Living the traditional Aboriginal life

By Ken Eastwood 15 December 2010
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Despite 21st-century influences, WA’s Martu people continue to hunt using age-old customs.

IN A DESICCATED WEST Australian landscape, where hunting has been a way of life for more than 5000 years, a rifle pokes out the window of a four-wheel-drive. In a marriage of the old and the new, the rifle sight has been expertly attached with kangaroo sinew.

CRACK! A shot rings out across the burnt-sienna sands and the chase is on. The 4WD accelerates, weaving wildly in and out of the mulga and bucking over ruts. “Having a nice ride everyone?” yells Hamzah Taylor, 17, his iPod plugged into the car’s stereo system, blaring rock music.

Although hit, the fast-moving quarry only slows to a trot when it thinks it is safe behind a big wattle. CRACK! Another shot hits home and the chase is on again. With nearly all the other prey out here – kangaroos, emus or the much sought-after turkeys or bustards – the .22 would have finished the job by now. But this is a feral camel, bigger than the 4WD itself and as strong as the desert sun. Three more times in 10 minutes, bullets hit home in the head and neck before it slumps to its knees.

Barefooted Hamzah, wearing a Snoop Dogg baseball cap, springs out of the car and slits the beast’s jugular with a small axe. Dark, crimson blood pools on the terracotta ground as he and shooter Burchell Taylor begin the hour-long butchering process. The young blokes take turns grunting and panting as they chop away at the carcass, while one of the senior Martu lawholders, Waka Taylor, sits quietly in the shade and watches. Every so often he gets up and shows them precisely where to cut, achieving fast results with an economy and expertise born of a lifetime out here.

The rich, beef-like taste of camel has only been on the Martu’s regular menu for the past decade or so. Camel numbers have grown exponentially in recent years, and there’s an estimated 60,000 now living on their native-title lands of 136,000 sq. km.

Even though the dromedaries drink from and foul the few precious waterholes, and eat vast amounts of vegetation, the animals are not often hunted by the Martu. Some of the older people won’t eat the creatures, even crying when they see one killed. They say they feel sorry for them – as an introduced species, the animals don’t feature in any Dreaming stories so some Martu feel uncomfortable killing and eating them. And, watching the effort as the meat is cut into manageable chunks and manhandled onto the roof of the 4WD, you can see that a camel kill creates a lot of work.

Aboriginal ‘knowing’

THE WORD “MARTU” MEANS “person with black skin”, but since the 1980s it has been the label applied to the indigenous people of the Pilbara deserts – those with traditional lands around the central part of the Canning Stock Route in WA. Known as some of the last Aboriginal people to “come in from the desert” and adopt western ways, they have a strong culture, particularly here on their native-title lands, where about half their 1000 or so number live in a sprinkling of small communities around Karlamilyi National Park. Most other Martu are settled in Port Hedland and Newman.

In the village of Parnngurr I meet ever-smiling elder Nyalangka Taylor, in her mid-60s. She remembers her childhood, which was at about the time of the Martu’s first contact with whitefellas. She enjoyed hunting and gathering, and unimpeded travel with a family group of nearly 20. Reliable waterholes and soaks were up to a day-and-a-half’s walk apart, and Nyalangka says they would often travel at night, particularly in the summer when temperatures can regularly soar higher than 45ºC.

Among Parnngurr’s moving sea of dogs, fed with camel meat, I met Nyalangka’s nephew Curtis, one of the community’s young stars. Fiercely intelligent, creative and vivacious, 25-year-old Curtis has worked as a filmmaker, translator, builder, and trainer in film and media production. But one of the jobs he loves the most is taking some of the Martu people who live in towns back out onto their country. “The old people, they’re dying really fast, so more people are saying, ‘We wanna know our country, we wanna know where we belong’,” he says. “Knowing where your country is, that’s number one.”

Sometimes there are conflicts between the town-dwelling Martu and those living on the land, particularly when it comes to deals with mining companies or other outsiders. Politically savvy townies are more likely to want to strike a deal that could benefit Martu economically, but the others aren’t so sure. Nyalangka’s husband of 34 years Nyerri – a regal white-haired elder – gets a fierce glare in his eyes when I mention mining. Summoning the power of the Earth into one phrase he thunders: “Dreamtime in the ground – leave it there. No mineral.”

Elders like Nyerri pass on ancient rituals, knowledge and laws to the younger Martu. Curtis sums up the contradictions for young Martu living in the whirlwind of the 21st century, yet keeping their bare toes curled firmly in the red dirt: “Sometimes we’re caught up in white-man’s world, sometimes Martu world, sometimes in the middle. We don’t know which way to go.”

Traditional Aborignal hunting

EACH DAY, AT LEAST one group of Martu hunts on traditional lands. And for the best part of a decade, two anthropologists from Stanford University in California, USA, have gone with them, documenting what, how and why they hunt. Douglas Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird calculated that 20 to 50 per cent of the total Martu diet is still composed of bush foods. One of the most interesting aspects of their research has been studying differences in the way men and women hunt. Although traditional Martu law doesn’t dictate it, men and women generally choose different ventures.

About 60 per cent of the time, the men undertake high-risk hunting – going for animals such as the fleet-footed kirti-kirti (euro) or the flighty kipara (Australian bustard), with hunting failure rates of about 80 per cent. Women choose the “safer” option of hunting the small parnajarlpa (sand goanna) 74 per cent of the time, banking on a 90 per cent chance of obtaining some, albeit smaller, amount of food – enough to feed their own family. Rebecca says the women’s childcare role may only play a small part in activity choice. “If that were all that was going on, post-reproduction hunting would be the same for both genders,” she says. “Predictability versus unpredictability tends to characterise nearly all divisions of labour cross-culturally and I think women like the more predictable outcomes.”

