresses that have become endemic across the generations ever since “the lamb entered the Dreaming” (Kenny 2007). Yet I doubt the relevance of Christ would be what it is were it not for the epistemic and ontological receptivity to spirit grounded in a “totemic” orientation, which Philippe Descola (2013: 122, 237) aptly characterized as the sharing of interiority (perhaps better “mentality”) and physicality among human and nonhuman kinds.

Continuities in a transforming life-world

My argument about the transformational impact of Christianity on the Aṉangu worldview is not detached from the social, economic, and ecological changes that have reshaped people’s lives over the last one hundred years. Clearly, the history of the frontier, the mission, and pastoralism, and since then a string of state interventions, the cash economy, consumerism, and demographic changes toward a younger population all structure the Aṉangu reality. Hence, a brief sketch of the social and ecological history shall set the scene.

The Aṉangu, a Western Desert group of about 3,000 Pitjantjatjatjara and Yankunytjatjara speakers, live in eleven small communities dotted across 103,000 square kilometers that make up the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Pukatja (Ernabella), the oldest settlement, was established as a “ration depot” and sheep station by Presbyterian missionaries in 1937. If the far-reaching changes that the arrival of dingo scalp traders, missionaries, white settlers, and several thousand sheep and cattle had brought to their lives as hunters and gatherers are now part of the historical memory of the Aṉangu, the transformation of their world goes on alongside what seem, at least at this point, deeper continuities.

Since the early 2000s, the state government has tightened its control over the local administration and welfare benefits. With the explicit goal to improve the economic and social well-being of families, it has enforced school attendance and job-seeking efforts, while building more houses and paving roads. Most families own at least one motor vehicle, yet outstations that the now elderly had fought for in the wake of the decentralization movement in the late 1960s are now largely abandoned and the time people spend on Country in touch with Ancestral presence has markedly shrunk. Meanwhile, domestic life at Pukatja has shifted from unfolding visibly in back and front yards to the interior of houses, and doors are often kept shut. As a result, the visceral contact with the larger social and natural environment so carefully observed for meaningful signs before, is compromised further, making bush trips on weekends or special occasions all the more urgent. Mobile phones that help sustain connectedness among relatives and friends near and far (and occasionally serve to entertain a young child) also shield people from direct exposure to being with others and their demands. Some problems endemic [239]to community life have ebbed. Most notably, a string of initiatives succeeded in halting the destructive youth practice of petrol sniffing, although former sniffers and a new generation of young people consume marijuana and alcohol instead. The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (NPYWC), a support organization for women and families that began at grassroots level in the wake of the 1970s land rights movement and was formally established in 1980, has since grown into a large service provider with a substantial number of non-Aṉangu staff. Freehold title over their Ancestral lands was granted in 1981, allowing the Aṉangu, despite subsequent adverse amendments of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act, to exert some control over their lives. Mining of the mineral wealth in the Lands seems on the horizon, stirring hopes for royalties, jobs, and training, as well as fears of further social and ecological destruction.

Dependency on the state and its agents remains an encompassing fact of life, notwithstanding the social and political achievements of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet despite high levels of poverty (Pukatja has the second lowest per capita income in South Australia), it is more correct to speak of codependence, which has been integral to the Aṉangu–settler relationship throughout and indeed intensifying since the 1970s, when the number of “white” jobs in APY communities and organizations began to grow excessively (Edwards 2011).

The cultural continuities that need to be appreciated against the background of such changes run deep. First and foremost is the reality of “big Dreamings inside the ground,” as a senior man put it when he explained to me the inalienable boundedness of spirit to Tjukurpa mantatja, the “Story of the land.” Even those whose spiritual affinity is strongly oriented toward the “Story of heaven,” Tjukurpa ilkaritja, identify existentially with the productivity and knowledge of the bush, and with their subsistence tools of old. Not only have these accrued new symbolic value (and capital) as tangible and intangible artifacts at the cross-cultural interface of contemporary living but men and women also feel they must adhere to the customary principles of care and emotional participation that guide human interaction with the environment. Knowledge traditions and cultural sentiments continue to be formalized in ritual life that is thriving (with some financial and logistical support from state-sponsored Aṉangu organizations), including Christian inma comprising church services with singing, praying, testimonials, and sermons. To use Mervyn Meggitt’s (1987: 130) memorable phrasing, “a catenated system of cultural coding” is in place, even if former subsistence practices contribute only a fraction to people’s daily food intake. Cultural coding occurs in a dialect of the Western Desert language, the mother tongue of the majority of people across ages, and children are socialized into extended networks of kin.

A new symbolic nexus?

My argument about an incipient notion of nature as externality begins here: dependency on an elaborate externally produced materialist culture and knowledge has cast a shadow on the human-land relationship. “We have a new way of hunting—shopping,” a church elder explained in a nutshell the predicament of not spending enough time on Country in order to secure the Ancestral willingness to proliferate [240]life. To not “look after” Ancestral sites by keeping these clean and paying visits is a moral breach that causes considerable stress for those responsible. To uphold this basic reciprocity between Dreamings and people requires adjustments. Hence art workshops held “out bush” (putitja), and land management and research programs that bring together science and “traditional environmental knowledge” are increasingly important forums through which the Aṉangu attend to Country.

At Pukatja, the most significant medium through which traditional and external knowledge about nature is “filtered” is the Word of God. Collectively rewriting the sacred book as Bible translators, the Aṉangu adhere to a literal interpretation, including of the book of Genesis. They reject a culturally open hermeneutic that would allow for comparison and include references to Ancestral Stories in the translation, explaining that the written word on paper is not to be “mixed up” with Stories of Country. Intimately familiar with what is the most widely read text by far, many reflect on the foundations of life and the order of the phenomenal world through the veil of the “Good News,” Tjukurpa Palya. Christianity is now a firm part of Emile Durkheim’s (1915) symbolic nexus of religion, society, and forms of reasoning, to which John Morton drew attention in his psychoanalytic interpretation of the idea of nature in the classical Arrernte totemic “increase” rites and beliefs. Morton (1987a: 454) showed how this general outlook of Durkheim’s theory of religion was pivotal to understanding rationality as a “critical dimension of all subjectivity and objectivity.” Extending that discussion to the contemporary dynamics of cosmo-onto-logical transformation, I suggest that indoctrination per se—be that through consumerism, managerialism, science, art, or Christianity—is only another symptom of what is fundamentally an ontological rupture.

As I see it, two factors could push the Aṉangu world—its semiotic orientation and what Thomas Luckmann (1970) called “plausibility structure”—beyond the bounds of current recognition. One is a severely compromised productivity of Country, which, amid other problems, is choking under introduced buffel grass and suffering the extinction of local desert animals. These destructions and losses in their homelands—which ethnographers are only beginning to understand in Indigenous terms—are cause for considerable worry. For example, women artists voiced their concerns in their language of a “revelatory regime of value” (Myers 2004: 9) during a collaborative workshop in 2014 with environmental artist Fiona Hall. Takiri Tjawina Roberts, one of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers who have become well known for their expressive grass sculptures that capture endangered and extinct species, explained: “In our hearts we worry deeply about the whole of Australia. Our animals have hidden themselves away, the poor things. The animals of old are now hiding somewhere. We now have only a few animals left” (Michael 2015: 49). On the other hand, as Britta Duelke (pers. comm.) remarked, introduced species are not only a source of existential stress; they also make for an important livelihood as they become a new resource material, including for grass sculptures of endangered animals that are made from buffel grass or raffia.

