Canning Stock Route: the Aboriginal story

By Rebecca Courtney 30 July 2010
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Aboriginal artists have joined together to present a collection of artwork, telling their history of the Canning Stock Route.

AUSTRALIA’S ICONIC CANNING STOCK Route, created in 1906, runs for 1800 km through WA from the Kimberley to Wiluna in the state’s mid-west. The history of this famous cattle track has typically been told from a colonial perspective, but a new exhibition at the Australian Museum , which has previously toured the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, seeks to retell the story through Aboriginal eyes and voices.

“The Canning Stock Route (CSR) is a place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories intersect. This exhibition tells the story of the recovery of the Indigenous histories,” says Michael Pickering, head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program at the National Museum of Australia. “For many years the story of the stock route was represented as a white man’s story. This exhibition, and the collection that forms its heart, allows us to recognise that its history goes back much further and is held in the hearts and minds of the Aboriginal people of the region.”

Alongside stories and objects, the exhibition – called Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route – features paintings by traditional owners of the land which combine both traditional and contemporary styles of art. These paintings reflect the stories that Aboriginal elders have passed on of their experiences as stockmen and other interactions with ‘white fellas’ during the early days of the stock route, while others are interpretations by younger artists.

Canning stock route the world’s longest

Surveyor Alfred Canning led an expedition which created the route in 1906, with the ultimate goal of driving cattle from Halls Creek, in the Kimberley, to market in the Kalgoorlie goldfields. It is the longest stock route in the world and runs though the Little Sandy, Gibson, Great Sandy and Tanami deserts, passing 52 wells bored by Canning’s team. (See a map of the Canning Stock Route)

Earlier expeditions to survey the CSR had failed, but Canning set off with a team of seven men, 23 camels, two ponies, 2.5 tonnes of provisions and 1440 litres of water. All up, they trekked 4000 kilometres over 14 months. Stock routes were created as defined paths along which cattle were driven from pastoral land to markets. They allowed access to waters and grasslands to keep the animals fed.

“There is history – an indigenous history – and it needs to be told in an Indigenous way so that the wider audience can feel both worlds,” says 33-year old co-curator of the exhibition Murungkurr Terry Murray. Terry says that some local Aboriginal people volunteered their assistance to Canning’s team to help them locate waterholes and were later employed as stockmen. Others were captured and put in neck chains and force-fed salt beef or saltwater until they became so thirsty that they had no choice but to lead the team to water.

Some of the elders remember the first European contact they had as children in the desert. Terry tells how people couldn’t believe their eyes and they ran to hide when they first saw white people, thinking they had seen a ghost.

Humble beginnings on the Canning

Terry – descended from the Walmajarri, the Wangkajunga and the Juwalilny people – says he was raised in a tin shelter in an Aboriginal community just south of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley. He says there was a strong oral tradition of telling stories about the Canning Stock Route among his people and he now expresses some of the stories in his own artwork.

The idea behind the exhibition was born in 2007 and culminated in 60 Aboriginal artists going ‘back to Country’, walking the track and producing artworks along the way. “What’s more attractive are the stories people are telling behind the art. It’s not just art for art’s sake, but the story behind it,” says Michael.

Today the CSR is popular with 4WD and adventure enthusiasts from all over the world who come to be challenged by the remote and hostile conditions and to learn about the culture of the Aboriginal people who still live there.

The Yiwarra Kuju Canning Stock Route exhibition is on at the Australian Museum from 17 December 2011 – 29 April, 2012.