The Pintupi Nine were a group of Aboriginal Australians. They are said to have been the last Aborigines in Australia to come into contact with modern civilisation. The group lived a nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life in the Great Sandy Desert, before they met with their relatives near Kiwirrkurra in October 1984. Most other groups from this region had left the desert over 20 years before. They had been settled in towns to the east and west, but this group had stayed behind.
The group belonged to the Pintupi community. They lived on the western side of Lake Mackay, north of where Kiwirrkurra is today. It was made up of a single family. The father of the group had recently died, leaving two widows and seven children, most of whom were young adults. The family was moving south, hoping to find some of their relatives. They came across another family setting up an outstation, but ran away after a misunderstanding. Their relatives from Kiwirrkurra went to find them and then brought them into modern society.
Most Pintupi families had been settled in rural communities well over 20 years before. Starting from the 1930s, the Pintupi were forced to leave their homeland because of weapons tests being done at Woomera. Most were taken to Papunya, very far to the east, which is historically Luritja land. Others were moved northwest to Balgo, in Kukatja country. After this time, the Pintupi were said to have given up looking for any of their relatives living in the desert after they lost contact with the general community. They believed such people had died.
By the 1960s, there were only a few families still living as nomads in the desert. Most of them had heard about White people and places like Papunya. But they had not come into contact with them. They chose to keep living in the way they had always lived. This was a problem, because they were all closely related. Pintupi follow a strict system of kinship (called skin groupings) that says who they can marry. It makes sure they avoid inbreeding. As not many families were left in the big desert, there were almost no eligible partners for the younger men and women.
Much later, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act would be passed by the Northern Territory in 1976. Many Pintupi started to return to their land to set up permanent communities. They established the town of Kintore in 1981. Further west, Kiwirrkurra was founded in 1983 near Lake Mackay. This salt plain is the heart of the Pintupi homeland, and is where this particular family mostly lived.
The family was originally led by a man named Waku Tjungurrayi. He had four wives: Papalya, Nanu, Watjunka and another woman (whose name is not known to outsiders). These wives were all sisters belonging to the Nangala skin group. Papalya was Waku's main wife. They had three children: Topsy, Warlimpirrnga and Takariya. Waku also had another child, Piyiti, with the fourth (unnamed) sister. In the early years, this family sometimes travelled and hunted with another group. It was led by a man named Tjukurti Tjakamarra (later known as Freddy West).:620 In 1962, West and his family decided they would go to live at Papunya. Waku did not want to leave, so they left Waku's family and went east.
About a year later, the eldest daughter, Topsy, left the group. She married a man named Tommy Tjakamarra, who had come across the family while on his way northeast to Mikantji. Topsy had nobody to marry in her own group and Tommy had the right skin name. So they left to settle at Mikantji. Around this time, Piyiti's mother died.
Waku died in about 1964. Soon after, a man named Lanti (or "Joshua") joined the group and married the three widows. He had lived at Balgo, but left there after getting into trouble with the Catholic missionaries. He came across the group while walking south across the desert. He took Waku's place as leader of the group. Nanu was his main wife. They had three children: Tamayinya, Yalti and Yukultji. Lanti also had another child, Walala, with Watjunka. Watjunka died sometime during the 1970s. When Lanti died around 1980, there were nine left in the group.
- Papalya (Nangala) — Original mother to the group. Was probably born in the mid-1930s, aged in her mid-50s at the time of contact.
- Nanu (Nangala) — Papalya's sister and second mother to the group. Also in her mid-50s. Born at Marapinti, northwest of where Kiwirrkurra is today.
- Piyiti (Tjapaltjarri) — Eldest son of Waku, aged about 26 at the time. His mother died a few years before Waku's death.
- Warlimpirrnga (Tjapaltjarri) — Elder son of Papalya. Born about 1959, about 25 at the time. Became leader of the group after Lanti's death.
- Takariya (Napaltjarri) — Younger daughter of Papalya. Born about 1960, about 24 years old at the time.
- Tamayinya (Tjapangati) — Also known as Tamlik. Son of Lanti and Nanu. About 15 at the time.
- Yalti (Napangati) — Eldest daughter of Lanti and Nanu, about 14 at the time. Married to Warlimpirrnga since the early 1980s, shortly after her father's death.
- Yukultji (Napangati) — Younger daughter of Lanti and Nanu, about 12 or 13 years old at the time.
- Walala (Tjapangati) — Youngest of the children, about 12 years old. Son of Lanti and Watjunka.