The other major source of existential stress is the overwhelming experience of the death of loved ones, including of the junior generations. These two predicaments are connected at various levels and as such are the source of a sense of [241]impotence that is deeply saddening. For the Aṉangu I know, and especially women, life-sustaining power must come from without. To put it into the starkest of terms: even if only evident in a few individuals, it is now thinkable that the totemic Ancestors who sustain the phenomenal world are falling silent (and in this sense become mortal), as abiding living presence is the privilege of one man only—Jesus Christ. In the language of Wagner’s (1975, 1977) semiotic approach, this new source of being and knowing that enters from the outside into the province of human action and thus becomes its cause, cannot be symbolized figuratively (or metaphorically in Ricoeur’s terminology). Rather, He will be spoken of only through representations proper—that is, in recognition of the gap between symbol and reality. An external (divine) view is cast onto the universe of significations that divides the symbol from what it stands for. This new literal orientation toward being is pushing the hitherto dominant figurative mode of symbolization into the background. A rupture is thus inflicted upon the self-producing and self-signifying world of totemic differentiations that flow from an all-consuming humanity—one in which Ancestors “turned into” and did not “stand for” the phenomena.

To illustrate the above: Easter banners decorating the outdoor church in 2015 announced the death and resurrection of His Only Son as historical events of universal significance. Bearing the promise of eternal life, for some, these world-changing events instill hope for a future reunification with deceased family members.

The statement on the left banner signals historicity: Jesunya ilungu (Jesus died [past]) munu (and) wankaringkula (after he awoke [secondary verb form]) pakanu (he rose [past]). Here, “Jesus” is used as a proper name (suffix –nya) that stands for the Son of God as a concrete individual who once lived and died. Combined with the past tense verb form, ilungu, the statement constitutes a literal symbolization of the represented context: the Word become flesh. However, the continuous verb form in the English language banner to the right, “He is Risen,” signals a shift of state of being; it condenses the unique event of the death and ascent into the durée of eternal life. This “ever-after” appears to invert the direction and locus of abiding living presence of so many Ancestral creator beings who “went into” (tjarpangu; past tense) the ground after they had risen out of (pakanu) the land and created through their embodied action in the world certain features of the landscape. These lingual significations of sacrality in time and space differ from the pattern that Aram Yengoyan identified some forty years ago for the Pitjantjatjara worldview. They bear directly on his proposition that there are ontological (or, with Wagner, semiotic) constraints in place that prohibit the Aṉangu to convert to Christianity:

For the Pitjantjatjara, sacred activities and sacred thoughts have no beginning or end. . . . Ideally, all sacred events . . . are cast in the imperfective, and all secular events are expressed in the past. . . . Thus, in versions of the eaglehawk myth, for example, one hears “eaglehawk was falling off the branch,” not “eaglehawk fell off the branch.” . . . Not only is the past tense absent then in mythic narrative, but its use is not tolerated in the culture. The combination of the imperfective as aspect and the use of physical referents for all mythic accounts provides a collective means of maintaining religious value in the present, even though its source is in the most distant past. (Yengoyan 1993: 240)[242]


Figure 1: Easter church banners on cotton and canvas, Pukatja 2015 (author’s photographs).

It is undoubtedly the case that the Aṉangu conceive of Ancestral presence as an abiding force that can be activated, and that in fact might be better understood as constituting a spatial rather than a temporal dimension: Ancestral powers or Stories are mostly inside the ground, below the surface or kampa kutjungka, on the “other side” of the visible world (see also Morton 1987a: 456; Meggitt 1987: 121; [243]Hiatt and Jones 1988: 10). However, this is not expressed dogmatically through the avoidance of the past tense. Thus, a recent elaborate documentation of the world-shaping Story of Wati Ngintaka (Perentie Lizard Man) contains numerous instances of verbs in the past tense in both mythic narrative and song (James and Tregenza 2014), while I have documented dozens of “profane” children’s play stories in which the imperfective abounds. Nonetheless, his overly literal interpretation of a grammatical feature notwithstanding, Yengoyan raised important questions about the cultural and psychological preconditions that make possible the comprehension and internalization of a universal God who will either save or condemn the individual soul.

I want to suggest that the incipient (Christian) distinction between the creator and the created opens the door for the symbolization of nature as pure phenomenon or external object of significations. To repeat, this does not mean a wholesale shift from totemism to naturalism was occurring by default. Rather, the encounter produces points of tension that can lead to the renewal of a monistic ontology (cf. Magowan 2016)—as indeed occurred in Western thought. To make my case, I focus on the recalibration of subjectivity in life and in death through two important if neglected notions in modern philosophies of mind. One is Freud’s view (following Sabina Spielrein) that there exists an entropic death instinct, “life’s general striving to return to the resting place of the inorganic world” ([1920] 2000: 270; my translation). I see expressed the same intuition in the “cooling” of the Dreaming Ancestors who submerged in the land at the end of their creative existence. The other is Schelling’s idea of a First Nature, that “barbaric principle” that, in excess of being and as its “incomprehensible ground” (Merleau-Ponty 2003: 38), nonetheless exhibits self-organization and purposiveness. For Schelling, all of nature possesses intelligence and is the self-producing ground of both being and knowing (see Nassar 2016). It is not the product of mind but participates in the same organic structure as mind. On account of its organicity, that is, as a force not confined to mechanical laws, nature is self-generative and hence both subject and object—creator and created (Richards 2002: 142–43). Similarly, the Ancestral creative power that produced the much-noted consubstantiality between Dreamings, humans, and nonhuman life, is conceived of as an organismic rather than a mechanical force. As emplaced Stories with life-giving and organizing powers, the Tjukurpa beings might be thought of as the unconditioned, as nature was for Schelling.

One need not be a new animist and believe that nonhuman entities “speak back” to us in order to grasp something of the “organic,” everlasting link between people, places, and totemically significant others. The emotional and cosmic connectedness with the tools, songs, designs, sacra, and features of the environment that the creative totemic beings left as “tokens of their being” in the care of humans before they disappeared, was pointedly articulated by Lester Hiatt and Rhys Jones, in an earlier discussion of “Aboriginal conceptions of the working of nature”: “At a deeper level, they serve as a palpable link with the departed dead, through whose hands and minds the works have passed from time immemorial” (1988: 10–11). The Aṉangu today too strive to keep spirit in place across the generations because they continue to be emotionally and existentially attached to those who went before them and along the deep grooves of the path of customs. In 2016, Aṉangu educator Katrina Tjitayi explained to me the importance of taking the kids “out [244]bush” and build a proper traditional wet-weather shelter, wiltja, in which to camp with them: “To put a little bit of that spirit inside them.”

