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Night, sight, and feeling safe: An exploration of aspects of Warlpiri and Western sleep


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Sleeping leaves those asleep ‘blind’ and hence oblivious to potential or real danger. Such dangers are heightened further and more feared at night, the main time for sleep. In this article, I link ideas about sleep and nighttime social practices with questions about vision. My aim is to tease out some of the meanings implied in cross-culturally distinct solutions to the protection of sleepers at night. I proceed by contrasting ethnographic data from the remote Aboriginal settlement of Yuendumu, Northern Territory, with select elements of the cultural history of Euro-American sleep. Through ethnographic vignettes, I illuminate how people at Yuendumu commonly arrange themselves in yunta, or rows of sleepers, at night, and how some sleepers awake regularly during the night to ensure the others’ safety. I contrast this with Euro-American ways of providing a sense of safety to the sleeper through practices of domestic fortification. My comparison revolves around the notion of sight, which in the Euro-American West is clearly linked to ideas of knowledge, and at Yuendumu, as I demonstrate, imbued with a sense of care. I conclude by relating the gained insights to participant observation as anthropological method.

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