Family Ties 

It’s 5.30 PM on a weeknight. The baby has been sick all week and getting up at 4.30am… I am exhausted. Utterly so. The house is a mess and I’m feeling miserable. I’m writing exactly this in an email to a friend of mine in Adelaide when a car I don’t recognise pulls up at the front of the house. This happens often enough – sometimes it’s Anangu wanting to sell wooden carved goods like clapping sticks or Tjampi woven baskets. Sometimes they want to use the internet, sometimes they want firewood; in fact Ruebens dad came to ask for some last night because he caught a bush turkey and wanted to cook it – he showed me the dead Mallie-Fowl on his back seat! I always oblige where I can. 

A group of older women are at the gate. “Nyuntu Palya?” I ask. Are you okay? One of the women speaks for the group: “Uwa, Palya…. Tjamu nyuntu, Wayne Curtis?” Is your grandfather Wayne Curtis. “Uwa” – yes. I explain my family tree as I understand it. She starts to cry and speaks rapidly in Pitjantjatjara to another woman in the car, who opens the door and gets out; she’s sobbing. “This your Kami, cousin!” This is your grandmothers cousin. She explains that she grew up with my grandmother when she lived in Ernabella as a small child. They’re all crying with happiness now. And so am I. We stand there in this awkward group hug, I look into their faces and they look into mine. Searching their faces, I can see my grandmother and father in their kind, dark eyes. We stand talking for a while. They each hold and cuddle my baby and sing to her in Pitjantjatjara. My Aunty tells me that she knew that I was her family: “I see you walking around with your baby and I said to my sister ‘she looks like Nicole, I bet she’s our family!'” 

They go on to explain that they’re having a special ceremony at Inma tonight and that they need some firewood, so we fill the boot of their car with wood. I feel like I have so much comapred to my Anangu family – firewood is the least I can do. 

I see my Grandmothers cousin today when I go to the shop, she stops me to hug me again and tell me how happy she is to meet me. “Why you always walking everywhere? You don’t have a car?” She asks, concerned. “Nah I got one, I just like walking!” I don’t admit that I’m too lazy to get the car out to drive the 5 minute trip to the shops or school. No one in this place seems to walk anywhere, despite it being a tiny place. It’s a sign of being poor to walk everywhere like I do. We talk for a bit longer, she tells me that she and my grandmother used to go to Yalata together to visit other family when they were tiny kids. It’s so amazing and yet so heartbreaking to hear about what my grandmothers life was like before she was taken from her family. “What was her English name? What name did they give her?” She asks. “Pat” I say. “uwa… Her Pitjantjatjara name, ‘Umatji’ (oomahchee)” “Umatji”….. Wow. I’m speechless. I only ever knew her as Nanny Pat. 

She promises to come for Kapati one day soon so that she can tell me more about my family. I walk home, a sick baby, warm on my back, her hot breath in my ear. I cling to these small pieces of information… They all form part of who I am as an Anangu woman.


Digging for Tjala

I’ve talked a couple of times about Reuben and his visits – that often result in day-long trips out bush where he shows us places, and talks about Anangu way. It’s truly amazing. 

Another weekend – it’s cooler weather now and it’s been raining, so we feel a little trapped at the moment. Plus we are all still getting over coughs and colds. Reuben pulls up in his trusty Troopy. His wife Judy gets out. I have so much time for this woman – she’s quiet and dignified and has so much wisdom. “We are going for Tjala and hunting for Malu! bring water, lunch for the kids… We’ll meet you at the shop!” 

So we met them at the shop. Got diesel, food and then followed them out of town. We drove to Mulga Park station, where the Pirinpa station-owner came out to see us. Reuben explained that we wanted to go hunting and look for Tjala and she reluctantly let us through. The irony of an Anangu man asking permission to enter Anangu land from Pirinpa station owners is not lost on Matt and I as we pass them.  A mob of Anangu in a white commodore pass us and pull over to explain that they’re going hunting Malu (kangaroo). Judy turns to me “they going hunting in that little car!” She laughs; the roads are pretty rugged up here, and while most Anangu don’t have 4wd, she seems to find this pretty amusing. 

So Reuben and Judy, Matt and I and about 6 kids all up, find a spot and pull off.  Judy disappears off into the bush and I quietly follow. She explains that she’s looking for the Tjala nests. Success! We find one. And we see the male Tjala around the nest. “This is good – it means that there are honey ants down in the nest – with the sacs full of honey.” She starts to take the top layer off the surrounding sand. “We can see the nest, and now we look for the hole that they come out of – and we dig there. They go in here, and they come out there.” 

 The Tjala Nest 

After taking the top layer of soil off of about a 5ft x 5ft area, we find the hole she’s looking for. It’s hard because digging around can easily obscure the hole.  She starts to dig. And dig. And dig. I’m genuinely surprised at how big this hole is getting. Reuben comes to help with the digging before giving the shovel to Matt and telling him where to dig. He explains he’s digging a seat for Judy to sit in while she digs for the ants; so this hole is massive before we even get to the ant-digging! Finally he decides he’s happy and Judy climbs in. It’s so huge it swallows her. 


