Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Fats of Life

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Fats of Life

Article excerpt

Abstract: Indigenous Australian and Western views of animal fat, at least since the 1960s, have been starkly opposed. Westerners have learned to be highly suspicious of dietary fat, while Aboriginal peoples continue to extol the virtues and benefits of animal fat. More recent nutritional and biochemical research is bringing Western and Indigenous views of animal fat into closer alignment. Nutrition programs in Indigenous Australia need to take account of the differences between bush animal fat and domesticated (especially ruminant) animal fat. Health intervention programs need to find ways to separate good and bad plant oils.

Fats in Aboriginal Australia

   Doctors and nurses tell us to eat meat without fat. But
   we still eat the fat. [Gija woman] (1)

Over the last three generations Westerners have learned to think of fat (especially animal fat) as something that is unwanted, superfluous, excess to bodily requirements. We have been taught to trim fat from meat before cooking; those who carry too much fat on their bodies are suspected of being undisciplined and gluttonous. Fat-reducing programs and products proliferate in Western societies. This way of thinking about fat (or any bodily substance) is peculiarly Western.

In East Kimberley traditions, fat is an ancestral substance. (2) The world is composed of ancestral substances and energies. Fat is deposited in the land and in the bodies of humans, animals and plants. As a liquefiable substance it flows through the organs and channels of the body. Fats/oils, sweat, semen and breast milk form a cluster of body substances associated with growth and vitality. They are imbued with ancestral life-force. Vital liquids flow through bodily channels to generate flesh and sinew, building up the body into its fullness of life and strength.

The life processes of humans and animals are sympathetically connected with the physiology of trees and plants. Bodily liquids and the vital fluids of trees flow together in sympathy. In the Northern Territory, Gagudju people express similar ideas (Neidjie 1989:3, 23):

   Tree working when you sleep ... blood e pumping.
   That leaf e pumping his.
   You cut im little bit ... that's his blood, same as your
   You can feel [your pulse] ... well that tree same as you.

Gunabibi ceremonial dancing not only makes Gunwinjgu men feel 'fat' and healthy but makes the sap ('fat') run in the trees (Taylor 1990:333). In 'increase' ceremonies, humans apply body fluids to plants to help them regenerate. The vital liquids of trees and plants are used in turn as medicines to replenish weak and depleted human bodies.

In Gija and Jaru physiology, fat melts in the stomach and flows through the jiluwa (a network of channels for the flow of body fluids and life energies) with the blood and breath. (3) It keeps the body clean inside. Fat does not block the jiluwa because it is a liquefiable substance. Only 'rubbish' (bad stuff, foreign objects) blocks the jiluwa. Fat is an ancestral medicine. It keeps the body fresh and light, and gives individuals energy so that they can walk long distances without feeling tired. Fat plumps out the flesh beneath the skin and prevents the body from prematurely drying up. Liquefiable fats and oils (containing the body's life and strength) are lost from the body through sweating. Fats and oils from animals and plants are used to replenish this loss.

Fat is also used as an external medicine. Kangaroo or goanna fat is rubbed on the skin to keep the skin healthy. It is also used for dry skin, cracks, rashes and sores. It is used to keep the body cool on long journeys. In cases of bodily depletion, animal fat is mixed with red ochre (an ancestral substance) and rubbed over the body to make the body strong. While rubbing in the fat and ochre, the healer talks to the ancestors (who deposited the ochre in the ground), saying 'You make im better. …

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