Hidden Landscapes: Cultural Survival in Central Australia

Murphy Kennedy is a senior Warumungu man from southeast of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Through stories about his family, himself, and other Aboriginal people, and particularly through accounts of life and work at particular sites like cattle yards and mines, Murphy has shown how Aboriginal people were able to keep their cultures alive within colonial landscapes.

The region around Tennant Creek has historically been dominated by pastoral (cattle) and mining (gold, mica, wolfram) land use. Land was made available for pastoralism via licenses or leases. For mining, fields were delineated and exploration and extraction licenses granted. Settlement patterns emerged in the form of large pastoral leases with remote and isolated homesteads and more tightly clustered mining settlements. The main mining field outside Tennant Creek itself, the now disused Hatches Creek wolfram field, contained at various times stores, a police station, a pub, a school, a racecourse, accommodation for workers at the larger mines, and a government depot. Pastoralists constructed yards and, as station development proceeded, sank bores across their leases. A network of tracks and trails was associated with these activities and ranged from the rough roads of the day to tracks for camel trains and drays and unmarked routes through rough country used by stockmen looking for cattle.

Within this landscape, spaces for Aboriginal people were limited. For much of the 20th century, they were wards of the state, and government policy was directed toward their assimilation and the end of Aboriginal society and culture. The administration, responsible for carrying out assimilation policy and for the so-called welfare of Aboriginal wards, sought to regulate and bound the lives of Aboriginal people. Many were forced into reserves and missions. Others, like Murphy, spent much of their working lives on cattle stations as part of a low-cost labor force. Still others, including Murphy at times, worked in the mining areas. Although prohibited from doing so, some Aboriginal people in more remote mining fields worked underground. The Northern Territory Administration seems to have grudgingly assented to this work on the grounds that no other labor pool existed for such an important industry. Aboriginal ownership of some traditional lands within Anglo-Australian law has been achieved within the past 20 years.

Murphy’s life history shows that this settler landscape, despite its material domination and apparently clear boundaries, was always incomplete. The demarcation of certain types of spaces (pastoral, mining, reserve) was never total, and strategies of social control never totally realized. Existing parallel to, but also intersecting with, colonial control of land was an Aboriginal landscape firmly oriented toward sustaining Aboriginal society and ceremonial landscapes.

When Murphy, his siblings (now deceased), and their families walked off Kurundi station in 1977 because of dissatisfaction with employment conditions, they initially camped and then stayed at a place called Ngurratiji. The site was attractive for its reasonable supply of surface water, but it was also a water reserve along what Murphy calls the old “camel road”; it was long an Aboriginal campsite. As a designated water reserve, the area was not part of the adjacent pastoral lease and, in conjunction with the water supply and proximity to ceremonial sites, created a gap in the colonial landscape—an interstice available to Murphy and his family to further their own long-nurtured aspirations for regaining control of the land and of their futures. Their move, which was the beginning of a long process in which land in the area was returned to Aboriginal ownership, was one of many in which Aboriginal people were able to exploit places on the margins of colonial landscapes.

Murphy begins his story of nurturing landscapes with an account of how he began to learn stockwork skills that would be important throughout his life. These skills made him a valuable station worker, allowed him to move widely through the region, and seem to have afforded him a certain level of independence. Murphy’s life history is characterized by dropping in and out of pastoral employment, particularly when he was younger, spending time on reserves, in mining areas, or “out bush.” Pastoral employment provided a source of goods and cash he could always come back to.

It was pastoral work that first took Murphy into the country that he calls his father’s country, and for which he is a senior owner. In the days before fences, pastoral workers rode widely to retain control of cattle. The area in which Murphy now lives is generally marginal cattle country, but in the past was held by a series of small-time pastoralists who lived in rough camps and bough sheds, and often had Aboriginal wives. It was remote country, rarely visited by police, and its rugged nature afforded plenty of opportunity for these “feral” pastoralists to escape scrutiny. Aboriginal people associated with such camps were similarly able to remain on or close to their country and largely out of sight of officialdom. Murphy came to know the country intimately, a knowledge that merged with Aboriginal “business” learned later and that plays a key role in Murphy’s ownership of that country today.

Kurinelli, a small mining area, also plays a recurring role in Murphy’s stories. A minor gold field, it was near Hatches Creek where overstretched police were Aboriginal “protectors” as part of many other duties. One of the miners was a Chinese man called Jimmy Campfoo who, according to Murphy, had an Aboriginal wife and numerous Aboriginal people working for him. Kurnelli was another place where Aboriginal people were able to gather and be relatively free from settler control while retaining access to goods and food through Campfoo. The settlement also played an important role in Murphy’s education as a Warumungu man:

Well, old fella, we bin really, want to, we was wondering that way. Young people. We was wondering, want to learn about the country… ya, so we got to come back to old people and, so we can show the ceremony. Country, you know. That ceremony, holding country. Just like the map you gottim. Just like a map. That’s why people got to come back, well he knows the country, all over. You know, Warupunju, just like you say Queensland. Like Queensland. Warupunju, well that mean just like a Queensland. So we had to come back and sit down with old Lame Tommy. Lot of old people bin around there. Alyawarra people, Warumungu people, bin come together, and sit down. Do some ah, you know, do some Aboriginal way, doing some business and all that, bin doing it. So we bin learn him little bit about the country, you know, Aboriginal way. I bin there for long time, I never start work, I bin sitting down there a long time, with old blackfellas.…Well you got to know the country, because a lot of people come and ask us questions.…Yeah, well you learn, you know a bit about your country. Well you can talk about something. You know, whether lawyer, anthropologist, … they ask you all sorts of questions, you know: ‘You know your country?’ That’s what they come and ask you.

Kurinelli fulfilled a variety of roles for various groups of people. It was a mining area, and thus part of one story of European occupation and development. It was also a site occupied in a dual way; Aboriginal people and non-indigenous people were both able to profitably use the resources available to further their economic and cultural interests. This was a place shared by (at least) two cultures, and there are points of connection as surely as there are separations. Kurinelli is a site at which the process of “holding country” occurred. Places like Kurinelli were part of hidden Aboriginal landscapes where Aboriginal culture was nurtured even as people lived under and with a system that had as its aim the end of Aboriginal society.

Nick Gill is a lecturer in geography at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. Alistair Paterson is a lecture in archaeology at the University of Western Australia. Murphy Japanangka Kennedy is an elder for the Waramungu people, and has worked with many researchers and lawyers, as he wryly notes.

References & further reading

Baker, R. (1999). Land is Life: From Bush to Town - The Story of the Yanyuwa People. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Bell, D. (1978). For our families: The Kurundi walk-off and the Ngurrantji venture. Aboriginal History 2:1-2, pp 32-62.

McGrath, A. (1987). Born in the Cattle: Aborigines in Cattle Country. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Nash, D. (1984). The Warumungu Reserves 1892-1962. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1, pp 2-16.

Rose, D. B. (1991). Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Rose, D. B. and D. Lewis (1992). A bridge and a pinch. Public History Review 1, pp 26-36.

Rowse, T. (1998). White Flour, White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.