Mind in matter

“You’re an anthropologist?” a very senior man I had not met before wanted to know. It is 1995 and I have just begun my maiden fieldwork, so I nod with much hesitation. He continued, in English: “I need you to come now, record Tjukurpa, put it on the tape.” Regardless of the fact that I am not working for the land council and a novice to his culture, he insists and a few days later, we drive to Caterpillar Country where he speaks Story into my tape recorder. I do not understand a word of the Western Desert language, the Yankunytjatjara dialect in this case. But this is not about my understanding or anyone’s interpretation. It is about putting Story into place, incarnating the Word in Country. At the end of a long session, he instructs me, in English: “Now bury it in the sand!” I am quite shocked as this feels like the request for a partial funeral to me: with the tape imprinted with his voice, a part of this man is being buried. I suggest alternative storage places such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (funding my research!) that could keep the knowledge, which I presume the Story presents, alive, but to no avail. He finally says: “I got no-one left to give my Story.” When, years after his death, I shared this memory with one of my Aṉangu women friends, she was surprised to hear of his decision since his adult daughters, her own age, are still alive (as are other senior owners of this Story). Presumably, for this old man, what was at stake was not knowledge per se but the unity of knower and known, which he seemed to want to preserve by placing his voice into the ground. Moreover, as Duelke (pers. comm.) suggested, he may well have included “new” stories that gave voice to his selfhood inside the earth. “I’ll tell my story to the end, write my own eulogy,” a woman told me in a similar vein twenty years later, in the context of the funeral of a senior ritual leader and church elder. Part man, part word, the old man’s Story inscribed on tape embodies the transition from the realm of the visible to the invisible. As such it is part of ngura walytja, the “I” of place that remains unafflicted by the human duality of body and bodily soul.4

Human beings are alive because inside their body, in the solar plexus, they hold kurun. Most often I heard kurun glossed as “spirit” or “soul,” but in interactive contexts it is plain that the term harbors the wider connotations of “self” and “will.” In the traditional view, a person’s kurun is not the immaterial energy of light that the Aṉangu now associate with one aspect of the Trinitarian Christian notion, the Holy Spirit glossed kurun miilmiilpa. Rather, the human soul is a small, homunculus-like fleshy creature that grows in size and ages with the person, and that has intentions of its own. In conversations about its nature, people always told me that their soul will go to heaven and only “lost souls” linger around on the ground among the living. Some have explained that the soul of a recently deceased is retrieved by [245]a healer who will “put it into” the body of a close relative; their souls will ascend together after the death of the second person (cf. Eickelkamp forthcoming). But even if the Christian women who have been my main source of information never explicitly spoke of the spirit of the deceased going back to Country, the fact that the deceased owners of a homeland, which are usually places of Tjukurpa connection, are buried there in accordance with their will rather than on the Pukatja community cemetery, suggests an ongoing existential attachment to emplaced Ancestral beings. The fact that a number of homelands are now family graveyards also reflects an adjustment of the desire to have company even in death. In contrast to the “lonely” bush graves of the not so recent past, people generally seek to be buried next to family members, including spouses.

Some say their soul resembles their outer body, which depends for its well-being on the inner bodily soul. Others have adopted the scriptural view of the human body as house for the God-given soul; they speak of the insignificance of physical well-being, or else of the moral duty to look after one’s health. In either case, the soul knows earlier and deeper than the mind. In order to give a good sense of its fleshy and indeed libidinal nature, I cite from a published explanation that Sandra Lewis, one of my Christian interlocutors, gave some years ago:

Young children especially are perceptive through their soul. They can sense approaching visitors who are coming for some social occasion. As the visitors travel towards the community where the child lives, they might be talking about this particular girl or boy, thinking about the child with anticipation. At home, the young child will touch his or her genitals, which signals to the parents that visitors are on their way.

We take care of our children’s soul and try not to lay infants on their back to put them to sleep. Instead, they should lie on the side because if the baby gets a fright, by a sudden loud noise, for instance, his soul will jump out of place. If this happens, the baby starts vomiting, and someone with the know-how will have to push the soul back into its proper place at the sternum for the baby to recover. But if a baby’s soul becomes so frightened—by a looming illness for example—that it jumps out of the body and tries to hide away from whatever danger it may perceive, a healer (ngangkari) will be able to find it straight away. However, if the same happens to an older person, whose soul is much stronger than those of infants, it can be difficult to retrieve it. For instance, after a car accident or during a sickness, the soul of a person will try to protect itself from being harmed by running away from the body. It can hide a long way away and for a long time. In cold weather, this older soul will grow a fur, inyutjararinganyi, which makes it even harder for the healer to locate it. (Tjitayi and Lewis 2011: 59–60)

Thus, on this level of concrete encounters, the distinction is not between subjectivity and matter as such. Rather, the image of the human soul as hairy creature that can “jump out” of the person suggests a metonymic participation of spirit in the flesh.

The procreative Ancestral beings are this participation par excellence. Morton (1987a, b), in his psychoanalytic discussions of Nancy Munn’s insights about subject-object relationships in Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara (Aṉangu) religion, writes of [246]the “fragmented ‘self’” of Ancestral beings in classical Arrernte thought. By “throwing out” their own names, by placing into the world dream visions, language, and songs, and by pulling out or simply releasing objects from their bodies, the desert Dreamings objectified and dissipated their selfhood and “made” the phenomenal world. Thus, psychic and material object are two sides of the same coin. Like the voice “thrown out” on the tape I was instructed to bury, the products of such creative labor are not alienable from their maker; to the contrary, the outpouring of the self is the human and nonhuman progeny, and, like a mother having given birth, the Ancestors grew tired from their acts of generation and transformation. “Cooling” or “slowing down” (purkaringanyi), their bodies finally turned into rocks (or trees) that thus became their resting place. The literal rendering, apuringanyi (stone.turn.into) is also common. In other instances, the transformation into sites is brought about by fighting and violent death rather than creation. Either way, death is figured as a homecoming (ngurakutu) and, as such, clearly a human striving. I think that, at the end of his life in the realm of the visible world, the old man who had asked me to bury the tape recording of his Tjukurpalonged to “go home,” that is, to merge with his place of origin and to prevent his emplaced Ancestral selfhood from further dissipation, even if that meant “stopping”—immobilizing and silencing—his voice in the realm above ground. I will have more to say about such striving toward stillness and here conclude with a proposition: this man knew all along that, as Schelling ([1797/1803] 1995: 40) put it, “sometime, somewhere the point must surely come where mind and matter are one, or where the great leap we have so long sought to avoid becomes inevitable.”

For Freud, this leap is the “beyond” of the pleasure principle, the hereafter (Jenseits as a noun) that moves at once backward in geological time to the beginning of the world, and forward to the deeper understanding of the life processes. Although overstating the case, Yengoyan captured the gist of the same dual orientation in the Aṉangu worldview when he wrote, “Just as myth is visually present throughout the landscape as a set of markers on and below the ground, myth is also propelled from the most ancient past into the present through certain forms of tense and aspect in language structures” (1993: 239).

