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Arrente woman resting on a digging stick
Arrente woman resting on a digging stick , 1895

A woman always owns a pitchi, which holds the food or water she collects and which is carried on her head or hanging from one shoulder by a hair or fur string and resting upon her hip. (1

In her free hand she carries a digging stick, usually a straight wooden staff with one or two bluntly pointed ends. This is the only other implement possessed by women. (2

Describing the method of using a digging stick, Spencer writes:
'... a woman will hold the pick in the right hand close to the lower end, and, alternately digging this into the ground with one hand, while with the other she scoops out the loosened earth, will dig down with surprising speed. In parts of the scrub, where the honey ants live, that form a very favourite food of the natives, acre after acre of hard sandy soil is seen to have been dug out, simply by the picks of the women in search of the insect, until the place has the appearance of a deserted mining field where diggers have for long been at work 'prospecting'. Very often a small pitchi will be used as a shovel or scoop, to clear the earth out with, when it gets too deep to be thrown up merely with the hand, as the woman goes on digging deeper and deeper until at last she may reach a depth of some six feet or even more.'(3

Imitating the actions of the women will be the accompanying children and Spencer notes the scene where:
'In the scrub a woman will be digging up lizards or honey ants, while, close by, her small child will be at work, with its diminutive pick, taking its first lessons in what, if it be a girl, will be the main employment of her life.' (4

(1 'The Arunta', p 23
(2 Ibid.
(3 Ibid, pp 23-4
(4 Ibid. p 24
Keywords: aborigines, anthropology, Arrente, Baldwin Spencer, Walter, Central Australia, native title, 1895

Photograph: Arrente woman resting on a digging stick as she drinks from the Finke River, 1895-1897. Photograph Baldwin Spencer. Reproduced courtesy Museum Victoria.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor