A respectful Zen thing (modern anthropology not the key). #Muckaty #wasteontrail

Modern anthropology is to classical physics as post-modern thinking is to relativity.

17 June 2014

Bruce Japaljari Reyburn


While i was in Tennant Creek last week i stood on a small hill to the east of town and watched the full moon rise on Friday 13 June. To the south of this hill, Warumungu people say the Moon man walked around in the Wirnkara (Dreaming).

Once before i stood on this same hill doing the same thing and – surprise – i saw the earth move relative to the moon! The vast vista of the plains and ranges to the south – and me – were all moving (a slow but steady tumble) through space.

Half expecting the same experience this time, i was surprised once again. I did not see the earth move relative to the moon. Rather, in my peripheral vision, the patterns in the landscape rearranged themselves – for an instance – in what looked like the pattern of the skin of a living Being. It looked very different, but not when you used your central vision.

I later saw paintings by Central Australian First Peoples which had a striking similarity to what i experienced.

Stop looking too hard with Western eyes to see this country? It’s a respectful Zen thing.

And now the blah, blah, blah.

So, in the case of Mark Lane Jangala and others v the Commonwealth of Australia (and Northern Land Council) …

Having spent four days listened to the lines of questioning directed towards Warlmanpa people opposing the Commonwealth of Australia’s proposed radioactive waste facility at Muckaty (NT) i was keen to get home and re-read the earlier Muckaty land claim report of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice Gray.

So keen i read part of it on the plane from Alice Springs to Sydney, since the movie (the Grand Budapest Hotel) was impossible to appreciate properly on small screen overhead some seats in front and the sound was bad.

Land claim reports are dry reading, but i did not have a window seat from which to view the patterns of clouds and country below. How very much like some Aboriginal paintings it often is.

Anyway, Justice Gray began hearing the ‘traditional’ Aboriginal land claim (as defined by the Land Rights Act) to Muckaty cattle station (Pastoral lease) in 1993 and submitted his report in 1997.

You can download a pdf copy at http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2012/51.pdf Note the copyright restrictions. The ‘Commonwealth’ of Australia guards its spoils jealously.


It seems to me that Justice Gray got the picture back-to-front in his report ( see extracts from his report below) His framework is part of an old paradigm which sits with the modern anthropology of the 20th century. Invert the image and you may come close to a true picture of Warlmanpa realities.

That is, treat First Peoples realities as the prototype to which other theoretical models need to be reworked until they fit – not vice-versa. Do not ‘trim’ First Peoples realities to fit with Western master narratives and European theories.

One bit that interests me in this mix is in relation to the line of questioning of the Northern Land Council against Mark Lane Jangala, relates to Jangala’s position as a kurtunugurlu for the Milwayi (Two snakes) Dreaming.

The specific site for the proposed radioactive waste facility on Muckaty is said – by Warlmanpa authorities – to be part of the Milwayi Dreaming complex. Another group – part of a Ngapa (Rain, water?) Dreaming nominated the site.

During the Tennant Creek session, legal representatives for the Northern Land Council had sought to cut the ground out from under the feet of Mark L Jangala (a lead applicant in the case) by demonstrating that his credentials as kurdungurlu did not comply with a sort of standard Western model of the kirda-kurdungurlu relationship.

This standard model is based on secular notions of kinship and descent. The thinking in modern anthropology and land claim professionals is that someone qualifies as ‘kurtungurlu’ if they are related to a Dreaming through their mother (and, by the same thinking, as ‘kirda’ through their father.)

Modern anthropology systematically privileged Western notions of reality as opposed to First Peoples when they did not align – which is more often than not.

Modern anthropology also privileges Western forms of thinking when it ‘extends‘ the (European) use of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to accommodate First Peoples use of those terms to include father’s brothers and mother’s sisters. Anthropologists call this ‘classificatory’ kinship.

Another approach, which i consider would bring anthropological thinking into better alignment with First Peoples living realities, is to accept the more general category as the primary meaning. During my years in Central Australia, this seemed to me to better accord with actual usage (rather than abstract theories).


In Tennant Creek i heard Warlmanpa people say that Mark Jangala is kurtungurlu for Milwayi (Dreaming). One witness said – most emphatically! – that Mark Jangala was kurtungurlu because he had the right knowledge.

