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Kumpaya Girgaba, Parnngurr, 2009:

People all scattered, travelling on that Canning Stock Route. That’s why everybody left. All gone everywhere: Wiluna, Jigalong, Fitzroy, Balgo, everywhere.
A square painting on canvas with a concentric circle in turquoise, green and blue in the centre with four tree branches in white and green protruding from the top, and three from the bottom. The background of the painting is brown with an overlay of yellow and red dots.

Nyilnigil by Nyangkarni Penny K-Lyons

This painting depicts Nyilnigil, a big water in Nyangkarni’s country, which is surrounded by white gum trees called tinjilypa. Nyangkarni was among the last of the desert people to travel north from her homeland in the jila country to the Fitzroy Valley.

Nyangkarni Penny K-Lyons:

We are lost in our country. Nobody’s here.

In this human drought, a pair of murderous Aboriginal men were preying on the few people remaining in the desert. The artist was kidnapped by one of these men, who killed her grandmother and took Nyangkarni as his wife. She cleverly led him north to the cattle stations where she was re-united with her family.

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.



Eubena Nampitjin

born about 1920, died 2013, Manyjilyjarra, Kukatja, Wangkajunga, Putijarra language groups, Nampitjin skin group, Balgo community, Warlayirti Artists

Eubena grew up around Jarntu and Nyirla. With her first husband, Gimme, she travelled north along the Canning Stock Route with the drovers.

While raising their six daughters at Balgo mission, Eubena helped Gimme and a local priest compile a Kukatja-language dictionary.

Eubena began a famous painting partnership with her second husband, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, and her paintings have inspired the work of many other members of her extended desert family.

Jarran Jan Billycan

born about 1930, Yulparija, Manyjilyjarra language groups, Karimarra skin group, Bidyadanga community, Yulparija Artists

Jarran grew up around the Percival Lakes. She has strong ties to Kiriwirri, the Country of her father's clan and the place where she was born.

In the 1960s she was picked up by extended family members and taken to Bidyadanga, where she lives today.

Jarran is a respected maparn (medicine woman) and has been painting since 2003. She returned to her Country for the first time in 2006.

Jeffrey James

about 1948 to 2008, Manyjilyjarra language group, Panaka skin group, Kunawarritji community, Martumili Artists

I got pick up droving day back in 1959. I got pick up in Well 25. I went on a camel all the way down to Billiluna and I grow up in that place. I was only 13 when they pick me up.

Born near Lake Disappointment, Jeffrey James walked the desert before travelling north with drovers to Billiluna and then Balgo mission. He later returned to Billiluna where he worked as a stockman and drover.

He travelled widely in the Pilbara, Kimberley and Central Australia. In 1983 he established Kunawarritji community.

Charlie Wallabi (Walapayi) Tjungurrayi

about 1937 to 2009, Manyjilyjarra, Kukatja language groups, Tjungurrayi skin group, Kiwirrkurra community, Papunya Tula Artists

Walapayi was a maparn (traditional healer) who was famous throughout the desert and beyond. As a young man he once ate poisoned meat left by drovers in retaliation for spearing a camel.

He left the desert in 1957 to look for his brother, Helicopter Tjungurrayi, who had been taken to Balgo. Walapayi eventually returned to Kiwirrkurra to be closer to his Country.

Patrick Olodoodi (Alatuti) Tjungurrayi

born about 1935, Manyjilyjarra, Kukatja language groups, Tjungurrayi skin group, Kiwirrkurra community, Papunya Tula Artists

Patrick was born at Mayilili, between Kunawarritji (Well 33) and Kiwirrkurra.

With his older brother, Brandy, he walked the desert east of the Canning Stock Route. They regularly crossed the stock route and in 1958 Patrick followed the wells north out of the desert.

After many years in Balgo, he returned to live near his Country at Kiwirrkurra. Patrick continues to move between Balgo and Kiwirrkurra, painting for both Papunya Tula and Warlayirti artists.

Pija Peter Tinker

born about 1946, Manyjilyjarra language group, Purungu skin group, Jigalong community, Martumili Artists

I was born in the desert, near Kunawarritji. I grew up in Marble Bar and went to school there. Later I moved to Jigalong. I worked as a stockman on Hillside, Balfour Downs station. My Country is Kunawarritji.

Peter Tinker joined the 2007 ‘return to Country’ trip at Kilykily (Well 36). As he painted his Country, he recalled his childhood in the desert, including the first time he saw aeroplanes flying overhead.

Helicopter Joey Tjungurrayi

born about 1947, Manyjilyjarra, Kukatja, Wangkajungka language groups, Tjungurrayi skin group, Balgo community, Warlayirti Artists

Helicopter was born with blackhead snake Dreaming at Nyakin, south of Jupiter Well. He fell ill near Natawalu (Well 40) in 1957 and was flown by helicopter to Balgo.

He is a respected maparn (traditional healer) and artist. He returned to his Country for the first time in 2000.

My father got [my spirit] from [Nyakin], and my mother too They were just taking me around them Countries, my mother and father. They took me everywhere.

Richard Yukenbarri (Yugumbari) Tjakamarra

born 1958, Kukatja language group, Tjakamarra skin group, Kiwirrkurra community, Papunya Tula Artists

Richard is the son of Balgo artist Lucy Yukenbarri, and the stepson of Helicopter Tjungurrayi. Lucy was pregnant with Richard as she walked north along the Canning Stock Route after Helicopter was taken away.

He was born at the end of this journey, at Parnkupiti Creek, which runs into Lake Gregory.

Richard grew up on old Balgo mission and now lives in Kiwirrkurra with his wife, Takariya, who, in 1984, was one of the last people to leave traditional desert life.

Clifford Brooks

born 1959, Kartujarra, Manyjilyjarra language groups, Karimarra skin group, Wiluna community, Tjukurba Gallery

Clifford was born at Jigalong mission. He was educated on the mission and later at Port Hedland, but returned to Jigalong to work as a builder and cattleman. In the 1990s he was the chairperson of the community.

In recent years Clifford has explored his personal and artistic heritage by painting the story and following in the artistic footsteps of his father’s brother, Rover Thomas.

Putuparri Tom Lawford

born 1970, Wangkajunga language group, Jakarra skin group, Fitzroy Crossing, Ngurra Artists

Putuparri is a Wangkajunga man who lives in Fitzroy Crossing. In 2007 he worked as a translator and cultural adviser on the ‘return to Country’ trip.

He has helped to coordinate some of the project’s biggest cultural workshops on Country and provided the team with invaluable cultural guidance.

Putuparri also works for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, coordinating its cultural program and assisting with international repatriation.

Nyangkarni Penny K-Lyons

born about 1932, Juwaliny, Walmajarri language groups, Nangkarti skin group, Wangkatjungka community, Mangkaja Arts

We are lost in our Country. Nobody’s here.

Nyangkarni’s sister, Taku Rosie Tarco, brother, Kurrapa Peter Skipper, and parents walked out of the desert before her. She and her grandmother encountered two murderers preying on the last of the desert people.

One man killed Nyangkarni’s grandmother and forced Nyangkarni to be his wife. They travelled north to Christmas Creek station where Nyangkarni reunited with family.

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