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July 12, 2006

Martu art exhibit reveals a people's intimate relationship to ancestral lands

By Lisa Trei

Martu paintings tell stories¬ómythic, spiritual and real. They depict maps of sacred locales and they convey the Martu's social obligations to "country," their ancestral lands in Australia's Western Desert.

A dozen of these paintings by Martu aborigines, who before 2002 had never shown their artwork in public, are on display until July 21 in the Department of Anthropological Sciences.

Artifacts in the exhibit, which also includes woven baskets, wooden bowls, carved animals and a thrusting spear used in rituals, were brought to campus by Martu family members Nyalangka Taylor; her daughter, Cecilia; and her granddaughters, Anjela and Shaylene. The family is visiting Native American communities in the Western United States this summer for a "bio-cultural exchange" at the invitation of Stanford anthropologists Rebecca and Douglas Bird.

The Martu, who number about 800 people, were among the last hunter-gatherer aborigines whose lives were completely autonomous of Western influence until about 40 years ago. Nyalangka Taylor, who was born about 1956, came in from the desert to a European settlement for the first time in 1966. By the mid-1980s, concerned that Western influences, such as alcohol, were destroying traditional Martu society, Taylor's mother spearheaded the political "Outstation Movement," which fought to get the indigenous people to return to their traditional life, said Douglas Bird, assistant professor (research) of anthropological sciences.

"Nyalangka's mother was on the very first tractor that left Jigalong [a European settlement] to return to Punmu," Bird said at the July 7 exhibit opening of Reflections of the People. Permanent Martu desert camps also were established at Parnngurr, where Taylor's family lives, and Kunawarritji. "It's really difficult to express the tremendous courage that Nyalangka's mother had, and Nyalangka had, in maintaining their kinship ties while at Jigalong. When they returned to their outstation camps, they returned as a cohesive society to a full-time hunter-gatherer economy."

In Northeast California, Taylor's family has met with members of the American Indian Gidutikad band of the Northern Paiute and the Pit River tribe. The Gidutikad and the Martu discovered, for example, they share common forms of self-government, Bird explained. "There is no centralization of economy or politics," he said. "Everything is distributed evenly. There was a discussion about food sharing. [Nyalangka] kept on saying, 'Just like us, just like us.'"

The visitors and their hosts also discussed native land claims, water problems and health concerns, Bird said. In 2003, the Martu won legal recognition as rightful owners of 136,000 square kilometers of their ancestral lands. The claim is the largest "native title" established in Australia. "Lawrence Harlan, tribal chair of the Gidutikad, asked about processes for Paiute to begin to make a native title claim for some of their land," Bird said. To establish the claim, "We worked country, we hunted and gathered, and demonstrated our customary ownership of the land," Taylor told Harlan, according to Bird.

Lack of access to clean water and basic health care are major concerns for Martu, and the visitors and their hosts discussed these issues at length, Bird said. The Parnngurr camp, which has about 100 residents, was established because uranium-mining companies had started to strip away parts of one of the Martu's most sacred sites in the Western Desert. "As a result of that, Martu bands moved back and settled right at the sacred site," Bird said. "They were able to draw attention to the importance of keeping their country and their estates intact. The mining stopped at Parnngurr but water supplies are contaminated with uranium."

Although the Martu have won their "native title," the future of the outstations is uncertain because they are not economically self-sufficient, and the government has threatened to withdraw funding for essential services, such as electricity, Bird said. "If that happens, Martu hunting and gathering activities will be taken away from the landscape," he said. According to research by the Birds, a significant part of the desert's biotic web has been shaped by aboriginal land-burning practices, which have been carried out for at least 30,000 years. "In order to hunt and gather, they burn tracts of land and create a vast network of desert mosaic," Bird said. "Pulling Martu off the land will lead to devastatingly large wildfires during the next decade that will eradicate the mosaic and so many marsupials who live in the desert." It also would destroy a way of life that has existed for millennia, he said, long before European settlers arrived in Australia.

"Reflections of the People" is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed during lunch) at the Department of Anthropological Sciences in Building 360. Paintings in the exhibit are for sale.



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Douglas Bird, Department of Anthropological Sciences: (650) 723-8839,

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