Unstable metaphors

The incident with the tape adds to the confusion that Nicolas Peterson has identified to beset anthropological interpretations of desert Aboriginal perceptions of the landscape as sentient. In his view, forged in the course of decades of research with Warlpiri speakers and other groups, the land is perceived “as being occupied by the spirits of human ancestors and other human-like spirit beings”—the trees, rocks, riverbeds, or animals as such are not thought of as being persons (Peterson 2013: 177). But how do the Warlpiri, or the Aṉangu for that matter, figure the rocks, trees, and animals “as such”? How are the nonliving, the non-human-like and the nonsentient explained, if at all? In order to make tangible the dynamic thrust in Tjukurpa-thinking, which does not rely on a fixed quality, “as such,” I return to one of the major traveling Dreamings of the Aṉangu, the Story of Wati Ngintaka (Perentie Lizard Man). It is not my intention to analyze the narrative, songs, or [247]paintings that were documented and produced in the course of a large collaborative research, the Songlines Project, led by Diana James. Rather, I will use it as an illustration of the fluid transitions between human and nonhuman, and the identity of symbol and symbolized in totemic thought and being. In this “symbolic nexus,” a categorical distinction between narrative and empirical reality, or the truth within the Story and belief in its (historical?) veracity, is meaningless. As James (2015: 43) wrote, “Tjukurpa as ontology can avoid the reality versus myth debate.”

“Wati Ngintaka was a real man, just like us, until he became a perentie lizard on his journey to get back his grindstone,” explained Robin Kankapankatja, a senior custodian of the Perentie Lizard Man Story (James and Tregenza 2014: 31). The documentation does not specify where on his journey Wati Ngintaka transformed himself, but it is clear that the shape-shifting is part of his plan to deceive the group of relatives who were chasing him after he had taken back what he claimed was rightfully his. Women in the east were using a most beautiful grindstone, smooth and long, that could grind seeds more finely than any other. He heard the grindstone “sing out” to him from a long way away; it was calling him and he traveled over many days to retrieve his special stone. We first learn of the man having a tail when he took the stone and hid it inside this part of his body, setting off back home. His reptilian nature is again linked to disguise when, trying to cover his tracks, he “released from himself lots of ngintaka perentie lizards” (38). Further on, “the Ngintaka Man created lots and lots of little perentie lizards from his skin, they flowed out of his body from his spirit. Many men and women and other lizards flowed from him” (50). This outflow of human and nonhuman others—Schelling’s “excess of being”?—what psychoanalysts would call externalization of the self, seems motivated by a desire for company: Wati Nintaka also created his own song and dance and everybody of the newly created party “forgot themselves as he sang and sang and sang . . . and they danced and danced there, all together” (50). Growing increasingly hungry on his long journey home, Ngintaka Man repeatedly devoured bush fruits, but only to vomit them out, his stomach churning. At one place where he vomited up foods, he was standing with his arms spread wide feeling very hungry. In realization of this feeling, his empty stomach became a large cave (60). Let me comment here that, unlike say, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a literal interpretation of the stomach having become a cave as such appears extremely reductive and unconvincing—for the ethnographer as well as for the Aṉangu. But if there is no cave “as such,” that is, pure object onto which mind projected a story after the fact, a metonymic relationship of subject and object, and of symbol and symbolized, takes precedence. In this modality of being and knowing, the identity of physiognomic and affective agency across the human and nonhuman is powerfully expressed in its generative aspect. Indeed, a song verse makes clear that vomiting is also an act of fertilization: “I’m throwing out seeds” (57). At the site of this event, small circles on rocks “mark” the mistletoe berries that he “threw away,” and this is a place where the “Aṉangu rub the rocks every spring to ensure there are rains so more bush foods like mistletoe berries can ripen and be eaten” (58). To reiterate, conveyed here is the inseparability of “environmental” knowledge, spirit agency, and libidinal strivings, that is, an orientation that is far more than metaphorical (in Peterson’s sense). If a ceremonial act can bring “rain,” the latter should not be taken as “water falling from the sky” as such. Rather, at work here is figurative [248]symbolization, where man, lizard and rain are manifestations of one another. In that sense Wati Ngintaka is rain; what from close up can be identified as his ceremonial headdress is revealed from the distance to be a ring of clouds bringing rain (51). When his pursuers killed Wati Ngintaka, his aunt realized what had happened as she saw a cloud approaching and then vanishing (78). She sent her sons, hills kangaroo [euro] and red plains kangaroo men, to revenge the murder. They tricked the people in the east to follow them into their death, by turning themselves into their animal appearance enticing the men to hunt them (76). The narrator, David Miller, goes on to explain that his grandfather, “sitting on the hill, said to them, ‘That’s not a euro, that’s a man!’ But they wouldn’t listen” (77).

Ancestral events that continue to “absorb” subsequent generations of human descendants (the deceased grandfather witnessing the Story that at the same time happened at the beginning of the world) secure the proximal reality of the Dreaming. In this space-time continuum, semiotic determinations that are also libidinal relationships of the flesh linking signs, sounds, visions, and bodies in a flow of iterations, are not stable at all. Peterson suggested this much in a seminar presentation of his 2013 paper, “Is the Aboriginal Landscape Sentient?,” in a section omitted in the published version. Explaining how the Warlpiri think of the relationship between an important Dreaming being, the Rainbow Serpent, and the rainbow, he cited one of his interlocutors as saying: “Rainbows look like the Rainbow Serpent,” which turns on its head a naturalist’s metaphor.

Here again I see the “relevance of romanticism” (Nassar 2014). Arguably, to invert the naturalist’s metaphor was pivotal to their project of a holistic ontology. Therefore, can we not compare the rainbow that looks like the rainbow serpent to the eye that is “sun-like” in Goethe’s translation of Plotinus, in his Farbenlehre (Fischer 2015: 235)? Undoubtedly, the intersubjective relationship with the nonhuman was a concern in Western high culture well before ethnography extended its reach to interspecies encounters. For instance, in his reinterpretation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Der Panther, Luke Fischer points out that the poem is hardly a “report of a simple perception of the animal”; rather, it “enacts for the reader a physiognomic disclosure of the animal at the imaginal level” (2015: 241). Far from being a special poetic orientation confined to the ritual context, I think that for the Aṉangu, this disclosure is happening all the time. The indeterminacy between points of view, this gliding between the proximal and the distant, inside and outside, visible and invisible, self and other, is of an ontological order and constitutive of the Indigenous worldview at large. But as such, it may be less secure than it once was, by the sheer fact that it has become one alternative among other more deterministic forms of reasoning.

