The Desert People
A cool breeze on my face woke me. The netting, at the entrance to our orange three-man tent, fluttered as the breeze
picked up. The crisp air carried with it the clean smell of eucalypt. I could see the leaves of a young sapling above me through
the clear plastic. The first rays of sun lit the delicate twigs of new growth and turned them to a brilliant red against the
clear ice blue sky.
Simon, my partner, and I had been in the Tanami desert north of Alice Springs for a week, and it would be an understatement
to say it was a culture shock. We were white city dwellers with bourgeois notions of personal hygiene and order. Here in the
middle of the desert in this Aboriginal settlement, it was a shock to find the whites were the ones who lived in such filth.
But we were guests, and Jock, the guy who had invited us here, was in charge of the gallery and museum. It had been
built for the people as part of the bi-centenary celebrations. We’d met Jock at an exhibition of Aboriginal art in Adelaide.
Luckily we had our own tent. His old, pre-fabricated cottage stank, and the fridge had not been cleaned for years. Empty bottles
of beer were scattered throughout the place. Signs everywhere along the dusty, corrugated road into the property stated it
was a dry community. Everyone knew the Aboriginals had a problem with booze.
On arrival, my initial reaction was to leave immediately, but I found myself drawn to the place. What had happened
two days before was extraordinary. I lay there in the warmth of my sleeping bag with the fresh breeze on my face and thought
back over the event.
Our job was to set up some administrative processes for receiving artworks from the Aboriginal artists, some of whom
travelled hours from outstations to sell their paintings. They were paid a set amount depending on the size of the painting.
They got their paints and canvas free, and we documented the stories related to each painting. In telling the stories, we
tried to include some of the language from the three different language groups living in the area.
Our presence attracted a lot of attention. The camp kids with their bunged-up eyes and snotty noses would stand outside
the large picture window that looked onto the road, pushing their faces against the glass to watch what we were doing. They
couldn’t get into the office, as it was full of artists milling around keen to tell their story and get money for their
paintings. The place was filled with a pungent smell of beer and stale sweat. I had started to get used to the stink from
bodies and clothes that had not seen soap for weeks.
Getting their stories of the “Dreaming” was a slow process as most of them had very little English. It
was not uncommon for one painting to be completed by a number of artists from the same skin group with the same “Dreaming.”
They would stand around, many too shy to speak. I noticed they would communicate with hand movements. Then the elected spokesperson
would try to tell their “Dreaming” in English.
What stood out for me during those days of trying to communicate with these desert people was the humour. It was wonderful
to watch their sparkling dark eyes and flashing white teeth as they laughed at each other’s jokes. They seemed such
It was 11 o’clock, and we’d been working steadily for about two hours. I was standing by the picture window
chatting to a full-blooded Koritsia woman, called Maureen. She worked as the teacher’s aide over in the newly erected
school. From where I stood, I could see eight women sitting under a large shade tree painting coolamons commissioned by the
National Gallery in Canberra. Traditionally, these coolamons were used to carry fruit and sift seeds and were carved from
the tough roots of the local mulga bush. Further up the dirt road stood a number of rather battered old, petrol bowsers. We
were a good five hours from Alice, and the community needed their cars to get around.
An old jalopy without a bonnet came tearing along the road leaving a cloud of dust. It pulled up beside the pump. The
driver got out and began filling up his car. A noisy motorbike appeared out of the dust. The rider steered the bike onto the
side of the road near the petrol pump and jumped off, leaving the bike lying on its side, wheels still spinning. Shouting
and waving his arms around, he advanced on the guy at the pump.
Everyone in the office stopped talking and came over to the window. The kids who had been peering in at us shouted
something and started running up the hill towards the commotion. A fight broke out between the two young men. They were rolling
around kicking up a lot of dust and some of the camp dogs had started barking.
We were all fixed on the fight when we heard howls of anguish coming from the women across the road. They got up, took
off their shirts, and, barefooted and with their breasts swinging, started up the hill chanting loudly. They pulled off branches
from a nearby tree and surrounded the car. The teacher’s aide turned away from me when I looked at her for some explanation.
The women had started lashing out at the car with their branches, wailing loudly. The camp dogs rushed around howling.
Everyone stood there peering at the spectacle through the thick dust haze. None of the male elders were there.
Not one. The women continued bashing the car, managing to smash some of the windows. Then two of the women got hold of the
young man who had been on the motorbike. They tried to pull him away and started hitting the driver of the car with their
Suddenly they stopped. The dogs stopped howling and lay down on the side of the road. The bare-breasted women threw
down their weapons, walked back to where they had been, put on their shirts, sat down and started working.
Shocked, I asked Maureen what it was about, but she just shook her head, said she was ashamed I had seen the violence,
turned and left. With eyes lowered, everyone in the office went back to what they had been doing. In somewhat of a daze, Simon
and I went back to our work. We had lunch alone in silence.
At about 4 p.m. the next day, three of the elders came in dressed in clean jeans and new shirts. They looked serious
when they asked Simon to let them into the men’s sacred section of the museum. About 15 minutes later they appeared
with shields and spears and, without acknowledging us, walked out of the building and up the hill. Simon and I looked at each
other. ‘What was that about?’ I asked. He shook his head. I had so many questions.
That evening we sat around an open fire under the cool indigo sky thick with stars. It was a gathering of the whites
in the community. Present was the white adviser, John, and his wife, Anna, who had spent many years working in Aboriginal
communities. They appeared relaxed and at home in the desert. Finally, in response to my many questions, John made an effort
to explain the incident:
It was the black man’s law at work. Apparently, the driver of the car had had a sexual relationship with the
motorbike owner’s sister. They were the wrong skin combination. Under their law, they could only have sexual relations
with someone from a chosen clan outside their own skin group.
As white man’s law had taken over from black man’s law, the community elders could not carry out the traditional
punishment. So, to save face, the elders set up a mock battle. Representatives from both clans gathered at a prearranged place
some distance from the settlement. In these mock fights they use their traditional weapons. Spears are thrown but without
intending to harm anyone. The elders have found this the best way to settle disputes, as they are keen to prevent their people
going to prison.
None of the Aboriginal elders offered us any explanation, and I never found out why the women seemed to take charge.
I am left with many questions, and sad at the realization that I will never fully understand the cultural differences and
complexities of our indigenous people.
Bron Trathen has been writing short stories, plays and poetry since moving to Northern NSW, Australia, from Sydney.
This new-found creative expression has given her a lot of satisfaction.
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