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Spinifex people

The vast and harsh Nullarbor Plain, as seen from space. Courtesy NASA.

The Pila Nguru, often referred to in English as the Spinifex people, are an Indigenous Australian people of Western Australia, whose lands extend to the border with South Australia and to the north of the Nullarbor Plain.[1][2] The centre of their homeland is in the Great Victoria Desert, at Tjuntjunjarra, some 700 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie,[3] perhaps the remotest community in Australia.[4] The Pila Nguru were the last Australian tribe to have dropped the complete trappings of their traditional aboriginal lifestyle.[5]

They maintain in large part their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle within the territory,[6] over which their claims to Native title and associated collective rights were recognised by a 28 November 2000 Federal Court decision. In 1997, an art project was started in which indigenous paintings became part of the title claim. In 2005, a major exhibit of their works in London brought the artists widespread attention.[7]


Spinifex people speak south western dialects of the Wati language division of the Pama–Nyungan languages.[8] The name Pila Nguru is an abbreviation of Anaṉgu tjuta pila nguru ("people-land-spinifex-from", or people from the land of the spinifex)[5] and reflects an identity rooted in a sense of tenure of territory rather than a strictly linguistic classification.[9][10]

Ecology and lifestyle

The contemporary centre is found on the southern edge of the Spinifex homelands.[8] The arid desert which forms the environment where the Pila Nguru live has tree varieties like mulga, western myall and casuarina as well as varieties of cassia, sandalwood and spinifex.[8] Spinifex grasses (porcupine/hummock grasses) dominated communities over 22% of the traditional Australian landmass,[11] and the arid desert areas contain some 35 species. The variety called "soft spinifex" or, in pidgin English bush araldite is Triodia pungens, prized for its cementing qualities.[12] The general term in Western desert languages for the plant is tjanpi, the plain where it grows is pila, the plant itself, in the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages was tjapura, while the Spinifex resin extracted from it is called kiti.[13]

Spinifex grasses were worked to produce cakes of resin that had four basic uses: (a) as a waterproofer, by caulking any wooden object employed for carry around water; (b) as a putty to fill holes or fissures in work materials; (c) as an adhesive to bind materials when making tools, weaponry and ceremonial objects; and (d) as a basic stuff for moulding beads, figurines and other assorted objects.[14] These resin products are commodities also, used as gifts and as important tradewares between tribes.

The grasses were cut with stone halfway down the stem.[15] The gathered grass was flailed with a stick to obtain spinifex dust, which then was winnowed and "yandied", yandi referring to a luandja, a softwood winnowing dish for grass seed:[16] the cleaned seeds were then tipped into another type of dish, called ivirra,[17][18] worked further with a particular rocking movement and shaking and then heated over stone to yield around 8 cubic metres yielding 600 grams.[19][13][20]

The resin, thus extracted from varieties of triodia was a key ingredient for binding the stone blades to native hafted adzes,[21][22] which were of two types, tula and burren, the former, the type used by spinifex people, using the distal edge, the other the lateral edge, for working materials.[23] The materials for the tula adze were obtained by knapping tula flakes to form "slugs" or blades, the tool being then employed for woodwork, to hollow out yandis or fashion boomerangs and spears.

The only artificial dwelling was a wiltja or windbreak.[24]


In evaluating the Pila Nguru claim to native title in 2001, the Federal Court of Australia's Chief Justice Michael Black stated that archaeological evidence indicated a nomadic presence in the Western desert dating back some 20,000 years.[25] There was rapid demographic expansion over most of Australia during the Holocene climatic optimum (9,000-6,000, extending through much of the arid zones.[26] According to Scott Cane the residual debris of artifact use peppering the desert landscape is extremely dense, attesting to a very long period of habitation.[27][28]

History of contact with whites: 1900–1952

White incursions into the Pila Nguru homelands started around the 1910s, with the granting of options on pastoral leases, which however failed to be realized. By the 1930s, profiting from the proximity of the Trans-Australian Railway (T.A.R), which had been completed just over a decade earlier, missionaries strove to undertake evangelistic pastoral work in the area, establishing a mission in Warburton but the extremities of trying to live there rendered their activities difficult, and the native lifestyle managed to survive, with the retention of many customary ways.[2] In times of drought during the 1920s down to 1942, itinerant Anangu sought out provisions from the Karonie T.A.R on the Cowarna Downs, where the government had established a rations depot, with food distributed on a monthly basis. It was gradually overtaken by the depot at Cundeelee from 1939, which was closed in 1942. Two other depots distributing rations to those in need existed: one at Zanthus T.A.R, the other halfway between Cundeelee and Queen Victoria Springs.

By the 1950s, so little was known about these people that the British chose the Nullarbor for nuclear weapons testing, as they believed it to be devoid of people.

Atomic testing, 1953–1957

When graded roads were built for the Giles Weather Station (part of the Weapons Research Establishment) during 1952–1955, officials learned that indigenous people - probably then around 150 - lived west of the sites. Scouting just east of this area to find suitable locations for radiation sensors that would measure the fallout, Len Beadell records stumbling on an "Aboriginal Stonehenge", a geometrical pattern of upturned shale slabs extending for a distance of 60 metres.[29] An officer, the expert bushman Walter MacDougall was sent to warn them of the impending tests. A total of nine small hydrogen bombs ranging up to 25 kilotons were tested at Emu Junction (2 tests, 1953) and Maralinga (7 tests, 1956–1957). Given that only one officer and an assistant were assigned to warn the Spinifex people who lived across an enormous area far to the west of the test sites, many of the Spinifex were never informed, nor did they leave the area. Officially, all were forced to leave their lands and were not allowed within 200 km of ground zero. Officials made a leaflet drop, but the Spinifex could not read the leaflets and were wary and afraid of the aircraft.

