Recovering Cultural Knowledge



HoldingYawulyu: White Culture and Black Women’s Law

By Zohl de Ishtar

North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2005, 388 pp., $22.95, paperback.

Reviewed by Batya Weinbaum


In April 1999, the elder women of the village of Wirrimanu, in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, set up a traditional women’s camp, the Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Law and Culture Center (named for the local waterhole), in a shed just outside the boundaries of the settlement. Inside the shed, the women created many minicamps consisting of pillows, personal belongings, and mattresses. At one end of the shed was a storeroom that included a makeshift office, and at the other end was a verandah. Outside the shed, they built a fireplace. There, they would gather to tell stories, socialize, and engage in political discussion. The center soon became the home of thirteen elders between the ages of sixty and ninety.

At the camp, the women practiced their traditional culture together in ways that had been impossible when they were scattered among their children’s houses. Rituals flourished, as they engaged in both spontaneous and planned ceremonies with no fear of being seen or heard by men. They regularly went on hunting trips, revitalizing not only their culture but also their relationship to the land.

The women of the culture center believed that their community had been traumatized because it had lost its cultural knowledge. They had seen this spiritual erosion lead to confusion among their children and grandchildren, some of whom had resorted to self-harming behaviors. To counter this destructive trend, they wanted to take up their responsibility as grandmothers and repositories of cultural knowledge, and to teach their grandchildren the ways of the land. They taught their songs and traditions to the young women of the village, organizing a dance troupe that eventually traveled overseas and performed with indigenous Hawaiians, Canadians, and Pacific Islanders. The experience demonstrated to the younger women that their elders’ initiative was part of a global revitalization of indigenous culture and was planting the seeds for a transnational feminist future.

As widows who no longer had to care for their husbands and children, the older women at the center had “the freedom to live and work together in their shared enjoyment of the cultural customs and practices of Yawulyu"—the Law, writes author Zohl de Ishtar, who lived with them for two years. De Ishtar came to understand that for the women, Yawulyu encompassed something far broader than legalities. Yawulyu really meant something like “lore”; it formed "the gateway to understanding, perceiving, acting, knowing and managing the Tjukurrpa [“the life force which pulsates through the entire universe”] and one’s place within it.” Thus, Yawulyu included the enhancement of spiritual power through rituals designed to maintain the connection to the cosmos. It encompassed a moral code and blueprint that went beyond the human individual and human creation.

De Ishtar had been working with indigenous Australian and Pacific women’s communities since 1979, and first met the women who founded the culture center in 1993. Not surprisingly, according to the brief biography at the beginning of the book, before that, de Ishtar had been involved with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in England. There’s an overlap between such contemporary women activists, who create safe refuges where women of all ages gather to take political action and to connect to the land and their cultural traditions, and the women in indigenous cultures. After all, it is from women in such cultures that inspiration for such sites is often correctly or incorrectly drawn.

When de Ishtar met the elders of Wirrimanu, they performed a dream ritual with her that bound her life to theirs. For the indigenous women, dreams are travels of the spirit that connect them to ancestral beings and knowledge. During the ritual, de Ishtar dreamt that she received two messengers, who insisted that it was her responsibility to take care of the Law (Yawulyu), and that one of the elders would become her teacher. They would create a song board—a ritual image the women painted on canvas or their own bodies while singing together. The next morning, when de Ishtar visited the elder who had appeared in her dream, the woman said she, too, had dreamt about painting with de Ishtar. In fact, the elder said, her dream had been so vivid that when she woke up, she had been shocked to discover that de Ishtar was not with her. De Ishtar believed that their dreams’ vividness meant that she and the elder had been visited by the ancestors, and the experience began her life-changing commitment to the women. After overcoming obstacles presented by the government and traveling internationally to raise funds, de Ishtar moved into the center. The elders instructed her in religious skills, rituals, and knowledge that they wanted her to record. Inevitably, her commitment to being a "culture woman" caused her to reassess and reinvent her role as a social researcher; in turn, her commitment to being a social researcher caused her to reassesses her role as culture woman.

As often occurs in the field, de Ishtar’s experiences forced her to examine her internal processes and the personal history that had led her to her research situation. She is a second-generation, Irish-Australian; her heritage includes Irish resistance against the dispossession of their land, the prohibition of their language, and the rewriting of their history. De Ishtar had observed the destructive effect of the erosion of cultural knowledge among Irish-Australians, as the indigenous women had observed in their society.

At the culture center, De Ishtar found herself in the dual roles of apprentice and representative of the white power structure that dominated the lives of the women—against which they had rebelled by founding the center. She discusses the horror of confronting her own racism, as well as her awareness of how she was bringing the dynamics of an alien culture with her into the field.

Her observations about how she responds to her daily life with the women with her own cultural assumptions are as useful as they are disarming. For example, she notes her changing reactions to “indigenous mess”:

Living with the women elders … attuned me to being covered in dirt, red desert dust, fire ash and ochre… I remember coming back into the settlement… when I had been living in a wilytja [shelter made of branches]… for two months and had participated in ceremonies where I had been painted in ochre every day. It felt strange to be in Kartiya [white, Euro-Australian, nonindigenous] spaces where I was surrounded by a clean environment contained within four walls and a roof. As I walked into these spaces, I sensed that I had misplaced a core part of myself, had taken it off and stepped out of it as one does a dress, and left it at the door.

She begins to notice that the indigenous people

used mess/rubbish as markers of their difference from White society. Fully aware of the White association of mess with chaos and loss of control, many local residents deliberately dropped rubbish to tag locations as Indigenous spaces.

With such observations, de Ishtar makes the reader part of her changing consciousness. She teaches ethnography by being brave enough to lay the fieldwork process bare.

De Ishtar’s volume contributes to the growing body of work by women whose lived experience is part of their research. She works in a tradition of feminist reflexive consciousness that includes the work of the Jewish Cubana Ruth Behar, who studied Mexico, as well as that of earlier writers such as Liz Stanley and Sue Wise, who wrote Breaking Out: Feminist Consciousness and Feminist Research. De Ishtar’s book will be valuable to those working in areas other than Australia—which is not to undercut her particular contribution to research on indigenous Australian women. Her record will be a boon to a new generation of field researchers, wherever they are going, who should pack her book in their knapsacks and suitcases. It will also find a place on the bookshelves of women’s lands and shelters. Although the women in such places are not particularly invested in the protocols of feminist ethnography, they do want to learn about women in other places where singing and connecting with the cosmos spiritually has strengthened political activism and a sense of cultural continuity.


Batya Weinbaum is founder and editor in chief of Femspec, as well as author of numerous books and articles. Her books include Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations and Realities; Pictures of Patriarchy; Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism; and Island of Floating Women.



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