Whilst walking through the dry creek beds I found it difficult to grasp and hold onto the geological time scale or epochs. I found it difficult, for instance, to imagine that 25 million years ago (mya) there was enormous richness and variety of plant and animal life. The parched land east of the Flinders Ranges around Lake Frome and Lake Pinpa was once a rainforest filled with a rich variety of birds (water birds such as cormorants and flamingos and forest birds such as parrots) and animals (wombat ancestors, possums and koalas). There were crocodiles, turtles and freshwater dolphins in the lakes.
Continental drift helps to imagine this wet climate as back in the early Miocene (25mya) — the area around what is now Lake Pinpa was located more than 1,100km south of where Adelaide is today, at a latitude equivalent to present-day Fiordland at the southwestern tip of New Zealand. The aridification started around 15 million years ago (the middle Miocene) when the Australian continent had moved north.
I carried the Reynold’s book in my day pack along with the Rolleiflex TLR, and I would dip into it before dinner after the afternoon photo session. Frontiers is a corrective to the traditional Australian history that ignores the frontier wars over the ownership and control of land. It is concerned with the colonial attitudes and the behaviour of the settlers and their reaction to the blacks they were dispossessing. The book is sequel to The Other Side of the Frontier, which dealt with the aboriginal response to the European invasion and settlement of Australia, which I haven’t read. Reynolds argues that land is at the centre of conflict between black and white Australians: land ownership and the rights to the earth.
There was very little discussion of the colonial history in the northern Flinders Ranges on the camel trek about what happened to the Adnyamathanha people in the northern Flinders Ranges. The history that was referred to, and talked about, was settler history: explorers, pastoralism, mining, Mawson’s expeditions using camels, and white men walking the northern Flinders. The long shadows cast by the historical injustices of the colonial past were not discussed.
Our only contact with the Adnyamathanha was when we drove past Nepabunna from Copely on route to our starting point at Umberatana Station. I didn’t know that Nepabunnan was the site of the old mission station that had been established by the United Aborigines Mission in 1931 on land donated to them by Balcoona Station owner Roy Thomas Nor did I know that the land was officially given to the United Aborigines Mission, giving them full control over its indigenous inhabitants. Nepabunna, in effect, was the first permanent home the Adnyamathanha people had known since their dispossession and displacement from their traditional lands in the early 1850s by the pastoralists. Then, after 40 years or more years of Mission and Government control, Nepabunna was handed back to the Adnyamathanha people in 1977.
I knew nothing about the history of aboriginal dispossession in the northern Flinders Ranges. All I knew was that South Australia was founded as a model colony based on democratic and humanitarian ideals and hard-headed commercial objectives (enlightened colonialism). South Australia was founded with an explicit principle to protect Aboriginal peoples as British subjects in line with Colonial concerns in the 1830s, their actual treatment under the law proved to be little different to that which prevailed in Australia’s earlier settler colonies. It was aboriginal land the colonialists wanted. Hence the violent frontier history of European settlement and Aboriginal dispossession and subjugation.
In the 1940 the Aborigines Protection Board was formed, as a result of the Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1934 – 1939, and it had legal guardianship of all Aboriginal Children. William Penhall, the Protector of Aborigines and the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), had nearly complete control over the lives and destinies of the 5000 or more Aboriginal people scattered across South Australia. Penhall and the Board supported long-range weapons testing at Woomera—-the Emu/Maralinga nuclear tests in the 1950s.
A couple of days after the Milpirri Festival had finished we drove north out of Lajamanu to Top Springs via the Buntine Highway The Landrover Discovery was damaged, so we did not make a detour to go to Kalkarindji (formerly Wave Hill) or to take a look at the Victoria River. This region is the traditional land of the Gurindji peoples and I kept on thinking of the myths of colonial history of this region. These myths have shaped how Australian’s have traditionally viewed the country and its indigenous people.
The myth about Aboriginal people is that before European invasion, Aboriginal people were simply living off the land, with no civilization and a culture that didn’t make it out of the ‘stone age’ despite tens of thousands of years of human habitation. European colonists myth painted blackfellas as primitive and that the land was an untamed wilderness. European settlement could occur because the land was seen as desert and uncultivated and inhabited by a backward people. The myth is part of the core narrative of colonial history about the establishment of the pastoral industry, which celebrate European exploration, pioneering, colonisation and conquest. In this narrative Aboriginal people were part and parcel of the environment: an element to be overcome by force if necessary, along with drought, wild animals, hunger and thirst.
After meeting up with friends in a very green Alice Springs we set out on the 15 hour drive along the Tamani Road in Warlpiri country to Lajamanu.
The history of this landscape is that of the Frontier wars involving a series of conflicts over 140 years (1788 to 1934) that were fought between Indigenous Australians and mainly British settlers. Denialism, the failure to acknowledge the existence of armed resistance to white settlement and the widespread frontier conflict, constituted a ‘great Australian silence’ in Australian history. This politics of ethnic amnesia started to shift in the 1970s, when it was acknowledged that Australians had been engaged in the intentional physical killing of groups of people because they were those people, and forcibly removed children from their group with the intention of ‘transforming’ them into members of another group.
Central Australia was one of the last frontiers in the European conquest of Australia and, when administered by South Australia in the 19th century (between 1860 and 1895) 40 per cent of the population in the Alice Springs region, were mostly shot in the name of ‘dispersal’. Frontier massacres were erratic, episodic, sporadic, from a dozen to ten dozen dead at a time, more eliminationist than simply punitive in intent — for stealing livestock or spearing cattle ranchers, bushmen, miners and men who took Aboriginal women.
Coniston in the Tanami desert was its western outpost in the European conquest of the Northern Territory. The conflict was caused by the pastoralist’s attempts to occupy Warlpiri land and then to secure that land from the Warlpiri. This conflict lasted until the 1930s, and it was centred around the Coniston massacre, in an area in and around Coniston Station, just north of Yuendumu. Conistonis the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians. It was a series of punitive raids that occurred over a number of weeks as police parties (ie., vigilantes under the command of a white police officer, Constable William Murray) killed indiscriminately to establish white Australia by killing over 200 or more Walpiri, Anmatjere, Kaytete and Allyawar people.
Termite mound, Tanami
In 1928 Central Australia experienced a severe drought that reduced the ground water. The original owners of the land did what they had done for thousands of years and gravitated to their ancient water sources, mainly in the form of soaks.For the pastoralists, the lack of water came at a crucial time as they were carving out vast tracts of land to run cattle. Conflicts between Aboriginal people and white settlers resulted. The Aboriginal people were angry as they watched their waterholes being destroyed by cattle, fences being erected and white men taking their women as wives or servants. Their law, customs and traditions were being violated.
The new pastoralists saw that the Aboriginal people were competing with their cattle for the precious water. They considered their cattle to be more important than the Walpiri people. This was a frontier society determined to maintain its whiteness, determined to put an end to Aboriginality, and ensure the erasure of the Aboriginal presence, one way or another. Aborigines as a distinct group would disappear.