By PETER LATZ
One of my tasks in the public service was to conduct research on how our introduced animals were affecting the desert ecology. To be able to measure this we spent some time looking for the scarce areas which had been little so affected that we could use them as benchmarks. By this time I was coming to realise that Aborigines had been around for a long time, and that over this time they could have caused changes to the desert landscape, especially through the use of fire.
During 1976 I attended a national conference at Kalgoorlie which addressed the current status of rangeland research. At this conference I gave a short paper which brought up two main points: firstly I alerted the delegates to the probability that the rangelands were not pristine, but had indeed been subject to changes brought about by Aborigines, before our arrival on the continent; secondly I suggested that Aborigines would soon be regaining control of some of their lands, and that they may want to use their rangelands in a different manner to the way us white men use it.
My paper went down like a lead balloon. “Who is this wanker from Alice Springs?” appeared to be the question in most people’s minds. A fat old redneck bureaucrat from Queensland got up and stated confidently, “One thing’s for sure, no bloody blackfellows are every going to own any land in our state!”
But back in Alice Springs big changes were in the air, especially in regard to Aboriginal affairs. Unfortunately few of these changes were positive. The granting of equal pay and the right to drink had backfired, as more and more Aborigines became unemployed and turned to drinking their welfare money. The Commonwealth Government decided that land rights would improve the situation, as many of us also believed.
Early in 1977 Geoff Eames, the first lawyer in the newly set up Central Land Council, asked me to attend a meeting with Aboriginal representatives at Haasts Bluff, at which he promised traditional owners that things were going to change. Not only were the original Australians going to have control of their own affairs, but they were also promised that a lot of their land would be returned to them. It was interesting that the meeting was held at the settlement that Pastor F.W. Albrecht had set up about 35 years before, after he had played such a big part in preventing that land being annexed by cattlemen.
In the early ’70s Alice Springs was a small conservative town, where everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and God help anyone who ‘rocked the boat’. The only way you could survive being different was to be considered eccentric, or slightly mad, and Olive Pink was a fine example of that principle. Olive played her eccentric role to a tee, dressing in old-fashioned long white skirts and wielding a sun-parasol, which she used as a weapon in times of need. She hated missionaries, and because of my background would only have anything to do with me because I was a botanist, a profession she approved of.
I admired her for her high principles. For example, when I asked her for information about Aboriginal sites in the Tanami Desert, an area that I was researching at that time, she declined my request. “Peter,” she said, “you will have to wait for that information, I promised the old men that I would only release their secrets well after they had passed away.” (Like many of us at this time, she considered that traditional Aboriginal culture would soon die out.)
The second half of the decade was an interesting time in central Australia, with lots of changes going on, especially in regard to Aboriginal affairs. The Latz household was a place often visited by all sorts of interesting people involved in Aboriginal matters and also botanical ones. One of these was Robbie Davidson, who later walked her camels single-handed to the West Australian coast; she visited to obtain information about living off the land.
Her best friends Jenny Green and Tolly Sawenko (who later both featured in Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines) were working at the Utopia Aboriginal settlement, where Jenny and her mate Julia Murray were busy teaching the women batik techniques. By this time I had decided to obtain a Masters Degree on the subject of desert ethno-botany, and so I visited them at Utopia, and while there conducted research on this subject.
Moving too fast?
Unfortunately however, the majority of Northern Territorians thought that things were moving too fast. This point hit home hard, when I was asked to talk to the Bushfires Council members, most of whom were local pastoralists. Aware of the adverse affects of wide-spread bushfires which can occur if flammable plant matter is allowed to build up, I suggested to the assembled council members that returning to the traditional Aboriginal practice of frequent mild fires would be a good idea. The worst thing I could have possibly said, and I regretted it for years after. How stupid of me, it was just not on to suggest that ‘ignorant blackfellows’ knew what they were doing!
The scientific community was a little less prejudiced, but not by much. Although most scientists still considered that the Aborigines had little to teach us, some considered that we should help them by conducting some research to make their life more rewarding. Nevertheless, getting the NT government to realise that these people had different goals in life, and that they needed some research different to that needed for white men, I found to be an almost impossible task.
Nevertheless, some of us scientists persisted in this task, and formed a multi-disciplinary group to get on with this job. Even though this only took up a small proportion of my workload, I did find time to get involved in a trip through Pitjantjatjara lands to assess the situation. Several interesting highlights of this trip remain in my mind.
Part of our survey entailed inspecting the people’s early attempts at self-sufficiency, namely their embryonic gardening attempts. One of the big problems involved with gardening in the desert is the build up of deleterious salts, and a simple way of ascertaining this problem is by measuring the PH of the soil (to find out if the soil is sweet or sour).
