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Opinion And World View: Warri and Yatungka - The Last Frontier

"This is a story of traditional Aboriginal life that is part of our heritage as Australian. It is also about how non-Indigenous Australians can restore the sovereignty to Indigenous peoples that our British forebears violently wrested from them.'' writes Paul W Newbury, going on to tell an amazing and deeply moving love story.

Warri and Yatungka were lovers who eloped in the 1930s to escape tribal sanctions against their marriage. For over forty years, they roamed the Gibson Desert following a traditional lifestyle long after their tribespeople had moved into the settlement at Wiluna in Western Australia.

In June 2008, the Birriliburu people celebrated Warri and Yatungka’s memory when evidence of the couple’s deep and enduring connection to country contributed to the Federal Court recognition of Birriliburu rights as holders of native title over 66,760 sq km of Crown land.

Warri committed a grave breach of Birriliburu customary law when he took in marriage a woman of the same moiety as himself, especially as Yatungka’s family had promised her to another man. Aboriginal peoples had complex systems of marriage law because of concerns about birth defects that can arise from consanguinity.

Warri knew he could not take Yatungka as his wife and remain with his people, so the couple crept away from the camp as their people slept and fled from their country. When the elders discovered the couple had eloped, they appointed Mudjon to follow their trail and force them to return to face punishment under the laws their ancestors had handed down over the ages.

Mudjon and Warri had been close friends—they played together as children, they passed through initiation together and as men they hunted on the plains.

Mudjon followed Warri and Yatungka’s tracks into neighbouring clans’ country and he came across them at Birrill rock-hole. They were in the company of a Budidjara clan.

Mudjon strode into a clearing near the waterhole and challenged Warri to accompany him back to his country. Warri was answered with a number of spears that Mudjon adroitly deflected.

Warri declared he would not give Yatungka up under any circumstances nor would he return home, for not only would he be punished but Yatungka would be given to the man to whom she had been promised.

That night, Warri and Yatungka fled the camp and travelled west. Mudjon knew it was useless to follow and he returned home to report the failure of his mission.

Mudjon was saddened by these events. Not only had he lost a friend but Warri had deliberately broken tribal law - this was unthinkable for him. Following the pathways laid down by the ancestors was of paramount importance and the rules of the Dreaming had to be obeyed; otherwise, the Birriliburu people would not survive.

Warri and Yatungka remained in exile for many years and they had three children, two boys and a girl. The girl died young but the boys grew into men. However, happiness eluded them. No Birriliburu man or woman could be happy living outside their country. They longed to return to the land of their birth, to hunt and gather and participate in the social gatherings and the sacred rituals of their people.

Ultimately, the time came when their feelings for their country overcame their fear of returning. With the two boys, they travelled across the spinifex country and the sand hills until they stood once more in the land of the Birriliburu people. They wondered what their reception would be and what punishment the elders would inflict on them.

Warri and Yatungka found that a great many changes had taken place. There had been an exodus of people from Birriliburu country into the town of Wiluna leaving only a few small family groups wandering in the desert. The world Warri and Yatungka left to live in exile had changed dramatically.

Eventually their sons moved south to take part in initiation practices and Warri and Yatungka were left alone to wander the desert. They lived the life their ancestors had done for countless centuries, moving from one waterhole to the next, hunting and food gathering. In good seasons, there is an abundance of water in the soaks and rock holes, game is plentiful and life is not too difficult.

But when the rains do not come, the water holes dry up, the vegetation withers away and obtaining sufficient food and water for daily needs requires a great deal of effort. In traditional Aboriginal societies, young men and women travel long distances during the day to find edible food to support the elderly and the infirm. Social prestige depended on family members supporting kin.

Warri and Yatungka were not able to travel far to procure a living. For three years, a severe drought descended upon the land and Warri and Yatungka’s kin at Wiluna became anxious for them.

The people scanned the sky daily for signs of rain and expressed their fears for the old couple. The only evidence to indicate they were still alive was a report of smoke far off in Birriliburu country. The old men were convinced this was a signal sent up by Warri, for who else was out there to fire country?

The people urged that a search be undertaken to bring Warri and Yatungka out of the desert. They knew they could not possibly live through another summer. Eventually, a party of white men agreed to their request. The party that included Mudjon went off in four-wheel-drive vehicles in search of the last of the nomads in August 1977.

It took them several weeks to find the couple. Mudjon was ecstatic to find Warri and Yatungka alive though they were stick-thin. As well as having to walk for days to find water, they had not eaten meat for a long time.

The couple agreed to come to Wiluna though they feared the elders might punish them. Mudjon assured them their ostracism was over; the elders had forgiven them a long time ago.

As emaciated as they were, they continued to fire the country as their ancestors had done for eons. As they followed ancient pathways, they ignited the country at intervals, leaving behind long narrow strips of burnt country.

Fire-stick farming has a threefold purpose in traditional Aboriginal life—it is a cleansing process; it flushes out game that shelter in the spinifex; and it regenerates the earth so that green shoots spring forth and attract animal life.

When the party drove into Wiluna, people came from everywhere to see Warri and Yatungka. The anthropologist W J Paisley described the scene by saying for a long time no one spoke but the tears that coursed down Warri and Yatunga’s cheeks and down the cheeks of many in the gathering showed the intense emotion many were experiencing. People were incredulous the couple had been found alive.

Paisley says it was also moving for the white people who were present. People felt joy at the couple’s survival but they were saddened because they realised Warri and Yatungka were in a precarious state of health. In the weeks and months that followed, Warri and Yatungka gradually recovered from their ordeal.

Warri rarely spoke and he spent long periods before his fire. However, Yatungka overcame her shyness and she participated in the affairs of her people. However, she never moved far from Warri’s side and when engaged in conservation, she would from time to time, reach out to touch Warri to reassure him she was near.

In April 1979, Warri died. Yatungka was deeply distressed by the death of the man who had been her companion for a lifetime. She refused to take food and she joined Warri in May 1979, less than four weeks after his death. The couple were buried beside Mudjon, who predeceased them.

When Warri and Yatungka left the Gibson Desert to live at Wiluna in 1977, the frontier between autonomous Indigenous cultures and non-Indigenous society disappeared, 189 years
after it began at Sydney Cove in 1788.

The concept of native title the High Court of Australia articulated in the Mabo decision of 1992 rests on the principle that Indigenous ownership of land derives from their laws and customs—they own their land because their ancestors handed it down to them from generation to generation according to their law - a law the High Court was bound to acknowledge.

Consequently, they must be involved in the practice of their laws and customs to have their title recognised by the Federal and High Courts of Australia. This is why judges say they do not grant native title—they acknowledge where it exists.

The Mabo legislation of 1994 is limited by this condition and rather than constitutional recognition, many Indigenous people say they would prefer a treaty that acknowledges their sovereignty as First Nations of Australia.

In 1994, the Keating Government promised those Indigenous Australians who cannot access the Mabo legislation, an Indigenous Land Fund and a comprehensive Social Justice Package. The latter has not been enacted yet it is still on Labor’s platform. This is grist for a treaty.


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