If “Tjukurpa as ontology can avoid the reality versus myth debate,” this is not always the case for the Aṉangu who enact Tjukurpa in intercultural contexts. During a research visit to the site where Wati Ngintaka vomited seeds, one of James’ major cultural advisors, the late Nganyinytja, recalled how her granddaughter once queried what kind of mark she was looking at:

Grandmother, did you make these markings on the rocks?” Nganyinytja smiles and replies, “No little one, these were made by the Ngintaka man when he turned into stone here. He left these markings so we would [249]know of his work—creating this land and giving us ngantja mistletoe berries to eat. (James 2015: 58)

One would not be misguided to find echoed here the image of a caring God. Although this is fittingly not dealt with in James’ book, Nganyinytja was also a Christian who, at times, struggled under the weight of knowing two spiritual powers. Others have been more definite in choosing the one Story over the other. My closest companion at Pukatja, a senior artist and Bible translator, explained about her own reorientation:

Our language is culture, makuku, tjalaku [collecting witchetty grubs and honey ants], family, sharing. We know who we are. We know our culture. And my parents told me and taught me Tjukurpa, but I don’t pass it on, I don’t believe it—because He [points skyward] might come tomorrow.

My friend translates the term tjukuritja (commonly used to mean “from the Dreaming”) into English as “traditional” and “like folklore.” For her, this implies something “made up” (ngunti) and “not for real” (mulapa wiya)—“real” denoting the empirical world of perception and spiritual manifestations of God—but from the imagination, even pretense (ngalypa-ngalypa). To explain further her understanding of tradition as having squarely human and not (as she put it) “supernatural” roots, she reminded me of a song I had just learned, Tjulpunytjulpunypa (Wild Flowers). This song, which she considers traditional without reach into the sacred (miilmiil), tells of a man who, as he is camping by himself, hears people dancing and singing in the bush at night. He even sees the painted designs on their bodies. But he cannot find their footprints and realizes in the morning that the ceremony was a trick of his imagination: it was only the wind rushing in the leaves of trees, not singing, and only the colors of wild flowers, not bodies painted up for dancing.5 Her message through this song, as I understand it, is her awakening to the new world of literal truths, to the victory of proclamations over the “excess of being” whereby the totemic beings “spill over” into the realm of life above ground.

Of kinds and excess of being

Tjukurpa-thinking connects depth of knowing with endurance of being. What Meggitt (1987: 120) wrote of the Warlpiri worldview, and Hiatt and Jones (1988: 10) claimed for a pan-Aboriginal ontology, is true for the Aṉangu also: reciprocity [250]between a coextensive realm of invisible spirit and the phenomenal sustains the order of the world. However, unlike these interpreters, I will be careful to distinguish between this duality, which I see as characteristic of a monistic worldview where, in Schelling’s words, “nature should be visible mind, mind invisible nature,” and an ontological dualism that cuts being into two kinds. In other words, the idea that there exist invisible organizing forces that continue to give substance, shape, and form to the phenomena, and that in this sense are endowed with intentionality, subjectivity, and indeed a particular nature in which humans participate, is two-fold and not corresponding to a dualism proper of natura naturans and natura naturata. I cite Meggitt’s apt synopsis of this reciprocal relationship, in order to show that it is indeed justifiable to speak of a “subjectivity of nature” and its productivity in Indigenous terms:

The dreamtime is . . . an enduring level of being which continues as a noumenal [sic] ground that parallels and sustains the ongoing flow of phenomenal existence. Men, as representatives par excellence of the phenomenal world, must constantly act, using the ritual innovations of the dreamtime as models, to stimulate the causal efficacy of the dreamtime which, in turn, through spiritual, noumenal catalysts, guarantees the continuity of the phenomenal events. Indeed, the continuing reproduction of living species, whether floral or faunal, depends on the recurrent absorption by their phenomenal progenitors of such noumenal entities. (Meggitt 1987: 120)

The “noumenal” sources of endurance that link the human and nonhuman are of a kind, on account of which there is order in the world. Hiatt and Jones (1988: 19) went so far as to discern elements of Platonism in the idea of Dreamings as archetypes: “They are not conceived merely as essential qualities residing in the members of a natural species or kind, but as separate entities inhabiting a transcendental dimension of reality. Forms and particulars coexist in their different realms, but whereas the latter are visible and ephemeral, the former are invisible and eternal.” The problem with what at first sight appears to be a most conducive comparison is profound. Not only is the suggestion of a transcendental realm in the Indigenous cultural imaginary questionable. More grave is that we are given the false impression of an ontological schism in both worlds, since the authors neglect to point out that, in Plato’s model, there is no intrinsic necessity for the forms to become particularized—Tjukurpa beings, by contrast, must or else they cease to be.

My own records of the contemporary Aṉangu classification of flora, fauna, rocks, ecological zones, and seasonal cycles in relationship to the totemic order are too rudimentary to merit publication. I therefore merely point out what seems to be a more general pattern in the Indigenous classification of the phenomena that can be gleaned by comparing the findings of other more substantial investigations. Describing and reconstructing the traditional subsistence behavior of Western Desert people around Warburton Mission in the 1960s, Richard Gould (1969) found an especially refined terminology for edible plants (over thirty-seven species names and further subdivisions), as did Meggitt (1957) for the Warlpiri. Similarly, drawing mostly on research in northeast Arnhem Land, Hiatt and Jones (1988) found that the more economically or totemically significant the phenomena, the [251]more refined the classification and associated terminology. Thus, proper species names (that correspond largely with the scientific classification) or subdivisions of these are given to animals and plants that are either important food items or occur in the totemic songs. Furthermore, to be of a kind is not strictly a matter of Linnean species identity insofar the taxonomic and totemic orders overlap and functional as well as creative contiguities or chains of association play a role. For example, John von Sturmer observed about the totemic order among the Wik-Mungkana Kugu-Nganychara speakers on Western Cape York Peninsula that “certain phenomena are seen as ‘mate’ to other phenomena,” that is, they are associated with one another on the basis of “a principle of resemblance or ‘mateship’” that manifests in the sharing of a name, appearance, or habitat (von Sturmer 1978: 322–23).

