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Aerials 1984: Lajamanu and the Tanami desert / Aerial shots from Lajamanu to Yuendumu / Barbara Glowczewski / Tanami Desert, Central Australia





Like most Aboriginal settlements, Lajamanu is run by an Aboriginal council elected by the local population, which varies from between 500 to 900 people. It has a school, a free health clinic, a shop, a petrol station, a garage, a police station and a power station. All these services are run by non-Aboriginal staff who are nevertheless employed by the Warlpiri council and work with the assistance of Warlpiri staff. There is also a Baptist Church with non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal missionaries. Less then half of the adults have full-time jobs. But a lot of people do part-time work within the CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) scheme which has replaced unemployment benefits. Others receive allowances for their children or pensions. But one of the main sources of income since the mid 1980s comes from the sale of canvas paintings. The Warnayaka Art Centre provides paint and manages the sales and exhibitions. 


In 1979, half of the population was camping. Ten years later, most families had houses. However, as soon as somebody dies the house has to be abandonned to respect the taboo on the dead, and then several relatives camp together for the duration of the mourning period. Other ritual activities also bring people to camp, especially during school holidays when the Law ceremonies take place. Finally, most families are custodians of an ‘outstation’ where they go for a weekend or for several weeks. 


The outstations are small settlements built in different places of the Warlpiri traditional land. Part of the funding is provided by the government and another by the mining companies as a compensation for exploration leases. The outstation movement started to be funded after the Warlpiri people won a land claim that gave them back 94,694 sq. km. of their traditional land. Each outstation has a few houses, a bore and a windmill. Some also have solar power for a freezer and for electric lights. The Lajamanu people operate some twelve outstations through the Wulaign Resource Center. More outstations further to the south and east of the Warlpiri territory are operated from two other Warlpiri settlements Yuendumu and Willowra. A few other outstations are jointly run with people from different language groups, such as Mungurrurpa with the Kukatja from Balgo or Pawurinji with the Kaitij from Ali Curong.



When the Lajamanu settlement was first created in 1949, it was called the Hooker Creek reserve. The land belonged to the Kurintji tribe but the government deported Warlpiri people displaced from the Tanami Desert there, and settled in from the overcrowded Yuendumu reserve. People walked away a couple of times, but in the end they made ritual arrangement with the Kurintji people, and Lajamanu is now a Warlpiri settlement. It is called Lajamanu, even though the real Lajamanu site is further away.




1. Gold rush


The explorer J.M. Stuart was probably the first white man to meet the Warlpiri people when he crossed the Lander River. The Warlpiri hid when they saw caravans with strange creatures camels, ridden by people with white or yellow faces (Europeans and ‘Afghans’ from Pakistan). In 1880 the Europeans established cattle stations in the north and south of the Warlpiri territory. The Warlpiri transformed their fear into entertainment a dance called ‘horns and humps’ went from group to group, imitating the new animals with humps (camels) and horns (bulls). But the Yapa continued to stay away from the Kardiya, as they called them, sometimes killing the cattle that came to their waterholes.


The year 1909 marked the gold rush in the west of the Warlpiri territory. 500 miners set up camp in a major Warlpiri ritual site, Janampi. By the time of the First World War, only six miners were left (Baume, 1933). The Australian Investment Agency (AIA) bought up the Wave Hill and Gordon Downs stations to the north and east of the Warlpiri territory. Some Aboriginal people were employed as stockmen. In the 1920s Australia suffered the hardest drought since the beginning of colonisation. By 1927, very few Warlpiri people could survive in the desert, and had to move to lands filled with settlers.


In 1928, a European who slept with a Warlpiri woman was killed by her husband with a boomerang. The policeman Murray, leading a punitive expedition, fired on several Warlpiri camps, killing thirty-one people. Following a protest by the settlers, he was arrested, but released after only three weeks, even though he admitted to seventeen murders (Cribbin, 1984). These killings made the Warlpiri extremely distrustful of the Europeans and reinforced the authority of the traditional Elders.


In 1932, there was another gold rush close to another important ritual site, Yarturluyarturlu (the Granites). Two hundred miners came to prospect, but only ten were left a year later (Madigan, 1936).


In 1936, the mining activity started again at the Granites and at Tanami; a few Warlpiri were employed. Others worked at the mines of Tennant Creek, Mount Hardy, Mount Doreen, Treachery, Wauchope or Anningie and Coniston. But not many Warlpiri were properly paid. Their pay consisted mostly of sugar, tea, tobacco, blankets and some beef that they shared with their tribal relatives, who continued to gather and collect natural resources, camping nearby or moving around.