In the later stages of the bomb trials, MacDougall discovered that up to 40 Spinifex people may have been hunting over the eastern portion of the prohibited Maralinga area while the tests were being conducted, moving as far east as Vokes Hill and Waldana. One family of twelve were the nearest people, living at Nurrari Lakes less than 200 km west from Maralinga. Although close enough to hear the larger bombs explode, they were healthy several years after the tests.

The Australian Royal Commission was unable to determine if Maralinga Tjarutja or Pila Nguru people had been exposed to damaging levels of radiation from fallout, due to the lack of medical records and medical centres. Maralinga bomb plume maps show prevailing northerly winds during tests, whereas the Spinifex lands are 300 km to the west of Maralinga. The closest group was at Nurrari Lakes about 180 km west. Scott Cane's otherwise definitive native title study, Pila Nguru (2000), contained almost no details as to how bomb testing radiation affected the Spinifex people.

Native title

In 1997 the Spinifex Arts Project was begun to help document the Native Title claims. Both Native Title paintings, the Men's Combined and the Women's Combined, document the entire Spinifex area; they show the claimants' birthplaces and express the important traditional stories that cross and give shape to the area.[30]

The Spinifex people were the second tribe in Western Australia to receive recognition of their Native Title land rights in 2000,[31] in accordance with Section 87 (agreement) of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. The ruling, by the Federal Court of Australia, in a case brought by a third party on behalf of the Spinifex People, found that agreement had been reached between the applicants and the two named respondents: the State Government of Western Australia and the Shire of Laverton, over a sector of land encompassing around 55,000 km2.

This territory - which was designated as either unallocated land or park reserve, and contained no pastoral leases - lies to the north of the lands of the Nullarbor peoples, to the east of the people in the Pilki area and to the south of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, the eastern boundary being formed by the South Australian border. Apart from the area of two Nature Reserves, the only specific "other interests" identified within the territory was for public right-of-way along an existing road which traversed some of the territory.

The Native Title claim was made by twenty-one families constituting the current Spinifex people. Some People of the Spinifex had begun returning to their land from around 1980. From 2001 many of those who left to live at the Christian missions have since returned to their homelands and the Unnamed Conservation Park Biosphere Reserve (now Mamungari Conservation Park). In 2004 the government turned over the pristine wilderness area of 21,000 sq/km jointly to the Pila Nguru and the Maralinga Tjarutja.


Spinifex art began as what Philip Batty called "intercultural debris", reflecting their experience of the impact of the outside world. The genre of what the Pila Nguru call "government paintings" were visual documents created to furnish evidence of their land title, to be produced in court.[32]

A theatrical performance, Career Highlights of the Mamu, covering the tribal experience during the period of the atomic tests was performed by Roy Underwood and several other Spinifex people in Hamburg in 2002.[32]

In early 2005, the Spinifex people became famous for their solo and group artworks, due to the effect of a major art exhibition of their work in London.[7] Their boldly-coloured "dot paintings" are not the usual polished commodities produced by many northern tribes for sale to a non-aboriginal art market, but are authentic works that the Spinifex People have made for their own purposes.[2]

See also



  1. ^ Casey 2009, p. 138 n.9.
  2. ^ a b c Loxley 2002.
  3. ^ Stephenson 2007, p. 139.
  4. ^ Chester 2013.
  5. ^ a b Castillo 2015, p. 72.
  6. ^ Middleton 2009, pp. 84–85.
  7. ^ a b Aiken 2005.
  8. ^ a b c Lomholt 2016.
  9. ^ Castillo 2015, p. 72 n.1.
  10. ^ Cane 2002, pp. 60–63,189f.
  11. ^ Pitman 2016, p. 98.
  12. ^ Clarke 2014, p. 195.
  13. ^ a b Clarke 2014, p. 196.
  14. ^ Pitman 2016, pp. 98ff.
  15. ^ Smith 2013, p. 330.
  16. ^ Scambary 2013, p. 49.
  17. ^ Cane 2013, pp. 25–26.
  18. ^ Pitman 2016, pp. 99 n.11.
  19. ^ Smith 2013, pp. 188–189.
  20. ^ Pitman 2016, pp. 97ff..
  21. ^ Smith 2013, pp. 186ff..
  22. ^ Powell, Fensham & Memmott 2013, pp. 210–224.
  23. ^ Doelman & Cochrane 2012, pp. 253–255.
  24. ^ Castillo 2015, pp. 72–3.
  25. ^ Smith 2013, p. 15.
  26. ^ Williams et al. 2015.
  27. ^ Cane 2002, p. 163.
  28. ^ Castillo 2015, p. 78.
  29. ^ Castillo 2015, p. 79.
  30. ^ Spinifex Country 2010.
  31. ^ Spinifex Government of Western Australia, Office of Native Title. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  32. ^ a b Castillo 2015, p. 75.


External links