We met Tri-State Tours at Mutawintji and went with them into the restricted area of the park where the main Aboriginal art galleries are and ceremonies still take place. Aboriginal owners no longer permit visits to the ‘snake cave’ or ‘mushroom rock’ as these are places of men’s and women’s business. Mark Sutton was the Aboriginal guide who showed the group around. In 1998 the national park was handed back to the four families who are traditional owners. Mutawindje had been declared a reserve in 1927 in order to protect the art galleries but local Aborigines believed that insufficient care was taken of the rock art and other ceremonial places were not accorded respect. Parkes NSW built a camp ground within the ceremonial areas where Aborigines traditionally would not stay overnight. In August 1983 Aborigines blockaded the area in protest and negotiated extra safeguards of their heritage areas. In 1996 an Act of the NSW Parliament gave ownership of some parks back to traditional owners, which enabled the local families to negotiate reclaiming their lands. The park is leased back to the government for $375k a year and an Aboriginal Board of Management is in charge of the national park. The tour guide, Mark, recommended the book Over my Tracks (Auntie) Evelyn Crawford, Pan, 1997 which tells some of the stories and history of the place and its owners. Our first activity was to listen to the creation story in the Cultural Centre which has a mural depicting the story. Mark said the Aborigines were monotheistic and named Kulawarra as their god. This is a Paaka (Darling River) creation story. Kulawarra lived in caves in the gorges, while the ‘seven sisters’ went around proclaiming his laws to the people. However a frog persuaded the people to try new ways and Kulawarra was angry. He punished the frog by removing its voice and making it small, then he punished the people. Most of the Broken Hill mob were killed when struck by an (earthquake?) and drought came over the land. He turned the Darling River mob and the northerners into pillars of stone still standing near Tibuburra in the north.  He ordered the survivors kill a kangaroo to eat and instructed them to leave its intestines in a pile which he turned into Mt. Wright (a local hill with bands of white running through its rock face). The seven sisters then were sent into the sky so that all the people could see them, remember the laws and obey them. A Few Notes Wankaroo is the yellow footed wallaby that lives in the park. Muta (native grass) widje (fresh, green) Mark believes his ancestors have lived in the area for 40,000 and managed to survive the drying out of the land after the last ice age. The Grevillia Striata is a rain forest plant that has adapted to the dry. It provided resin to attach silcrete flints to spears, and acts as a direction tree as powder is always found on the SW side of the tree, dust from the prevailing wind direction.  The Mutawintji is the only local area west of the Darling where reliable water can be found all the year round in several springs. It was the gathering place for the five clan families from the area to meet and conduct ceremonies of increase, making rain, initiation etc. They cooked food traditionally in underground ovens to feed the 500 to 1000 people whom Mark believes gathered for ceremonies every few years when the ‘clever man’ decided it was the right time. They baked a bread (nikki mundu) out of wattle seeds too. Mark pointed out some of the plants and trees involved as we walked to the large overhangs where the stencil galleries are. The significance of the stencil for this group was it designated ownership of the land. Mothers would stencil their children’s hands and  when young people were initiated they would put their own stencil there again. The ‘clever man’ stencilled his hand and forearm at the start and end of every fresh gallery. When one gallery was filled up over time the group would move into the next and use it. Clever man also stencilled the number of major ceremonies he called by adding vertical stripes, one for each time. Most of these groups of stripes had only 4 or 5 stripes suggesting that ceremonies may have been several years apart or that the clever man did not have a long tenure either through death or replacement. The new clever man signed off the old panel with his forearm stencil placed low down on the panels, then started off a new set a hand prints for the clan. Extensive wooden gallery walks with rails protect the rock faces from being touched by the viewers and make the walk thru the galleries easy. The second lot of rock art was a good walk up the hill onto a sloping rock face with a fairly flat sheared face. Was this proof of glaciations, were traditional long scratches present or not? The rock surfaces all had the ‘desert varnish’, that is, a dark shiny finish caused by a chemical reaction of iron, manganese and clay. Certainly the rock art was stunning. Many of their traditional narratives had been meticulously pecked into the rock face and the work looked very old. Some images were quite large so that they could be clearly seen from the vantage point where we were standing. Perhaps they were used a teaching aids to pass on narratives and cultural business to the clans. Have all the narratives have been saved and passed down? Mark suggested he was continuing to be initiated into the deeper cultural knowledge by a few surviving old men with knowledge. None of this is written down or passes on to the uninitiated, so if the 3 or 4 men with the knowledge die then the stories die with them; sadly this is too often the case and the rock art becomes simply a marvellous puzzle.  Mark suggested the art may be 30,000 years old but acknowledged there is no way of accurately dating this type of rock art yet. The images covered an area at least 200 x 200 feet.  Narratives like the creation story were pecked over several pictures to advance the story. The overall design features were similar which suggests this cultural ‘book’ was created over a significant period of time, but sequentially so that the art style remained the same. This was entirely more sophisticated than the stencils in the overhang galleries that seemed to have become over time, a simple style of artwork depicting ownership. Gradually the culture seems to have become less complex and cultural skills such as art, less expert. Did this start to occur over a long period of time during the drying out of the land over the last 10,000 years, and the last 200 years of occupation have accelerated a devastating decline in the numbers of Aboriginal Australians and their traditional practices and knowledge? Certainly the art culture of the southern Aborigines seems to get less complex the further south one goes compared to recent NT rock art. Does this represent a loss of narratives and practices, or not? Was the living harder in the south compared to the coastal NT and so less time was left for cultural practices? Little sandstone exists in Victoria, so basalt and granite rocks may be less suitable for rock art. If the creation story of Kulawarra is typical it implies a harsh environment linked to punishment from the spirit ancestor, as an explanation for the hard times.  Overall this was one of the best cultural discussions about Aboriginal culture we have listened to.  Mark feels their local culture is better preserved than in other parts of NSW because they remained isolated from settler contact until explorer Charles Sturt passed through in 1844. Mark said Sturt was respected by the Aborigines as he respected them and was considerate towards them. Mark appears to have studied anthropology while getting a degree and appears very hopeful for the future preservation of the local culture. Quiet afternoon in the camp.
Copyright Grey Gypsies Australia 2009
Grey Gypsies of Australia
NSW Desert Parks
Mutawintji: Guided Tour
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