2. Stations and reserves

In 1944, the Australian army employed some 1,000 Aboriginal people, including a few Warlpiri, mostly to build roads through the desert. A ration depot and a camp were set up in Tanami for the transfer of 117 Warlpiri from the Granites. The Vesteys Company from the AIA held an interest in several stations in the North, and asked Professor Elkin from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney to send a specialist to examine the situation of the Aborigines. Catherine and Ronald Berndt discovered that in fact Vesteys wanted to attract the Aborigines to the stations to use their labour. The Berndts advised the Director of the Native Affairs Branch (created in 1938) to create a reserve to the north of Tanami in an area including the Hooker, the Wilson and the Winnecke Rivers. But Vesteys opposed the project since it included a cattle station to be run by the Aborigines (Berndt & Berndt, 1987).


In 1946, the health of the Warlpiri people at the Tanami camp reached a critical point. There was not enough water, contrary to the Granites, where they were forbidden to return. The Yuendumu reserve was then opened to the south of Mount Doreen. In a few months, 400 Warlpiri were brought there. Arguments burst into fights with spears and boomerangs. The Northern territory administration looked for a new place to reduce the population pressures of Yuendumu and to move the old people who were still camped on the cattle stations.


In June 1947, the Hooker Creek region proposed by the Berndts was fenced into a reserve. Two years later, 25 Warlpiri are forcibly removed there to build the place. This land was not Warlpiri, but Kurintji. When the administration transfered 150 Warlpiri from Yuendumu, most of them ran away and crossed back through 600 km of desert. This happened in 1951, and again in 1958.


In the late 1950s the Kurintji people employed on the Wave Hill cattle station (100 km north of Hooker Creek) went on strike. Everybody in Australia followed the event, and many people discovered the terrible conditions of the Aboriginal people working in the North for the first time (Hardy, 1968). In 1961, the Warlpiri people deported to Hooker Creek concluded ritual arangements with the Kurintji people to legalise their occupation of the land, and the first Warpliri council was elected. Later, Hooker Creek was renamed Lajamanu. 



It was only in 1967 that a referendum finally recognised the Aborigines as Australian citizens and permitted the Warlpiri and other Aboriginal people to leave the reserves and travel freely on their traditional land.


In 1976, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act allowed the Warlpiri to claim a vast tract of their traditional land, and the reserve became an autonomous community. Funding made it possible for them to return to their homelands by the setting up of outstations and satellite camps with mining bores and accomodation.


3. Stockman culture

Some of the people who were moved into the reserves stayed away from their country for thirty years without being able to return to it. But others, men and women who worked on cattle stations, were able to travel widely on horseback. This period has left a certain nostalgia for stockman culture and country-western music. But this was also a period full of sad memories mistreatment by the station bosses; rape at the hands of employers or itinerants; welfare control of people's lives; children forcibly removed from their parents by white or ‘afghan’ fathers, and who are recognised today as victims of the ‘Stolen Generation’. Many of the children of these removed children have tracked down their original families and are coming back to the bush communities to straighten out their identity and be healed from the trauma they inherited.


The stockmen generation has continued to celebrate the ceremonies and numerous rituals connected with their land. Men and women maintained the memory of the sites they could not visit through songlines, paintings and dances. They have transmitted this knowledge to their children and grandchildren, who are now the television (introduced in 1983) generation. They have created new ceremonies that symbolise the trauma of the contact history, the healing process involved in the mourning for victims, and new Laws that take into account change in technology, in men and women's roles, in kinship and even in syncretism with the Christian religion.




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Archives de chercheurs: Barbara Glowczewski [Collection(s) 28]
Aerials 1984: Lajamanu and the Tanami desert [Set(s) 802]
Meta data
Object(s) ID 83320
Permanent URI
Title/DescriptionAerial shots from Lajamanu to Yuendumu
Author(s)Barbara Glowczewski
LocationTanami Desert, Central Australia
Coordinateslat -35.27 / long 149.08
Copyright Barbara Glowczewski
Rank 1 / 59
Filesize 573 Kb | 3000 x 1978 | 8 bits | image/jpeg
Transcription[ See/hide ]
Quote this document Glowczewski, Barbara 1984 [accessed: 2024/2/25]. "Aerial shots from Lajamanu to Yuendumu" (Object Id: 83320). In Aerials 1984: Lajamanu and the Tanami desert. ODSAS:
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htmlwidth="3000" height="1978"