“We don’t own the land…the land owns us”
Paliirramarri Kiirrakiirra – (Great Country)
For Aboriginal people ‘Country’ comprises many inter-related features – these include climate and weather, land and patterns on the land, waters, plants and animals, significant places and stories, historic and contemporary events and land uses and people and their interactions with each other and with places. So ‘Country’ is much more than what non-Aboriginal people call the landscape.
Within this web of inter-relationships, Aboriginal people have a special connection with the natural world, with their ‘Country’. Silas Roberts, first chairman of the Northern Land Council, described Aboriginal people’s continuing relationship to the natural world as follows:
Aboriginals have a special connection with everything that is natural. Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see all things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the ideas of dreaming. By dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society. These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.
While at Mutawintji in 1984, a visitor expressed these thoughts about his country:
We went from Homestead Gorge up to the rock quarry where our ancestors made stone tools. Standing up there and looking down the valleys and waterholes makes you think of the hardship our people must have went through. So you see, a place like this must not be destroyed by anyone. When you walk up the valleys you get a very strange feeling about the place as if you are coming home again after a long time away. It’s like the place is especially decorated for you, like a mother with open arms saying “welcome home”. The lookout is just like the dreamtime especially when the sun is coming up, it is as if the whole plains and the hills are waking up to another day and the whole countryside comes alive with birds of many colours. And when the sun goes down the colour goes out of the hills, the birds disappear again until another day. The rock holes and water holes in the hills meant water for many generations of our people. The story of our culture is told in the paintings and engravings that may be seen on the rocks and in the caves.
Mutawintji is highly important in relation to ongoing themes of Aboriginal culture – land, spiritual, kinship, economic, communication, historical, environmental and survival despite the invasion. It is one of the most significant sacred places in the far west of New South Wales. Mutawintji is a place for ceremonial business. Large gatherings were held there in the past, at which the people would have celebrated and renewed their obligations to the land, traded items, settled disputes, formed alliances and put people through the various stages of gaining knowledge, responsibility and wisdom. The Lands’ resources, especially the deep waterholes, also drew Aboriginal people to the area as a refuge.
Mutawintji has been a place where Aboriginal people have lived and gathered for many thousands of years. Large gatherings could only happen when the rock holes were full of water and there was an abundance of food due to good rainfall. Visitors acted respectfully to their hosts. It is also likely that they brought items to exchange such as ochre, tools and possum skin rugs. There are examples in the art at Mutawintji that suggest that visitors may have displayed other art styles from their own regions.
The Mutawintji area contains many Aboriginal art sites in the form of stencilled and painted art in rock overhangs and engravings on flat, exposed rock surfaces. Some are single figures and others are grouped as impressive galleries. Engravings and paintings show features of ceremonies and how people related to the land and its life. The engravings include lively pictures of people, animals and other beings, as well as many symbols such as tracks, circles and lines. The many hand stencils represent the association between people and their country.
There is abundant evidence of Aboriginal occupation in the form of cooking hearths, stone quarries and occupation sites throughout the Lands.
The oldest people we know who were born and lived in the Mutawintji area and who regarded it as their country are members of the Quayle, Dutton, Tyler-Barlow, Gibson and Bates families. These families have a long history with Mutawintji and with each other.
These are the people who used the group names Pantjikali, Wanyuparlku, Wilyakali, and Malyangapa for their languages and their countries. Although Pantjikali, Wanyuparlku and Wilyakali are Wiimpatja languages and Malyangapa is a Yarli language, continuing oral tradition tells us that these four groups always had close ties including through marriage.
Mutawintji is one of the most important parts of the country of these people and their descendants. The Mutawintji Aboriginal owners today are recognised as having a cultural association with Mutawintji and being descendants of the original Aboriginal inhabitants of that area. Their names are entered on the Register of Aboriginal owners for Mutawintji National Park.
