When the centenary of the opening of an iconic droving route through Western Australia’s desert approached, a local art group knew that official celebrations would likely tell its story from the perspective of the white settlers. So they put together an exhibition from the point of view of the desert people who had lived in the area for thousands of years
When a helicopter landed in the Western Australia desert in 1957, the Aboriginal people who saw it land thought it was a giant wasp or dragonfly. Some of them had never seen a white person before. None of them had seen a helicopter. The aircraft had brought mining surveyors to the area, but unlike so many other encounters between indigenous and European cultures in that era, this one was beneficial for both sides.
The surveyors shared food with the people they met and soon found themselves caught up in a medical emergency when ten-year-old Tjungurrayi was taken seriously ill and his family requested help to transport him to Balgo mission.
Tjungurrayi says: “I was walking around long time, but I got sick … that’s when that helicopter got me. He came [in a helicopter] and put it down at my father’s camp. He spoke to me not in Kukatja, but in English. I was sitting there puzzled. I spoke in Kukatja: ‘Take me to Balgo to the medicine.’ They put in on the helicopter right there, me and my mother.”
Tjungurrayi’s health was restored by medics at the mission and he has been known as ‘Helicopter’ ever since. A photograph of Tjungurrayi standing by the helicopter with other Kukatja people is one of the centre pieces of an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra called Kaninjaku: Stories from the Canning Stock Route.
The Canning Stock Route was created in the early 1900s, as a means to droving cattle through Western Australia between the gold mining town of Wiluna to Stuart Creek in the north, across 1,800 km of desert. Surveyor Alfred Canning plotted the route, along which wells were dug to water the cattle.
The Stock Route suffered mixed fortunes. There was soon conflict between the local people and the whites, with deaths on both sides – the indigenous community resented their vital water supplies being re-routed to wells, attacking surveyors and early drovers. In retaliation, some Aboriginals were killed and others enslaved and forced to show surveyors where water could be found.
However, in the later years of the Stock Route, which fell out of use in 1959 thanks to more modern transport methods, Aboriginal people themselves found work as drovers along the route. Kaninjaku: Stories from the Canning Stock Route is a collection of paintings, artefacts and photographs exploring the history and significance of the Stock Route from the perspective of the people living in the Western Desert.
Curator John Carty, who is also a historian and anthropologist at the Australian National University, says: “The Canning Stock Route Collection came about as part of a three-year collaborative research project with Aboriginal artists and communities around the Western Desert region of Western Australia.
“We knew there would be centenary celebrations about the road as a colonial and frontier achievement – a classic, and historically blinkered, Australian narrative that negates the longer stories the road intersected with: the stories of Aboriginal Australia. So we wanted to work with the artists and storytellers to turn the road inside out, and reveal it back to the Australian public as a different kind of history.”
In working with artists to explore accounts of the Stock Route, FORM – the arts organisation that originally started the project – found that the concept soon opened the door to fascinating narratives about the lives and histories of the Aboriginal people who lived close to the road, which created an exhibition that went far beyond the legacy of the road itself.
“When we set out to tell this story,” says Carty, “I thought I’d be recording Aboriginal oral histories of the Stock Route. But it turns out that was a really limited way of thinking about it. The stories that the artists told and painted are far bigger and far more interesting than the story of that road. Desert people tell the story of the world that road cut across: stories of family, of ecology, of the ancient songlines, stories of their home. The Stock Route is just a scratch on the surface of that story; that longer, deeper version of Australian history.”
The name of the exhibition – Kaninjaku – is the term for Canning Stock Route in the language of the local Martu people. It is also the name of a painting by artist Kumpaya Girgaba, whose own life could be the subject of an exhibition.
“Kumpaya Girgaba is a hell of a woman!” says Carty. “The life she has lived is hard to get into a proper scale – the velocity of change she has seen in her lifetime is probably unparalleled in human history. She grew up walking around the desert as a young woman, with no contact with white people. Now she finds herself a historian and an artist of international repute! And yet, as with all the artists involved, her grace and generosity in sharing her stories with Australians is boundless.”
Interestingly, the painting Kaninjaku doesn’t actually have the Canning Stock Route in it. Or if it is in there, it is one of red, orange and white lines that represent the sandhills of the desert. “In Kumpaya’s way of seeing things,” Carty says, “the Stock Route is far less important than the story, beauty and power of her country.”
Mervyn Street is the artist behind Old Days of the Stockmen, another stand-out painting from the exhibition. He painted it in 2012, drawing on images conjured up by tales he had heard from relatives who worked as drovers on the Stock Route. Aboriginal stockmen and women outnumbered the white drovers using the Stock Route in its later days and contributed greatly to its success. Street was born in 1960 at Louisa Downs Station in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia and grew up speaking Gooniyandi. He’s now an author, illustrator and carver, as well as being a painter, and teaches his native language to younger generations.
“A lotta old people telling me ’bout [how] they used to drove from Billiluna straight across to Wiluna,” says Street. “But they’re not in the photos, they got no name. Nothing. They gotta be part of this droving story.”
With Aboriginal Australians still struggling with land rights, and not yet enjoying the same levels of protection and recognition under law that indigenous minority groups have been granted in some other countries, projects that tell of history from the point of view of Aboriginals are ever more important. Carty despairs as he cites outgoing Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s often quoted description of Australia as ‘scarcely settled’ when the British first arrived.
“It’s difficult to tell stories in any country that sit in opposition to the master narrative of the public,” he laments. “Most Australians remain somewhat ignorant of the depth and breadth of Aboriginal history over which British colonial history was laid. This exhibition seeks to address that tension between histories by showing them as interrelated. The Stock Route cut across aboriginal waters, dreaming tracks and lives, and we are all entangled in its aftermath in one way or another. That is the story of Australian history.”
Part of the collection was shown at the National Museum of Australia in 2010 and proved to be by far the most popular exhibition the museum has ever held. More than 250,000 people visited it, some so impressed that they returned several times. Its success was probably enhanced by some of the big-name painters who have contributed to the exhibition – many of Australia’s most important artists happen to originate from Western Australia and so are very familiar with stories from the Stock Route.
“This exhibition tells that story in a really generous way,” adds Carty, “because the artists involved have an incredibly inclusive and generous view of Australia today. They want people to understand, they want to share their stories and they want the public to feel involved in passing these stories on to our kids and grandkids.
First published as ‘Dreaming and droving: the Canning Stock Route’