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History of the Spinifex People

The people of Tjuntjuntjara are known today as the Spinifex People or Anangu [the people] locally. They lived in the Great Victorian Desert long before European settlement of Australia. Scientists have found evidence of human habitation in Central Australia that dates back approximately 25,000 years. The Spinifex families of Tjuntjuntjara go back at least 600 generations.


Missionaries from overseas started living on the fringes of the Great Victoria Desert at Cundeelee about 2 generations ago. Cundeelee Reserve was originally set up in 1939 as a ration depot, principally to draw desert people away from the Trans Australian railway line. An Australian Inland Mission was formally established in 1950 through UAM. This was about the time the British Government began testing atomic weapons at Maralinga in South Australia, within the range of the Spinifex people's country.


By 1952, 130 people had come from the Spinifex homelands into Cundeelee. Some had come in to obtain food and water while others were bought in by the Cundeelee missionaries and Commonwealth government Native Patrol Officers. By the early 1960’s many more people were settled into Cundeelee but in many ways it was a difficult place to live. The biggest problem was that there was little or no water and in 1973 the government conducted a review of the mission. The Commonwealth Government assumed responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs as a result of the 1967 referendum and the transition to a government-funded community began.


The community was incorporated in 1976 under the name Upurl Upurlila Nguratja Inc. - a  reference to a sacred rockhole at Cundeelee called Upurl Upurli after the Pitjantjajara name for tadpole. At that time there were about 250 Spinifex People and 50 Europeans living around Cundeelee. There was a store, school, clinic, office, kitchen and some staff houses. Aboriginal people lived in “bush camps” which shifted around the settlement.


Eventually Cundelee was closed due to lack of water in the mid 1980’s and people moved to a newly established housing settlement at Coonana,  a marginal cattle station. With the exception of a few young people, no one wanted to go there but there was a lot of pressure to move. The majority wanted to move back to their country and homelands in the Great Victoria Desert but their wishes were consistently ignored by government officials.


The movement of people living at Cundeelee back to Spinifex started around 1984 but it was not until the Spinifex Traditional Owners realised they would have to return to country on their own with limited government support that the homelands movement gathered pace. A group of people moved out and camped at Double Pump bore on the Nullarbor Plain. Eventually government support and funding was secured and a bore was established at Yakatunya on the southern edge of Spinifex country. In 1985 a lease of 16,000 hectares was granted over the Yakatunya site.


During 1985/86 the Maralinga Royal Commission into the British nuclear tests in Australia was conducted. This provided some compensation to the Spinifex people.


The Spinifex people put down bores and airstrips at Tjuntjuntjara and Ilkurlka and made a 500km road from Yakatunya north west through the heart of their country and thereby linked with kin at Wingellina. It was during this time that they met up with the last family still living nomadically in the lands. The family now lives in Tjuntjuntjara and Wingellina.


By 1989 the Spinifex people left Yakatunya and settled at Tjuntjuntjara and Ilkurlka. In 1995 the Spinifex people registered a Native Title claim over 55,000 sq km (5.5 million ha) of the Great Victoria Desert.


After 5 years of extensive field work and intensive negotiations with the WA State Government, the Federal Court sat near Tjuntjuntjara on the 14th November, 2000 and granted the Spinifex people a Determination of Native Title - the largest and strongest with respect to recognition of rights and interests in land yet granted in Australia.


Today the communities of Tjuntjuntjara and Ilkurlka are very successfully run by Paupiyala Tjarutja and Pila Nguru. Both communities are major cultural centres and are moving towards economic sustainability.


The Spinifex Arts Project has introduced some major artists whose works are on display both in Australia and overseas. The tourism venture at Ilkurlka is expanding and a civil works contacting operation is running successfully.


Despite the inevitable challenges of being in a remote area the future looks bright and the Spinifex people move forward with confidence.

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