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The lore of the tribe

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 10 November 2005

Would lawlessness within some Indigenous communities today have reigned so freely in the old days?

“It’s a bit like war - they pick them up, bury them and then simply get on with things,” said Catholic educator Sister Helen Parer when asked to comment on 12 deaths over nine months in Aboriginal communities in Central Australia during an interview forThe Bulletin magazine (18/11/05).

The Bulletin reports that Aboriginal homicide victims are almost always alcoholics who live week-to-week on welfare. Victims’ families invariably have no money, so it falls to the coroner’s office to unlock the indigent burial fund to provide for a pauper’s grave. They get a plain box and a basic service. A headstone is not included. Then they’re gone. Erased.



Recently I had a chance meeting with a senior lore man who was happy to share some of his experiences and knowledge of customary lore with me and in so doing, inadvertently shone some light on my question.

I prefaced our discussion by saying that I was an academic and writer and asked if he would mind if I used some of his stories in my line of work. I added that I would not disclose his name or identify his traditional country.

He nodded.

The passion in which this steely wise old man told his stories left an indelible impression on me. I felt the hairs on my arm stand on end as he graphically recounted his first experience of witnessing tribal justice handed out by elders to one of his people who broke the lore.

“This young fella - he stole another man’s wife,” began the conversation that had my full attention. “The elders brought everybody together and the family members had a talk about what punishment he should be given.”


“Wow”, I thought to myself while sitting uncomfortably on a foreign riverbank trying to picture the sobering details of a dramatic and life altering event.

“They decided not to kill him but to hand out another form of punishment,” continued the old man without changing his tone. “Four spears, a couple of nulla nullas were placed on the ground and another 30 feet away the young man was given a shield as he stood alone.” I could hear the roar of a jet passing overhead but I was more focused on objects of a pointier entity flying a more direct path and awaited with bated breath for the story to unfold.

The lore man informed me that a group assembled around the weapons and without warning quickly gathered and started throwing them accurately in the offender’s direction. The young villain was a strong and highly agile warrior who deflected the rapidly propelled spears and nulla nullas with his sturdy wooden shield.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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