Judy follows the path of the nest down further with a stick, and then finds a smaller sub-chamber. She raises her head from the red sand and asks for a small stick. I pass her one and she throws it away. “No, needs to be smaller!” She finds a tiny root and flicks some sand and Tjala out and picks them up. She holds out her fist to me and let’s a fistful of sand and fat Tjala ants fall into my cupped hands. I sort the contents – there’s about 3 ants with honey sacs of varying sizes.  By this point we’d been there for at least an hour and a half; for 3 ants! These delicacies are hard work to find!! She repeats this process; digging down and then using a small twig to flick out the ants.  “This your culture, Liz. You gotta learn this!” 


All up we got about 10 ants. I put them in a container – our hard earned bush tucker!! Judy decides it’s time to move to a different spot so we move on. All this time the kids are having an awesome time playing in the scrub. As Judy gets out of the hole, my two decide to hop in!  In this photo you can see the big hole; that’s where Judy sat, and then the smaller hole where she found the ants. 


Emmeline wasn’t impressed about having to leave.  

Judy and Reuben went to leave. “Do we just leave the hole? Should we fill it in?” “Nope just leave it!” She explained that filling it in can destroy the nest, and so that people will know that this next has just been dug. So we moved to a different spot and Judy again, took her shovel and disappeared among the Mulga Trees. We went searching for about 30 minutes but came up empty, and the light was starting to fade as day gave way to dusk. Matt and Reuben had picked up lots of firewood and Matt asked me to take a photo – I think he felt like a real bushman. Reuben just laughed at him.  We decide that it’s probably too late to hunt for Malu, and that it’s time to head back to Amata; it’s an hours drive home after all.

I considered my tjala, which I was holding in a travel mug. I ate one. There’s one of two ways to eat them – you can pull the honey sac off, and if you’re careful, you can pull it off without bursting it. Or you can leave it connected to the ant and just suck it out. Apparently if you leave it connected to the ant they can still survive – but they were all looking pretty dead to me, in the bottom of my cup. They taste amazing – and just like honey with a fruity hint to it; and obscenely sweet!! I try to convince Min to eat one – he refuses!! I try to explain that we may never get the opportunity again but he cannot be convinced! Emmeline enjoys one though, and looks to me for more. Matt seems significantly uncomfortable with eating one; “Ahhh… I’ll have one later!” I decide to give the rest to Rueben and Judy – after all, they brought us out here and did all the work. “No, no! They’re for you!” I’m speechless at how giving these two are. And once again I’m struck by this as we leave Mulga Park Station. Reuben pulls up along side us and rolls down his window: “I’m just a bit worried about those other fullas. (The ones in the commodore) They didn’t come back past us and the road is muddy – we gonna drive back and see if they need any help, Palya?”. After a days outing, selflessly taking us out bush, digging all day and then giving us the profits, they’re heading back, in the dark with a carload of kids to find some other people to make sure they’re okay. These two are amazing. So Matt and I reluctantly head back to Amata. 

I decide that rather than guts them all myself, I put the call out on Facebook to Pirinpa living in Amata that haven’t tried Tjala, to try some of ours, given how hard they are to source. I feel like paying it forward a tiny bit is the least that I can do. A couple of the teachers are excited to try them, and a couple of the playgroup kids finish them off. 

What an amazing weekend.

Cave Hill

You’ll recall when my Anangu family came to find me, they told me to go out to Cave Hill Homeland to visit them, and to talk to my Tjamu (grandfather, my grandmothers brother – who is also considered in Anangu way to be my grandfather) and to find out more about my family. Homelands are areas of land, right out in the bush away from community, where there is one or maybe a couple of houses, and belong to a family group. So Cave Hill is my family homeland – and when my Tjamu was visiting from Mutijulu (the community at Uluru where he lives) he was staying at Cave Hill. Cave Hill gets it’s name, I assume, because of the giant rock hill that’s riddled with caves. In those caves, are the most impressive and amazing cave paintings I’ve ever seen. So much so that tourist groups come to see it.

Today, we took a school group out to Cave Hill for a bush trip. I walked to school with the kids, and we hopped on the bus. I and the kids, a few teachers, a friend and former colleague of Matts, and a handful of Anangu Education Workers. We drove around community and picked up a kid who was late, and his mum. We stopped to pick up an Elder named Stanley – he is the custodian and traditional owner of Cave Hill, and to visit, we must gain his permission. Even though it’s my family homeland – I feel I have zero cultural authority to give or deny permission to visit. To be honest, I feel that I myself need permission to visit, and rightly so. Stanley hops on the bus and we head off, 10ish kilometers out of town towards Cave Hill. I introduce myself to Stanley, and explain who my Tjamu is. He nods and says “I know”. As if to say, “you don’t need to tell me – I know exactly who you are.” Of course he does. The Anangu have an exceptional ability to recall family trees.

