Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation

By Lynne Hume; Jane Mulcock | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Living in Sheds
Suicide, Friendship, and Research Among the Tiwi

Gary Robinson

W. Lloyd Warner's A Black Civilization appends a brief autobiography of his chief informant and friend, a Murngin1 man called Mahkarolla (1969:467ff). This is followed by Warner's account of a canoe voyage in which he and Mahkarolla had feared losing their lives. Warner, Mahkarolla, and some Murngin comrades are in two dugout canoes, pitched and tossed in a wild sea, unable to turn to make for calm water. Warner curses the storm. He wants to turn back and cries, "What shall we do?" Mahkarolla is silent, head bowed. Warner keeps calling out, then shouts abuse at his friend before falling silent with the rest. After finding land, Mahkarolla says that he could not respond, because he was crying; he was frightened his friend might die. Warner is ashamed.

Warner juxtaposes this story with a brief account of his departure. In Darwin, Warner mingles with other whites on a ship, which Mahkarolla is not allowed to board. Mahkarolla remains silent as Warner calls to him. Warner hurries to the end of the boat, cries out; Mahkarolla waves, crying, then lowers his head. Like the canoe voyage, "Our parting now had death in it, too, because it was certain we would never see each other again" (490).

Mahkarolla had protected and nurtured his friend throughout their relationship; just as he might have lost him to the storm, he was to lose him to white society for good. Warner's rage in the boat—for which he felt such shame—was itself a reaction to evidence of separateness, the fact that he was, for all their closeness, a white man who spoke harshly and swore, like any other. At that moment, he failed to live up to the ideal that he had invested in Mahkarolla. No doubt they had forgiven each other these differences many times before. In telling his own story, Mahkarolla had said of the white men, "Sometimes they swear at you, but inside they are all right" (479). This separateness forces itself on Warner again at

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