Academic journal article Oceania

Marriage, Love Magic, and Adultery: Warlpiri Relationships as Seen by Three Generations of Anthropologists

Academic journal article Oceania

Marriage, Love Magic, and Adultery: Warlpiri Relationships as Seen by Three Generations of Anthropologists

Article excerpt

In 1959 the Warrabri Warlpiri were, for Meggitt, characterized by a low incidence of polygamy. In 1979 I found a willingness to absorb alternate marriages into the correct category and a substantial proportion of women choosing to live in the jilimi. Will the Warlpiri ethnographer of 1999 find monogamous Warlpiri or a high incidence of bachelors? (Bell 1980:266).

As a Warlpiri ethnographer of 1999, this paper is my response to Bell. Next to providing an update on developments in Warlpiri marriage practices, I trace continuities and changes of Warlpiri marriage as institution and as practice over the past 50 plus years by drawing on material by Mervyn Meggitt (from his 1950s research at Hooker Creek, now called Lajamanu), by Diane Bell (based on her 1970s work at Warrabri, now called Alekarenge) and my own fieldwork data from Yuendumu (from the mid 1990s onwards). My aim is to consider the nature and effects of these processes upon contemporary Warlpiri sociality.

The timing of Meggitt's and Bell's research during the 1950s and the 1970s, respectively, provides two historical waypoints of crucial significance to any investigation of continuity and change in the Warlpiri context. Meggitt's fieldwork followed shortly after the establishment of the government ration stations of Yuendumu (1946), Hooker Creek (1949) and Warrabri (1954) and the concomitant sedentisation of Warlpiri people, who until that time had lived a more or less customary hunting and gathering life-style (first contact of note with non-Indigenous people in the Tanami region dates to the early 1920s through mining and pastoralism). Bell's fieldwork took place soon after the introduction of full cash payment of social security benefits directly to individual Warlpiri recipients. While the sedentisation and institutionalisation in the 1940s and the subsequent integration into the cash economy from 1969 constitute the major economic and socio-political contexts for changes in Warlpiri marriage as an institution and a practice then, today a number of other factors need to be borne in mind. The Yuendumu of my fieldwork period is characterised by the effects of deinstitutionalisation in the 1970s through the introduction of an elected Council, the political era of self-determination, increased mobility and expanding intercommunity travel and connections. (1)

I begin the paper with a comparison of Warlpiri marriage practices over time. I then proceed to situate contemporary marriage in and against a range of other relationships, before turning to issues of co-residency, the placements of children, and the effects of economic rights and responsibilities and domestic violence on widowhood and singlehood. I conclude by reflecting upon issues of normativity and practice, and upon the impact of the continuities and changes in Warlpiri marriage as an institution and as practice on the social problems facing contemporary remote Aboriginal communities such as Yuendumu.


In the foreword to Meggitt's (1962) Desert People, Elkin characterises the Warlpiri as a 'virile people' who 'are loyal to their social order, with 91 per cent of marriages conforming to the ideal rules; and they believe in stable marriages, particularly in the interest of their children' (Elkin in Meggitt 1962:xii). This presents one possible reading of Meggitt's text, but one which is somewhat problematic in its relationship between 'the normative' and 'the real' (see Niblett 1992 for a discussion of this tension in Desert People and Hiatt 1965 for a different approach to similar circumstances). I begin with the normative. In Meggitt's discussion, and therefore also in the present comparison, this is separated into two analytically different areas: The first one is how to get married, and the second, who to get married to. The how, according to Meggitt can take one of three forms:

* the levirate

* private negotiation with the women's kinsmen (= matriline negotiations)

--includes bride price (2)

* and the so-called 'promised marriage' which comes about as a result of being circumcised by a man who becomes the husband's father-in-law

--includes bride price

--and betrothal. …

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