Knowledge in this context usually refers to esoteric ceremonial knowledge framed according to First Peoples systems of law.

I reckon, as an easy form of shorthand, you could also say Jangala has the right spiritual connections, and that these specifically formed spiritual characteristics are considered ‘primary’ by First Peoples.

To spell it out, the criteria for inclusion or exclusion in the cultural category ‘kurtungurlu’ is not based on ‘kinship’ or ‘descent’ as those terms are understood but on some other consideration or combination of considerations such as (1) being a recognised and accepted player with a position in a local system of reciprocities (which may include all manner of exchange relationships) and (2) having esoteric ceremonial/Dreaming knowledge of a kind which means your ‘spirit’ has the appropriate Dreaming form.

My view is that modern anthropology operates with a low-level paradigm which makes a certain degree of sense out of a complex reality in the same way classical physics has proved useful in the scientific realm. However, the realities of First Peoples lives require a very different level of understanding which can be compared to that of relativity in physics.

When the low-level paradigm of modern anthropology is applied to First Peoples realities, it cannot do justice to the fine subtitles of higher existence which they have attained. Bits have to be cut off the living body – like toes and a wrong size shoe – to make it fit.

In short, modern anthropology – in the gross forms of representation it fashions of First Peoples lives – can only make a mockery of those lives. Time to insist upon some better fitting ‘shoes’ i reckon.

While lawyers and Judges faced with complex cross-cultural problems may draw some comfort from modern anthropology, the certainty provided by such means is false. It comes at the expense of First Peoples, who have to live with the ill-fitting garb fashioned for them, by not by them.

To deal with the genuine chaos of complex living systems, you have to be able to accommodate genuine doubt – and the associated creative challenges which this brings with it.

For non-indigenous people to tackle such challenges requires acts of faith and a willingness to suspend ones own culturally defined notions of ‘reality’ as much as academic knowledge and technical ability.

Basic to what i call a post-modern form of ‘anthropology’ is ‘respect’. While modern anthropology regarded itself as looking at First Peoples as ‘objects of study’ post-modern anthropology seeks to learn how to better relate by respecting First Peoples as First Peoples.

How your own Being is positioned in relation to First Peoples Ways and Anglo-Australian structures will determine how you learn to see the realities of life in this country. Need to balance both hemispheres of yourmind, and centre your Being. A Zen exercise, at the feet of the only true master, life itself?

There is crucial difference in attitude from that of the ‘imperial gaze’ to that which accepts, as non-indigenous people, we are here to learn from our original mentors, and they are the experts in such matters. They are the cultural masters in regard their own cultures.

There is an element of respect for the co-existing sovereignty in this matter which has yet to be articulated.

That element includes the sovereign right of First Peoples authorities to have the definitive say who is kirda and kurtungurlu – who are the ‘right’ people for particular areas of country – not some Western expert.

Well, the applicants have their own anthropologist in this case and, a some stage of the legal proceedings, we will learn what he has to say and how this compares with what Warlmanpa people are saying.

As i hear them, they are talking a high language about how the Being of particular people is related to particular Ancestral Dreaming Beings – not a matter of Western notions of biology, descent or kinship.

But i may stand alone in this.

The Federal Court will sit in Darwin next week to hear more on these and related issues. Would love to be there but limited funds only stretched as far as Tennant Creek, for which we are thankful

Some background reading:

I don’t think i am infringing the provisions of the relevant Copyrights Act by my fair use sharing of information relevant to a case of national and international significance.

Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 Warlmanpa
(Muckaty Pastoral Lease) Land Claim No, 135
Report No. 51
Report and recommendation of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice Gray, to the Minister for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and to the Administrator of the Northern Territory Australian Government Publishing Service

Extracts – “kurtungurlu in the broader sense” – read more.

Continue reading “A respectful Zen thing (modern anthropology not the key). #Muckaty #wasteontrail”


“… we are all connected. We are one big family.” #wasteontrial

” … cause we are all connected. We are one big famlly.” Isobel – Muckaty traditional owner.

Excellent report by ABC 7.30 report:


Never mind the anthropological mumbo-jumbo – kurtungurlu is kurtungurlu.

