Ngatatjara - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy prior to 1934 and among isolated and uncontacted groups after 1934 was based primarily upon a limited number of edible wild plant foods that were harvested according to the particular conditions of rainfall and geography rather than on an annual seasonal basis. On most occasions, from day to day, women obtained the bulk of the diet, which consisted of plant staples and small animals, mainly lizards. Even before 1934, feral species introduced in other areas by European-Australians had spread to the Western Desert and had become an important part of the Ngatatjara diet. These animals included rabbits, feral cats, and, occasionally, camels and goats. Aboriginal men expended considerable time and energy in hunting but with generally poor returns. The principal kinds of game sought by hunters included kangaroos, wallabies, and emus. Allocation of all food supplies, including plant foods as well as large and small game, was structured by kin-based rules of sharing that resulted in an egalitarian distribution of food within the camp.

Industrial Arts. Subsistence technology was characterized by different technological responses to the requirements of mobility. These alternatives included multi-purpose tools like the spear thrower, which could also be used for lighting fires and mixing tobacco and pigments and as a percussion instrument to accompany songs and dances; appliances like heavy stone seed grinders, which were left at the campsite as permanent fixtures to be used whenever the family returned; and instant tools consisting of materials collected at the spot and fashioned as needed for a particular task. Despite the strictly utilitarian nature of most Ngatatjara technology, spear throwers were often decorated with complex incised designs that served a maplike function to aid men and their families in pinpointing geographical landmarks.

Trade. Long-distance transport and exchange of materials and artifacts occurred throughout the Western Desert. But this took place mainly within the context of the ceremonial life, often between individuals with a mutual affiliation to the same mythical ancestors and places where those ancestors traveled in the mythical past. Ceremonial exchange networks covered vast areas of the Western Desert, with the result that exotic items, such as incised pearl shells from the northwest coast of Australia and incised sacred stones from central Australia, circulated within these networks, either between individuals or between patrilineages.

Division of Labor. Division of labor or activity by sex was more pronounced in the domain of ritual and sacred affairs than in daily life. Under conditions of desert living, there was a general tendency in domestic activities for the women to focus on foraging for plant foods and small game, such as grubs and lizards. Males concentrated on hunting, with the corollary that women generally did not handle hunting equipment like spears and spear throwers. Women generally performed food-processing activities such as seed grinding as well as certain technological activities like the collection and production of spinifex resin adhesive. Men, on the other hand, were usually involved in stone artifact production and use. However, exceptions occurred in all of these activities under conditions of desert living, and new trends have arisen due to changes in the context of settlement near European-Australians. For example, in the 1960s women began taking a more active role in hunting large animals, using special dogs. Ritual activities, however, involved strict exclusion, mainly of women from male ceremonies but of men from female rituals as well. While some ceremonies were conducted jointly, by both sexes, the rules of participation by sex are more defined and strictly enforced than was the case for domestic activities.

Land Tenure. Concepts of tenure over land are dominated by the principle of joint affiliation and control by corporate groups, primarily patrilineages in which the members claim descent from a common, mythical ancestor. Such ancestors are believed to have lived and traveled in a mythical past called "the Dreaming" ( tjukurpa ), and the places where they lived, traveled, and had their adventures are also referred to by this term. These places are regarded as sacred sites that currently contain the spirit of the particular ancestor. Tenure applies specifically to these sites rather than to the control of territories, but the related idea of trespass ensures that the territory surrounding such sacred sites is also under a kind of de facto control of these patrilineages. Danger of trespass, whether intentional or accidental, is taken seriously by visitors who know that the patrilineage that "owns" the sacred sites within a particular area will punish such trespass. People do not venture into unfamiliar territory until shown the location of sacred sites within the area by members of the local patrilineage, and then only if they have established social relationships with members of the patrilineage, usually through marriage, that qualify them for access. This system of tenure is threatened today by relatively unrestricted movement by European-Australians who seek to establish mines and other kinds of development at or near such sacred sites. Legal arguments about "land claims" over Aboriginal sacred sites are a dominant theme in current Australian domestic politics.

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