 The broken down cars on the APY roads are excellent landmarks – particularly if there’s something unusual about them, like being particularly old, or in this case; look like they’re engaging in something indecent. The Humping Cars look like they’re doing exactly that, and the turn off is just past them. We drive past the homesteads at Cave Hill and up to the area where the tourists come and stay. Stanley addresses the kids, and I’m pretty stoked that I can understand 80% of what he’s saying, in Pitjantjatjara. He reiterates what most Anangu say about visiting sacred places; Speak softly, tread lightly, listen carefully and don’t throw rocks. 

We walk up to the biggest cave. I’m literally speechless. Vivid imagery cover the walls and roof of the cave. Vivid yellows, reds, browns, whites blacks… Its more amazing than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s freezing… much colder here than outside in the wind. I can feel that weight again; 60,000 years of history on the walls of this cave. I can see images of emu, Malu (kangaroo), Anangu and Pirinpa (whitefulla). I can see footsteps depicting Seven Sisters Dreaming… It’s incredible. Photos of this place are forbidden, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it was astounding. I can hear the voices of The Sisters, I can see their faces. Matt often says that Aboriginal People have a kind of mental wifi that we can plug into to get a feel for places. I know if there’s a place I can’t visit because I feel a tightness in my chest, or feel like I’m walking through mud. And similarly, I get a feel for the gravity of a place and it’s sacredness. Here, my wifi was plugged in and connected; this was a place of great importance. We walked to the top of the hill, with Stanley’s permission. From the top, we had a 360degree view of Amata and it’s surrounds, Uluru and Kata Tjuta. It was breathtaking. And the only thing I kept thinking is that this is where I want to be returned to when I die. 




Then we went back and the AEWs and I cooked Malu Wipu, potatoes and Damper. While we sat waiting for our feed to cook, Stanley told me about my family, and that he was my Tjamu’s cousin, which in Anangu way made him his brother, which made him my Tjamu too. The kids found Maku (witchety grub) so one of the AEWs cooked those. I’d only previously had maku raw, which was a bit too slimy and paleo for my tastes. But one of the AEWs cooked one and passed it to me. It was kind of eggy, nutty, chickeny and something else – but quite delicious!  


The other thing that became apparent, and that Matt and I both commented on, is that when the Anangu kids are out on bush trips, and out on country; they’re really well behaved. Obviously they’re excited so they need to be told to calm down every now and then, but for the most part they were excellent. There are issues around sexualised behaviours and “teasing” amongst kids in remote communites, for reasons I won’t go into now, but I saw none of this today – and they were excellent with my kids, helping them climb and bringing the baby back when she tried to run away into the bush. Matt and I discussed this, and I hypothesised that perhaps in the same way that being at the American Embassy is considered being “on American soil” perhaps the schools and the community are not considered to be “on country” in the same way as being out bush, and that feeling of disconnect in school and community contributes to the behaviour issues at school. It’s worth considering anyway. 

It was such an amazing day – I can’t really articulate how connected I felt.

This. This stuff is why I’m here.


“Right! That’s it! I’ve had enough!!!” I choked, tears running down my face. Matt, who was lying on the couch, sat up. “What’s wrong?!” He asked. I stood, crying, my face in my hands. “I can’t handle the dogs – these poor wreched animals! I cant stand it! Muddles is at the gate again, and it kills me that I have to tell him to clear off. He’s the gentlest animal I’ve ever met. Emmeline was pulling on his ear through the fence, and he just sat there, and then he licked her!” I sobbed. (Read the post about Camp Dogs to get the low-down, but muddles is a tail-less camp dog) Matt looked at me evenly; “do you really feel such a connection to that dog?” “Yes! He’s just a pup! He doesn’t deserve this. None of them do but I can’t help them all – but this one has chosen us!” He looked me in the eye: “alright, go and give him something to eat.” 

And so Muddles joined our family. 