Yesterday (Thursday), in the Muckaty radioactive waste court case (Mark L Jangala v the NLC and Commonwealth) there was an attempt by one of the Northern Land Council’s legal representatives to sever the link between Mark L Jangala and the relevant part of the country at Muckaty regarding the proposed radioactive waste facility.

The angle of attack was to invoke Western notions of reality as found in modern anthropology regarding First Peoples forms of representations.

Mark Jangala is said by Warlmanpa people to be kurtungurlu for a key Dreaming (Milwayii – Two Snakes) at the site of the proposed radioactive waste facility.

There are two complementary opposition roles for those whose Being is identified by a particular Dreaming. These are known as ‘kirda’ and ‘kurtungurlu’ (and variations of pronunciations and spellings of those two terms).

There is an alignment between ‘kirda’ and ‘Father’s -side’ and ‘kurtungurlu’ and ‘Mother’s-side’ – but note that Mother and Father in Central Australia include more people than is the case in Western usage of those terms.

We still have little appreciation for how First Peoples categorise relationships based on different considerations to those of modern biology, modern anthropology, and – for that matter – ‘ownership’ of land.

Kirda represent the country in a very direct manner. They are painted up, for example, and dance the Dreaming dances. Kurtungurlu (generally speaking) are the ones who do the painting and provide other services to enable kirda. Both are part of the whole.

In some cases, kurtungurlu also provide a powerful check on the kirda performers to make sure the ritual actions are properly carried out. This is no small matter for senior men in Central Australia – it goes to the very core of life.

Kurtungurlu have very important roles to play in core parts of life for many Central Australian First Peoples. These roles include the provision of services in ceremonies. This has been known in modern anthropology since the work of Meggitt – at Phillip Creek in the Tennant Creek area – in the 1950s. He may have been working with First Peoples whose descendants are now involved in the Muckaty case (I am not sure).

Kurtungurlu, amongst other things, are people who – being in the right cluster of relationships (generally speaking) – have knowledge of ceremonies and Dreamings and who are actually engaged in providing this knowledge (and services) to kirda.

It is an easy step for Western minds to conflate what the roles of kirda and kurtungurlu with the equally Western notions of ‘kinship’. So that, for example, a man’s ‘sister’s sons’ are very well placed to be recognised as ‘kurtungurlu’. This is a common feature associated with the use of the term. Western minds involved in land claims have placed some kind of ‘primary’ notion of this aspect of how the category ‘kurtungurlu’ is formed. Mistakenly in my assessment.

The NLC line of attack on Mark Jangala’s credentials was based on Western forms of reasoning – Western notions of how people should be related – rather than of Warlmanpa realities.

A subsequent witness Jeffery S resisted the attempt by the NLC legal representative to reduce the standing of Mark Jangala. The NLC rep trotted out the tired old 20th century mumbo-jumbo regarding distinctions or degrees of being kurtungurlu. The holy icon of modern Darwinian science – ‘descent’ – was invoked by the NLC rep.

Jeffery S made it quite clear that Mark Jangala was kurtungurlu because – in addition to his earlier links to the group through marriage – he had knowledge!

Having knowledge does not fit well with the preconceived ideas about First Peoples Ways which Western minds bring with them to these cross-culturally situations.

Indeed the ABC reporter at the court case filed a TV news report which made it sound like the NLC had successfully cut the ground out from Mark Jangala. A little premature i felt. Perhaps the ABC reporter had not heard what Jeffery S had to say about the matter. It was quite clear and unambiguous.

The simple fact is this – when senior First Peoples say someone is kurtungurlu then that person is kurtungurlu. Full stop. New para.

Non-indigenous authorities have to drop their dominating stance that only their Western master narratives apply in this country. Enough of dominating masters – time to learn to relate respectfully.

It is up to modern anthropologists and land council professionals to rework their theories to fit the facts rather than to impose foreign systems of metaphysics onto the lives of First Peoples – especially when those systems of metaphysics make a mockery out of First Peoples living realities.

Better still, learn to listen and accept what First Peoples authorities have to say about their own Ways.

Brief report from Muckaty Federal Court case – Day one Tennant Creek

A few days before i left to come to the Northern Territory I happened to be in the right position to see the powerful sun setting over Mt Keira at Wollongong. Mt Keira is a ‘woman’s mountain’ for local Koori people in the Wollongong/Illawarra region.In the cosmologies of many First Peoples in this country, the sun is also associated with women (in her eternal guise).

