Milpirri Festival at Lajamanu

A key reason  for the roadtrip to Lajamanu was to see  the Warlpiri’s  large-scale outdoor Milpirri Festival, which  is put on by the Warlpiri community in partnership with the Tracks Dance Company for one night only every two years.  The one that I saw  on  Saturday October 15 was  the seventh biannual festival.

The rehearsals for Milpirri  were on the Friday night:

Milpirri rehearsal, Lajamanu

Milpirri rehearsal, Lajamanu

Milpirri is a ceremonial performance based largely around dance that taps into the  history of Warlpiri culture. It is a way of  passing on the  knowledge of this culture that connects the Warlpiri community and enables them  to survive on this land. Milpirri refers to the clouds that bring thunder, lightening and  rain at the start of the wet season, which then  results in grass and food. The  ceremony is a celebration. Continue reading

Advertisements

the heavy weight of the past

The common interpretation of  the frontier wars between settler Australia and the Aboriginal people is that this history is  a case of a doomed hunter-gatherer people unable to withstand the agriculture, animal husbandry and machinery of modern capitalism. This downplays the history of  the killing phases, segregation-by-incarceration phases, assimilation or absorption- to-the-point-of-disappearance phases, and  the  erasure-of-their- presence phases.

Currently, the aboriginal people in Northern Territory and Lajamanu are governed under an ‘emergency intervention’ initiated under the Howard Coalition government 2007 and continued under the Rudd and Gillard Labor federal governments, then the Abbott/Turnbull  Coalition government. This involves sending in civilian task forces (largely untrained in this work), and the military (even less qualified) ‘to save the children’ from reported child abuse, sexual molestation and neglect. The predators are  now seen as  the Aborigines themselves.

This is Henry Jakamarra Cook and one of his sons reading Judith Crispin’s recently published book, The Lumen Seed,   which includes a number of Henry’s stories:

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

This intervention involved the suspension (and therefore the protections) of the federal Racial Discrimination Act and the Northern Territory’s anti- discrimination legislation. That  suspension was revoked and the Act restored on 31 December 2010. The intervention, however, l involves the suspension of the permit system which allows Aborigines to decide who can enter their domains; the search for sexual predators; the quarantining of all social welfare payments; the physical medical examination of children; and the banning of alcohol. Legislation in 2011 ensured that social service payments would be tied to school attendance.

Continue reading

landscape, Tanami Desert

Late one afternoon  whilst I was at Lajamanu I went on a brief phototrip with Helga Leunig to take photos of the Tanami Desert landscape.  We travelled a short distance  along the gravel  road  that provides access  to the local cemetery and rubbish dump.  This road  north  from Lajamanu, which   connects Lajamanu to the Bunting Highway,  Kalkarindji and Top Springs,   and doesn’t feature on Google maps is  the road that we would take to leave  Lajamanu for Alice Springs via Top Springs.

Helga had briefly explored the area to the north of Lajamanu early in the day,  and she was interested in returning to the rubbish dump to photograph a red car in the late afternoon light.  We never got there. I suspected that we  missed the turn off because we were rushing to catch the light. The Tanami landscape was very different to what I’d expected. I thought that it would be low and flat like the landscape of northern South Australia or featureless sand plains.   I didn’t expect this bio-region  to be as treed as it was:

dead tree, Lajamanu

dead tree, Lajamanu

Vegetation is predominantly spinifex hummock grassland with a tall-sparse shrub overstorey. Like most coastal Australians my imagination had constructed it  as  terrifyingly,  inhospitable arid country–an undifferentiated,  empty  desert landscape  with intense white light, termite mounds, and extreme temperatures.  Unhomely. It was yet another version of the white settler’s “dead heart”–that  long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown; one  counterpoised to the mythical  Inland Sea  in the middle of Australia  that  was  the preoccupation of  the early white  explorers, such as Charles Sturt, who took a whaleboat to the desert.  I didn’t expect  to see the  clustered eucalypts.

Continue reading

Warnayaka Art Centre at Lajamanu

We arrived at Lajamanu at 2am Friday morning from Alice Springs via Yuendumu having driven for 6 hours at night through the  Tanami Desert  along the Tamani Road,  then turning onto  the track to Lajamanu after the gold mine at the Granites (operated by Newmont Mining)  and at Tanami.  I wondering how mining on Warlpiri land, with its establishing and fixing boundaries for mining exploration  was changing the Warlpiri’s conception of country. Mining, after all,  commodifies the country and it associated conception of owning and gaining profit from it is a very different from the way  that the Warlpiri define place, looking after country, and custodianship.

We were lucky as  the wet season hadn’t started and, fortunately for us,   the dozen or more  floodways along  the Lajamanu Track were still  dry. We stayed in the back room of the  Learning Centre, which is supported,   and run by,  the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. A key gathering place at Lajamanu is the Warnayaka Art Centre where Warlpiri artists  preserve, protect and pass on the cultural significance of Warlpiri culture to the younger generation. The context is the tragic realisation  by the Walpirri elders that  the youth were losing direction, community stories were not being shared and interest in learning and education – both mainstream and Indigenous – are  decreasing.

The Art Centre, which provides a significant source of income for the community,  is one way the Warlpiri are grappling with the difficult issues associated with coming up with a compromise  between traditional culture and modernity. The painter’s  compromise, for instance,   is  premised on  preserving  some traditional elements and incorporating  innovation from white art  culture in the form of  the techniques of  modernist abstraction.  

 Warnayaka Art Centre

Warnayaka Art Centre

These are  desperate times for  the Walrpiri as they become modern through their fractured experiences:  they  need to get all these stories out  but some of these stories have only one or two elderly people still looking after them.

One feature that  differentiates Warlpiri  culture from our western one is  the continuity with local landscapes or countryscapes. These countryscapes are viewed from above–eg.,  the  perspective of the eye of the eagle.  The entirety of country, including its environmental features, its topography and landmarks, its flora and fauna, its water sources, was (and for many, still is) deeply etched and encoded with meaning, and connected by powerful narratives.