Sunday, July 21, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeIssue 26Yuendumu: a five decade love story

Yuendumu: a five decade love story


When Frank Baarda’s parents named him Franklin Delano, after US President Roosevelt, they no doubt aspired to raise a son with a keen sense of social justice. When they left post-war Europe, first for Argentina, then to Australia, they provided him the deep immersion in other languages and cultures that shaped a broad view of the world and fostered a curious, adventurous spirit.

They probably could not have imagined that from these migratory beginnings he would come to settle in the tiny community of Yuendumu, in Australia’s Tanami Desert, spending the greater part of his life there, raising his family, pursuing, in a most unconventional manner, his profession as a geologist; that he would add Warlpiri, the mother tongue of some 3000 speakers in the region, to his repertoire of languages – his native Dutch, fluent Spanish and English, with some German and French; that indeed, Warlpiri would become his most loved language.

His self-published memoir, My Yuendumu Story, launched in Alice Springs earlier this month, gives the reader a glimpse into this unusual life. Frank is keen to lay out the deep influence of his European background, of his parents’ understanding of what was right and wrong, and in particular the example of his father’s acts of sabotage and resistance to the Nazi occupiers of Holland. But more than anything the book is a love story for his adopted homeland – Yuendumu and the Warlpiri lands beyond.

The story has a beginning – the happenstance of his arrival in Yuendumu; a middle – the heyday of his early years there, a golden era in his memory, before the steady encroachment of bureaucratisation and regulation, culminating in the NT Intervention; and it has a happy ending, at least in part – Frank and wife Wendy now feel so at home there that having reached retirement age, unlike many of their Kardiya (the Warlpiri word for non-Aboriginal) peers, they have no intention of leaving.

In the telling Frank offers a cumulative account of the myriad ways in which governments, their agencies, collaborators and mainstream economic interests have, deliberately or ignorantly, undermined the capacity and removed opportunities for Warlpiri people to forge their own paths in life – where and how to make their homes, make their livings, practice their culture, raise their children.

This strand of the book would make for dispiriting reading if it weren’t for the humour and irony in Frank’s telling and the evidence he presents of Warlpiri people’s resistance to being so pushed around.

He finds an early example in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the relocation of an estimated 165 Yuendumu residents to Hooker Creek – not on Warlpiri land and later renamed Lajamanu – followed by the little known feat of many who turned around and walked back to their Country, an epic journey of 600 kilometres.

Fast forward then to the Baardas’ arrival at Yuendumu in 1973, with Wendy (right), a school teacher, taking a job at the community school (this year she was honoured with an OAM for her service to the community in her various roles at the school over close to half a century). Frank was still working in the field with various mining companies so she and their children travelled out by the Tiwa bus service, an Aboriginal owned and run enterprise, which, writes Frank, “through lack of support and other reasons, went the way of most such enterprises, the victim of industrial infanticide.”  Many another local enterprise would meet the same fate.

Nonetheless in this era, most Yapa (Aboriginal people) were working, though paid a training allowance, not full wages: “There was a communal kitchen where Yapa men cooked a variety of stews with locally slaughtered animals and locally grown vegetables. Minor housing, plumbing and mechanical repairs were carried out by Yapa. Fences were erected by Yapa. Clothes were washed by Yapa. Yuendumu had a farm which included a piggery, a citrus grove, and a veggie garden. Yapa had role clarity, even if they were subservient roles.”

There were 23 Yapa health workers, “including a young man who had been trained by a visiting dentist to extract teeth”. This was Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, who later forged a film career and would also go on to serve as chairman of the Central Land Council.

Despite the paternalism of many Kardiya then working in the community and in Aboriginal ‘affairs’, in Frank’s assessment “they actually had a higher opinion of Yapa skills and abilities than their successors”:

“It is beyond the imagination of most current Kardiya clinic staff, that once there were Yapa in Yuendumu who would give injections, hand out antibiotics, splint broken bones, clean and bandage wounds and cuts, and pull teeth. Today there are four Yapa working at the clinic as part time receptionists.”

Yuendumu health workers in the 1970s. Photo reproduced in the book at page 61.

A major shift came with the introduction of the ‘social safety net’, to cataclysmic effect: “The fewer retained employees now were paid three times as much as they had [been] under the training allowance, and the others were pushed onto welfare payments which were also substantially more than the training allowance. The increase in cash circulating in the community as a result of these higher payments was inversely proportional to local participation and directly proportional to marginalisation, irrelevance and boredom. The illusion was that Yapa had more when in fact they had less.”

Although the situation would improve during the self-determination era, “never again would Yapa regain universal role clarity in what is, in effect, a Kardiya controlled world”.

Among the improvements were the establishment of the Yuendumu Mining Company, set up by the then Welfare Branch, with Frank soon recruited to manage it. This allowed him to live in the community with his family, instead of only visiting them between stints in the field.

The venture survived until fairly recently and Frank’s accounts of its highs and lows provide for another interesting strand of the story.  A different voice emerges in this writing, less rhetorical, expert in matters geological, of course, yet framed by his awareness and admiration of the very different Yapa ways of seeing and understanding Country.

These accounts are grounded in his direct experience of working alongside Yapa men as they fulfilled the contracts that came the way of the company (mostly earthworks and gravel quarrying), and are full of the humour and improvisational flair that they brought to the tasks.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves at the launch, telling Frank how glad he is to have met him. 

It was apparently similar for those working for the Yuendumu Housing Association, whose qualified Kardiya staff each had two or three local offsiders: “no high-viz vests, no white cards and no certificates, but they could fix a tap or lay a brick and mix concrete” and had a lot of laughs along the way.