So, it was a strong message for those of us who read the signs according to these cultural codes.A few days later, as we arrived in Tennant Creek by car from Alice Springs, the moon was rising in the late afternoon. In the Wirnkara (Dreaming) of Warumungu people of the Tennant Creek area, Moon-man walked about this country before going up.

The Eternal Masculine and Eternal Feminine balance felt right.

This Tennant Creek/Barkly Region country is rich in Dreamings – birds, trees, creeks, hills, ranges, water/rain, dingoes – most things are part of the Dreaming creation. People too have their Dreamings – some come from the kirda side and some from the kurtungurlu side.

People have two interconnected sides to their Being – a bit like yin and yang. These two complementary opposite parts run through the whole of life. By such means they connect Being with Cosmos – Peoples with Country – in a complex interplay of factors.

As i am writing now – after sitting in the Tennant Creek Courthouse for most of the day listening to evidence in the Muckaty radioactive waste facility case – the eastern sky is divided into pinky red and grey – both parts of the two-sided cosmos.

Hope my picture from the caravan park in Tennant Creek shows this:


We heard some evidence about kirda and kurtungurlu from Dianne S. – one of the Warlmanpa women who was cross-examined by the legal representatives of the Northern Land Council today.

Dianne was subjected to the ‘either/or’ logic by which Western professionals – especially fine legal minds – earn their bread, butter, send their children to good schools and enjoy what modern life has too offer. Problem is, in this part of country, a both-and form of understanding is required.

The thing is – Dianne is involved in a case opposing the Commonwealth of Australia’s shameful attempt to force a radioactive waste facility on First Peoples in return for them being granted access to the same sort of basic things (roads, water, education) which most of Australians get without having to agree to a radioactive waste facility in their living room.

Dianne took pains to explain how kirda-kurdungurlu worked, and how it meant that this gave her rights to speak about country.

Kurtungurlu can speak for country when they have permission from kirda. Similarly there are constraints on what kirda can do – they should have kurtungurlu present as witness (amongst other things).

Before Dianne, Aunty B had been cross-examined in relation to the trip the Federal Court made yesterday to First Peoples country (known by the name of the cattle station “Muckaty”)

I do not propose to provide a blow by blow account of the Court proceedings of a long day. Other reports should cover that. It was a gruelling day i must say.


We particularly need careful coverage of the what Dianne said about feeling ‘threatened’ at some meetings regarding the radioactive waste site. This came to the foreground when NLC Counsel pressed her regarding why she did not speak up at some some meetings about some matters. He then complained when she raised this now and not in her outline of evidence. His own cross-examination brought to the fore what she had perviously repressed.

It is clear the legal professionals would like to be finished with Tennant Creek (‘the middle of nowhere’ versus the attractions of the city) by the weekend if that is possible, although sitting days are set for next week. Pressure on the witnesses is preferred to a more leisurely approach which might be kinder on all concerned.

I was struck, rather, by how culturally one-sided these Whitefella court proceedings are. Here we are in the heart of Warumungu country – i did not hear a formal acknowledgement of country when official proceedings began. And that it just for starters.

There was no attempt to use translators to convert lawyers questions into Warlmanpa. All proceedings in English, of course. While local First Peoples English is good, there are real ‘efficiency gains’ to be had by using translation from English to Warlmanpa and from Warlmanpa to English.

This is a major case regarding the establishment of Australia’s first radioactive waste facility. It would benefit from using best practice.

Aunty B and Dianne were pressed by the Northern Land Council legal people to make culturally inappropriate either/or distinctions when both-and replies are correct (but not what the Anglo-Australian court wants to hear).

Culturally wrong issues were repeated raised, and answered pressed for when the right people were not present to enable answers to be given – or to answer those questions about country which cannot be answered by one particular person.

And , a simple matter which the Northern Land Council should be well versed in, a map of country had north at the southern end. A basic rule of thumb in land claim hearings in my day was to orient the map so that North on the map aligns with north in reality.

But there is so much which is cock-eyed in this form of legal proceeding it would require a book to document.


