Aboriginal Women


Traditional Aboriginal society is a closely knit and interdependent unit. Every member has responsibilities and roles and the lines of communication and social activity are established with an intricate set of laws based on gender and age. The strength of the society lay in the strength of family over individualism.

Male and female ancestral figures play a major role in the Dreaming and are used as a guide to the partnerships between men and women. Aboriginal women share an interdependent relationship with the men playing a dominant role in child rearing and food gathering and sharing the roles of healers, law makers, performers, painters and custodians of traditional ways.

Traditionally the women are the principal food gatherers, collecting seed, vegetables, fruit, small insects and larvae while the men are responsible for hunting for protein based food. Women are also responsible for the caring of the young children. At around six years of age, the male children join the men to learn hunting while the young girls remain with the women to learn food gathering.

Foraging for food is based on the women's intimate knowledge of their country passed on in their Dreaming stories. The anthropologist T. G. H. Strehlow noted that the Warlpiri people knew 103 different species of flora and 138 species of fauna. Since women are the principal food gatherers many women artists paint stories associated with food gathering. Central Art has a comprehensive collection of women's paintings relating to food by Utopia Aboriginal Artists.

Both men and women have roles as traditional healers. Warlpiri women from Yuendumu as an example frequently perform Yawylyu ceremonies to improve the health of sick people, singing songs and painting designs on the sick person and using their extensive knowledge of plants as medicines. Gloria Petyarre's knowledge of traditional medicine is represented in her Bush Medicine series.

Ceremonies play a vital role in Aboriginal society and men and women have both segregated ceremonies and combined ceremonies. Women's ceremonies are concerned with 'women's business' generally around the subject of fertility and Central Art has a large collection of Awelye (women's ceremony) paintings.

As a woman gets older she gains more power and prestige. Women as well as men are selected as elders to be custodians of the law and jointly make decisions for the welfare of the group. Naata Nungarrayi from Kintore, Kathleen Petyarre from Utopia and Eubena Nampitjin from Balgo are all respected law women in their respective communities.

The emergence of the contemporary art movement has given women new economic opportunities. Women's paintings reflect a great spirit, energy and integrity and are greatly sought after. Central Art offers a substantial collection of women's paintings that reflect their roles and responsibilities in their community.

Aboriginal word glossary