Panel 6: Monsters in the Desert – 8 Dec 13:30 – 15:00

The Policeman and the Kurdaitcha: Enforcing Australian Law in an Aboriginal Community with the Power of Monsters 

Philip Batty

In 2005, a police officer stationed at the community of Kintore was informed by his Aboriginal aide that a kurdaitcha had come to assist them with their police work. In Aboriginal belief, kurdaitchas are avengers who secretly punish wrongdoers. They can change form, fly and perform other monstrous feats. Kurdaitchas are usually invisible, but according to the police aid, this one had appeared for a moment in the back seat of the police car at Kintore to reassure the community that he was there to help enforce the law.

The policeman decided to go along with the community’s belief in the kurdaitcha, realising that it would enhance his own policing powers. Indeed, he encouraged people to think that the kurdaitcha accompanied him on his nightly patrols. In ‘partnership’ with the kurdaitcha, he eventually stopped the import of alcohol, reduced domestic violence and almost eradicated petrol sniffing.

Although the community and the policeman had different conceptions of the kurdaitcha – one believing him to be real and the other, unreal – both believed he had produced real results. In effect, the kurdaitcha had moved between two worlds, albeit in different conceptual forms, thus affirming the community’s trust in his supernatural powers. In this paper I show how seemingly incommensurate belief systems not only shape and delineate intercultural communication, but can dissolve all notions fixed cultural borders.

People, Birds, Monsters

Georgia Curran

Warlpiri jukurrpa (Dreaming) songs often incorporate bird names, quote birdcalls or depict bird-like characteristics as warnings of evil presences lurking in the surrounding environment—hinting at the positioning of a category of birds as mediating monster-human relations in the Tanami Desert. My particular interest lies in exploring further nuances of Musharbash’s claim that “in Central Australia, bird voices are indexical auditory signs of monstrous presence.”

I do so by drawing on data from Warlpiri songs and Warlpiri people’s exegesis contained in the narratives that accompany the singing of these songs. This data can be grouped into three kinds of references: (1) direct references to ‘kurdaitcha birds’—different types of birds said to embody monstrous beings; (2) examples of bird-like characters with evil-intent—who most commonly attempt to seduce women in the wrong relationship for marriage; and (3), how birds and bird-like features (such as sharp scratching claws or descriptions of fleeting movements) portend evil presences felt to be lingering behind ancestral beings as they travel along Dreaming paths. I put forward that these references to birds indeed index monstrous presences that are part and parcel of Warlpiri people’s lives in the Tanami Desert (during jukurrpa, in the pre-contact past, and in the neo-colonial here and now). My conclusion is concerned with the role birds play in enforcing culturally-specific moral boundaries surrounding multispecies relationships and human connections to environment.

The Nine-night Siege

Joanne Thurman

In this paper, I explore the role of Kurdaitcha— monsters that hunt Warlpiri people of central Australia—as spatio-temporal markers of a distinctly Yapa (Aboriginal) life-world. Ethnographically my paper is situated at Nyirrpi, a Warlpiri community increasingly inflicted by neo-colonialism: very few areas of Warlpiri life operate independent of the interference, regulation, surveillance, or ‘help’ of non-Indigenous service providers. Using the case study of a nine-night siege, during which a group of Kurdaitcha attempted to steal and then kill one young Yapa woman, I show the realm of monsters as one area of Warlpiri life in which neo-colonial praxis remains irrelevant: only Yapa can recognise, avoid and defend against such attacks. Analytically, I draw on literature from the inter-disciplinary field of monster studies, and engage specifically with the common understanding of monsters as the Other, that which confronts or disturbs a particular socio-cultural order or structure. I analyse the time-space of the Kurdaitcha siege – in the dark of night, well beyond the 9-5 structuring of community life – to argue that monsters do, if in strange ways, also belong. While Kurdaitcha pose a very real and present danger to Warlpiri lives, their existence is simultaneously integral to Warlpiri ways of being in and knowing the world.