'every Square Mile Is Just Like A Book'

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‘Every square mile is just like a book’
Australian aborigines live with— and through— the land as well as on it Cameron Forbes explains why Whisky and the Pitjantjatjara tribal group felt it was so important to regain control of their territory.

Whisky - the Aborigine stockman. WHISKY used to look at the fence and a say: ‘Do they think we are animals in a cage. We are not dogs to live behind a fence’.

A full-blood Aborigine, Whisky is a Pitjantjatjara His people are among the most culturally intact of the tribal groupings in Australia, practitioners still of laws and traditions formed over millenia They are also a formidable present-day political fighting unit.

The fence, built to rigid specifications, runs across flinty red flats, up slopes and down sheer gorges to divide Indulkana, a 38-square kilometre aboriginal settlement, from Granite Downs, a 9000-square-kilometre pastoral property at the top end of South Australia

Granite Downs is on the fringes of Pitjantjatjara country, about 500,000 square kilometres of the centre of Australia including the great national symbol Ayres Rock. Much of it is desert or marginal land, useless to cattle but of striking beauty.

One white man, a government worker, describes it like this:

Within the hills themselves unseen things are revealed. Shining masses of granite in poured, bursting shapes— surfaces fluted and extruded — may form water holes with deep rock shade. Great flat stages of worn gneisses, arcane and surrounded by copses of black oaks, might display polished, convoluted patterns: unlikely, unexpected piles of great boulders may command contemplation of the mystery of their careful and deliberate placement’

The Pitjantjatjara see the country differently. They call the land in its physical sense — the rocks, sand and the plains — Manta They are known to themselves as Anangu, the human beings who belong on the earth. Anangu relate to particular portions of the country as Ngura, the place of birth and death, the country of their fathers and mothers, and through them back countless generations since life began, to Tjukurpa —the time of creation.

Anangu believe that people like themselves have occupied their land since time began. They do not say that they came from somewhere else and that their ancestors crossed a land bridge from Asia to Australia Ngura is their homeland, the place where they have hunted and lived and celebrated their existence in dance and song. The inseparable link between life, land and kin is discussed constantly among Anangu. It is the key to understanding the people, their culture and their rights to land. The Pitjantjatjara will say, ‘nganampa ngura tjamunguru kaminguru’ — our land, our country from our grandfathers and grandmothers.

But these relationships go deeper than the matters of inheritance or land use. Men and women will point to a rock and say it is their grandfather. They will say, in essence, that their country and their grandparents are the same, that, as they come from their parents and grandparents, they not only come from the land but are themselves the land.

Whisky was born about 50 years ago. Like many aborigines caught up in the pastoralists’ invasion he became an expert stockman and low-paid labour for the disposessers. He worked on Granite Downs, an area of profound importance to the Pitjantjatjara and other groups.

The Pitjantjatjara believe that in time gone by the land was plastic and the land surface merely the visible dimension of a fluid world which contained the whorls of life — the progenitors of all living things, including man.

In the ancient heroic times, superbeings, often taking the form of man animals, burst through the earth’s surface and performed monumental and memorable deeds. They sang. talked, philosophised, drew, hunted, ate, slept, copulated, defecated, leapt, made things, uprooted things, threw things and left debris.

The footprint of an ancestor might have been left permanently on a rock outcrop with his or her substance, now existing within the earth. Each creek bed, mountain stone, fissure, cave, some trees and stars, fire and water — all owe their form to those events. And men like Whisky have a special responsibility for certain places, species or artefacts.

This is how a Yankuny-Tjatjara man once explained it ’Every square mile is just like a book with a lot of pages and it’s all a story for the kids to learn. The old people always tell the story about it and at an early age the kids learn from that land. . . it is handed down generation to generation and they just pass it on to the next young people and it keeps going like that because we don’ tread or write. We learn from our old people by words. And not only words but they take us to the place and they will show us which direction their animal ancestors came and where that long-eared bandicoot stood at the rockhole.

It was from these things on Granite Downs that the people of Indulkana were fenced off, when the State bought Indulkana

Because the State wanted to give the aborigines rights to their land it bought this part from the owner of Granite Downs. He, however, insisted on building the fence as a condition of sale. (The land cost $7,522 and the fence, regarded as unnecessary, a conservative $20,000).

It was the desire for control of their land —and the threat that mining is now posing to Aboriginal land in general — that mobilised the Pitjantjatjara into a land-rights struggle. Their attitude, summed up by Whisky and other men at a meeting with the South Australian government, had been: ‘We owned the land before white men came and our relationship comes from the dreaming. not from a scrap of paper, not from white man’s thinking’. They fought for inalienable freehold title to a broad sweep of country. And eventual ownership of Granite Downs was a basic part of the deal.

They won. They will get freehold title to 102,000 square kilometres and some safeguards against the destructive effects of mining.

Now they regard their land with a greater sense of security. Whisky the cattleman now looks at the Indulkana fence, and the cattle on the other side, and says: ‘I think we leave that fence up. Those bulls might have brucellosis.’

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