We arrived at Lajamanu at 2am Friday morning from Alice Springs via Yuendumu, having driven for 6 hours at night through the Tanami Desert along the Tamani Road, then turning onto the track to Lajamanu after the gold mine at the Granites (operated by Newmont Mining) and at Tanami. I wondering how mining on Warlpiri land, with its establishing and fixing boundaries for mining exploration was changing the Warlpiri’s conception of country. Mining, after all, commodifies the country and it associated conception of owning and gaining profit from it is a very different from the way that the Warlpiri define place, looking after country, and custodianship.
We were lucky as the wet season hadn’t started and, fortunately for us, the dozen or more floodways along the Lajamanu Track were still dry. We stayed in the back room of the Learning Centre, which is supported, and run by, the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. A key gathering place at Lajamanu is the Warnayaka Art Centre where Warlpiri artists preserve, protect and pass on the cultural significance of Warlpiri culture to the younger generation. The context is the tragic realisation by the Walpirri elders that the youth were losing direction, community stories were not being shared and interest in learning and education – both mainstream and Indigenous – are decreasing.
The Art Centre, which provides a significant source of income for the community, is one way the Warlpiri are grappling with the difficult issues associated with coming up with a compromise between traditional culture and modernity. The painter’s compromise, for instance, is premised on preserving some traditional elements and incorporating innovation from white art culture in the form of the techniques of modernist abstraction.
These are desperate times for the Walrpiri as they become modern through their fractured experiences: they need to get all these stories out but some of these stories have only one or two elderly people still looking after them.
One feature that differentiates Warlpiri culture from our western one is the continuity with local landscapes or countryscapes. These countryscapes are viewed from above–eg., the perspective of the eye of the eagle. The entirety of country, including its environmental features, its topography and landmarks, its flora and fauna, its water sources, was (and for many, still is) deeply etched and encoded with meaning, and connected by powerful narratives.