214. SANDHILL GODS.
|"They are intelligent and have a religion which is recorded on remarkably long sticks".|
|Blakeley Fred. Dream Millions, 76.|
Idriess must have blessed Blakeley as the leader of the expedition recounted the story of how Philip Taylor acquired a Sandhill God, here was a chance for the burgeoning writer of best sellers to indulge in the metaphysical and the outré, something he personally practiced, séances being his forte. Idriess goes to some trouble to remind the reader of Lasseter's Last Ride that Blakeley's story, but as he writes it, is true!.
Blakeley's account begins on the morning of 16/09/30, the day after Lasseter and Johns leave Illbila for the Petermanns, when the five Aboriginal men and two boys from an earlier visit approach the camp and signal Blakeley that they wished to talk to him. The boys (Bubbles and Charlie) are made to sit down several hundred metres away, and Blakeley was surprised at the absence of the women. The discussion was limited to sand maps and sign language with little progress on either side. Blakeley (and not the Aboriginals) soon tired of the exercise and he began playing with the boys, teaching them a game from his own childhood. A chance word from Charlie rekindled Blakeley's interest in understanding the language and by late morning he had determined a number of family relationships, that the Sandhill tribe was 64 strong and a remarkable anthropological discovery...the key to Aboriginal writing!!.
Later in the day there was a distinct change of mood amongst the Aboriginals, conversations now became muted and secretive and included Taylor and Sutherland. With some ceremony the men were given artefacts as gifts, from a bag made of emu feathers Blakeley was given a carved stick and Sutherland received a carved stone knife of great craftsmanship and beauty, "It was easily the most outstanding stone implement ever possessed by white man", Blakeley openly coveted that knife. But, "the blighters did not have anything for Phil. I think Phil was no more disappointed at this than were George and I; but he got a great lecture". Finally with the use of sand maps and the plainest of sign language Blakeley and Sutherland concluded that Taylor would receive something later, probably after sunset.
The evening meal had just started cooking when the Aboriginals in some excitement came right to the camp fire and clearly indicated to Taylor that he should accompany the youngest of the men to the waterhole for an uncertain purpose. It was now dark but the Englishman was game and curious, although armed there was a sense of trust about this small group of men. Taylor and his guide set off for Illbila waterhole and kept Blakeley and Sutherland anxiously waiting for an hour before returning to the light of the camp fire. Only then could Blakeley see that, "the young native was carrying a long board nearly twelve feet in length and about eight inches wide. It was an inch thick running to a flat, tapered point on each end, and with lots of carving on it". This was a God of the Sandhill People!!!.
Blakeley's description of the handing over ceremony is puerile and Idriess by now should know better, and either account raises again that irritating problem of whose pen came first, Blakeley didn't keep a log book and Idriess had a best seller within months. Nevertheless Taylor is left holding the board and the Aboriginals disappear into the night. The rest of the evening was spent discussing the artefact and its significance, the men finally convinced themselves, "that something no good happened by taking that stick". After a tense but uneventful night, Blakeley examined the board more closely the following morning. Initially he thought the pattern on the board an imitation of a diamond snake but certain designs reminded him of the drawings from yesterdays genealogy lesson.
It then dawned on Blakeley that Taylor had been given a very special artefact, this board was the history of a tribe, "when I say history I mean the record of their families by blood". Blakeley appreciated the difficulties in making the board with only stone implements, "The wood was tough and light, at the time I thought it was bean tree wood". Taylor's main concern was how to safely store the board for transport to Alice Springs and while considering options Freddy Colson arrived but could throw no light on the unusual gift, although he knew of an Aboriginal in Alice Springs who may know, explanations would have to wait until then.
On the evening of the first day back in Alice Springs, Colson advised Blakeley and Taylor to store the artefact in the ceiling of his house, his native informant had warned that even here in relative civilisation, "it may mean death to any native women who sees it". The men had to wait several days before Colson's Aboriginal acquaintance could examine the board and he more or less confirmed what Blakeley had suspected, "it was a sandhill natives god", but he became very concerned when he learnt that the board recorded the history of Rip van Winkle and his small tribe and they may all be dead by now as a consequence of taking the board from Illbila.
Blakeley was uncertain how to react to this news of possible disaster and reported the situation to Mr. Allchurch who was, "very annoyed with me and gave me a good talking to- to think and old hand like you was sucked in by those myall natives like that". Suitably chastened Blakeley closes chapter 29 of Dream Millions with a warning to others about the underhanded wiles of the myalls and makes the point that Lasseter was not present when the board was given to Taylor, "so did not have the god-stick blessing or otherwise as many people believe".... this is a direct reference to Idriess who put pen to paper seven years before Blakeley.