It was a rough start – he was dangerously thin, thinner than I even thought was possible. He’d been eating from rubbish and had diarrhoea. Most of the dog poo around here has plastic wrap in it. I fought the temptation to give him copious amounts of food, because I knew he’d guts it and make himself sick. I started with a cup of dry food, I figured the fibre content would be better for his poor little gut. The other thing we needed to get past was the fear. Because Matt had been yelling at him (“Paya” – which is reserved for dogs only, means “clear off” basically) for the past few weeks – and rightly so, because the camp dogs can be very dangerous – he was petrified of Matt. Even when I’d coax him in, as soon as Matt came out he’d bolt – squeezing under the gate and down the street. Eventually, with Matt throwing food at him, he is now at the point where he’s no longer afraid of Matt, and will even go up and say hello. I took the extra piece of fence that Matt had cable-tied to the gate off so that he could come and go. But even when he wasn’t in the yard, he was sitting accross the road, waiting and watching. I decided to bath him; but first I needed to take care of the scraggly bits hanging from his tail. He doesn’t actually have a tail – many of the dogs up here are born without tails; I guess because of inbreeding. So I put my gloves on because I wasn’t sure exactly what was encrusted on that tail, I’m hoping just mud, but I don’t want to think about it too carefully. I went to lift his tail, expecting it to be a stump, but it was just a tuft of hair! I snipped the scraggly bits off, leaving him with a precision cut, straight line. My friend and neighbour calls it his “ass mullet ” and has offered to buy him a strap on tail! After I snipped his ass-mullet, I tried to bath him with a flea and tick treatment, but he’s petrified of water! So I, in my infinite wisdom decided to pop a rope around his neck to spray him down a bit. In a slip knot. Well he panicked and started screaming, pulling away. The more he pulled the tighter it got and the more he panicked. My other dogs were chasing him and barking; what a racket! I finally got the rope off and decided to leave the bath idea alone. Somehow he came back and still trusts me! Then we found the ticks. First on Matt, and then on Min… I pulled them out with tweezers and bought some front-line. Now the household is happily tick-free but it was a tense few days while we waited for the post to come with the front-line. This dog is very connected to me. Follows me everywhere. He’s gentle and quiet for the most part, unless its when he chases the other camp dogs away. I like to think it’s to protect us, but really he’s probably just protecting his interests. When our other dog Spencer was hit by a car, Muddles was with me and stood between me and the driver of the car, growling at him. He’s beautiful with the kids, I’ve never seen him so much as growl at them. He does have some puppy-isms, like jumping and play-biting; I’m hoping that some discipline and growing will sort that out. Matt maintains that he doesn’t think he should be here. He has said that he takes no responsibility and that if something goes wrong, it’s 100% on me. I accept that. I can’t say why, and I can’t quantify it, but I know that he’s not going to hurt anyone. I know that I can take the dog out of the camp, but not the camp out of the dog, but I’m certain that he chose our family. He comes and goes, but for now that’s okay. He follows me around community and if I take too long in the school, or the shop or wherever I am, he heads home to wait for me. Whenever I come outside, if he’s been down the street, he comes bounding back. His whole demeanor has changed – he smiles now, and trots next to me. He has become playful; his life now has become less about survival and more about play and affection. He and Lottie (our other dog, who Is beautiful but as dumb as box of rocks) are best friends. Spencer and Lottie were inseparable. Without Muddles, Lottie would have struggled far more after Spencer’s death. I know that Matt will never be on board, and I’m so grateful that he’s begrudgingly allowed this dog to stay. And I know he’s absolutely right that it’s a big risk; but gosh I love this dog.  


Sticks and Stones 

It’s tense here at the moment. You could cut the air with a knife. You can always tell when there’s trouble brewing in community; you can feel the electricity in the air. The kids are wound up, fighting amongst themselves, teasing each other and generally more highly strung than usual – tempers fly, and so do fists. Even the camp dogs can feel it. They fight in the town square, kicking dust up in their wake. Growling, hissing and shrieking. Rumor has it that it’s the same root cause of the fighting that happened a few months back with the riot that ended with a man having his skull cracked in. To complicate things, a group of Anangu men are scheduled to be released from prison in Pt Augusta; and this is causing a great deal of angst and anxiety for a variety of reasons. Inma, the church; (Many Anangu are devout Christians. “Inma” which translates to “song/dance/ceremony, is on every night. From dusk untill late into the night, you can hear the music and preaching from the church). Inma holds special services for Anangu that have just returned to community after a long stint in jail. It’s fire and brimstone stuff; scorched earth. The point is, to say “we know you made a mistake and broke pirinpa law, we are watching you, and we will support you”. In many respects this is a healing, cleansing experience for the Anangu returning. But anyway, even in the quiet end of town, in ‘Teacher Street’, Anangu men are walking up and down, picking up rocks. The shit is about to hit the fan; or at least that’s how it feels. Today is especially tense because a member of community tried to hang herself this morning. She’s stable now. Suicide is a big problem in the APY lands; especially in children. There are particular places that are hot-spots for hangings. Fortunately this girl was saved. It was attributed to domestic violence, but only she could say for certain. Matt is stiff and sore tonight, he was assaulted today; breaking up a fight. Violence is part of the status quo up here, and that’s probably due in part to the fact that tribal law and retribution is linked with violence. Substance abuse and low socio-economic status are other contributing factors, and there are probably many others – it’s a complex issue with no easy answers. It’s pretty frightening at the moment; and I’m keen to get out of community for the time being. Whilst I know that if we stay away from the riots and brawls, we won’t be specifically targeted, it scares me nonetheless. My biggest fear is Min. I know the tjiitjii won’t be targets of the violence, and that at pre-school he is relatively safe, I fear in the back of my mind that something might happen. Times like this I’m keen to keep him at home. Tommorrow is Friday, so no preschool. I think we might head to Yulara tomorrow night, just in case the fighting really kicks on. I’ve seen lots of Anangu around that I don’t recognise, and that’s likely because they’ve come from other communities to get involved in the fighting. We are all on tenterhooks. Let’s hope it passes soon. 

