“Four wheels scare the cockatoos
From Kintore East to Yuendemu
The western desert lives and breathes
In forty five degrees”
(Midnight Oil, ‘Beds are Burning’ 1987)
Midnight Oil may not have been the first, but they are arguably the best Australian musicians to champion the cause of Aboriginal land rights. This song and the haunting ‘Dead Heart’ inspired me to trace some of the lyrics, which led me to the amazing story of the Pintupi nine.
While the first contact between Australia’s Indigenous people and the European colonisers is well documented, what is little known is the story of what was possibly the last contact. On October 13 1984, nine people walked out of the Gibson desert (near the WA and NT border) and effectively abandoned their traditional nomadic desert lifestyle. They were celebrated at the time by anthropologists and government officials as ‘the lost tribe’. They were in fact the last Aboriginal clan with direct memory of pre-contact Aboriginal culture dating back 40,000 years. And they collided with the twentieth century.
Their leader had perished after eating spoiled food from a can he found near an abandoned mining site. The remaining clan members had subsequently decided to try and find their other relatives and that journey ultimately led them into the modern world.
While the world they encountered wasn’t as hostile and confronting as the contact those first people must have experienced centuries before, it would change them forever. Most of the group while still alive today have been ravaged by the effects of a diet high in sugar and saturated fat that was so different to what they had known. Evaluated as having perfect health at the time of first contact, today they are afflicted with diabetes and heart disease. Some have died, one returned to the desert and remarkably, three have become successful artists.