Ngatatjara - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Ngatatjara identify a range of ancestral beings, mainly animals and other natural species, that performed creative acts during the Dreaming that have led to their present sacred geography. Patrilineages affiliated with these different ancestors are responsible for instructing male initiates in these sacred traditions and for maintaining the sacred sites under their care as a way of increasing the abundance of the ancestral species. Dances and songs reenacting the myths of the Dreaming are performed in connection with these two kinds of duties. Traditionally, initiations most often occurred during maximal social aggregations when local conditions of water and food resources were favorable. Novices were "saved up" for such occasions and put through initiations together. Under more sedentary circumstances at the mission, novices are initiated when they are deemed to be old enough, with the result that ceremonies occur more often but with fewer novices at any one time. A similar increase in ceremonial activity at the mission and other settlements is evident with regard to ceremonies involving che "increase" of the ancestral species, either by revisiting the sacred sites or, if these are too far away, by performing such ceremonies in absentia at the mission.

Arts. Decorative body painting, ceremonial paraphernalia, cave and rock painting, and a rich variety of songs and oral narratives characterize the sacred life of the Ngatatjara on ceremonial occasions. The Ngatatjara were among the few people anywhere in the world in the 1960s and 1970s who still practiced cave and rock painting as a regular form of artistic expression. All Ngatatjara visual art, oral tradition, and singing are expressions of jointly held values and beliefs, mainly regarding the Dreaming, and are not generally seen as opportunities for individual artistic expression. Western Desert Aborigine painting, with modern acrylics, is presently undergoing rapid development in the context of a European-Australian demand for this type of art, but Ngatatjara participation in this trend is still somewhat marginal.

Medicine. In addition to individual sorcerers who can perform cures and an array of herbal and common remedies, the Ngatatjara have developed a perception of illness and death as willed by someone else, usually in a distant area. Such a belief may prompt an inquest by a sorcerer to locate the source and/or direction of the malevolent force and to carry out "countersorcery" against it.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional belief is that the soul divides into two parts after death. One part becomes a ghost that hovers around camp and serves as a sort of bogey to keep people (especially children) from wandering at night. The other part is the actual soul substance of an individual's ancestral Dreaming, which, after death, is believed to return to the sacred Dreaming site and rejoin a kind of undifferentiated pool of spirit ancestors—later to reemerge as part of the soul substance of another living person affiliated with that particular Dreaming. When a person dies, the campsite is changed to avoid the ghost, and the body is interred without ceremony. Later, when the group returns to the same area, the remains are reburied in a more elaborate ceremony.

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