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Pintupi's 30th anniversary

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Pintupi people come back home, 1981-2011

Yumari 1981 by Wuta Wuta Tjangala

The year is 1981. A group of Pintupi men are gathered on the outskirts of Papunya community, west of Alice Springs. Fred Myers, an American anthropologist, records the scene:

‘… an older Aboriginal man wearing a frayed suit jacket and the locally popular knitted cap sits cross-legged on the desert ground next to a ten-by-twelve-foot stretched canvas, brush in hand. Wuta Wuta Tjangala chats animatedly with the men who are helping him paint his work … There is a good deal of talk about moving west … Papunya is not Pintupi country. While Wuta Wuta is completing his masterpiece, Yumari 1981, tense meetings are taking place between the Pintupi and other residents. When the Pintupi meet with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs representatives to discuss their desire to split off from the rest of Papunya and move out west, they do so at this painting place.’

This now-famous painting by Wuta Wuta (Uta Uta) Tjangala is held by the National Museum of Australia. While the central subject of the canvas is Wuta Wuta’s Dreaming ancestor Tjuntamurtu, another story lies behind the painting. Wuta Wuta was also alluding to the politics surrounding the Pintupi’s preparations for returning to their country after the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976. Within three months of completing Yumari, Wuta Wuta’s desire was realised when the Pintupi moved to Kintore in September 1981.

Thirty years on, in October 2011, the Pintupi people celebrated the anniversary of this momentous event and reflected on the journey that had brought them to where they are today. Held over three days, the anniversary brought many Pintupi from Kintore and surrounding communities together with politicians, doctors, teachers, linguists, nurses, administrators and other outsiders who have had a shared history with them. Among the guests were Jeremy Long, who worked as a patrol officer and was the first white person contacted by many Pintupi in the late 1950s and 1960s, Fred Myers, linguist Ken Hansen, Northern Territory politician Malarndirri McCarthy and Federal Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth Peter Garrett.

The anniversary took place at Kintore on a typically hot October weekend. The event began with a gathering at the old hand pump, the original site where people lived when they arrived in 1981. Old and young then formed a procession back to the community where a stage had been erected for nightly presentations. Over the course of three days, the community and guests were treated to film screenings and performances by children’s choirs, Aboriginal songwriter Shellie Morris, Neil Murray (former Warumpi Band guitarist and Kintore schoolteacher) and the Kintore gospel and rock and roll bands. The school screened a video presentation of the history of the Pintupi’s return to Country which was narrated in English and Pintupi and based on a story by Marlene Nampitjinpa. Women and men artists from the community, including some of the early Papunya painters, commemorated the event with the production of a large mural on a wall adjoining the basketball courts.

The National Museum took part in the anniversary through the screening of a version of Ian Dunlop’s 1974 footage from Yayayi. The material was prepared by the Museum for the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition that was held in 2007. The move to Yayayi in 1973, 30 kilometres west of Papunya, was one of the first attempts to establish a separate Pintupi community, under a new Commonwealth policy of ‘self-determination’. This was an important precursor to the Pintupi’s eventual move back to their homelands in 1981.

The Museum has been working with the Pintupi communities on heritage projects since 2007 and was honoured to be associated with this event. The mood of the occasion was buoyant. The theme ‘Proud to be Pintupi’ sums up what many Pintupi see as the essence of their community and this is backed up by their history. At various turns, they have demonstrated a resolve to control their own destiny, often going out on a limb to make things happen. The success of the anniversary was another example of this determination, being organised and admirably led by community leaders Monica Robinson, Lindsay Corby, Irene Nangala, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Yuyuya Nampitjinpa and Joe Young. It was an occasion for the sharing of stories and memories between generations and the celebration of a remarkable history.

Peter Thorley, Curator, ATSIP