Writing in 1974 Norman Tindale stated that the term had been applied to several groups in this area, among them to the Kartudjara, had no tribal significance but simply denoted that the people there had undergone full initiation. The people aggregated under the tribal designation of Martu were speakers of versions of the Wati languages, so-named because the general term among them for 'an initiated adult (man)' was wati, though in the Kalgoorlie and Mount Margaret areas, the term was puntu. Since the 80s the Martu term for person (mardu meaning 'one of us') has prevailed among the peoples at Jigalong, Wiluna, Punmu, Parnngurr and Kunawarritji.
All of these languages belong to the Wati subgroup of the Pama–Nyungan linguistic family. However, the first language for at least 11 of these 12 groups is now Nyangumarta, spoken down to the 1980s by about 700 people from Port Hedland to Marble Bar. Martu Wangka – a hybrid language predominantly melding Kartujarra and Manyjilyjarra, is also spoken. Some members of the Warnman people may still speak Wanman as a first language rather than Martu Wangka.
Their traditional lands are a large tract in the Great Sandy Desert, within the Pilbara region of Western Australia, including Jigalong, Telfer (Irramindi), the Warla (Percival Lakes), Karlamilyi (Rudall River) and Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment) areas.
The Martu are said to comprise 12 distinct tribal groups, defined in terms of their traditional languages:
- Ngurlipartu (a dialect of Nyangumarta)
- Pijikala (a dialect of Nyangumarta)
- Juwaliny=Walmadjari
- Nangatadjara =Nangatara.
The creation of the Canning Stock Route in 1906-07 was a brutal time for many Martu people, who were forced to serve as guides and reveal water sources – after being "run down" by men on horseback, restrained by heavy chains and tied to trees at night. A Royal Commission in 1908 exonerated government surveyor Alfred Canning, after an appearance by Kimberley explorer John Forrest who asserted that all explorers had acted in such a fashion.
The rabbit-proof fence runs through Martu country and the film of the same name, based on a novel by Doris Pilkington Garimara, depicts the lives of some Martu girls, including Doris's mother, Molly Craig, Daisy Craig and Gracie Fields.
Before the 1960s, some Martu had not seen white people, but knew of them from their ancestors, who had avoided them since the creation of the Canning Stock Route. In 1964, a small clan of Martu, composed only of women and children, was "brought in" from their country to a mission at Jigalong to make way for the Blue Streak missile tests. The missiles, fired from Woomera, South Australia, were designed to dump in traditional Martu country. Successive Western Desert Aboriginal People had "come in", or were "brought in" to overcrowded settlements, such as Papunya. A strong debate raged over this "detribalisation" of traditional-living Aboriginal People. State and federal governments had turned a blind eye to them up until then, leaving their fate to missionaries and cattle graziers. Kim Beazley senior summed up the opinion of some at the time, saying in the House of Representatives, "it looks like the old problem of dispossession because we want something."
The Martu were granted native title to much of their country in 2002, after almost two decades of struggle. It was geographically the largest claim in Australia to that time. However, (Karlamilyi) was not included. Martu representative Teddy Biljabu commented that they had been given "a body without its heart".
Martu society is divided into four skin groups, or subsections. There are very strict rules as to who may marry whom:
Male skin name Can only marry
female skin name
Children will be Panaka Karimarra
Milangka Purungu Milangka Karimarra
Panaka Purungu Milangka Purungu Panaka
Literature, films and television
- 1996: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence – a novel by Doris Pilkington Garimara.
- 2002: Rabbit-Proof Fence – a film based on the above novel.
- 2005: Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert – a history published by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson and Yuwali. Cleared Out concerns the events of 1964. Yuwali, a Martu woman, was 15 at the time of first contact.
- 2008: Conversations with the Mob – a book of photographs by Megan Lewis, annotaed by Kate McLeod (Crawley WA; University of Western Australia Pres).
- 2009: Contact – a film made by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler about the events of 1964 event and including footage of the encounter.
- 2015: Cooked – a Netflix documentary mini-series based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name featured the Martu people in its first episode, titled "Fire". The Martu demonstrated how they hunt and cook goanna, as well as describing their connection with the ancestral lands.
- "AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia". AIATSIS.
- "Tindale Tribal Boundaries" (PDF). Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Western Australia. September 2016.
- Bucknall, Gwen (1997). "Nyangumarta: Alive and adapting". Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. 20 (1): 43–56.
- Dousset, Laurent (2011). Australian aboriginal kinship: an introductory handbook with particular emphasis on the Western Desert. Marseilles: Pacific-Credo Publications.
- Johnson, Peter; Nixon, Yuwali; Davenport, Susan (2005). Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert. Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0-855-75457-0.
- Kay, Paul; Berlin, Brent; Maffi, Luisa; Merrifield, William (1997). "Colour naming across languages". In Hardin, C. L.; Maffi, Luisa. Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 21–56. ISBN 978-0-521-49800-5.
- Kormendy, Nicolette. "WA's Martu People achieve native title recognition in Western Desert". National Native Title Tribunal.
- Rintoul, Stuart (27 September 2007). "Boldly out of the west". The Australian.
- Rynne, Michael (2002). "The Martu Native Title Determination" (PDF) (5). Native Title Newsletter. pp. 12–15.
- Tindale, Norman Barnett (1974). Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. Australian National University. ISBN 978-0-708-10741-6.
- Tonkinson, Robert (2002) [First published 1991]. The Mardu Aborigines: living the dream in Australia's desert. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. ISBN 978-0-534-44087-9.
- Walsh, Fiona (2008). To hunt and to hold: Martu Aboriginal people's uses and knowledge of their country, with implications for co-management in Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park and the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia (PDF). University of Western Australia PhD.
- Survival International
- Rare footage of Aborigines meeting white men for the first time/TimesOnline 3 June 2009 (registration required)
- Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert/Sydney Morning Herald 27 January 2006
- Martu Programme - Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa
- Martu Artworks (paintings, carvings, baskets) - Martumili Artists