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Jeffrey James, Pangkapini, 2007:

They were all soaks … and became to be a well by the Canning. All soaks and rockholes, Martu’s water right through.
A painting on canvas with a blue circle in the centre with white and green tree-like motifs radiating around the edge, as well as one blue and green rectangle and a green and black oval shape. The central image is on a background of green overlaid by a square of red with a yellow border.

Natawalu by Mayapu Elsie Thomas

Mayapu Elsie Thomas:

At Natawalu an Aboriginal man speared a kartiya [white man], then that kartiya got a rifle and shot him. Right [at] Natawalu. Before there was a well there. That’s the place I painted now. He was just coming to get water ... then he saw that kartiya. He speared him then, near the water.

Alfred Canning, in his evidence to the royal commission, 1908:

We saw a native running towards us fully armed. He was watching Tobin all the time ... and just as the native moved with his spear Tobin raised his rifle and fired just after the native had discharged his spear which entered Tobin’s right breast. The native fell ...

The Canning Stock Route story revolves around water. Alfred Canning needed to find significant water sources, a day’s walk apart, where wells could be dug. The drovers following Canning would need to water up to 800 head of cattle at each well. These herds could consume more than 30,000 litres of water at a time.

To colonists, desert water was a commercial resource necessary for a successful stock route. To the people of the desert, these waters were the social, spiritual and economic bases of their existence. The wells built by Canning often made vital waters inaccessible to desert people who relied on them for survival. Such waters, therefore, became sites of conflict between cultures.

In 1907 a member of Canning’s party, Michael Tobin, was fatally speared at Natawalu (Well 40) by a man called Mungkututu who Tobin shot moments before he died. Many other tragic events would occur around these wells in the decades that followed.

While the Natawalu incident was documented by Canning’s party, many other conflicts around the Canning Stock Route were not. They are, however, remembered by desert people. Today desert art provides the means for such stories to be told and recorded.

Killing the snake

Cross-cultural conflict took different forms on the Canning. Sometimes history and the Dreaming did not simply intersect, but clashed with dramatic and lasting effect. Kulyayi, an Aboriginal water that became Well 42, is the clearest expression of this.

Of the 200 permanent springs in the country on the north-western side of the stock route, about 30 are inhabited by the powerful ancestral beings known as jila or kalpurtu (rainbow serpents).

During the excavation of the well the great rainbow serpent Kulyayi was killed by white men. Some accounts say Kulyayi was killed by explosives, while others suggest he rose up in anger and was shot dead. Recent accounts also stress the human impact of the cultural clash.

Lloyd Kwilla, Wangkatjungka, 2009:

It’s like an icon, like Sydney Harbour Bridge. If someone came and bombed that, blew it away, people would be devastated, empty. That place would be changed. Well, people felt empty when he [Kulyayi] was gone. They felt something not there anymore, they can’t come back. They moved away. Animals moved away. People, animals, they're connected. Something valuable was lost, you can’t replace it.

The story of Kulyayi challenges a common view of the Dreaming as mythic events outside of ‘history’. It reveals the environmental logic of Aboriginal beliefs: the death of the rainbow serpent expresses the profound impact the Canning Stock Route wells had on the ecology of desert country.

Artists

Slideshow

Mayapu Elsie Thomas

born about 1934, died 2012, Wangkajunga language group, Nampijin skin group, Wangkatjungka community, Ngurra Artists

Mayapu was born at Pinga and grew up in the Country around Kukapanyu (Well 39).

She married Karntakarnta Billy Thomas’s brother, Sheepman, and raised a family at Christmas Creek station. Today she is married to George Tuckerbox.

We used to walk until we came to the Canning Stock Road ... That was where [the bullocks] travelled ... along the wells ... That’s where they used to spear bullocks, my father and Kuji’s [Rosie Goodjie’s] father.

Manmarr Daisy Andrews

born about 1934, Walmajarri language group, Nangkarti skin group, Fitzroy Crossing, Mangkaja Arts

I was born at the creek near Cherrabun station homestead. My father used to work there. Sometimes he would run away with us kids, and his three wives and the police would come and pick us up. One time they put chains around his neck and made him walk to Fitzroy.

Manmarr lives in Fitzroy Crossing. Together with Jukuja Dolly Snell, she was one of the pioneering Fitzroy Crossing artists. She is also one of the senior singers for Kaningarra.

Lumpulumpu (detail) by Manmarr Daisy Andrews

Jartarr Lily Long

born about 1940, Warnman language group, Milangka skin group, Nullagine community, Martumili Artists

Daddy was from Fitzroy side, droving to Tiwa [Well 26]. He was going to steal my mother from my Warnman daddy and take her [back to] Kimberley. He took a droving horse and took her to Karlamilyi.

Jartarr’s father was the famous Kimberley drover, Jamili. He fell in love with Jartarr’s mother and tried to steal her from her husband. Jartarr was born in Karlamilyi (Rudall River) and grew up with her Warnman father.

Milkujung Jewess James

born about 1940s, Wangkajunga language group, Nakarra skin group, Ngumpan community, Ngurra Artists

My father said, ‘I’m not giving you my kids. You might take them to another place far away from here.'

Milkujung was born near Paruku. When the priest at old Balgo mission attempted to put Milkujung and her sister into school, their father fled with them to Kurungal (Christmas Creek station).

There Milkujung married Majarrka boss, Wirrali Jimmy James, and raised a family. Today she is a respected law woman in her community.

Wakartu Cory Surprise

born about 1929, died 2011, Walmajarri language group, Nyapana skin group, Fitzroy Crossing, Mangkaja Arts

Wakartu grew up around Tapu. When her parents died, she travelled to Kaningarra and Wayampajarti before reaching the station Country.

After leaving the desert, she raised seven children while working for the police and on stations, and by trading minerals for rations.

The station manager was hitting people, so we ran away [to the] desert to see if we can find any of our people left, but nothing, only all the dead ones. Police tracked us down and put chains around the men.

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