Between the end of the 2016 Milpirri Festival and prior to leaving Lajamanu we visited Emu water hole just outside Lajamanu. The waterhole was full and it in a Tanami desert-scape of sparse vegetation ( spinifex, desert oaks, acacias and mulga trees), blue skies and strong sunlight. The history of the desert is one of a ice gre around 20,000 years ago, which retreated around 11,000 years ago and the rangelands emerged. That shift to an arid zone is a climate change event.
Desert in Australia traditionally means unsuitable for pastoral undue to the sandy soils that are deficient in nutrients and the spikesy spinifex grasses that are unpalatable to stock.
Kitty + Ursula, Emu Waterhole
The Warlpiri have extensive knowledge of water sources in the flat terrain in their dreaming stories, their vocabulary has names for different types of transient or permanent waterholes (e.g, rock holes, soakages) and they pass their knowledge about water holes and food tracks on through dance and paintings. I started to decode these paintings whilst at Lajamanu —I got as as far as circles for waterholes, lines for journeys, half-circles for people. Continue reading
Whilst I was at Lajamanu I was fortunate enough to attend a Baptist service in which Bishop Haigazoun Najarian and Deacon Nishan Basmajian from the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection in Chatswood, Sydney gifted and blessed two Armenian khachkars (or cross stones) to the indigenous Baptist Church, under Jerry Jangala Patrick, the local pastor.
Baptist missionaries had visited Hooker Creek from the early 1950s to teach their version of Christianity to the Warlpiri, then they were resident from 1962. In 1978 settlement was handed to Aboriginal community control and renamed Lajamanu. The Church was an example of an Indigenous Baptist church in Australia; one that is culturally ‘hybrid’, with a local identity. The bible on the lectern, for instance, was written in Warlpiri.
Jesus is the light of the world
I did not know the relationship between Warlpiri cosmology and the Baptist Christian one; nor do I know whether much work has been done on the relationship between Aboriginal cosmogony and the full breadth of biblical creation theology. This is important because the cultural aspects of Baptist ceremony and ministry lose their relevance unless they are anchored in the Warlpiri’s beliefs, customs and values. Cosmology is the prime mover in Warlpiri society.
Photographing people was very different at Lajamanu during Milpirri that it is in Australian cities. Many of the young Milpirri wanted to have their photos taken, and they often presented themselves in front of the camera. Then they would ask their friends to be part of their performance. Often they would direct in the sense of presenting themselves for the camera.
From what I could see on the night the photographers at Milpirri were non- Aboriginal people (kardiya). This was another indication that the reality of life in Lajamanu is that Warlpiri culture is being overwhelmed by a pervasive and powerful Euro-Australian culture.
Warlpiri friends, Milpirri
Most Warlpiri feel trapped between two cultures. Young people particularly feel that engagement with the mainstream organisations that run Lajamanu requires too great a departure from their Warlpiri life, while on the other hand the culture of their elders seems increasingly irrelevant. The result is that many people are in a kind of social no-man’s land where the values of neither culture are learned deeply. In some cases the young Warlpiri now know so little of their own culture that they do not even have the luxury of choosing which culture they want to follow.
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 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
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
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.