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Alan O'Connor, University of South Australia, 9 November 2009

ALAN O’CONNOR: This work is a result of an Australian Research Council grant, and it’s led by Deirdre Tedmanson and Professor Bobby Banerjee. And these are our industry partners [image shown], and Pukatja Community Council you may know as Ernabella. Just to locate the area, we’re very close to the Northern Territory border, and the homelands are within about a 50-kilometre radius of Ernabella.

Some of the information sources [slide shown]: I think Peter would qualify as someone who filled all the sectors in John [Altman]’s hybrid economy, a very able man. Palypatja Tiger, there’s just been a book released on his experiences as a shearer in the community. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a number of images from the  Ara Irititja collection, which is Anangu-controlled, and they’ve now created a subcategory just on enterprise. Of course, there is Bill Edwards, former superintendent of the mission; Mike Last, agricultural advisor. Also a very interesting DVD, Men of the Mulga, which I have with me, provides a fascinating insight into mission life 57 years ago. And the other authors as you see there.

Pre-contact, of course, life involved making weapons, fire-stick farming, hunting small animals, gathering bush tucker, protecting rockholes, building wiltjas. There was a very well-defined kinship system and rules for sharing food, and the main characteristic was very high mobility so Anangu could move around and make the most of the seasons, and they spent their spare time expanding their social networks.

What caused them to leave for places like the mission? Well, of course, there was gold that had been found nearby. I think there were 73 different intrusions just looking for gold in a period from 1896 to 1931 and then there were cattlemen, explorers, and missionaries. There were also severe droughts, with competition with pastoralists for water; early settlers wanting Aboriginal women; pressure applied to keep people away from Uluru to limit contact with tourists; the well-documented violence of some of the early settlers; the use and control of Aboriginal labour; and the attraction of white man’s food and hence the need to work – and then that’s resulted in the missions such as Hermannsburg and Ernabella.

After the founding of the mission in 1937 by Dr [Charles] Duguid, one of the main things that was traded was in fact, the dingo scalps, following on from Pam [McGrath]’s paper where she mentioned people coming from Western Australia to the mission. People worked as shepherds and shearers, doing cattle mustering, cooks and bakers, milking goats and building. I’ll just run through some of the images that come from the Ara Irititja library [shows images]. You see people building a massive rainwater tank there and working on some of the small buildings. They were also involved in gardening. There had their own butchery there. They were very involved in teaching and nursing and, of course, craftwork was pretty dominant.

I think they just celebrated recently the sixtieth anniversary of the Ernabella Art Centre. That’s, I think, the longest continuous running Aboriginal art centre in the country. And Winifred Hilliard had an enormous influence when she arrived. These are some of the beautiful rugs that have been made, that’s in the ‘50s. That garden there is looking pretty productive – wish I had one like that.

Just looking at shearing which was one of the main occupations, Palypatja Tiger’s book talks about his story, how he and his wife worked as shepherds and then he as a shearer later on. Ernabella had quite a number of sheep, 3000 to 4000 sheep, with flocks up to 600 around the various wells within that 50-kilometre radius of the mission. Each night they had to be secured and yarded to protect them from the dingoes. This is the shearing shed of the mission [image shown]. When they loaded the bales up, they were then transported 300 kilometres to Finke which was the then rail terminal. They’d do an exchange there and pick up building material and food to take back to the community. So at one point in time they were, I guess you could say, virtually self-sufficient, but of course not getting the wage that the rest of the community were getting.

Just looking at employment off the lands, there are a number of different sources of that. One was, of course, working on the big cattle stations, and the other one was shearing. There was also chrysoprase mining in WA [Westerm Australia] just over the border in Wingellina where men would spend a week collecting samples. I think in the ‘90s that was selling for $1000 a kilogram – so quite a valuable resource. And Bill Edwards has just written about the fruit picking in the Riverland [South Australia]. In his estimation it was successful. It was a very brief period and people were certainly helped, both before they left and while they were there, to make sure that it went well, but in his view it was quite successful. I haven’t been able to speak to any of the community about that.

Looking at some of the enterprise work in the ‘70s, water drilling was a critical activity, and one of the local Anangu people was able to run his own business: Ginger Wikilyiri established a four-acre fruit and veggie garden with a little bit of assistance from government. Peter Nyaningu obtained a loan and repaid that very quickly and was producing 100 loaves a day. Simon was making quite a decent profit margin on his petrol – I think some of the retailers down here would be happy with that. There was a good sewing and fabric business, and the craftwork was expanding. In fact, three women travelled to Indonesia in 1974 to learn batik dying, and they were involved with exhibitions all over the country. In your own Museum here, there’s a superb display of work from the community.