He also reported for the coastal division a distinction between Ancestral powers that express a relationship between phenomenon and place (awu), and those that do not and instead refer to a relationship between people and phenomena that is transmitted patrilineally (kam waya). These latter are the totems proper (von Sturmer 1978: 320). Similarly, Hiatt and Jones (1988: 11) wrote of a pan-Aboriginal distinction between the creative, site-specific life-giving Ancestors on the one hand and totems on the other. These observations as well as my own material underscore the appositeness of Adolphus Elkin’s (1933) original distinction between “individual totemism” and “cult totemism.” The Aṉangu too distinguish such special powers. First, there are the creative Ancestral beings, Tjukurpa, the original humans who resembled certain animals or plants and defined their group identity as “hare wallaby people,” or “mulga seed people,” and who became Storyplaces and sources of landed identity for every generation anew. Then there are bundles of power, ngangkari, that male and female healers, or “witchdoctors,” also called ngangkari, hold in their tjuni (stomach), and use to heal or destroy another person (see also Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation 2013). One of my Aṉangu friends thought these are what anthropologists call “totems”—generative creatures whose concentrated power of their specific nature unfolds when unleashed. She mentioned a tiny puppy dog, a goanna and a biting sensation, a friendly quiet rainbow serpent and a “cranky” one, and an eagle and the feeling and sound of its swoop and clinching claws that only the owner of this totem perceives. Even as a child, a person may have more than one totem “inside,” as I learned from a twelve-year-old girl who had been given an eagle first and a few years later a spider, each time by a different grandparent. These totems are not land-based and obtained through birth or inheritance like Tjukurpa, but directly transmitted from body to body, pulled out of the healer and pushed into the tummy of another person in whose kurun it will lodge. The astounding thing about these creatures that move, that can make themselves manifest outside the “carrier” in their animal nature, that can be sensed from a distance as they jump out and ahead of a person approaching others, warn of looming danger and death, punish a “greedy” person by inflicting illness, or heal, my friend went on to explain, is that to “give it away” to others does not make it less or smaller: “She’s got the main one inside and it is proliferating in her,” my friend’s explanation went, and it is this ability to grow totems that makes the healer ever more powerful. Insofar I understand these differentiations of Ancestral power correctly, it can be noted that, unlike the world-shaping Tjukurpa beings, these healer “totems” show no signs of striving [252]toward stillness, no entropic desire to cool down and rest—they are not anchored in place in the same way. Rather, circulated among the living toward powerful ends, their excess of being is in the register of the Life Instinct. It is these dangerous powers that more fundamentalist Christians reject as satanic and by the same token accept as real, while they may renounce as “imaginary” or “made up” the place-based Tjukurpa creative beings.

What is alien to both Tjukurpa-thinking (Brooks 2011) and by extension, Christian thought, is the idea of species evolution. I have heard accounts of Ancestral metamorphosis and shape-shifting similar to those mentioned in the Wati Ngintaka Story. Such transformations are marked by the suffix –ringu (past tense of what Goddard [1992] refers to as the mood character –ringanyi); “became,” which in these contexts the Aṉangu gloss in English “turned into.” Ancestral procreative powers continue to cut across the human-nonhuman divide as their life-force lodged in those sites of abiding transformation can be activated by people today in order to stimulate the growth of the species that had come from or out of these Ancestors. What I have never heard and what seems inconceivable is that one kind or species “comes from” (-nguru) another. To the contrary, with the single exception of a science-oriented young ranger, everybody responded with puzzlement and sheer disbelief to my inquiry about the soundness of Darwinian theory.

“White fellas think we’re like frogs, but people come from people, dogs from dogs,” the only ever ordained Aṉangu minister of the (Uniting) Church, the late Peter Nyaningu, explained in 2014 in a conversation about origins. At one level, this stark affirmation of his humanity must be understood as oppositional speech activism—a claim as “boss for,” as he put it, the “kingdom” of the Aṉangu world, and a rejection of white occupation. Throwing into relief the political ramifications of evolutionary views on life, he installs in the place of the subhuman the white man, thereby asserting the ontological superiority and political sovereignty of his own people:6

“I found a [dinosaur] bone,” he went on, “and brought it to the museum, pitinguru [from a hole in the ground / from its place of origin], before the people, but that’s white man’s story. People are not from dinosaurs but from man and woman.7[253]

On the other hand, the idea that physical and temperamental traits are transmitted from Ancestral creator beings and family members is fundamental and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck would perhaps be more welcome than Charles Darwin with his “wrong way” theory, since for the Aṉangu, all life-forms come from (the first) people. According to Nyaningu, to “come from” means from a union of opposites, namely,

from man and woman joined together. That Eve came from Adam’s rib is ngunti tjukurpa [made-up story]. Sex kutju [only]—makes life, not magic. Trees, out of the ground and water—manta kapi [ground and water], like sex.

“We used to make things grow. . .”

The participation of mind in matter and matter in mind—notions I concede are a Western import—now interacts with science, namely in the context of land management and specifically endangered species protection programs. APY Rangers have successfully crossbred waru, black-footed wallabies kept on a fenced-off rocky outcrop, out of reach of feral cats and foxes. Here is Nyaningu’s comment (again, an existential statement infused with political indignation) on the program that has seen much support from other men and women:

We used to eat them. They put a fence around them, but we got inma [song] to protect waru, in the mind. Pulkaringkuntjaku wantinyi—we let them grow, like Sam Biblangka, inmatjara [in the Bible, having a song].8 . . . The scientists now, like the missionaries with the sheep, give them to us to look after. Sheep, donkeys Jerusalemanguru [are from Jerusalem], malu [red kangaroo] from here.

As in so many parts of Aboriginal Australia, the proliferation of species has been secured through “increase” ceremonies, paluntja in Pitjantjatjara. This term now also means creation according to Genesis 1 and 2; and the transitive verb, “create,” is paluni. Perhaps for the Aṉangu, the leap from the one to the other is actually small. “Pulkaringanyi, paluni—we used to make things grow, proliferate trees, kangaroos,” explained a woman in her 50s who is an active church member, in response to my query about it, “by going to a rock, rubbing it, singing during a drought, ailurungka. We still do it sometimes, but maybe we need the Holy Spirit to help.”

The significance of spirit that can be activated by ritual (devotional acts, testimony, prayer, song) to move “nature” is also part of the Aṉangu Christian imagination. This was clearly articulated by my closest friend, the most radical renouncer of the Dreaming I know and senior member of the Pitjantjatjara Bible translation project, when she told me:[254]

When you speak to lead the [church] service, it must come from the spirit—Jesus speaks through you. I spoke and prayed, and pointed out tiny white clouds. All of a sudden, a big wind came and it started to rain. . . . It poured and poured and everyone was happy.

I point out the subject-object distinction inherent in the idea that something is made to grow (or to release rain) by someone. Traditionally, the Aṉangu did not make an absolute ontological distinction between maker and made. Rather, the relationship between subject and object appears more continuous (i.e., metonymic) than in Christian theology and the Western philosophy of nature, where it grew into the major problem of dualism: that of creator and created, freedom and necessity. But a distinction is there and I think becoming more pronounced precisely through the orientation toward an all-powerful timeless God-image: “They are worshipping the creation, instead of the Creator!” my Christian sister commented disapprovingly when I asked how it is that some Aṉangu participate in both church and bush ritual.

Here I have arrived back at my original question if nature has arisen as a new object, that is, as pure externality, in Aṉangu thought. Is a shift occurring from subject to object status of the nonhuman, the nonsentient, and the nonanimate phenomena? And is the creativity of the Christian God outrivaling that of the unconditioned Tjukurpa beings, thereby muting their abiding power in the land and the world built upon it?

From duality to dualism?

I began my argument about an incipient ontological rupture for the Aṉangu with the observation that people have ceased to be the makers of their own world. Lost is their autonomous political economy, and with it the unfettered production of meanings in and on their own terms. Others have explored this condition of living creatively an “oppositional culture” (Cowlishaw 1988; McIntosh 1997) or “under occupation” (Biddle 2016). My specific interest here has been to see if the external power to determine (or define the consequences of) the discourse about reality and, more fundamentally, the prevalent semiotic modality, is transforming the self-world relationship for the Aṉangu. Seeking to pinpoint further how I might contribute to an ethnographic theory of ontological monism under pressure, I relate in this last section older anthropological discussions of the subject-status of the land in Aboriginal thought to the contemporary—and markedly heterogeneous—Aṉangu discourse about an increasingly disenchanted world.