Life in the desert
The family lived travelling between temporary waterholes around Lake Mackay. They followed the clouds, as the presence of water dictated where they would go. They wore only small belts made out of hair. They carried 2-metre-long (7 ft) wooden spears, spear-throwers and boomerangs for hunting. They also had an axe-head that Lanti had brought from Balgo. The group mostly ate lizards, witchetty grubs and bush plants. They also hunted rabbit, kangaroo, emu, goanna and snake.
The family knew of places like Papunya, Balgo and Mikantji. They knew their relatives lived there. But Lanti had always kept the group away from those places. They had also heard stories about kartiya (whites), but did not understand who they were. The few encounters they had with modern objects (cars, planes) were associated with the supernatural. In an interview, Warlimpirrnga remembered, "Joshua had told us about white men and motor cars. We knew there were non-Aboriginal people closing in around us. We didn't know what was happening."
To add to this, there were people who knew this family were still living in the desert. These included Topsy and Freddy West. They and their families all moved to Kiwirrkurra in 1983. Other locals would sometimes see campfires in the distance at night and footprints in the sand and knew they belonged to a group wandering the desert. The territory's welfare department were also said to have known about this particular group as early as 1962, and anthropologists working with the Pintupi during this time would often hear about these people.:614
The father, Lanti (or "Joshua"), died sometime around 1980. He died at Kuwarla, at the northern end of Lake Mackay. As is customary, the family moved away from the area in mourning. They travelled south, hoping to find some relatives.:617
The encounter that led to the group leaving the desert happened on 13 October 1984. Warlimpirrnga and Piyiti were out hunting. They were at Lake Mackay, about two days walk from where their family was camped. They saw smoke coming from a campfire to the south. It was at Winparku, a waterhole between Kiwirrkurra and Kintore. A man named Pinta Pinta and his two sons were setting up an outstation there. After dark, Warlimpirrnga came close to the group. They were clothed and sitting next to a four-wheel drive. They drew water for Warlimpirrnga from a pump.
Warlimpirrnga was scared. He was also angry, because these strangers were sitting on the land of his ancestors. They were in fact related, but didn't know each other. Warlimpirrnga knew only about his relatives from what his mothers had told him of them.:617 They had an argument, and Pinta Pinta became frightened. Each thought the other was a featherfoot (sorcerer). When the man's son fired a shot from a rifle, Warlimpirrnga ran off. He took his family north, deep into the desert for safety. This was their first encounter with other people in 20 years.:620
Meanwhile, Pinta Pinta and his family drove west through the night to Kiwirrkurra. He told everyone they had seen a featherfoot man. But when he described the man to them, Freddy West said he thought it was Warlimpirrnga. The next day, the elders met and decided to find the group and bring them in. On 15 October, a team of seven Pintupi and Charlie McMahon, the community co-ordinator, went out to Winparku. Together they followed the group's tracks across the desert in two four-wheel drives. On the second night, they could see the family's campfire in the distance. The next day, McMahon had to go back. His friend, Geoff Toll, drove up to continue the search with the others. They found the family the next morning, on 18 October. They had tracked them north for 250 km (160 mi) to Maruwa, a waterhole near Lake Mackay.
On first seeing Toll, a white man, Warlimpirrnga remembers, "I couldn't believe it. I thought he was a devil, a bad spirit. He was the colour of clouds at sunrise." Yalti thought the white man was a spirit sent to punish her for something she had done wrong. The family were very scared. They tried to run and hide from the trackers. Warlimpirrnga tried to attack them, but Freddy West was able to calm him by showing him how they were related. The trackers gave the family jam from a tin and pieces of chocolate to eat. They convinced the family to come with them to Kiwirrkurra. They told them that there was lots of food and that water came out of pipes. Yalti said that this concept was unbelievable to them.
When they got to Kiwirrkurra, the family saw their relatives again for the first time in over 20 years. They were angry at them for leaving them behind and not coming to find them. When they saw Topsy, her brother and sister were so angry that they hit her.:620 After a few days, Takariya was married off to Freddy West. It was a gesture between the two groups.
