Cultural warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of deceased persons.
In the early 1950s, the Australian Government made a secret agreement with Britain to allow nuclear weapons testing in Australia’s desert regions.
These regions are the traditional home of thousands of Indigenous people, including the Anangu, many of whom lived a traditional lifestyle.
Anangu living on Spinifex Country at the time – which was adjacent to the test site – were ‘found’ in the desert and relocated to a mission station called Cundeelee far to the west of their homelands, in order to protect them from any impacts of nuclear fallout.
Some remained in the desert, however, and they were affected by the radioactive fallout that came to be known as the black mist. They were also poisoned by consuming bush foods that had become contaminated.
In total, nine major bomb tests and hundreds of smaller tests were carried out on the Anangu people’s country between 1953 and 1963, on sites named Maralinga and Emu Fields.
For those Anangu who were relocated to Cundeelee, their culture and lifestyle would be altered forever.
Government policy purported to assimilate the Anangu (and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia) into a western way of life.
However, in the early 1980s, faced with the negative impacts of alcohol, unhealthy food and the potential demise of their culture, Anangu elders would leave the mission and return to their traditional homelands in the east.
There, they would establish a community called Tjuntjuntjara, and, while still maintaining modern services, allow living in the community allows Anangu greater access to their homeland: Spinifex Country.
A collection of recently unearthed photographs taken by the author’s grandfather has recently been returned to the community, where family members have been identified, giving precious insight to the history of Anangu in the region.
They call themselves the Spinifex People, and this is their story.
All historical photographs taken by Robert McKeich between 1953-1955. Used with permission from the Tjuntjuntjara community. Present day photos by Ali MC.
Tom Underwood, Bill Jamieson, Roy Underwood, Roger Jamieson after being ‘found’ on Spinifex Country, now called the Great Victoria Desert. In the early 1950s, many of the Spinifex People were still living traditional lifestyles deep in the remote desert; this was the first meeting with white people. Roy Underwood would eventually become an internationally recognised artist and would travel the world to tell the story of his people through art.
Marjorie Watson hanging out the mission washing in Cundeelee. Anangu women were often given households chores to do as part of mission life, as part of the assimilation process, and were often sent to farms to work as household labourers, for which they were never paid.
Ron Sinclair (younger brother of Don, above) at the school in Cundeelee. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children all across Australia were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to schools in order to be assimilated. Many children were never returned, becoming what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’. Fortunately, the remote location of Cundeelee mission meant that children could still have access to their families, and maintain their language and cultural practices.
Donna Sinclair (right), Don Sinclair’s daughter, with niece Anika Sinclair. Donna returned to Tjuntjuntjara when she was 18 years old. She says it’s important to be back on Spinifex Country. “This is my tjamu (grandfather’s) country. It’s important for the next generation to grow up and know where they come from.”
Don and May Sinclair on their wedding day. As the influence of the missionaries began to take hold, Anangu would adopt western cultural practices. The Sinclair’s children and grandchildren now live in Tjuntjuntjara.
Tracker Jimmie Maadi sits next to the rockhole where Cundeelee mission was based. This water supply was known as Urpulurpulila by Anangu, which means ‘tadpole’ in Pitjantjatjarra language. It was by way of rock holes such as this, as well as other sources of water, that Anangu could survive in the harsh desert climate.
Part of the assimilation policy meant taking Anangu children from their parents to send them to school. Students would be taught in English and learn a western curriculum.
A church camp meeting at Cundeelee, led by missionary, teacher and photographer Robert McKeich. Anangu would set up bush camps around the mission site, and would be visited by missionaries who would hold church services in an attempt to convert Anangu to Christianity.
Jarman Jamieson, descendent of the Jamieson brothers, as pictured above. Jarman now lives on his ancestral homeland at Tjuntjuntjara, from where his grandfather was removed from to escape nuclear testing. “[The elders] always told me, ‘go back home.’ They told me, ‘keep the culture strong.’ It’s a good thing. It’s been passed down to me. I know the legacy keeps traveling, the culture, our rituals, the way we first thought of everything. Knowing that I hold all that is a huge responsibility.”
Jack Jamieson, Albert Jamieson, Frank Hogan, Arthur Jamieson and Bill Jamieson stand huddled together on the right, newcomers to the mission at Cundeelee. While the forced relocation of Anangu saw them dislocated from their homelands, descendants are grateful to the trackers who located them, as they were saved from potential disaster from the nuclear testing and a prolonged draught in Spinifex Country.
Jack Jamieson, Albert Jamieson, Frank Hogan, Arthur Jamieson and Bill Jamieson
with tracker Jimmy Maadi (right) at the ration station, wearing their first set of clothes. Anangu were given western names by the missionaries, as their Indigenous names were deemed too difficult to pronounce. Families were also split up due to a lack of understanding about complex kinship relationships held by Anangu.
Kathleen Donegan (centre) with daughter Nancy Donegan (left) and Marilyn Walker (right, daughter of Jessie Walker, above) at the original site of the ration station, where Kathleen was ‘brought in’ from the bush and received her first set of clothing, a heavy woollen coat which she says she quickly discarded.
Jessie Walker (front, with children Luana Walker and Marna Walker) with her sisters Carol Walker and Kathleen Donegan at a ration station near present day Tjuntjuntjara, where Anangu would first be taken and given clothes, sugar and flour, prior to being relocated.
Anangu men were employed to cut sandlewood for shipment to India and China as part of mission life. Many of the missions around Australia forced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into labour, such as on farms and pastoral stations, for which they were often never paid, or were given rations of flour, sugar, tea and blankets instead of a wage.
Tjuntjuntjara remote community, present-day home of the Spinifex People. A Royal Commission would be held in 1985 investigating the impact of the nuclear testing, and some Anangu communities would be compensated. Yet the health effects are still being felt by many, especially in the nearby community of Yalata, located closer to the original nuclear ‘ground zero.’
Frank Hogan (relative of Rusty Hogan, above) one of the many Anangu people ‘brought in’ to Cundeelee mission from Spinifex Country. Many of the original elders who were brought in from the bush are passing away, making historical collections of photographs such as these extremely valuable.
Fred Grant, Rusty Hogan and Ned Grant, with the army truck they travelled in to return to Spinifex Country and establish Tjuntjuntjara community. Fred and Ned were part of the original group of people who were ‘found’ in the bush and relocated to Cundeelee mission. In the late 1980’s they returned to Spinifex Country, because they “wanted to be home”, and to be able to continue to speak their original language and practice their culture.
‘Cocoa time’ at Cundeelee mission, outside the kitchen under the Australian flag. The Cundeelee mission would be eventually closed in 1985, and in 1986, elders would return to their original homelands on Spinifex Country to the east, and establish the community of Tjuntjuntjara.