In a conversation about Munn’s much-used model of the transformation of subjects into objects in desert thought, Geoffrey Bagshaw (pers. comm.) commented on what he regards as an erroneous distinction on her part: “From an Aboriginal viewpoint, there are only subject-subject relationships.” He did not mean that people live in an entirely mentalized or animistic universe where everything is a sentient self, or that objectification per se (just consider language!) was not always part of the picture. Rather, as he subsequently explained in a further personal communication, he was referring to what he had thirty years earlier (in a confidential 1983 [255]report on land tenure) called “polymorphic consubstantiality” between humans, other life forms, environmental features, and sacra—that is, a sharing of ontological essence or spirit, namely on account of their common origin in specific concentrations of Tjukurpa in certain places. Knowledge of this state of being, he observed, belongs to humans alone. This anthropocentric position of the epistemic subject is crucial, as I explain below. I here merely observe that this explanation is very close to Margaret Bain’s (1978–79: 320, 323, 325) intuition of the oneness of spirit across forms and appearances that she put forward in contestation of Munn’s transformation hypothesis, which presupposes a degree of separation between self and world, permanence and impermanence, inside and outside. Such a view also resonates with Ken Liberman’s (1978: 157) reflections, penned while posted at Docker River in the late 1970s, that “the presentation to the world of the ontological categories of subject and object is a unique historical achievement of Western civilization,” where “everyday things [have been elevated] to the status of objects whose attributes exist apart from the being from whom ‘essence’ flows” (158). Statements by Aboriginal people, from the desert to the coast, about the all-pervading presence of Dreaming, of Story and Song in land, sky, and waters, substantiate such observations. For instance, John Bradley’s Singing Saltwater Country (2010: 1), opens with these words by his Yanyuwa friend Eileen McDinny: “That meat—he’s got a song. Everything got a song, no matter how little . . . plant, bird, animal, country, people, everything.”

However, as already indicated above, conversations with the Aṉangu show telltale signs that a shift from a subject-subject relationship—what William Stanner (1960, 1979) couched after Martin Buber I-and-thou—to a subject-object relationship is on the horizon. Not all perceive this move toward dualism as a threat to their legal entitlement to land based on a recognized ontology of “dwelling” and its ritual enactment. Rather, some of the women demand in consultations with land council staff that forms of attachment to place outside the ritual domain and thus not indexically linked to Dreamings be taken seriously. They mention family histories, childhood memories, frequent bush trips that present occasions to hunt and obtain materials for making art objects, employment, and other work histories, including in the art center at a time when Tjukurpa was not put onto canvas. While I heed Fred Myers’ (2012: 3) warning about the political risks that the ethnographic documentation of shifting attachments to place entail, I would make a stronger case for the free expression of alternative and novel ways of belonging. Some of the women I have worked with speak of a liberation, a “freeing up” of Country through God now and into the future, including beyond death: “When time comes, we will be free, atanpa [also meaning ‘calm’].” Rather than mere loss, these women see spiritual reward:

Tjukurpa mantatja (Story of the land]—for this world, but we should be looking ilkaritja [to heaven]. We’re looking forward, not backward; there’s nothing where I come from, only lizards and rubbish. . . . Tjukurpa—I left it behind, wantima. One day, I was a teenager walking home and I looked toward the rocks near Amata. I saw how beautiful it all is. It looked different, my spirit was happy.

Yet others see in leaving behind Tjukurpa an Entzauberung of the world that results from ontic loss: “Everything had Tjukurpa,” a young mother who had moved from [256]Pukatja to the township of Alice Springs told me in 2013 (see also Yengoyan 1993: 239), “but now that we don’t know anymore, this ant [which had just bitten me] is just an ant!”

If the metaphysical dualism of subject and object that has plagued Western philosophy at least since Descartes and that, as recognized more recently, accounts for much of the techno-cognitivist rationalism, which has destroyed landscapes and people, is alien to classical Aṉangu (and Aboriginal) thought, the notion of duality or “two-ness” is not. Again, this is where I see affinity with Schelling’s monistic conception of nature, in which “duality proceeds in unity” (Merkur 1993: 355). Not unlike the electromagnetic bipolarity that seems to have influenced Schelling’s ideas, as a principle of life, kutjara (“two,” “a pair”) is foundational to the holistic ontology of Tjukurpa, which thrives on duality as a primary form of differentiation within unity.9 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1958: 123), starting with the Eaglehawk and Crow symbolism of the Darling River region (and ending with the Yin-Yang philosophy of ancient China), found it to be a general pattern of a “union of opposites” in Aboriginal social behavior; Elkin (1970: 704–6) observed it as a widespread phenomenon in myth and ritual and central to an ethics of cooperation; Géza Róheim ([1945] 1971) saw it as “dual unity” grounded in the mother-child relationship; and Meggitt (1987: 129–30) identified binary thinking as underlying the “fundamental categorical assumptions of complementarity, reciprocal interaction, and equivalence.” Whether as older and younger sibling, skinny nervy lizard and fat lazy one, or emu and bush turkey in Stories, or as nganantarka (“we-bone”) and tjanamilytjan (“they-flesh”) in reference to moieties, dual unity engenders motion and hence aliveness of the world; without it, life would remain in eternal slumber.

What, then, woke up the first people? Whence did sentience or consciousness and therewith existence proper arise? The question of how mind could become matter, and inversely, have come out of matter is at the heart of “evolutionary epistemology” (Delbrück 1986). I think the question of how “real” life began also prompted Nyaningu to ask, naturally from within his own historical horizon of understanding: “How did our ancestors first know how to make men? Who told them?” This was in 2005, in the course of a conversation he had initiated about the relationship between the symbolism of male initiation rites and milpatjunanyi, a traditional sandstory-telling practice confined to girls and women. If the juxtaposition of the high-end knowledge of the most important Aṉangu tradition with the “naïve” knowing of young girls was revealing in itself, his answer to what was a rhetorical question posed in the highly reflective stance so characteristic of this old man astonished me. Inhaling and in a whisper, he uttered just this one word: “Unconscious.”

In what was to be our last conversation, (a few weeks later, in October 2014, he died in a car crash), Nyaningu, whose intellectual and indeed spiritual journey as the only ever ordained Aṉangu church minister I have begun to trace elsewhere, touched again on the question of first stirrings of consciousness. My eighty-four-year-old friend was sitting outside the community store chatting with a white man [257]with whom he had worked on the Pitjantjatjara Bible translation project some twenty years earlier. I briefly joined them to say I would much like to talk again soon. Seeing my arms filled with groceries for other friends waiting for a lift, Nyaningu only threw me this snippet: “I was just saying to so-and-so here, in Genesis, life was in the still water and it began to move—like a baby in the tummy.”