Adding to the complex picture is the generous nature of Martu society. Prestige is gained not by owning more than others, but by giving away what you have – be it money, tobacco or food. Someone who is able to give away a large quantity of meat to others gains prestige, but usually will retain no more food than anyone else. A successful goanna hunter decides how to distribute her catch. However, a successful euro hunter places the carcass at the edge of camp and takes no further role in the butchering or distribution. Instead a senior man will assign the different cuts of meat to 10 or so family members of the hunter, or if they are not there, to others. So good or bad hunters will still receive about the same amount of food.

“Kangaroo hunting shows the ability to care for community – an investment in community care, and a willingness to work for the public good,” Rebecca says. “It signals, ‘I’ve just eliminated all the need for anyone else to do any work, because there is enough here to feed everyone’. But who are you sharing with when you are hunting goanna?” The comparatively small amount of meat – an average of 4-5 goannas caught per person on each hunt – is divided among an average of 2.5 people, so can be seen to be a selfish hunting option. “If you choose to go hunting for sand goanna, you’re almost guaranteed to have a meal,” Doug says. “But sometimes it’s better [politically] to come back and be just as hungry as everyone else.”

Fire, the life line of Aboriginal culture

WITH LARGE CHUNKS OF camel being tenderised by the mid-afternoon sun on the roof of the 4WD, our hunting party continues on a drive north towards orange dunes. Here the spinifex is greener due to recent rains. We pass river beds, completely dry now, that gush brown water during summer floods. Occasionally a yellow grevillea or waist-high honey shrub provides another splash of colour.

Up the track a bit, the cars stop again in a section of thick spinifex. The young Martu light large clumps, setting a fire that roars off in the wind. Burchell explains why. “Just cleaning it up,” he says. “Easier to find the holes and stuff. Some of the old people might come back in a week or so to hunt goanna. Maybe not – maybe too busy with the footy carnival.” Someone else suggests that the smoke might also encourage the bustards to return, as they are often attracted by fires to get the insects dazed by the smoke.

Martu recognise five stages of vegetative regrowth in relation to fire. There’s nyurnma, where an area has just been burnt. Then the two most productive stages, waru-waru and nyukura, which might last a couple of years. The fire, and the free space it creates, stimulates some plants into growing, particularly woollybutt grass (the seeds of which can be ground up and made into a damper) and wattles. These stages also see a high diversity of fruits such as bush tomatoes or solanums.

“In a single large patch of nyukura you can get a good 50 kg of the small solanums,” Doug says. But after a few more years, as the vegetation enters its final two stages, manguu and kunarka, big clumps of spinifex eventually monopolise the terrain.

Mainly lit in colder months (April-October), the fires are restricted to an average size of 22 ha, contained by wind, geographical features and previous burns. Doug points out that if a fire did get out of control, it could have terrible consequences. “To set fire to or damage an area with sacred sites is really, really serious,” he says. “It’s potentially punishable by death.”

Out of the area in which the Martu regularly hunt – more than 50 or so km’s from the settlements – the landscape is scarred by fires hundreds of times larger, lit by lightning storms in the heat of summer. The patchwork disappears completely and the diversity of vegetation, wildlife and habitat goes with it.

Goanna hunting with tradition Aboriginal owners

KUMBAYA GIRGIRBA IS ONE of the best foragers in the area. Dressed in thongs, checked shirt and an incongruous baby-pink Dora the Explorer beanie, she drifts across what would seem to outsiders an almost featureless plain. She carries a soft-drink bottle full of water and a wana (a digging stick, in her case, a thin steel crowbar). Kumbaya has a friendly round face with wisps of black and grey hair appearing from under the beanie, and a nose as broad as the majestic Nukuwarta range behind her. Her left little toe sticks out from her foot at a right angle from an accident “a long time ago”.

This area was burnt in a lightning strike last summer and there’s been no rain, so it’s barren and unremittingly shadeless. Termite mounds stand like some mini Stonehenge as the mercury nudges 33ºC. Kumbaya’s all-seeing eyes scan back and forth from the horizon to directly in front of her. She stops and turns to the left, following barely discernable tracks. “Ahh, kipara gone,” she says mournfully.

Suddenly she locks onto a much smaller track and follows it, snaking back and forth, then homing in with increasing speed on a toppled wattle, long-since dead. She springs into action. WHACK WHACK. With two quick overarm strikes of her crowbar onto the bush, and a quick sleight of hand, she’s pulled out a goanna that I’d only just spied. After flicking its head quickly against the crowbar a few more times, it was over. “That was easy – no digging,” she says. In the warmer months, the goannas are found on the surface like this, but – usually in the winter – it can be a more laborious process, as Kumbaya shows me next.

After searching for another 15 minutes or so, she finds a likely goanna hole. She rubs a bit of spit on her hands and starts thrusting the digging stick down around the main hole, hoping to break through into the den. It requires persistence, experience and stamina. When the hole is found, she sits down beside it and scoops out dirt with her left hand, widening the hole with the bar held in her right. But after about five minutes, she declares it no good – the goanna isn’t there. Life out here isn’t ever going to be easy.

True to form, after a couple of hours when we return to our dinner camp with just the one goanna, the other hunting group magnanimously shares its bounty of half-a-dozen with us, and there’s plenty to go around. Using a ground oven of hot coals and sand, we cook up a feast of goanna and hot tea, devouring our shared catch in a tradition that’s remained intact for aeons. 

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 99 (Jul – Sep, 2010)