The meaning of the event was understood in many different ways.:609 Agencies serving Aboriginals thought the group's discovery would help them in the debate about indigenous land rights.:34 Fred Myers, an anthropologist who was invited to Kiwirrkurra to study the new group, argues that the event became a part of the Pintupi's struggle to get back their autonomy, which they had lost when they first came out of the desert to settle at Papunya. He argues that their main goal was to maintain the new people's ability to govern their own lives.:615,619
Before news of the group's discovery spread, the leaders of Kiwirrkurra worked to protect the privacy of the family members. They also wanted to protect them from the same kind of shame or teasing they had experienced themselves coming out of the desert many years before.:614
One of the first people to be told about the event was the Aboriginal Affairs minister, Clyde Holding. His department wanted to use the group's story in the campaign for Aboriginal land rights. Holding gave the story to The Herald, a newspaper from Melbourne. In exchange, the newspaper agreed not to tell anyone where the group was.:34 The story was first reported on the newspaper's front page on 24 October,:609 with the headline claiming it had "found the lost tribe". The news caused a sensation, and instantly made headlines across the country. They became popularly known as the "Pintupi Nine" or the "Last Nomads". The family themselves, however, would not tell their own story until much later in life.:28
This publicity became a problem for Holding. The leaders at Kiwirrkurra were angry with him for giving the story to the press. The newspaper had published photographs of the family members without their permission.:613,615 It had caused other reporters to try to enter their community to get information.:621 They also did not agree with how the media was defining the event. The little information the press had been given had led to romanticised reports of a "first contact" or a "discovery".:609 But from the Pintupi point of view, the family were relatives whom they knew and had a history with.:614 As they saw it, the group had not been "discovered", but were just coming back together after being separated.:617
When they had first arrived, a doctor from Kintore had examined the family and decided they were strong, fit, and very healthly. But in a few days time, they all got sick. They did not have any natural immunity to diseases. Holding wanted a government team of medical specialists to treat them. But Kiwirrkurra's leaders would not let any other doctors look at the family. The only people who were allowed to treat them were the local ngangkari (medicine man) and the doctor at Kintore.:613
At this time, the Pintupi still blamed government doctors for the deaths of many of their people who had come in from the desert during the 1960s. These people had died from infection and disease, and Holding was trying to avoid this happening again.:613 By early November, serious concerns about the survival of the family were being raised. The secretary of the department of Aboriginal Affairs, Charles Perkins, strongly criticised the Kiwirrkurra leaders for violating the family's civil rights. He said that if they did not get the proper medical care, all nine of them would die within two months.
The doctor at Kintore thought that it was the Pintupi's responsibility to decide what was best for their own.:618 They trusted him, and let him treat the family.:614 All nine of the family members had caught coughs and a bacterial infection called treponema. The doctor treated them and gave them several immunisations. They eventually became healthy again.
The eldest brother, Piyiti, returned to the desert in 1986. He left in secret and covered his tracks so nobody could follow him. It is not clear why he left, or whether anyone knows why. One local claimed it was because he had heard stories about Pintupi people dying from diseases, and was afraid it would happen to him. McMahon thinks it was because he found it hard to adapt (adjust) to things—particularly conflict, since he had lived all his life with his family. There are different theories about what happened to Piyiti. Some people think he is still living in the desert. Warlimpirrnga, in an interview in 2004, claimed to have seen Piyiti in Alice Springs, and said he now calls himself "Yari Yari".
The others stayed at Kiwirrkura for many years. In 1998, Papalya died from kidney failure. She was probably almost 70 when she died, and was buried in Kiwirrkura. Nanu died in March 2001, also close to 70 years old. Because of a major flood at Kiwirrkura at the time, she was buried in Kintore.
The six remaining members became painters of the Papunya Tula school. The three brothers—Warlimpirrnga, Tamayinya (now known as Thomas) and Walala—now live mostly in Alice Springs. Their paintings have often sold for several thousands of dollars. Warlimpirrnga, particularly, is one of the most well-known artists of the Western Desert style. He has paintings in several national art galleries across the country. He and Yalti have three children. Except for Thomas, they are all married with children. Takariya separated from Freddy West and remarried. Yalti, Yukultji and Takariya still live in Kiwirrkurra. All six of them still speak only Pintupi.
- "Kiwirrkurra: the Early Days" (PDF). Kiwirrkurra Community Information Fact Sheets. Australian Government, Emergency Management Australia. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- Toohey, Paul (4 May 2004). "The Last Nomads" (PDF). The Bulletin. p. 28–35.
- Ward, Peter (2 April 2004). "The last of the Pintubi". Newspix. News Limited.
- "Walala Tjapaltjarri". Red Desert Gallery. Retrieved 12 July 2012.
- Adlam, Nigel (3 February 2007). "Lost tribe happy in modern world". Herald Sun. Herald & Weekly Times Pty Ltd.
- Myers, Fred (November 1988). "Locating ethnographic practice: Romance, reality and politics in the Outback". American Ethnologist 15 (4). https://files.nyu.edu/frm1/public/source_files/pdfs/myers%20locating.pdf.
- Documentation card, Rockholes at Marapinti (Nanu Nangala, 1996). Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Displayed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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- Dixon, Robyn (24 October 1984). "We Find Lost Tribe". The Herald. Melbourne. p. 1.
- "Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri". Artabout. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- Blundell, Graeme (2 October 2010). "Joining the dots". The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
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- Adlam, Nigel (23 June 2009). "Swine flu fears sweep through communities". Northern Territory News. Darwin: News Limited.