This is an NFSA Digital Learning resource. See all Digital Learning websites.
Mabo home
Baldwin Spencer with Arrente elders
Baldwin Spencer with Arrente elders, 1896

The final initiation stage for all Arrente men is the series of totemic ceremonies called the Engwura devised to show the now-adult men the 'sacred secrets of the tribe' and to impart 'courage and wisdom'. (1 After a man has passed through the Engwura he is called a Urliara, 'a perfectly developed member of the tribe'. (2 Attendance by all the tribe is necessary at an Engwura and hundreds of people may gather at the site chosen for the ceremonies. (3 During the months of continuous performances and rites the old men, 'heads' of their local groups and respected for their conduct and their concern for the tribe, meet together to direct the ceremonies and to discuss issues important to the welfare of the tribe. (4

Councils of the elder men are held day by day, by which we do not mean that there is anything of a strictly formal nature, but that constantly groups of the elder men may be seen discussing matters of tribal interest; all the old traditions of the tribe are repeated and discussed, and it is by means of meetings such as this, that a knowledge of the unwritten history of the tribe and of its leading members is passed on from generation to generation. Not only this, but while the main effect is undoubtedly to preserve custom, yet, on the other hand, changes introduced in one part of the tribe (and, despite the great conservatism of the native such changes do take place) can by means of these gatherings become generally adopted in much less time than would be the case if they had to slowly filter through, as it were, from one locality to another. (5 The powers of these informal councils can also extend to a judicial role, whereby serious social crimes, such as breaking marriage laws or causing death through magic, are discussed and arrangements made for atninga (avenging) parties to be formed. (6

(1 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia', pp 271-2.
(2 Ibid. p 271
(3 Ibid. p 275
(4 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia', p 24
(5 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia', p 272
(6 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia', p 25
Keywords: aborigines, anthropology, Arrente, Baldwin Spencer, Walter, Central Australia, totems, 1896

Photograph: Spencer seated with the Arrente elders. Each of these men is the head of a particular totem group and together they directed the Engwura of 1896. Photograph Baldwin Spencer. Reproduced courtesy Museum Victoria.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham,Trevor