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‘Clever Man’ The Life of Paddy Compass Namadbara, compiled by anthropologist Ian White

Jeremy Eccles | 08.01.21

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News Source: Review

Paddy Compass Namadbara is pretty much a household name in the bark art of western Arnhemland. In the 1950s and early 1960s he was part of a group painting on Croker Island that included future stars Yiriwala and Jimmy Mijaw Mijaw, and their work was renowned for “dynamic movement and raw vigor. , in which the sexual imagery was made explicit ”according to Judith Ryan of NGV in ‘Spirit in the Earth‘, his Arnhemland Standard Art Catalog. Howard Morphy and Wally Caruana also list it in their encyclopedias of ‘Aboriginal art ‘.

But many other books on the art of bark don’t appreciate Namadbara – perhaps because its aesthetic flowering was brief, and it had a much larger role to play in Kunwinjku’s life. Like Ian White, senior anthropologist at the Northern Land Council and author of a new AIATSIS book – ‘Intelligent man‘- says it: “He was a seer and a man to whom one attributed considerable psychic powers or’ from another world ‘”. Using reports of the man, who lived between around 1898 and 1978, from seven other elderly people of Kunwinjku, including Big Bill Neidjie and Thompson Yuludjiri, it is clear that “no one with such stature and ‘power’ is is (recognized as) alive today “.

More importantly, “Among his accomplishments he devised a ritual to help the community believe in themselves in the face of the otherwise debilitating control of missionary and government authorities.”

And we should take into account the fact that Namadbara was born a few years after the Cape Brogden murder of an Indonesian prahu crew by his clan members – for which the colonial authorities hanged his uncle publicly as an example of their newly arrived control. .

It is very difficult for non-tribals to accept the activities of these marrkidjbu – as the “intelligent men” are called in Kunwinjku. In the deserts we call them ngangkari – although I associate this group primarily with healing and, perhaps, a bit of witchcraft.

In Namadbara’s case, after what appears to have been almost eight years of ritual isolation, including an observed “out-of-body” experience and the attachment of two spiritual children, he was qualified to lead ceremonies such as Mardayin, Uburr and Lorrkon, and he’s been seen to heal, bring a dead cat back to life and give individuals and entire communities like Oenpelli a real purpose. He has revealed and sometimes shared experiences of spiritual travel, using it to predict the arrival of people, climatic and natural changes, the existence of artesian water, and the impending death of other people.

And, in the 1950s, he made four major societal predictions.

Remember, the 1950s was the era of assimilation before the 1967 referendum. Yet he predicted that “Native people would be paid, just like white guys; that they would be the bosses of their own land; and they would even own cars ”. But he then added that this involvement in the capitalist economy “would lead to serious fighting within the clan itself, threatening the cohesion and the traditional structure of the clan”.

So, Paddy Compass Namadbara – named after Compass because he could always find his way through the densest bushes, treading new routes in western Arnhemland and on the Coburg Peninsula, where his influence stems from extended – was much more than a cheap conjurer. One could conclude that he was in a way a psychotherapist, able to read people, to give them a will to live or to inspire them to believe in themselves – even if he had to use the “legerdemain” as recounting their stories. dreams in a wooden box which was then buried in a drum with grease which slowly washed away as the dreams came true.

In Oenpelli, Namadbara designed a kumula ceremony in which he called a meeting that began with songs and dances as a prelude to people asking for housing in the city or land rights or simply the confidence to become a community leader.

White’s book ends with the acceptance that there are many inexplicable things in Western terms. But it also evokes Eastern shamanism, Buddhist meditation techniques and offers links to Elizabeth Mayer’s ”.Extraordinary knowledge‘and the speculations of Stephen Hawking in 2018 on a “holographic universe”. Of course, there must be a reference to the 1945 acceptance by pioneer anthropologist AP Elkin of the existence of such “High level men”.

And I can’t help but point out that the NPY Women’s Council’s book on ‘Traditional healers from Central Australia‘lists many names of well-known artists – Ilawanti Ken, Maringka Burton, Pantjiti McKenzie. Jimmy Baker, Dickie Minyintiri, Nakul Dawson, Jacky Giles, etc. Could there be a link?

Even in death, Namadbara looks special. He was asked to seek immortality – but said “The Earth is too strong; I cannot break the law ”. Ten years after his death, he appeared to join a white bison hunter – he had been himself – at his campfire near the Mangulwan billabong where his mind is believed to rest. But at his burial site, an anthill / termite mound grew as proof of his sacred power. Successful “smart men” are dismissed as “just wizards – now we have the church and the clinic!” “.

Oddly enough, Paddy Compass Namadbara is often remembered as “like Jesus”. And that perhaps justifies a connection with the late Gawirrin Gumana AM of eastern Arnhemland who was both a Lutheran pastor and achieved ultimate rank. Gamanungu Bukulup Ngarra in the Yolngu world. It is a spiritual gradation that removed him from ritual responsibility in a “living wake” and enabled him to confer authority on a new generation of leaders.

‘Intelligent man’ is a thin book, but it contains a wealth of Arnhemland lore that justifies its price (according to AIATSIS) of $ 40.

Url: https://aiatsis.gov.au/whats-new/news/personal-stories-clever-man

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The curvy and overtly sexual image of “Two Mimi Spirits dancing” (1963) by Paddy Compass Namadbara in the collection of the National Museum

Namadbara on the far right is clearly the leader of a meeting to establish the First Aboriginal Mining Company at Mount Borradaile. Photo by George Chaloupka

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