Amata VS Pip

So I was hanging out in the front yard with the kids – Emmeline was playing in the dirt and Min was riding his bike when a familiar troopy pulled up. It was a friend of ours, Reuben. I’ve mentioned him before; he’s taken us out to different places, to the Seven Sisters Dreaming place – he’s a huge source of knowledge up here. He’s been out of community for a while now – it was good to see him. Comforting even. Matt gets home from work just as he pulls up. “I won’t shake your hand big man, I might get you dirty!” He says with a grin. Matt has started wearing longer pants and shirts because it’s been cold in the morning. “You look like such a white man!” I’m killing myself trying not to laugh. “So I got this awning to put on the car, have you got a drill?” He asks. “Now?” “Yeah!” So three hours later Matt comes in having just attached an awning to Reuben’s troopy. “It’s Basso’s birthday tomorrow…” Reuben says. “You want me to bake a cake?” “Yeah”. I’ve made a couple of birthday cakes up here; like I’ve said before, things we take for granted, like working ovens, the ability to read English recipes, to afford ingredients. Anangu don’t necesarrily have access to those things. I don’t mind at all. Reuben’s wife gave me a packet mix and I popped a cake in the oven. “What you doing tomorrow? We going to Pip for football and we’ll take you to the underground caves!”. I gotta admit, I was looking forward to doing not much of anything, but we have to take advantage of every opportunity like this, so the following day we set out for the 3 hour drive to Piplitjatjara, a community on the western side of the APY. We travelled in convoy, and stopped at a secluded patch of bush. I wondered where this underground cave was… Then I saw it. A tiny hole in the ground. Surely he didn’t expect me to go down there?! I wouldn’t fit!!! As I got closer I saw that it sloped down somewhat and looked like it would be bigger inside. Judy looked at me: “you’ll be right!” I gently suggested Matt go first because he had the white-man head-torch strapped to his forehead. I on the other hand had my Anangu reputation to uphold and had to look like the brave black woman who didn’t think twice about squeezing down a tiny hole in the ground to god only knows what horror beneath. Matt and Min went down, so there was nothing left but to give it a crack. I was more worried about how the hell I was going to get out without a crane and a mob of SES volunteers( it was a pretty steep drop! I scraped my arms down and it did indeed open up into this large cavern, easily accommodating 4 adults and Min. It was amazing! The floor was littered with what I can only assume was fossilised scat, it was light but rock-like. There was translucent rocks and minerals – I reckon the miners would be sniffing around given half the chance. We sat down there in true darkness for a period of time. It was silent, the air was thick with damp, dusty rock. It was pretty amazing. 

Now came the hard bit, getting out! I climbed back to the entrance, took of my beloved havvies because they were just making things harder. In retrospect closed shoes would have been more responsible; but there was something really connected about navigating this cave system in bare feet. I found a couple of footholds and somehow managed to squeeze myself back out. Phew! No SES needed! Then we hopped back in the car and headed towards Pip! 

Half of Pip and Amata were gathered at the oval at Kalka, just near Pip. This “oval” was all red sand. I didn’t want to think about the gravel rash from blokes slipping over! To say that these guys take football pretty seriously is a grave understatement. It’s almost a part of Anangu Culture. Matt, who secretly was probably hoping that Amata was short so he’d get a guernsey (I’m pretty sure I saw him doing a head-count at one point), got roped into doing the timing, scoring and the siren (a car horn). He made it seem like he was reluctant but I know deep down he loved being a part of it. It was pretty amazing; people gathered around the oval, lots of fires and the smell of Malu Wipu cooking permiating the air. Kids playing, dogs running around, even the service providers, the Police, Teachers and  Nurses came out to watch. It had a real community feel to it. I’m really glad we went, even though it was a long day and we got home in darkness. Matt, the kids and I were knackered, but we sat up yarning to Reuben untill late into the night. Every time he visits, I learn so much more about Anangu way. And that’s why we are here, after all. 