Another thing which struck me most strongly was the intense focus on Dianne’s memory about what was or was not said in meetings about the nomination process for the radioactive waste facility site (which meeting, who said what, when?).

But where is the intense focus on the behind the scenes meetings of politicians invoked in the drafting instructions for the Commonwealth legislation which effective binds the hands of Justice North (who is hearing the case).

In regard to affirming First Peoples realities and First Peoples rights His Honour is bound up more effectively than a fly in a red-back’s web by the evil intent of the minds which drafted the Commonwealth legislation.

Where is the intense focus on the behind the scenes dealings of those in the uranium industry who are repeatedly positioning themselves to make short term profits of the sale of uranium overseas – and to accept back the radioactive residue?

What role (if any) did the donations of mining companies to political parties have in the drafting of this legislation? The ‘fulsome’ behaviour of the former relevant Minister.M Ferguson, when he met with the uranium industry stood in stark contrast to the behaviour he displayed to the Warlmanpa people opposed to the radioactive waste facility.
It was striking how the legal representative for the Northern Land Council took pains to draw attention to the role of scientists at meeting (to explain the proposal) but totally neglected the role of science in NOT selecting this site at Muckaty.


There was an attack on what is known as the ‘agency’ of First Peoples – that is, the ability of First Peoples to draw their own conclusions and make up their own minds about important matters.

A sustained attempt was made by the Northern Land Council to pin the opposition to the radioactive waste facility on non-indigenous people opposed to the use of uranium. The NLC appeared to be seeking to prove a case that Warlmanpa people were only opposed to having radioactive waste on country due to the role of others.

When Aunty B was pressed about how she learnt about the dangers of radioactivity matters, she explained that she had learnt about it by ‘study’ – doing a course at the IAD (Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs).

The evidence of Aunty B and Dianne S should leave no room for doubt in the mind of North, J about the existence of a powerful – and cultural – form of agency in regard those two strong women and in regard to protecting country from unwelcome radioactive waste futures.

There is much more to be written about this sitting of the Federal Court in Tennant Creek, both by me and by others.

But that will have to do for the day. After a day of that, i need to recharge my Being with a glimpse of the beautiful stars overhead  – and maybe a little of a more familiar form of spirit.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn
Nyinnka Nyunyu town (Tennant Creek)
Tuesday 10 June 2014





Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

So, I am now starting to turn my mind to the coming trip to Tennant Creek in what is generally known in English as ‘the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory’.

But English is a foreign language in this part of the world, where there are languages like Warlmanpa. Warumungu, Alyawarra, Warlpiri and many more.

There is another ‘non-English’ reality in this part of the world – the realities of First Peoples who have lived there since time immemorial.

In writing about this trip I expect that the narrative I will fashion will be quite different from those written in the mainstream media, especially  by those who embrace monocultural  Anglo-Australian norms.

I am aiming to be in Tennant Creek for about a week starting on Monday 9 June (Queen’s Birthday) to sample something of the sitting of the Federal Court in the ‘Muckaty’ case regarding the Commonwealth of Australia’s proposed radioactive waste facility.


‘Muckaty’ is the name of a cattle station which has a pastoral lease over land which is officially recognized as Aboriginal land (under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act). The Commonwealth government has bypassed the Aboriginal Land Trust for that land, and dealt instead, via the Northern Land Council, with a small group of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ (as defined by Anglo-Australian statute).

As I understand it, a small group of Warlmanpa people accepted a $12m payment to ‘volunteer’ a site for this 200 year national radioactive waste facility.

The Northern Land Council, based on the work of its anthropologists, considers this small group to be a ‘local descent group’ and thereby fit with the requirements of the Commonwealth legislation to volunteer a site.

Other Warlmanpa people, with country connections at Muckaty, have strongly objected to this process and taken the matter to the Federal Court.

An Aboriginal Land Commissioner, who heard the Warlmanpa land claim to the Muckaty pastoral lease area some years earlier, found the smaller group to be part of a larger ‘local descent group’.

Muckaty is about 100 km north of Tennant Creek. The Federal Court may visit Muckaty to view the volunteered site and to deal with related matters.

The Federal Court will also sit in Tennant Creek in June as part of the process of taking evidence from Warlmanpa people, including those opposed to the siting of a radioactive waste facility in the midst of their country. I will be there for a few days of this.