They worked on converting the original “donkey houses” – single-room prefabricated sheds with no electricity or running water that were supposed to help Yapa get used to living in houses – into more substantial dwellings with electricity, plumbing and septic tanks. By 1984 the YHA had completed 42 such conversions “with an annual budget equivalent to less than the price of a single one of the houses subsequently built by outside contractors”.

Yet bureaucratic intervention brought about its demise, as it did the community’s embryonic cattle enterprise and brief period of supplying fresh beef for local consumption.

Alongside these developments the earlier solidarity between local residents, Kardiya and Yapa, was slowly eroded, giving way to the ‘them and us’ that characterises the present-day social atmosphere. This was reflected in the allocation of housing that gradually saw the development of separate Kardiya and Yapa living areas, including instances of specific discrimination such as the provision of housing and free electricity to Kardiya teachers, but not to Yapa teachers.

Frank devotes impassioned pages to denouncing the Intervention, launched onto the Northern Territory in 2007, and governments’ various moves to undermine community efforts to self-regulate, like Night Patrol, and to pursue bilingual education. He brings into sharp focus the often clumsy, absurd and wasteful nature of many initiatives, and above all the failure to genuinely consult – which should mean that the people being consulted have a fair chance of influencing the outcome.

To the eternal question of “What are the solutions?” he has a simple answer – listen to Yapa.

Frank with the late H. Jakamarra Nelson, “mutual cultural advisors” to one another. Photo reproduced in the book at page 239.

“Indigenous Australia,” writes Frank, “has offered countless solutions and recommendations which have mostly been ignored, not followed through, or occasionally appropriated and poorly implemented. A prime example is the Uluru ‘Statement from the Heart’ with its very modest appeal, that Aboriginal people have a voice in matters that directly affect them.”

This overview of the book cannot include the many enlivening anecdotes of the good times Frank and his family had with their Warlpiri friends – the parties, the music jams and concerts, the film nights, the sports weekends, the hunting – and some of the dramas too.

It also cannot encompass Frank’s many cross-cultural comparisons and historical reflections.

These are not interwoven so much as strung together, plucked from Frank’s “treasure trove of memory-diamonds”. There are no chapters, but rather short sequences under headings, many of which are excerpts of song lyrics. The style is lively and conversational (except when it comes to describing geological formations) but the shifts in gear, focus and direction between sequences, and even within them, can sometimes be disorienting.

I was never bored but I was occasionally sceptical of Frank’s view through rose-coloured glasses of aspects of community life. He’s an insider and I’m definitely an outsider, but from time to time traumatic events within the community have spilled out, here into town and further afield. He gives no account, for instance, of the bitter inter-family feuding that gripped the community in 2010, causing some 100 residents to flee to Adelaide; of the series of paybacks that culminated in Liam Jurrah’s Supreme Court trial in 2013 (he was acquitted) and his subsequent repeated violent offences. Frank brushes over these sad events as Jurrah falling “foul of the law”.

He provides the stark estimate that half of the community’s young male population is in gaol, observes that many of their fathers are also in gaol, or drinking in Alice Springs, or dead, but suggests that there is no problem when it comes to children receiving the attention they need or having good male role models, that the extended family structure takes care of the deficit.

He writes of the Stolen Generations and the present-day removal of children by government authorities, of the trauma and disruption this has caused, yet claims “Warlpiri babies lead a blessed life”. 

In short, after providing plenty of evidence for egregious interference in the Warlpiri way of life from successive waves of colonialist intervention, for the grave injustices not infrequently visited upon them, he then paints too glowing a picture of Warlpiri resilience. The truth must lie somewhere in between.

Nonetheless, there is much to be celebrated in this resilience and in the many Warlpiri contributions to our society, including from their prominent citizens such as the late H. Jakamarra Nelson, to whom Frank dedicates the book, as well as from the community’s exemplary defence of bilingual education for their children, their wonderful art, their highly successful art centre, their brilliant brand of football. Happily, in all of this, there have been some good Kardiya friends, collaborators and supporters over the years, not least among them the Baardas. Frank’s record of their decades of shared lives, achievements, deep friendships and more makes this book well worth reading.


Photo at top: At the launch, hosted by Mike Gillam and Maria Giacon at 8 Hele Crescent, Robin Japanangka Granites endorses the book. At bottom: Frank in story-telling mode, with Wendy, their great-granddaughter Leah, her mother Nicole Inkamala and Nicole’s father, Ringo.


  1. A great read from a legendary pioneer with the longest contact history of any outsider to remote community life.
    Full of wry humour that, no doubt, sustained Frank over the decades.
    So much joy and tragedy to be savoured and thought about in this memoir.
    I was particularly struck by his analysis of Aboriginal people being reduced to clients with no agency of their own, let alone self determination.
    I recall returning to the community where I lived long term to witness a raft of changes that did the same.
    No need for traditional punishment: the police are here now.
    No need to feed our kids breakfast: the school does that.
    Why walk to the art centre? They will pick you up.
    Why collect firewood? Now it’s delivered.
    Handy to have child care so young mothers can …?
    School’s out. Why organise your own play when there is a team of youth workers to do it for you?
    Hunting and gathering almost extinguished with the generation that thrived on it.
    Now largely replaced by the availability of fast food from the store.
    Highly recommend Frank Baarda’s book that I found at the Red Kangaroo Bookshop.

  2. Fair assessment from Kieran, accords with my response. A little too rose-coloured, as she so eloquently says.

  3. Thanks Rod. I make no apology for using rose coloured glasses. Much is written about my beloved Yuendumu as seen through dirt coloured glasses.
    I like to think my book is a modest antidote to the venom spouted by some not very nice people.
    I was chuffed by Kieran’s review.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

error: Content is protected !!