The Clinic

It’s a shamble. An absolute disgrace. I haven’t yet had a positive experience there. But perhaps I’m biased. I came here with 10 years of nursing experience, of which 7 years has been as a Registered Nurse in a busy Metropolitan Emergency Department (minus a couple of breaks to have babies). Before coming to Amata, I made contact with the organisation that provides the health care services across the APY. But they weren’t interested in employing me, unless I was prepared to travel to other communities and work full time – neither of which I can do. So I sit here, with my skills going to waste. I went to the clinic in the first couple of week because Min had boils – basically they’d morphed into skin infections because of all the bugs up here. Boils are common up here. I walked over, Min in the stroller (his name is Bob) and baby asleep on my back. The clinic was due to open at 2pm. At 2.10 I was standing outside, waiting in 45 degree heat. Eventually someone rocks up and let’s me in. She doesn’t tell me what to do, there’s no signs. I sit down. She explains that she’s the midwife, and wants to get some details first. “Now, he’s definitely not Aboriginal” she says, it wasn’t a question. “Um, he absolutely IS Aboriginal.” She looks at me askance, and moves on. Age, height etc. “Now, you said he wasn’t Aboriginal, right?”. “No. He IS Aboriginal. He’s Anangu. He may not look it to you, but he is. I am, both my children are.” Again, she looks at me blankly. She gives me some paw paw cream and Betadine – standard care for boils apparently. The following day the phone rings: “oh hi! It’s such and such from the health service, just checking some details about your son and his sore eye.” Silence… “You mean his boils?” More silence… “Ahh yes! Boils!” I’m waiting for it…. “Now, he’s not Aboriginal is he?” I exhale sharply. “He absolutely and 100% IS Aboriginal. I’ve answered this question 3 times now – and I’m starting to feel that my son is being racially profiled based on his skin colour.” My pulse is thumping in my ears – I’m normally not one for confrontation. “Oh no! Nothing like that!” He says, back pedalling. He asks my background and when he hears my professional experience he says: “you’re the first person, in my 20 years of working on the lands, that is up here wanting to work and can’t! It seems pretty short sighted.” And he’s right. It is. 

It was a couple of weeks later that I came down with a cracking case of tonsilitis. Fever of 40, rigors, vomiting – I needed antibiotics. I was so sick that Matt had to stay home from work to look after the kids. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to go back to the clinic. I walked over, and went in. There is absolutely no signage to tell you what to do or where to sit, there’s Anangu everywhere. I go in and sit on a bench. No one speaks to me or aknowleges me; I don’t even know what I’m waiting for. After 40 minutes of waiting I realise that all of the Anangu are sitting in another waiting area, so I move to sit there with them – I think there’s some unwritten rule that no one sits in the first area? Who’s to say?! I look around – it’s disgusting. There are dead bugs on the floor, and it’s a mess. The sheets on the examination table are filthy. It’s a disgrace – and the Anangu deserve so much better. Once I moved to this other waiting area, a nurse asks me if I’ve been seen – no one seems to know what anyone else is doing. I was asked at least 4 times if I had been seen. I don’t understand why they don’t run it like an emergency department – triaging people, seeing the most urgent and time critical people first, and then the rest in order of presentation.  The nurse that finally sees me is professional and competent, agreeing with my provisional diagnosis and giving me some antibiotics. A week later I have to take Min back. I know I need to go and sit in the other area this time – and only 3 people ask me if I’ve been seen. The nurse that sees us is rude, and speaks to me with distain. “These aren’t boils. It’s Impitigo – don’t you understand the difference?!” Clearly not. And given that it was a nurse here that made the original diagnosis – and because we don’t see many boils or Impitigo in my Emergency Department, I deferred to her experience. I wanted desperately to tell her that I was an RN myself, but that wouldn’t be received too well. Min was asking me about the oxygen cylinders and what they’re for – “sometimes when people can’t get enough oxygen into their lungs, bloodstream and to their brain, they need some extra oxygen.” “DO NOT TOUCH THAT” the nurse yells at Min, in his face. I was so shocked. “It’s always more effective from someone else” she says. I was so shocked and disgusted that I gathered my things, and promptly left. I don’t know how much input the APY and NPY has into the day to day running of this clinics, and I’ve no doubt that it’s challenging work. But this clinic is terrible. I really hope we stay healthy for a while. 

Who’s your mob? 

