RON'S FOOTLOOSE COLUMN - BLACK AND WHITE VIEWS OF HISTORY
Footloose - Black and Whie Views of History (November 2006)
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Just recently we went and saw an exhibition at the Victorian Museum titles ‘Colliding Worlds – First contact in the Western Desert 1932 – 1984’. It documents, partly, the first contact between Europeans and the small scattered bands of Aboriginal people who called this vast area of desert and semi desert country home. And it wasn’t all that long ago!
The different stories told come from both sides of the fence. There are the stories of the White people, who were either out there to study the ‘last prehistoric race’ or later by those who had been tasked with looking after the Aboriginal people’s welfare.
From the Aboriginals’ point of view there is stories of fear, wonder and many times of innate trust while anthropologists photographed them, measured them and even made plaster of Paris casts of their faces, heads and upper torsos.
Of course, the history of ‘first contacts’ goes back many decades earlier when European explorers such as Gosse, Giles, Warburton, and later Carnegie and Wells explored across these vast reaches. While in 1906 Alfred Canning blazed his stock route north from Wiluna to Halls Creek it was the establishment of the rocket range and the atomic bomb sites at Emu and then Maralinga in the 1950s that really opened this country up and brought the last of the nomads into contact with us white fellas.
Len Beadell and his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party blazed a number of routes across this huge area and these adventures have been well documented along with a number of ‘first contacts’ in Len’s range of best selling books. But they weren’t the only White people out there!
A friend of mine, Ron Croker, was a surveyor’s assistant back in the early 50s working with National Mapping around what was to become Warakurna, Warburton and the Gary Highway. His two years out in this fabulous desert country that so many of us four wheelers enjoy today, resulted in a number of photographs that also tell a story of ‘first contact’. When Ron returned to Warburton a few years ago, his old photos of people who were just kids then and who now lived in the community, were a great hit.
Michael Terry, one of the last real explorers spent much of his life leading expeditions across this region during the 1920s right through to the late 1960s. His books, amongst them, Across unknown Australia and Hidden Wealth and Hiding People, published in 1925 and 1930 respectively, have a number of stories of ‘first contact’.
A Weapons Research Authority team and Pintupi men in the Southern Central Reserve, 1950.
Photo: Department of Defence
But it was the Weapons Research Establishment’s patrol offices and the offices from the NT Welfare Branch that had many ‘first contacts’ during the 1950s and 60s right across this desert vastness and Douglas Lockwood’s book, The Lizard Eaters, tells the story of one of those patrols in 1963. By then a number of missions and camps had been established including Haasts Bluff, Yuendumu, Balgo and Jigalong to name just a few.
Not all the Aboriginal people though, wanted to come into these areas and many kept up their traditional nomadic life for decades. Probably the most famous were the couple, Warri and Yatunga, who were found old and ill and brought into Wiluna in 1977. Their story is told eloquently in WJ Peasley’s book, the Last of the Nomads; their names forever remembered by the hills, west of the Gary Highway that have been named after them.
Then in 1984 a group of nine Aboriginal people, who had been actively shunning the established camps came out of the darkness at Mt Webb, just east of Kiwirrkura in WA looking for water at the newly constructed well of the Winbarku hand pump.
So the last of the nomads came into our civilisation. And maybe we’re all the sadder … lesser even … because of it!