Because Mutawintji was always such an important ceremonial centre, many people whose ancestral country is a bit further away are also acknowledged as having a long association and knowledge of Mutawintji. In this way people with ancestors from countries of the other Wiimpatja groups (Kurnu, Paaruntji, Nhaawuparlku, Thangkakali, Paakantji, Parrintji and Marrawarra) and people with ancestors from the countries of other Yarli groups (Watikali and Yardliyawarra) also have connections with Mutawintji. People from further afield including from Wangkumarra, Adnyamathanha and Ngiyampaa countries would have also visited and connected with Mutawintji over a long time.
The Mutawintji Lands, and the numerous sites of cultural significance they contain, are part of wider cultural connections across far-western NSW. Marriage has always been common between the different peoples of the region, so shared ancestry is one way that people have rights and duties to each other and to each other’s country. These rights and duties relate to country, to kinship and to ceremony. Relationships between all these groups meant that the people who belonged to the Mutawintji area could in return make visits to ceremonies in other people’s countries.
Land, kinship and ceremonial ties link groups who share a common language. Similar ties can also link some groups with their neighbours who have a different language. For Mutawintji the strongest ties involve the people whose ancestors called themselves Pantjikali, Wanyuparlku, Wilyakali and Malyangapa even though both Wiimpatja and Yarli languages are involved. Today some of these people still use these names and some may often call themselves Paakantji. In the old days people identified themselves more by the name of their particular country. Since then, with less access to some of these countries, with several generations of living mainly in the river towns and with nearly everyone having at least one ancestor from the river, it has become common for people to often call themselves Paakantji (Paaka is the Darling River). People are more likely to refer to the dialect names when talking about the particular country of their ancestors.
In relation to Mutawintji, what people call themselves is not as important as tracing their descent from the ancestors who lived in the Mutawintji area.
In the far west of New South Wales Wiimpatja is the most common word used today for Aboriginal person or Aboriginal people and Wiimpatja Parlku is the strongest Aboriginal language. Connections depend mainly on kinship ties and ceremonial ties, both of which give continuity to creation of the land.
One part of the kinship system that is similar over a large area of western and central NSW and western Queensland, is what Wiimpatja call their ‘meat’ (wanka) or totem inherited from their mother. The meats are grouped into two ‘sides’ called Makwarra (eaglehawk) and Kilparra (crow). The meats of just some of the people with associations with Mutawintji include, for the Makwarra side: karli (dingo) and pilyarra (eaglehawk – old name for wedge-tailed eagle); and for the Kilparra side: nhaampa (boney bream) and kalthi (emu). A person is supposed to marry a person from the opposite side. These mothers’ meats are not restricted to one location, so that if a person travels to another region they will probably find people of the same meat and fit into the kinship system. Even when an Aboriginal person travels to other parts of Australia, the local people will find ways to fit the visitor into their kinship system by tracking connections across the land.
Ceremonial connections are often based on the creation of the landscape. Creators travelled and left behind waterholes, creeks, rivers, hills and other features. They established kinship and other laws. Creation events often cross the territories of several groups and extend beyond the region. Just some of the Muurra (creators and their tracks) that travel across the region and link Mutawintji with other culturally important places include:
- Kurlawirra – an important creator
- Wirtuwirtulinya – seven sisters
- Ngatji – two water snakes or rainbow serpents
- Murlarru – Marnbi of the Adnyamathanha people – bronzewing pigeon
- Makwarra and Kilparra – eagle and crow
- Tharlta and Yuururru – red kangaroo and euroOther special places near Mutawintji include Nuntherungie, Gnalta, Yancannia, Cobham Lake, Koonenberry Mountain, Poolamacca and Mount Arrrowsmith.Other sites within the wider region that are considered by Wiimpatja to be of a similar level of significance to Mutawintji include Lake Mungo and the rock art galleries and ceremonial sites of the Gundabooka Range. Both these places are more than 250 kilometres distant from the Mutawintji Lands.