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Women leaders offer remarkable cultural opportunity

03 June 2014

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About three months ago [April 2014], maybe a little more, I was given the opportunity to take part in something that comes along once in a lifetime.

Quite aside from that, I also lost my mother around the same time.

The two seemingly unrelated events collided in the Central Australian Desert somewhere southwest of Uluru (above) a few weeks ago [June 2014].

In the last few months of my mother’s life, not that I knew they were that as her death was sudden and a shock, I noticed she spent more and more time filling me in on the details of our extended family, the ones who were alive and the already dead.

I believe she was passing on family lore - the diversity of aunts and uncles and cousins and people - the culture that binds us and the laws that hold us together.  I also think she wanted that knowledge passed on to others.


Because to grow and develop you need to understand who you are and where you have come from. Without a solid foundation of tradition - an understanding of the culture and law that surround you and that are yours - you remain anchorless. The combination of being anchorless with the turbulence of change we are exposed to in modern life is a dangerous mix. It makes it difficult for people to feel safe and reduces their ability to succeed.

The Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council has successfully existed for 34 years and aims to relieve poverty, sickness, destitution, distress, suffering, misfortune or helplessness among the Aboriginals of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities. NPYWC is at its core about family and community - walytja. (My mother would have intrinsically understood the value of the word.)

Among a host of other things, The NPYWC provides a forum for the women of these communities to discuss their concerns; a place to advocate for and to help individual women and girls to achieve further training, education and employment; a place to establish, provide and or promote services to improve the health and safety, education and general well-being of people in the region; a place to establish, provide and promote the artistic and cultural interests of the women;  a place to promote and encourage the law and culture of the women.

It was NPYWC’s work which finally led to the introduction of Opal fuel to the Northern Territory. The fuel is specifically manufactured low-aromatic help to stop the dangerous and debilitating practice of petrol sniffing among Aboriginal youth.

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NPYWC also founded and developed Tjanpi Desert Weavers (above), a sustainable social enterprise. Tjanpi provides culturally appropriate employment for women and young girls living in the region, especially in remote communities. Tjanpi Desert Weavers is based in Alice Springs and sells the work of the women and girls. The money earned is invariably invested back into the communities benefiting everyone.

Tjanpi Desert Weavers and Westpac, through Westpac Foundation and Women’s Markets, have a strong, ongoing association. Over the past four years Tjanpi has received financial funding from the Foundation and Women’s Markets, along with in-kind support. This support has helped in the creation of a business that is commercially viable, successful and sustainable, as well as producing critically acclaimed work.

NPY Women’s Council has a history of schooling their young women in law and culture, including Tjanpi weaving skills. The older women understand that if they are not accorded the space and place to pass on the knowledge they have, as well as the traditions, then their culture and law will be lost. Many of the women with the knowledge, the stories and skills, have reached an age and health stage where they will no longer be here to pass on that knowledge.

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For Rene Kulitja (pictured above on her homeland), who is a traditional owner of the lands around Uluru, it is very important that these stories and knowledge be told: ‘These older ladies must have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge. They need to be able to do this now and we need our young women to have the opportunity to learn from them.’

(I think I could hear my mother nodding in agreement as Rene voiced her thoughts and concerns to us.)

One of the best ways to make sure this happens, according to the ladies we met, is to take the young women ‘on country’ and away from the distraction of their mobile phones, the internet, iPod music.

Following a long discussion, the NPY Women’s Council’s Directors and staff decided to invite a very small, select group of non-indigenous women - leaders in mainstream business - to join the young women’s Law and Culture Camp and to experience directly the transferal of Law and Culture.

I was in the right place at the right time to be one of the first to experience this. The plan is to open it to businesswomen leaders to experience.

The camp took place in May around 50km southwest of Uluru. The site had been chosen and prepared for us by some of the older ladies some days before and we bumped along dirt tracks and sometimes no tracks in 4WDs to reach it. We slept in swags under the stars, used bush toilets, drank billy tea, ate camp-fire cooking and were very careful with water. Dehydration and sun stroke are high on the list of concerns.