In the secularized mythology of Freud’s Beyond the pleasure principle, the Ich- or Lebenstriebe (Life Instincts), which are identified with sexual reproduction and aggression, had emerged from primordial stillness, a state of perfect equilibrium (after Fechner). Impingement on this unselfconscious being institutes displeasure in the world, thereby awakening being to itself. Action is required to redress the disturbance and thus mentation begins, but only to launch life onto the long detour toward death, a return to passive being. Purkaringanyi, the “cooling down” of the Ancestors as they exhaust themselves at the end of their sojourns, comes to mind. Regardless of whether this is best understood as a transformation from one state of being and register of temporality to another (Munn), or as shape-shifting within continuity of being (Bain), the “end” has to do with rest and passivity, or perhaps more aptly, with a return to a state of potency. If the creative world-shaping era is thought to have “finished up” with the cooling of the Ancestors (and why not liken this mythic intuition of place-making petrification as the beginning of the world as we know it to the astrophysicists’ belief in the condensation of primeval cosmic gas into local pockets of matter that were to harbor life?), their spirit agency is far from over. Tjukurpa are the source of the world’s continuity that must be activated through human action and that is part and parcel of the Aṉangu intersubjectivity, including as negative affirmation in rejection. Until about ten years ago, old people who accompanied me in the car used to speak and gesticulate in a most lively manner with Ancestors in Country as soon as we had left the settlement and the vehicle hit the dirt road. This is something I only see rarely now, and mostly in fluent alternation with memory accounts of events by the roadside. But I still hear about soul-to-soul encounters in song, dance, and nocturnal dreams, or when camping “on Country” during bush trips (or indeed when a night is spent involuntarily by the roadside after a car breakdown). Whether as social occasion such as a visit to relatives with the aim of sharing news, as food quest, work-related travel, or ritual event that sees Ancestral journeys reiterated in dance and song, the duality of movement and “stopping” prevails. Here is located the ontological duality of action and reflection, of the self-inscriptive exercise in the figurative mode. One might also say rest and motion are conceived of as a cosmic rhythm that structures being and engenders life. It is this that manifests in the movement of people in space and time, in Ancestral travels, in the structure of mythic narratives and in the iconography of circle and line in the visual arts. Barbara Glowczewski (2007: 100) emphasized the existential dimension of walking in the desert Aboriginal world, especially the sorrow and anguish of constant departure, but Róheim ([1945] 1971: 9–16) had much earlier noted the libidinization of feet, tracks, and walking in the movement of the Ancestors, making the land fecund by leaving behind “spirit children” as they stop for ceremony on their journey. The parallel in the Biblical story of creation has not gone unnoticed. One of my key advisors in the research, Aṉangu educator and Bible translator, Katrina Tjitayi, explained that the Sabbath was like the customary rest, ultu, after a few days of hunting.[258]

But this is where the parallel might end. Given the Aṉangu’s immersion in Christian ideas that hold spirit within the world, the question arises: Is the human participation in what Schelling called “natural productivity” diminished? My suspicion is yes. As stated above, the overt delegation of life-giving power to the Almighty has to do with the less frankly stated fact that the Aṉangu have long ceased to be the makers of their own world and the totemic Ancestors are no longer the unconditioned. For the Aṉangu, the process of the Verdinglichung (reification) long familiar to Western cultural subjects has not paid off. Concomitantly, their epistemic stance and sovereign position as knowing subjects has been compromised in the face of intellectual marginalization (cf. McIntosh 1997). The concern with finding spirit is therefore not surprising:

Godaku Tjukurpa kumpini [Gods Word is hiding]. Tjukurpa mantatja ngarini—[The Word of the Land] is visible all around us. We are searching, ngurini, to find out what he wants us to do. . . . We are trying to understand. (Sandra Lewis; author’s field notes)


I have sought to capture something of the dynamics that make and shake the foundations of Aṉangu thought about being today. The emphasis has been on the intellectual traditions and symbolic-affective mediations underpinning Tjukurpa, the Dreaming approached here as an Indigenous ontology of emplaced and embodied spirit. These explorations rest on ongoing focused dialogues with Aṉangu collaborators, and less on participant-observation of their ritual life and art production.

Specifically, my interest has been to examine if, for the Aṉangu, nature as externality is appearing as a new item on the historical horizon of plausibility. I have found that there are signs to suggest, with considerable caution, that this is indeed the case. For some who view the “classical” monistic self-world relationship through the prism of the Christian ontological dualism of creation, the totality of the Dreaming is coming apart. I do not suggest that Christianity is the primal cause of an incipient ontological rupture. Rather, I see that a diminished productivity of Country and premature deaths have put unprecedented stresses on the reciprocal relationship between people and Ancestors. As a consequence, unwavering trust in the replenishing power of emplaced spirit is being aligned with faith in the Savior. I have further argued that with Christ enters a literal mode of symbolization that is diametrically opposed to the figurative metonymic self-world relationship of old that has been so fruitful.

As a contribution to recent discussions of animism and (far fewer) of totemism, I have brought the underexplored romantics’ ontological monism into the picture. This movement against modernity’s various dualisms was shown to be relevant in understanding the existential and ontological ruptures Indigenous people are forced to grapple with, in central Australia as elsewhere. I suggested that the totemic Ancestors and their “excess of being” may be likened to the idea of nature as the unconditioned, as product and producer, that is, as the self-generative ground of being. Nature, as Schelling saw it, shares the structure of subjectivity, including [259]in its destructive aspect. Referring to the parallel conceptualization of human nature in Freud’s story of the dual unity of the life and death instincts, I observed that the Indigenous ontology of emplaced spirit points to the same intuition: being proceeds as an alternation between entropy or stillness (purkaringanyi, the “cooling” of the Ancestors who turn into resting places) and regeneration or movement (pakani, to “get up,” “rise,” or “come out of” the ground). The promise of eternal life in Christ, through the one and only resurrection of spirit and body, is shifting this dynamic of being such that the Ancestors may become mortal in its wake. The importance of understanding more fully such epistemic struggles and novel possibilities goes beyond academic concerns; they are acutely relevant for globalized life-worlds facing the destructiveness of their modes of productivity and semiotic orientation.


This article is based on research funded by a Future Fellowship grant (FT120100265) from the Australian Research Council. I am deeply indebted to my Aṉangu mentors and friends, especially the late Peter Nyaningu, Margaret Dagg, Tjimpuna Dunn, Imuna Fraser, Makinti Minutjukur, Katrina Tjitayi, Angkuna Stevens, Tjunkaya Tapaya, Rhoda Tjitayi, Nami Kulyuru, Sandra Lewis, Ungakini Tjangala, Ann Thompson, and Sally-Anne Heffernan. I respect that only some individuals wish to be acknowledged by name in the text. I wish to also thank Paul Eckert, coordinator of the Pitjantjatjara Bible Translation Project, for the open-mindedness, welcoming attitude, and many kinds of support he has afforded me. Geoffrey Bagshaw, Britta Duelke, Gillian Gillison, Jadran Mimica, John Morton, and Benjamin Smith insightfully commented on an earlier draft.


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