Friday, February 15, 2019

"Good story this one" : Listening to Aboriginal dreamers

They say in the South Pacific that when the anthropologists arrive, the spirits leave.
    A notable recent exception is Sylvie Poirier, a social anthropology professor from the Universite Laval in Quebec, who has been tracking the dreaming of the Kukatja, a people of the Gibson desert in Western Australia, for many years. She won the confidence of a Kukatja grandmother, Nungurrayi, and was helped by her to understand not only what traditional Aborigines believe is going on in dreams, but how they share and honor dreams in their communities.   
    Sylvie Poirier writes that "in Aboriginal Australia, dreams are the privileged space-time of communication between humans and ancestral beings, as between humans and spirits of the dead.” 
     Dreaming is a way of tending the land. A fertile country is a country of good dreamers.
 Dreaming is active, not merely passive. It is a form of engagement. You can decide where you are going to go, and you can go consciously.
     Dreaming is soul travel. A dream is what happens when an aspect of soul leaves the body and has encounters and adventures. “The spirit goes on walkabout," the Kukatja grandmother explains. In the understanding of her people, “a dream occurs when, while a person is asleep, his or her kurunnpa [an aspect of soul or spirit]related to the abdominal (or umbilical) area (tjurni) leaves the body to pursue various encounters and experiences.” A good dreamer is one who knows how to “open” their tjurni.
     Dreams can be shared experiences. People can enter each other’s dreams.
     When dreams are shared in community, it is often in the morning, over a mug of tea. Yet Sylvie Poirier found that the Kukatja are far from promiscuous in their dream sharing. They know that dreams are powerful, and that it is necessary to handle this power carefully. They also recognize that dreams can provide clues to situations that require discreet investigation. Like detectives on a case, they may be unwilling to share such clues until the case is solved.
     Nonetheless, Poirier heard Kukatja people open up and tell their dream narratives fluently and spontaneously in relaxed social circumstances. This is appreciated as a chance to share and enjoy some good stories. You might here someone tell a terrifying dream and get the response, "G
ood story (palya wangka) this one”. Dreams of any kind, told well, are appreciated for their story value, as entertainment, as well as for information. A dreamer who is specially pleased with their telling may conclude by saying, "Good story sweet as tea."

     While recounting a dream, the teller may be illustrating the narrative with hand gestures and by making sketches in the dry earth, so the dream is already turning into a visual and kinesthetic art form.
     When Kukatja discuss the meaning of dreams, they ask questions like "where, who, what, when?" Tracking routes and locations in a dream is of high importance. Where were you, exactly? What landmarks do you recognize? Who else was there? Everyone is conscious that they are tracking where the dream soul, the kurunnpa, went in its nocturnal excursions.
     While dreamers make visits, they also receive visitations. So the questions may center on who came calling last night, invited or not.
     Dreams reveal malfeasance, especially sorcery, and a dream of sorcery may put an end to psychic attack. In such cases it may be judged highly desirable to tell everyone about a dream. A young Kukatja woman dreamed of sorcerers who are pointing the bone at her. The elder told her to tell the dream to everyone at the camp. "Outing” the sorcerer in this way was intended to scare him off.
     Dreams are valued as sources of creative inspiration. A Kukatja man is chased by a snake in his dream. As he tells it, he dwells on the snake’s vivid colors – and decides to use them in an acrylic painting.
     Kukatja dream sharing is directed at getting all the facts from the dream and taking appropriate action, for example, to deflect a coming danger revealed in the dream or to harness its creative energy. In contributing to discussion, others may tell dreams, stories and life experiences evoked by the first dream report. Through emerging patterns of resemblance and connection, the fuller meaning of a dream - and the appropriate action - may be revealed. 
    Poirier reports that this desert people, who appear so "poor" in terms of material culture, are far more advanced in their approach to dreams than cultures that rely on dream dictionary or dogmatic modes of analysis:  “I have not found any dream that has a fixed meaning; depending on context, any dream can be read as a good or bad omen.” 
   Aboriginal dreamwork is an antidote to Freud, who wrote that the dream “has nothing to communicate to anyone else”, meaning that dreams are entirely products of the personal subconscious and even so, unintelligible until interpreted. Aborigines know that dreams are social and transpersonal, connecting us to other people, both dead and alive, and to the animate universe of spirits and Ancestors. 

Source: Quotes are from Sylvie Poirier, “This Is Good Country. We Are Good Dreamers: Dreams and Dreaming in the Australian Western Desert,” in Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific, ed. Roger Ivar Lohmann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 107–126. Sylvie has also published an excellent book based on her years with the Kukatja: A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams and Events in the Australian Western Desert (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Art: "Canning Stock Route" by Kukatja artist Rover Thomas. National Museum Australia.

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