We will fly from Sydney to Arrente (Aranda) country – Alice Springs –  and then drive a hire car the 500 km north to Tennant Creek. The population of Tennant Creek was about 3,000 last time I checked but unlike other similarly sized towns in this country, there is a ratio of about 50-50 indigenous/non-indigenous.  Interesting mix. Great site for some real reconciliation, I always thought.

I have driven this road between Alice and Tennant many times since February 1980, when I first started working with Warumungu and Alyawarra people.

In the early 1980s I was an anthropologist working with the Central Land Council and assigned to help with the preparation of the Warumungu and Alyawarra traditional land claim to areas of unalienated ‘vacant’ Crown land. (Crown land? Since when exactly the senior lawmen asked.)

The senior men slotted me into their systems of relations as a member of the Jappaljarri ‘skin’ group. Due to earlier spelling I still use ‘Japaljari’.


On this June 2014 trip, while in Alice Springs, I will also take the opportunity to pass into the care of the Central Land Council some of the audio cassette tapes I made with senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men while working on the original Warumungu land claim.

These field recordings were made by me for the sole purpose of helping in the preparation of the Warumungu land claim. Most of these senior lawmen are deceased now. Dying 20 years earlier than the Anglo-Australian norm is a very real thing.

I leant much from them regarding the sacred landscape of country which – to European eyes – may appear to be dull and featureless. I learnt that this land has transcendental dimensions – it is not to be rubbished.

The CLC has agreed to digitalise and  properly archive these aging audio cassette tapes. The CLC must talk with the cultural heirs of the senior men as to what happens with these audio tapes.

My  hope is that these recordings will be made readily available, in the first instance, to the families of the men I worked with in the Tennant Creek area in their struggle to gain recognition of their true place in life.

There is still much distance to go on that front… and now is not the time to stop and rest.


The town of Tennant Creek is located in Warumungu country and was founded in the 1930s as a ‘watering hole’ during a depression gold-rush. The creek in question was given its English name by the adventurer Stuart in 1860, and is located near the major – and much older – Wirnkarra (Dreaming) site of Jurnkurakurr.

Over a million ounces of gold was produced by one gold mine – and (to my knowledge) not a cent in royalties to the Warumungu people for the loss of their non-renewable resource. Rather, they were excluded from the town boundaries, marginalised, confined, abused. That story is recorded elsewhere.

I have heard some senior Warumungu people use the expression “Nyinkka Nyunyu town” instead of “Tennant Creek’. Nyinkka Nyunyu is the name of a sacred site in the town area. There is a Nyinkka Nyuynyu Aboriginal Arts and Culture Centre. Check it out at http://www.nyinkkanyunyu.com.au/


We are often misled by our use of English. It cuts us off from our true surroundings. We have been denied proper access to the living languages of this country – languages in which we can not only better connect to our surroundings but also frame different world views to those of the modern European nation-state.

If you pause for a moment – and escape from the everyday – you will realise that it is bizarre to have a public holiday to mark the birth of a distant British monarch- an English queen on the hither side of the planet – in the middle of Warumungu country. Talk about empire. Talk about the role of British master narratives!

But the bizarre is ‘normal’ in the back-to-front land of Oz. We are not encouraged to ‘pause and think’. Mass hypnotism is all the go. The recent Royal visit has worked wonders.

The present Abbott government is deeply committed to imposing an Anglo-Australian fantasy in this part of the world. For some of us, though, the time to move into a new relationship with this country and its original peoples is long overdue.

No point in waiting for enlightenment from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Self-decolonisation is long overdue to remove what Aden Ridgeway called the terra nullius of the mind.


This very important Muckaty case (potentially clearing the way for a radioactive waste future in Warlmanpa country) is very difficult for the layperson to follow.

Written documents – including reports by anthropologists – are handed up to the Bench in distant proceedings which, while open to the public in theory, are actually not accessible by members of the public in fact.

There is also the documented difference in ‘narratives’ which lawyers and research professionals tell each other in comparison with those of the people they represent. What arguments and counter-arguments will the professionals use?