So you’ve heard of the APY, which is the land we live on. APY stands for Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara – Anangu literally translates to people – so it’s the lands of the people (Anangu people specifically as opposed to just any old whitefulla) of the Pitjantjatjara Yanunytjatjara language groups. These two groups have lots of similarities. The languages are virtually identical, with a few exceptions, but those to the east of the APY fall into the Yankunytjatjara territories, under their laws and dreaming. Growing up, I was always under the impression that I was a Pitjantjatjara woman. That’s what my grandmother told me – that’s what I’ve always known. Some years ago now, I was involved in an Aboriginal mentorship program in which several Aboriginal Academics were keynote speakers. It was at this program that I met Paul Hughes – a Yankunytjatjara Elder and academic. We had a yarn outside as he was waiting for his cab when he asked me what my language group was. “Pitjantjatjara!” I replied.”We’re practically neighbours! Where is your family from?” He asked. I told him that my grandmother has been forcibly removed from Pukatja, Ernabella community as a small girl. “It’s more likely that you’re Yankunytjatjara!” I laughed it off – thinking that he must just be biased – secretly thinking that no – there’s no way, because I’m a Pitjantjatjara woman and damn proud!! “She could very well be Pitjantjatjara, as you say – she may have moved from a different community, or some such thing” he said. I nodded my agreement, keen to move the conversation away from questioning my heritage. The conversation was soon forgotten, until this week. On the last day of term, we had Malu Wipu family day, a day where families can come and share in their kids learning, we have a fire and cook Kangaroo Tail and damper, and then the preschool sang at the school assembly (never has Alice the Camel been so, so cute) I was sitting down with one of the Anangu Education Workers who also happens to be the same woman who tracked me down when my family was looking for me. As it turns out, she’s also part of my family and she tells me something new every time I see her – about our family, who is who to whom – it’s incredible, never have I known a group of people to have such detailed information committed to memory, whereas I’m over here asking for a pen and paper! She points out a kid in the school and says “this is your niece”. Anangu have a different concept of relationships, which as far as I can understand is tied into skin groups – there are women in community who are older than me yet call me Kami (grandmother), and I am to call them Sister. Anyway – we were sitting together and she was bouncing baby Emmeline on her knee and pointing out different parts of her body and naming them in Pitjantjatjara; “mulya (nose), tjaa (mouth) pina (ears), and she was telling me that as soon as she saw me, Emmeline and Min, she knew we were family because of our noses, apparently as far as Aboriginal noses go, ours are unique. “Oh, that reminds me! You’re not Pitjantjatjara” she says, off hand and matter-of-factly, “you’re Yankunytjatjara!” My stomach lurched. I imagine this is how I would feel if I’d just been told that I was accidentally swapped at birth and that I was actually the child of the neighbours, who were similar but different; who have spaghetti on Monday nights instead of Tuesday – and despite the fact that they’re really similar you still feel like everything has changed. It took me a moment to ask myself, given the fact that I know so very little about my Aboriginality, what was it about myself, that was so specific to Pitjantjatjara people and culture that I felt like I was loosing. The answer is, anything and everything I’ve learnt, is about Anangu people and way of life. And I’m not loosing anything; I’m gaining a whole other Language Group with which to identify. I turned to her; “do I have any Pitjantjatjara family?” I asked. “Oh yes! Of course!” She said. I think because I spent my whole life believing I was one thing – and so desperately clung to it despite having encountered such difficulty in obtaining information, but I was steadfast because my grandmother was very clear that she was a Pitjantjatjara woman, I won’t renounce my identity. But I can now proudly stand here and say: “I am Elizabeth Close; strong and proud Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara woman. 

Camp Dogs

The dogs. Oh so many dogs! That’s one of the things I’ve found really confronting being in a remote community – the dogs. I’m an animal lover by nature; all of our dogs have been rescue dogs. Even that RSPCA television ad with all the animals with bandages running across the screen (you know the one, and you’re probably humming the music in your head right now) makes me cry. I’m a vegetarian (yep – an Aboriginal vegetarian. Albeit a bad one lately) I only buy palm-oil or certified palm-oil free things – and I do a few other token things that assuage my guilt over not being a true animal rights activist, like buying free range eggs and ‘pole and line tuna’ So seeing these dogs – these starving, skin-and-bone creatures, some of them with no hair, riddled with tics, missing eyes. The females have bellies and nipples that drag along the ground (not unlike me if I’m honest) because they’ve had countless litters of pups. I was forewarned of this before we came, and told not to feed the camp dogs because “it just makes things worse! They’ll be on your doorstep in hoards and if you ever stop feeding them, they’ll get aggressive.” So I psyched myself up. I told myself I’d just ignore them.  And I’ve largely succeeded. Largely. We tell the kids not to pat the camp dogs, that they might bite them -and this is certainly true. So day to day we’ve walked past them, and I’ve turned away, mentally closing my eyes. The fact is, that even though it might not show – the Anangu love their camp dogs. They all have owners. Except perhaps for Gerald. When we first came, on our first night I was in the kitchen unpacking and I called out to Matt: “Matt, there’s a dingo on the doorstep!” And there was. Just at that moment Min walked past; “oh yeah – that’s just Gerald”. I looked at him quizzically, but he didn’t offer any further explanation. Perhaps he’s some kind of dingo whisperer. This dingo named Gerald would appear, seemingly out of thin air whenever we left the house or returned. He has this creepy spirit-dog shit about him. Like the coyote on that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is on a quest to find his soul mate and gets high from eating Guatemalan Insanity Peppers (obscure reference, I know). He stares right at me like he’s boring into my soul. Either that or he wants to eat the baby on my back. He’s really friendly though, happy for a pat, and a little aloof – like a cat, it’s all on his terms. It’s taken all of my energy not to feed him and so far I’ve succeeded. Often I’ll come out and he’s asleep on top of our car, or on the doorstep. We have no idea how he gets through our locked gate. Our dogs completely ignore him – which adds to my spirit-dog theory. But my biggest camp dog hurdle has been Muddles. 

