In this presentation I sketch some as the aspects of senior Warlpiris' current relationship with fire, particularly the burning of spinifex away from larger permanent communities. Many other uses of fire are not covered -- see Kimber 1983 for a summary.
Two basic points from what the Warlpiri have tried to teach me
Fire is a tool with many human uses.
Fire (warlu) is closely connected with rain and water (ngapa), in a cycle whereby one renews the other. This cycle is apparent in nature, and is expressed also in the Dreaming (Jukurrpa).
This pattern of burning is underwritten by Fire Dreaming (Warlu Jukurrpa) events in the central 'Tanami Desert', wherein fire is made by two men using a fire-saw or fire-drill (and empowered by the correct songs), and two men carry the fire away from its source: one to the south, one to the north, forming a double hunting fire (lirramirni) which joins up and has the potential of travelling a long way to the west and north-west. This accord with the prevailing winter easterly or south-easterly winds.
Cleaning the country with fire is seen as work, and the Dreaming also emphasises its co-operative nature, with the involvement of both land-holding patrimoieties, kirda and kurdungurlu.
Commonsense allowance is made for wind strength and direction, and fuel abundance. The spinifex cover is constantly being assessed during travel as to whether it will sustain a burn: it may be too patchy (yarluyarlu) or too much space between the hummocks. Safety is a prime consideration at the time of burning, and I have not heard of a vehicle being lost to fire when Warlpiris were involved.
Fire is not used for large-scale hunting drives nowadays, and in any case most of the relevant small game is now gone. Nevertheless the Warlpiri are still keen on burning and do so at most opportunities. My account above is not of a pristine past, but part of the current views of senior Warlpiri land-holders. Though travel is by vehicle and not on foot, and they use matches for ignition, the appreciation of country and the practices are still driven by the Jukurrpa.
Travel through country is related to burning in various ways.
Memories of burns from previous winters play a part in plans for
partly as a navigation aid, partly because the scrub cover is reduced.
The continual smokes show people moving openly around their country.
is 'Aboriginal radio', and the burned areas (wini) are a kind of
More fundamentally, control is an apparent theme of the Warlpiri vocabulary relating to fire. To give one example: among the 115 or so simple verb roots, only the verbs of burning distinguish whether the agent of burning is human or otherwise. Thus, 'The person is burning the grass' is expressed with the verb of human-controlled burning (purrami) (also applied to cooking, etc.), whereas 'The fire is burning the grass' is expressed with a different verb (jankami, kampami), which also can express 'The grass is burning'.
Footnote: For help for these trips I acknowledge assistance variously from the Arid Zone Research Institute of the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, the Central Land Council (CLC), the Northern Land Council, and the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Assistance from the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (through the CLC) allowed me to focus on Warlpiri bushfire management in mid-1988.
marnaFurther references on fire and Aborigines
grass, especially spinifex; also Aristidainaequiglumis(= janpa, mulkunju (E))
marnanganpa (or marnangarnpa)
feather-top spinifex, Plectrachne sp. Cf. warrpa
seed-heads; spinifex, Triodia sp. Cf. marnanganpa, muna (E)
seed heads (of spinifex grass)
open country with spinifex cover, spinifex plains (= ngataji (E), warlpawu (E))
soft/sticky spinifex, Triodia pungens
includes Triodia spicata, spear-grass (= warrpa)
[muna in Warlmanpa and Warumungu is 'spinifex, Triodia spp.']
Bull Spinifex, Triodia longiceps (giant grey spinifex; contains no resin
freshly burnt country
young regrowth stage of burnt-off country
area of spinifex with gaps between hummocks; not really suitable for burning Cf. tingki ~ rdingki 'gap'
area with patches of bare ground; not really suitable for burning Cf. yarlu 'bare ground, open area'
large clumps of spinifex (name possibly because it burns with bangs)
old spinifex; very dry and very tall Cf. tarltarlpanu
rotten (applied to meat etc); of spinifex, considered to be a regrettable stage of spinifex, to be
avoided by burning it before
spinifex resin; adze
spinifex wax in ground (in termite mounds)
Date created: 16 March 1998Back to Papers
Last modified: 27 May 1999
Maintained by: David Nash