The Australian: Back to country — and a better way of life

Published: 29 May 2015

From The Australian, Paige Taylor, 23 March 2015.

Mulyatingki Chapman was born at Nyinyiri near the Canning Stock Route, possibly in 1941, and grew up amid the desert dunes, spinifex grasslands and salt lakes of what is now the Karlamilyi Nat­ional Park in northeast Western Australia. The first time she and her family saw whitefellas, they hid in a cave until sunset.

Forty-nine years since walking in from the desert to Balfour Downs station, Ms Chapman is among very senior people from the Martu’s six language groups who are ­asserting their rightful positions, revitalising traditional authority structures through a unique work scheme on their vast lands.

Most days Ms Chapman and other elders accompany younger Martu on to their country — straddling the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson deserts — and supervise them as they carry out traditional controlled burns and work such as clearing water holes.

Elders are also alongside for feral animal culls. Camels, when caught, are cooked.

"The young people, they understand, listen. They are burning the country the old way. They are learning," she said through her young relative Curtis Taylor. "Being out there reminds me of when I was a little girl living in the desert. I remember I looked for bush onions with my two sisters and my brother. Catching birds.

"It’s good for the young ones to do the work. It stops them staying in town and getting in trouble."

An assessment of the first five years of the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa program finds it responsible for transformative change beyond the direct employment last financial year of 275 Martu people.

The report cited the transfer of important knowledge from elders to younger generations. It said the program demonstrated success where other initiatives had failed and this was "predicated on the alignment of Martu interests with those of mainstream Australia".

The assessment notes that by employing Martu in dry communities, the program "has significantly reduced alcohol consumption and associated criminal activity".

The pull of alcohol deeply worries Ms Chapman and other elders.

One young male ranger told the report authors: "(Being a ranger) gave me a reason to come back from town (Port Hedland). If I hadn’t come back, I’d be dead. Dead or in lock-up"

Using financial proxies, consultants SVA estimate that since 2008 the program has generated $55 million worth of social value from an outlay of $18m that came from the commonwealth government ($12m), donors ($3m) and other sources.

As part of the program, the young men and women become rangers, ­accessing, with elders, country not managed for decades.

From next month and in May and June, the rangers will focus on fire management. Ranger co-­ordinator Ben Deslandes said Martu country had been shaped by continual traditional Martu burning practices but lately this had not happened because people had moved to communities.

"(It) resulted in a lightning fire regimen with more frequent and larger fires which can change vegetation over time," he said. "A significant focus for KJ rangers is to increase the amount of fire in cooler months, particularly to protect areas of natural and cultural value. There is a growing push by the younger generations to learn as much as possible from their elders."

The young ones know how much will be lost when those who were born and lived on country are lost, he said.

Other activities include feral animal and weed management, tracking and managing threatened fauna species, managing tourism and taking Martu families on to country.

As the furore continues over threatened closures of dysfunctional remote communities, former Aboriginal affairs minister Fred Chaney holds up the Martu’s program as an example of something that is working.

He says the Martu "are building a distinctively Martu future, fashioned by their culture and aspirations, while simultaneously engaging with the modern Australian economy".

Ms Chapman has never lived other than on Martu land. After leaving desert life in 1966, she lived on Martu land in Jigalong. Since 1982, she has lived in Punmu, 1310km northeast of Perth, also on Martu country and closer to where she grew up.

She said she wanted as many young Martu people as possible to know the old ways.

"You see them starting to change and listen, it is good for them," she said.