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June 21, 2006

Australian hunter-gatherers to exhibit native artwork on campus

By Lisa Trei

From displaying their artwork in a Stanford exhibit to digging for tubers and grubs with American Indians, a family of Martu aborigines visiting the West Coast hope to forge new partnerships with communities that share common interests in cultural heritage, indigenous health, and resource use and land management.

Four family members—Nyalangka Taylor, her 25-year-old daughter and two granddaughters—from Parnngurr Outstation in Australia's remote Western Desert have been invited by Stanford anthropologists Rebecca and Douglas Bird to spend six weeks on the West Coast for what is described as a "bio-cultural exchange."

The Martu, who number about 800 people, were among the last hunter-gather aborigines of Australia whose lives were completely autonomous of Western influence and assimilation until the late 1960s and early 1970s, said Douglas Bird, an assistant professor (research) of anthropological sciences. Rebecca Bird is an assistant professor of anthropological sciences, too.

While many Martu stayed in European settlements on the desert fringes, by the mid-1980s, some families returned permanently to their homelands in what was known as the "Outstation Movement." "Nyalangka's mother made a conscious attempt to get people back onto the land," Douglas Bird said. "People were concerned about losing language, losing religion and losing touch with customary ownership of the land. There is a strong draw to be 'on country,' to take care of the land and to hunt and gather."

By 1986, Martu had established three permanent desert camps at Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji. In 2003, they became owners of Australia's largest "native title" when they won legal recognition as the rightful owners of 136,000 square kilometers of their ancestral lands.

Martu continue to forage nearly every day, and they burn their lands during the cool-dry "Wantajarra" season from May to August, Bird said. According to research by the couple, a significant portion of Australia's biotic web has been shaped by these burning practices, which have been carried out for at least 30,000 years. "Moderate, regular burning decreases potential for devastatingly large wildfires, increases plant species richness, and has an important effect on faunal populations," they wrote in a 2003 article in Arid Lands Newsletter, published by the University of Arizona.

The visit of Taylor's family, which the anthropologists have planned for several years, is the first of several collaborations with the Martu that the Birds would like to support. Other possible efforts include fostering relationships with Stanford's overseas campus at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Provisional schedule for Martu visit

June 20-27: Martu arrive in Bay Area accompanied by doctoral student Brooke Scelza.

June 29-July 5: Group participates in an ongoing ethno-botany project in Surprise Valley, Calif., with the American Indian Gidutikad band of the Northern Paiute tribe and researchers from Stanford, the University of California-Santa Cruz and the University of Utah. The project monitors key traditional American Indian resources. The Martu will use their traditional acacia "wana" digging sticks to search for tubers and grubs.

July 7, 6:30-7:30 p.m.: Reception and opening of Martu exhibit at the Stanford Department of Anthropological Sciences. Paintings, woodwork and baskets by Taylor, her husband and two brothers will be on display for two weeks.

July 10-12: Basket-making workshop outside Reno, Nev.

July 15-20: Reception at the University of Utah, and visit to the Four Corners region.

July 24-28: Navajo rug-weaving workshop in St. Michael's, Ariz.

Mid-August: Martu return to Australia.



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


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

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