Explaining this procedure to nomadic people is difficult, as I could not speak their local language, but I had worked up a nice little story, using simple Pidgin English. I was most embarrassed, when way out west, finishing my little spiel, I said something like “Okay you mob, you-fellow bin know what I bin talking about?” Only to have a black gentleman answer, “Excuse me, sir, but how do you correlate PH with the presence of sodium chloride?” This man had previously been adopted into a white household in Perth, and was very well educated in white man’s ways!
My second adventure was of an almost mystical character. We had obtained permission to camp in a certain area by the traditional owners, near a scenic small hill composed of rounded granite rocks. The other party members headed off to explore further afield, but I soon gave up trying to follow them and climbed up our hill to observe the sunset.
Sitting up there was one of the best experiences of my life. A great feeling of peace and one-ness with the universe came over me, a feeling possibly very close to that of nirvana, which most Buddhists hope to attain. I’ve no idea what brought this on, but we did find out next day that we had misread our directions and that the hill was probably of an important sacred nature. Endorphins could also have played a role.
Later in 1978 I happened to be out at Docker River settlement (now Kaltukatjara) when my friends Ken and Ann suggested we make a visit to Tjukula, for me to meet an interesting man. Ken told me that Tjukula is a very important site to all the tribes in the region, and because it lies on the boundary of Pitjantjatjara and Pintubi land it was a place that was often used for joint ceremonies between these two peoples. For this reason we had to take a Pintubi man, Nosepeg with us, as this was his country. I was disappointed when we arrived at the site, as it was nothing special and only consisted of a small dry rockhole on a spinifex plain, with only a small mulga stand breaking the monotony.
Self-sufficiency, the only hope for survival
The man we had come to meet, Don McCloud, was busting his gut digging a bore, using only his homemade, human-powered boring machine, with which he hoped to ultimately set up a permanent water source. When Ken told him he should stop for lunch with a visitor whom he should talk to, he grumblingly replied that he didn’t eat lunch and besides he was too busy “to waste time talking to government bludgers”. It was only after further persuasion that he agreed to “waste half an hour – not a second more”.
Three hours later we were still deep in discussion. I quickly learnt that he was an exceptional character. Being a good Scotsman he had only one meal a day, a big helping of porridge for breakfast. On further questioning he grudgingly admitted that he did eat one orange a week, but only to prevent scurvy.
Don had the welfare of desert Aborigines very much at heart, and he was of the strong opinion that self-sufficiency was their only hope for survival. His present scheme was to create a system of water points all the way from the central ranges to the WA coast, so that the locals could capture camels and send them via these watering points to the coast, where they could then be transported to markets by sea. A grand scheme that never came to fruition.
He also told me how Ken and he had somehow managed to convince the then Commonwealth Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to leave Canberra, and come out all the way to Tjukula to attend a Land Council meeting. Don told me that he made sure that the minister had a very uncomfortable swag, set up next to Don’s. This meant that the poor old minister was kept awake most of the night, while Don both harassed him about all the things he was doing wrong and also informed him about what he should be doing instead.
Don is a man of high degree, who has not received the recognition he deserves.
We camped at a beautiful rockhole on the way home, and after supper Nosepeg took me aside. He told me that he knew me from way back, because he had visited Hermannsburg several times when I was a child, and that I should be aware of the fact that we were tribal brothers.
“You are a Jupurrula,” he said. “That means the two of us share the same dreamings and our children will all be of the Jakamarra skin group.”
Nosepeg Jupurrula was another man of high degree. He was the top lawman for the Pintubi nation, and no one would dispute his judgements in regard to the niceties of ritual ceremonies, including even the mighty red ochre men. Dick Kimber, who knew him very well, has told me many interesting stories about this remarkable man. The best story concerns his introduction to the Queen of England.
Her Majesty was about to visit Australia, not long after the discovery of the last group of bush Pintubi had made world news. Alice Springs was on the royal itinerary and the Queen had decided that “We would like to meet some of these Pintubi chappies”. This put the Government organisers into a panic, the newcomers were just too uncivilised to be presented to our Queen! Then some bright spark saved the day.
“We’ll use Nosepeg,” he said. “He’s a Pintubi, and he’s semi-civilised, and she won’t know the difference.”
So they ‘captured’ Nosepeg and brought him some new clothes and proceeded to train him up for the great event. They even went to the extent of a full rehearsal, with Nosepeg installed in a line of people and a woman to act the part of the Queen. They showed Nosepeg how to bow in just the right manner, and just what he should say to her if addressed. And they repeated the procedure over and over again to make sure that it would go off without a hitch.
