The Local Custodians

The word Anangu originally meant something along the lines of ‘person’ or ‘human being’ but since the arrival of Europeans it has come to mean Aboriginal person or human being. It is a word that is common in eastern dialects of the Western Desert Language spoken in the desert regions of West and Central Australia. The Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people are the traditional custodians of the land that encompasses Uluru and Kata Tjuta and like to be referred to as Anangu.

Tjukurpa – Aboriginal Law and Religion

While there are no accurate estimates of how long Anangu have lived in the area, it’s fair to say that we’re talking somewhere around 20,000 – 40,000 years ago; a very, very long time. The term Tjukurpa is like a guiding light to Anangu and how they live. It encompasses their law and religion, the past, present and future, their relationship with the land, the creation period, and how all these are all interrelated. Tjukurpa, when used to describe their origins, sometimes gets referred to as ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’, usually by non-Aboriginals. There is no corresponding word in Anangu language and Dreaming tends to imply that they are not real or are changeable. This is certainly not the case for them. While some of the stories may seem simple, they are in fact complex explanations of creation and how they fit and act within it.

According to Tjukurpa, the world was originally a barren and featureless place until the Ancestor spirits came to the world in human and other forms and created the features of the land, plants and animals as we know them now. During their travels across the land the spirits also created different relationships between various groups, plants and animals. When their ancestors work was done they transformed into hills, animals, plants, stars, etc, and are as present today as they were in the beginning and, into the future. The particular sites where these activities took place are significant sites to Anangu and there are stories associated with each of them. If they are very significant sites they are known as ‘sacred sites’, parts of Uluru and Kata Tjuta falling into that category.

Passing Down Stories

So the past, present and future are all alive and connected through their ancestor spirits and the stories that are told about them. These stories are passed down from one generation to the next through dance, stories, art, rituals and rites of passage. None is in written form. Some of the stories belong only to men, some only to women. Some inherit the right to knowledge through their birthplace or involvement in ceremonies, or certain families may hold the knowledge of a particular story.

Around Uluru and Kata Tjuta there are many stories, some that can be told and others that remain secret to the relevant group or members of local Anangu. Around Uluru there are two excellent walks that tell some of the secrets of Uluru and the ancestor spirits, the Mala walk and the Mutitjulu walk.

On the Mala walk visitors can learn how long ago Mala men and women came to Uluru from afar. They all camped separately from one another – young men in one place, older men in another, senior and married women somewhere else and the rest of the women and children in the middle. They had come for a special religious ceremony called Inma.

Mala men from the west arrive with a ceremonial pole which is planted on top of Uluru which signals the beginning of the Inma. The Mala are in good spirits, doing all their daily activities in a proper way as they should be done. Suddenly Luunpa, the kingfisher bird, cries out a warning to the Mala people telling them that people in the west have created a terrible dog like creature called Kurpany, to destroy their ceremony. The warning is ignored and Kurpany kills two Mala men. The rest of the men, women and children flee in terror. You can see many features that relate to the Mala story on the walk.

On the Mutitjulu walk you can see many features in and around Uluru that relate to creation activities connected with ancestral beings. The most well known of these is the story of two snakes, Kuniya and Liru.

Kuniya becomes furious by the lack of respect shown by Liru, the poisonous snake. In a bid to control the dark forces taking hold of her, she picks up some sand and lets it fall to the ground so no harm will come to others. However, she ends up attacking him in a rage and after inflicting a wound on Liru as he tries to fend off with his shield, a second fatal blow is hit. Kuniya has her honour avenged but in the fury that preceded, all the surrounding plants have been poisoned.