As it is NAIDOC week, I decided it would be appropriate to do something on the affect European settler’s culture have had indigenous culture. The practice of celebrating a child’s birthday, or anyone’s birthday, was unheard of amongst the Warlpiri people (Northern Territory) until the early 90’s. Marking a birthday in any sort of way is a recent practice. For this reason, many people in these communities who are above the age of 40 don’t really know how old they are. Those that do, only know because of administrative requirements. Birthday parties aren’t frequent events, so if a child gets one that doesn’t mean that they will get another one the following year. These parties can also cover the birthdays of other family members.
From an outsider’s view, a Warlpiri child’s birthday looks similar to a typical Australian child’s birthday parties but there are significant differences. The inspiration for birthday parties come from church barbecues, sausage sizzles put on by community organisations and Land Council functions. This has allowed elements of Warlpiri culture to be included.
Birthday parties are generally organised and run by the women of the child’s household. They will often pool money together to buy the party food. A day or two before, the child’s mother will go to a major shopping area, like Alice Springs, to buy the food. The food will be similar to regular birthday parties and includes sausages, lamb chops, burgers, salad, fruit, lollies, ice cream, cake, and cordial. They try to incorporate bright coloured foods that aren’t usually part of mealtimes, like lollies, tropical fruit and cordial.
Once all the food is prepared and laid out, often outside, the child’s mother says ‘nyuwu, it is ready’ and the party begins. Only family are invites and even then older relative usually aren’t included in the festivities. Guests push each other aside so they are first to get to the food. Once it is all divided up most of the guests disappear and the party is over in less than 10 minutes. There are no games, music, dancing, presents or singing of happy birthday. Generally only relatives are invited.
The Warlpiri aren’t generally known for having communal feasts. Anthropologist, Yasmine Musharbash, says people feel much more comfortable eating in close-knit groups, such as members of the same household.
NB: This blog post has made heavy use of Yasmine Musharbash’s article on her three year research in Yuendumu. “Red Bucket for the Red Cordial, Green Bucket for the Green Cordial: On the Logic and Logistics of Warlpiri Birthday Parties”, published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2004