I hope to be able to catch – and record – a snatch of this difference in narratives when I attend the sitting of the Federal Court in Tennant Creek. That is, to contrast what the professional are saying with what I am told by some of the Warlmanpa people I know. Maybe I will make some new audio recording to share with others via the internet? I hope so.

Then there is my narrative. It’s a bit different to the usual.

We shall see in this case how the introduced system of law singles out a select few indigenous people to give consent for a radioactive waste facility, despite the objections of a much wider group of First Peoples.

As I know very well from my research in the 1980s, these First Peoples understand that the country belongs to them in ways it could never belong to non-indigenous peoples,  nor to a handful of ‘traditional owners’ as defined by Anglo-Australian statute.

“All one family” was a sort of mantra I often heard from the senior men – all of life is one family. Curiously, this is not the mantra which has informed modern anthropology in Australia. There is more to life than modern anthropology.


Given the past record of neglect of First Peoples well-being, and as things presently stand, the absence of genuine informed consent by a wider group of Warlmanpa people means that the Commonwealth of Australia’s present attempt to impose a radioactive waste facility on Warlmanpa country is not morally or ethically acceptable.

That location has not been selected by any form of scientific reckoning. A highly vulnerable small group of people (beggared and weakened by successive Australian governments) were enticed to accept a financial offer which might help their immediate family both in the present and in the future.

But this may come at a terrible price if it is not done right. These sacred Dreaming living countries are really no place for a radioactive dumping ground which given the record to date will  – sooner or later – inevitably poison the lives of those who live near it, perhaps for generations to come.


There is clearly a good case to say there has not been genuine and informed consent and acceptance of this major project by significant Warlmanpa people at Muckaty – and that takes us into the struggle of First Peoples to be represented by means by which they consider culturally appropriate.

Regional forms of decision-making – in contrast to the non-indigenous fiction of a ‘local descent group’ –  are clearly documented in earlier writings about First Peoples for those who care to look closely.

Hopefully the highly experienced anthropological researcher engaged by the Warlmanpa people to help their case against the Commonwealth will provide evidence of these wider forms of regional governance when the case begins in the Federal Court in Melbourne on 2 June.

But the case may be argued on very narrow legal grounds, including those of due process. Who can say?  The Northern Land Council, for instance, in supporting its anthropologists and reputation may have to take a different view to that which includes recognition of wider forms of indigenous decision-making in major projects.

  • And if these matters are fully explored we will then have to wait for Justice North to deliver his judgment. For that we will have to wait and see.
  • And we need to keep in mind that this case may not end in the domestic Australian courts.
  • Meanwhile, the more public scrutiny is applied to this less than visible case, the better the outcome will have to be.


But out of all this I believe that there is a key issue – until there is global support for the struggle for First Peoples to gain recognition as First Peoples – complete with acceptable forms of regional governance – they will continue to be captives within the Anglo-Australian modern nation-state.

The main land councils in the Northern Territory have never really encouraged or actively promoted effective regional land councils in places like the Barkly region. As statutory bodies themselves, they have an accommodation with Anglo-Australia. This arrangement suits everybody except the First Peoples in whose name they operate.

For that reason alone, I very much doubt if any of the professionals will come to the same conclusion as I have regarding ‘local descent groups’ – that they are a self-privileging fiction invented by Anglo-Australians which is substituted in law for proper recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

Having pondered these matters since the early 1980s, I increasingly see ‘local descent groups’ as a kind of modern Western fetish which is systematically substituted for recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

And a fetish which – on the one hand – makes life easier for Westernised bureaucrats, careerist researchers, politicians, and mainstream commercial interests while –  on the other hand –  makes a complete mockery out of the living realities and core values of First Peoples.

I believe this case has already provided a clear example of this with the Northern Land Council, by virtue of its stance, effectively telling Warlmampa people they don’t understand their own law! 

Should be an interesting few days in Tennant Creek in June.

To recap.

In  my narrative,

We live in changing times.

The days of the Old West are rapidly fading,

What compromised nations – and their compromised leaders – may not do,

we everyday people can do

once we are moved by a healing spirit.

This attempt to forcefully impose

an unwelcome radioactive future on Warlmanpa people at Muckaty

is not merely ‘their struggle’.

The process of decolonisation of Anglo-Australian life

requires it to be

‘our struggle’.

We are, I am reliably informed, all related.