Blakeley's sandhill god or Taylor's twelve foot board was a 'kulpidji', perhaps the most sacred of objects in the western desert cultures, certainly to the Pitjanjara. C .P. Mountford confirms that, "no one who is not a fully initiated man is allowed to see or handle these kulpidgi under pain of death". The Aboriginal people believe that the kulpidgi contains the concentrated life essence of the tribe, Blakeley was surprisingly close to the truth when he interpreted the intricate markings as a mnemonic for the history of the tribe. But there's a sense of not fully appreciating the consequences of removing the kulpidji from Illbila. By doing so, Blakeley and Taylor had destroyed a cultural cornerstone of Rip van's small tribe, a blow from which they may not have recovered. The old mans claim to and possibly only connection to Illbila waterhole was on its way to England within the month.
Apparently Allchurch grasped the situation immediately, the Sandhill men had been very clever indeed, the white men had been duped into dispossessing the only other long term competition for the waterhole. Unless Rip van submitted to the law of the Sandhill men he and his family may not be allowed to use Illbila. Blakeley's Aboriginal informant thought it was now to late to return the kulpidgi to its rightful owners as they were probably dead, when Pastor Albrecht visited Illbila on 06/10/30 he made no mention of any Aboriginal fitting Rip van's unique description. Tindale has noted that the Jumu people, of which Rip van may have been a member had all but died out between 1932 to 1940, victims of a whitefellow virus, no doubt hastened by a looted culture.
There is an excellent photograph of two kulpidgi opposite page 144 of Mountford's 1948 book, "Brown Men and Red Sand', showing the same wide thin boards as Blakeley describes, but in the photo closer to a more believable length of two metres at the most. A kulpidgi is not a churinga, these artefacts are much smaller, about a foot long and usually round or oval in section and of lesser significance. Blakeley's carved stick was probably a churinga and it carried a seemingly propitious message, a 'bright native' in Alice Springs interpreted the markings and with a grin informed Blakeley that he would soon be a married man, an event that never came to pass.
Taylor does not attribute any of life's personal tragedies to the kulpidgi, contrary to some recent literature, in fact the young mechanic went on to lead a full and adventurous, if not charmed life. And it is possible that somewhere in England or perhaps Banora Point in New South Wales where Taylor retired to, is the last record of his tribe, Rip van's kulpidgi or Blakeley's 'Sandhill God', and despite his best bargaining, Blakeley could not prise the 'canny Scot' from his priceless carved stone knife.
Now to Idriess, he was obviously unimpressed with the detail in Blakeley's account and included Lasseter and Micky in the story as well as the women of the tribe, under the cultural circumstances this of course is impossible. Indeed Lasseter takes the lead in many parts of the handing over ceremony, reminiscent of the Pacific islands. Lasseter's presence is useful as it allows Idriess to introduce, 'Mystery and Magic' at chapter nine and the inference that Lasseter's fate was due to some power of the kulpidgi, (and the kulpidgi is now half an inch thick, like a broadsword, giving the artefact a subtle menace). Lasseter was the first to touch the kulpidgi at the ceremony and Micky has a role, he discovers the tracks of the Kadaitcha hovering at the edges of the ceremony. This allows Idriess , speaking through Lasseter, to expand on his knowledge of the Aboriginal assassins and their methods and their unique footwear.
Later in Alice Springs, Idriess has Blakeley and his mates very surprised to learn from an Aboriginal employed in town, "one of those occasionally met with. Educated at one of the best South Australian schools", that the Kadaitcha was Rip van and the curse that went with the theft of his kulpidgi had now passed to Taylor and the other men. So explaining Lasseter's fate and the misfortunes of Taylor and Coote in the Ayers Rock venture. Idriess has a field day with the theme and that's all he wanted from Blakeley, the details would come from his fertile imagination and experience gained when, "I myself roamed with a tribe of natives in Northern Australia"...one tribe fits all.
And what really happened at Illbilla that day?, very likely nothing altruistic such as gift giving with profound ceremony, the Sandhill men had probably sensed Taylor's penchant for curios and took the opportunity to find some, namely Rip van's kulpidgi thus dispossessing him of the precious water and serving a double purpose, the inexperienced and ignorant whitefellows had been neatly duped. Allchurch was angry at Blakeley for allowing the men to do what they had agreed not to...collect curios.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Blakeley Fred, Dream Millions, 76,Chap 28,166. Harney, Bill. To Ayers Rock and Beyond. op145,178,179. Idriess Ion L, Lasseter's Last Ride, Chap 9. Marshall-Stoneking, Lasseter-the making of a legend, 188. Mountford, Charles, P. Brown Men and Red Sand. 45,146,147.opp144.