They were also the first Aboriginal community to broadcast its own video show, so they were pioneers in a number of ways. This shows our driller hard at it [image shown]. There’s Peter Nyaningu looking a lot younger than I know him now – he’s close to 80 – producing the daily bread there; and there’s some of the traditional designs from the local community.

Mike Last on the Ananguwebsite has been able to document some of the community roles in the ’70s. Unfortunately, not too many of those are still done by the community today, but you can see the huge range of roles that were undertaken. There was everything from office-running to all the local building; running the power plant for water reticulation; operating the garage; land management, which is still done today; many of the store functions including the cash register; and right through to community services, maintaining the roads and the airstrip – so a huge range of roles in that period.

This community was also really involved with the start of the CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects]. By the early ’70s the sheep industry had become uneconomic and was being phased out, and unemployment benefits were being paid to some in the community. They in fact wrote to the minister in Canberra and raised their concerns of inadequate funding being provided for their employment programs, and as a result he took notice and began to develop the concept of the CDEP which we know today. Ernabella was chosen as a pilot for the introduction of CDEP on the lands.

Just looking at the challenges ahead, we’ve got the changes to CDEP; issues around long-term welfare dependence; and of course Anangu feel that they have lost control of many of the key roles in the community, both to white people and increasingly to Maori, surprisingly. Also there’s a lack of business and community facilities, but on the positive side the entrepreneurial spirit remains for many in the community. I’m involved in this project in helping to nurture some of the small enterprises instigated by the community. These are some of the areas that we’re involved with at the moment: tourism, recycled clothing, vehicle recycling, soaps and hand creams.

Mike Last makes an interesting contention that the quality of employment programs operating in a community strongly reflects the quality of life in the community. I think I’d have to endorse that. Just to end on a positive note, this is my favourite shot of the lands from Mount Woodruff about 10 kilometres from Peter’s homeland. I think I’ll leave it there, thank you. [applause]

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks, that was really interesting. I was just wondering if you knew the extent to which Ernabella facilitated itinerant employment for people from other communities that were coming and visiting? I know that there were a lot of people moving back and forth during the late ’50s, early ‘60s from Warburton to Ernabella. Were they incorporated in sort of a casual way into the enterprises that were at Ernabella?

ALAN O’CONNOR: That’s not something that I’ve come across too much. There was quite a bit of movement, as you say, to Western Australia, to Warburton. In fact, Peter’s a good example – he has some traditional country over the border and he’s just as likely to be there as he is in Ernabella or at some mission event in Darwin so he’s very hard to track down . Despite his age and you would think limited mobility, he can be everywhere.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I just wondered, is your main informant for this project Peter Nyaningu?

ALAN O’CONNOR: Oh no, he’s one of our partners. There are three others, yes. I’ve mentioned him in particular because he exemplifies to me the hybrid economy model that John Altman was talking about. So that’s one of the reasons I picked him out, but there are three other partners.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I just wondered if you could make any comment about the impact of Umuwa as a service centre in relation to service provision in Ernabella.

ALAN O’CONNOR: [laughs] It could be a bit controversial. Yes, it’s Canberra on the lands, isn’t it? It’s difficult for me to make a judgment. Having been a former bureaucrat, I guess I have to be a little bit careful, but I think it performs a role. There are a number of central functions that need to be run up there and there does need to be a centre such as Umuwa. Whether it’s run in the right way and whether all the right services are there is debatable – I think I’ll leave that one open. But there are more perhaps basic – for example, CDEP is run through Bungala in Port Augusta, and you would think why wouldn’t they have an office in Umuwa to at least be close to the people?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I’ll just follow up with Pam’s point about the relationship between Ernabella and Warburton. I think that in your work that’s a really important link that you need to make, the amount of movement between those two missions. But also the ethos of employment that was generated at Ernabella but was also linked to those other missions, and the relationship between the Duguids and also Mount Margaret Mission, Mary Montgomerie Bennett and the beginning of Ernabella Arts – that it’s steeped in a whole approach to employment that is very drawn from the United Aborigines Mission as well.

ALAN O’CONNOR: Thanks for that.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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