Muddles was asleep on the doorstep one day when we went outside one day – curled up next to our two dogs. You know those documentaries about Orangutans where their faces just look so human and and when you look at them, behind zoo bars, it just makes you think about your own humanity – it makes your heart hurt? Yep – muddles has those eyes. And he’s skinny as a rake and tic-ridden. This is another one of those dogs whose name is a miraculous concoction of Mins. “Oh yep – that’s muddles!” Okay – right you are. So lately, whenever we went walking, muddles would appear. He was so skinny he’d just squeeze himself under the gate. Even when Matt made the gate bigger he still managed. “Don’t you dare feed him!” Matt was totally right. And to my credit, I haven’t fed him. But gosh it’s been hard. Matt was worried about him biting one of the kids – which is a completely legitimate concern. I genuinely don’t think this guy has it in him, but it’s not really a risk worth taking. So again, like with the others – I turn away, closing my eyes and biting my fist. I know what’ll happen if I feed them. One of the service providers up here fed the dogs, and quickly obtained the reputation of “crazy camp dog lady” – where you couldn’t walk to work without fear of a pack-attack. She told me that when she first came here, she went to the shop, bought a bag of dry dog food, came outside, slit a hole in the bag and walked home. I totally and 100% empathise with how she must have felt. 

Gerald and Min 



Bush Trips

Every Friday, my husband takes one of the upper primary classes so that their regular teacher can have what’s called ‘NIT’ or ‘Non Instructional Time’. And for the last few Fridays he’s used this time to take the kids out bush. Each class has, or should have, an Anangu Education Worker. Someone to help manange behavior if needed, and to ensure that classroom learning happens in a culturally safe manner. The AEW in this class is a woman named Gina, and she’s fantastic. Each week she’s picked a new place to visit, and told us the story behind the place, the dreaming, and her own personal experiences there as a child growing up. She points out what different plants and trees were used for; bush tucker and bush medicine. Matt brings some modern day science into it as well by bringing the data loggers and water testing kits. I’ve really gotten a lot out of these trips – and so have the kids. Not just the school kids either – my kids have loved it. This class is made up of some of my favourite kids that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting here in Amata. They’re all such a delight to spend time with – none of the other issues around teasing and bullying on these trips; the Tjiitjii are just friendly, caring, polite and kind. On the first trip we went out to the Seven Sisters waterholes – you might remember this place from the ‘dead dingoes and cave paintings’ post – well this time we went had had a look in the waterholes, the kids leapt back in surprise – there was a snake floating in the water. One of the kids went and grabbed a pebble and dropped it in. Again they all leapt back; it was still alive!!! We made the decision to save it – so my husband grabbed a big stick and fished it out. It was pretty stunned so it probably got eaten by the eagle we saw circling! 



Then last week Gina took us out to her sisters homeland. Homelands are basically houses, sheds and makeshift shelters and homes that exist outside of the communities. There are hundreds of homelands dotted throughout the APY. They aren’t always occupied – but when the houses in community encounter significant overcrowding – often people will move back out to the Homelands. Different family groups have their own homelands, and Anangu feel quite connected to their homelands. This particular homeland was set near what used to be a large river system. Now it was all bone dry. Someone has built a dam and it had destroyed the river. Gina told us the story of a big feud between families, which caused one of the men to go and build the dam. I didn’t really understand. Now it was just sand and rock. She told us of the days when they would swim in the river as a child, and how her brothers and the other Wati’s (young initiated men) declared the best spot to be for the Wati’s only – kicking the young girls out. We hadn’t traveled far when the smell hit our nostrils. A smell that couldn’t be confused with anything else. Decomposition. We smelt them long before we saw them – the horses. Many of them. At least five or six, all long dead, and backbones picked dry. Perhaps they’d come looking for water? We kept walking along the dry river bed – we saw more dead horses, and a large dead cow. We didn’t find any water to test but we found lots of amazing plants. One in particular – and the name escapes me, has a seedpod which when you dab it on your skin covers you in a fine coloured powder – each pod a different colour! Black, orange, brown, yellow. Along with ochre paint, this is what was used for body paint during ceremony. One of the kids took the seed pod and gave himself and my husband a big black handlebar moustache! Min complained early on that he couldn’t walk because his legs were tired, and one of the kids picked him up and put him on her shoulders, and then later put on my carrier, and put Min up on her back, and then Emmeline! We trudged back to the bus, trying as best we could to breathe through our mouths as we passed the pile of entwined horse-spines. I can’t wait to see where Gina takes us next time – getting a chance to visit different places within the lands that we don’t even know exist is really special. I feel so privileged to be invited and included!