So the great day came to pass and Nosepeg waited in line for Her Majesty to greet him. After she was introduced to him she said something like, “Pleased to meet you Nosepeg, I am the Queen of England.”
Totally disregarding all his training, Nosepeg defiantly refused to bow, looked her straight in the eye and said, “Pleased to meet you too, and I am the King of the Pintubi!”
I can image him thinking, “We are equals, I’m not going to bow to you.”
This painting is a song!
At that time the Pintubi nation was in dire straits, as the Pintubi were considered by most to be the lowest of the low. They were the last Aborigines to come in from the bush, and because they lived in the harshest and most remote area of Australia, they were both small in stature and in numbers, and had little political power. And they ended up being dumped at Papunya Settlement, hundreds of kilometres from their country.
The younger people tolerated the situation, no doubt mollified by the chance to socialise and enjoy the benefits of civilisation. Some of the older people however, unable to get back to their country, just lay down and died. Nosepeg meanwhile, did everything in his power to try and get his people back to their country. For years he hassled whoever he could in Alice Springs, but it was many years before his dream came true, and his people were eventually able to get back onto their land.
Like many of his people, Nosepeg was a wonderful artist, but he painted few canvasses. By sheer chance, I happened to buy one of his earliest paintings, before I even got to know him. My then wife Margaret and I were perusing some paintings when she suggested I buy the one by Nosepeg. At that time I didn’t particularly like it, but I deferred to Marg’s judgment and bought it. It is now my favourite work of art.
Although at first glance this is a simple painting, in fact it is anything but. Besides being pleasant to the eye it has several other dimensions. Firstly it is a schematic map of the most important area of Nosepeg’s country, with the central waterhole depicted by a series of concentric circles. This is the only permanent open-water source in his country, and as you gaze at it you can almost feel yourself being drawn into it, right down deep to where the highly important Rainbow Serpent resides.
Surrounding it are the spinifex covered hills, which provide the run-off for the waterhole, and beyond that are the other important (mostly underground) water sources. Secondly, and probably most important of all, this painting is a song! Probably the dreaming song of the Mopoke, one of Nosepeg’s most important totems. And all this information, and more, is depicted by a few circles and dots.
At this time, Pat Hogan, a friend of mine, had an early Pintubi painting on her wall which intrigued me greatly. It was different to any other painting I had ever seen, and I just couldn’t work out what it was on about. When I questioned her about it she admonished me severely.
“You’re an old bushman,” she said, “can’t you see that it represents that beautiful poignant smell of the desert earth after rain!”
I firmly believe that early Papunya art is some of the most important art ever produced in Australia, precisely because it is so full of information, and of course, because it is also so beautiful in its own right. But of course the question is, how come the most primitive people from some of the harshest country in the world can both produce such important art, and such men of high degree?
Let’s go back to the people at Arnhem Land. There you will find lots of big healthy people, living in a land with plentiful supplies of food and water. If you question them however, they will say, “Sure we could beat the people inland of us if it came to a straight fight, but they are sneaky buggers, they’re much better at sorcery than we are. They are also tougher than us, better at coping with thirst and hunger, pain and sickness, and so on. Our good country makes us soft.”
However if you question people inland from the coast, they will say the same about the people inland from them, and so on. And so from every corner of the continent where do you end up? In Pintubi country of course! So this is not only where the toughest people live, but they are also the best sorcerers. And therefore probably also the most spiritual people (in the broad sense) existing on our continent.
The same can also be said about art. People on the coast mostly paint representational art; one can even see cave paintings of early sailing boats, and identify them with considerable accuracy. As a general rule, the further inland you go the more abstract the art becomes.
Traditional Arandic art is usually abstract, but it is somewhat regular: one can cut the canvas in half and have similar motifs on either side. Not so with most Pintubi art; it is usually totally abstract. Any good draftsman can produce a pleasing image, but a serious artist wants more than this. I believe that the best artwork will always capture the spirit, or essence, of its subject, and abstract art is often the best medium one can use to attain this goal. And I believe that the desert artists are experts at representing the spirit of their subject. Unfortunately however, it is very difficult for us whitefellows to be able to ‘enter an Aborigine’s head’ as it were, to understand what they’re on about, and so we will rarely ever be able to hear the song in their paintings.
PHOTO from our archive. The affect of fire and burning practices on the desert ecology has been a long-standing theme of Latz’s research.
MORE next week.
Tomcat and Turpentine Bush: adventures in the Tanami
Being a cowboy: not all it’s made out to be
Close shaves in the Top End
Dining like kings with a bushman of high degree
Learning from the hunter-gatherers
By PETER LATZ