Hosted by Rene - a world-recognised artist and the senior Aboriginal woman on the camp - we were guests in her home, granted the privilege of observing what she and the other ladies, all community elders, had to impart to the young women attending the camp. (The other senior women facilitating the camp included Judy Trigger, Lydia Angus and Janet Inyika.)

It was an exhilarating experience and for the ladies brought joy and reinvigoration.

My perspective on the camp: it brought the young women into close contact with a living memory of the past, which when it is lost (and it will be lost) will be gone forever if these sorts of important events do not get airplay. The camp facilitated the sharing of knowledge and skills and the transferral of traditional laws and culture between the generations.

Most of the women have English, but Pitjantjatjara is their language. The language skills of NPYWC staff member, Suzanne Bryce, who has worked in the area for many years and acted as a translator, facilitated the process of communication for us all.

Here is some of my experience.

Below: Law and Culture Camp 2014. Getting in and helping set up is really worthwhile.

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What to do and not do: Always check before you take photos. Shots of the landscape just like photographing people require permission. It’s also very important to remain aware of and ask about where you can and cannot walk/go. There are many sacred areas that would mean nothing to those of us who are ignorant of their significance.


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Making connections: Take along pictures of your children or grandchildren or find something you can share with the women; it does break the ice. Sitting with Barbara Tjikatu (above centre) from Mutitjulu, I watched a master weaver imparting her skills to a young girl on the camp. Later, I was told, it was Barbara and her husband who had provided evidence at the Lindy Chamberlain trial about tracking a dingo. 

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Joining in and doing something with the women, either the craft or, as I did, digging River Gum roots (above) for the wooden sculptures the women carve, can provide amazing insights. The information Rene Kulitja imparted (seen below working the roots), about her country and her life (and which was, in this case, unfiltered by the translator), was a highlight.

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The camp is a profound experience. It was three days of my life but it is these women’s lives. It is a huge privilege to be invited to share in someone’s life and home and experience something like the learning of this Inma dance (above). One of the things I noticed when the women had something very important to say about a particular story or piece of knowledge, they dropped their voices and spoke very softly.

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On a purely practical level: This is a camp in a really hot part of Australia. You need to wear practical clothes and bring plenty of water - and drink it. Be prepared for insects and wild life and for everything to smell of smoke. A couple of great tips: unperfumed baby wipes and hand sanitiser. There is no facility for showering and changing your clothes needs to be orchestrated within the confines of the swag (above).

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The NPYWC staff (at rear above) really helped facilitate the experience. I always felt I was in secure hands and that in itself frees you up to be able to go with the flow and devote yourself to what is going on around you, which is complex. It’s considered rude (and it’s probably dangerous too) to pass in front of someone and the camp fire. (Above foreground, Janet Inyika (left) and Judy Trigger (right) preparing damper. The little fire in the background producing all the smoke is deliberatley prepared that way to drive the flies away from the area in which the damper is being made. It worked.)

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The women are real powerhouses (seen here - above - preparing a canvas for painting and raffia, etc. for weaving. Over the days of the camp they passed on their skills and stories to the younger women and girls.) Getting out on country was invigorating for us all but seemed to rejuvenate the women.

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Above: the painting progresses.

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In some very small way, I came to understand that even though deep gaps exist between the Indigenous experience and mine, the possibilities exist of finding the common ground from which these gaps might be closed. (Above: 2014 Law and Culture Camp attendees.)

Below: Rene Kulitja collecting grasses for weaving, tjanpi.

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  • Michelle Young

    Michelle Young 6 years ago

    Thank you Louise for such a personal account of your visit to the NPY Lands and a lovely tribute to the work that Aboriginal women do everyday to create stronger families and communities. We thank the Women's Market and the Westpac Foundation for continuing to support Tjanpi Desert Weavers - a social enterprise which provides the capacity for women to create income through the creation of fibre art. It's nice to see Tjanpi a part of the every day of life during your recent trip.

  • Larke Riemer

    Larke Riemer 6 years ago

    Louise a wonderful feature article on your experience with these amazing women - how lucky are we that you were able to record this experience with such fantastic photos. I am sure we will see more over the coming months. I am very proud that The Westpac Foundation and in particular our Women's Markets team together continue to support this very worthwhile organisation.