Martu people

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The Martu (Mardu) are an Australian Aboriginal people, who are part of the "Western Desert cultural bloc". Martu means 'one of us', or 'person' in Western Desert languages. 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. Outsiders only became aware of the Martu name and identity during the 1980s. Previously, many outsiders believed that the Pintupi, the eastern neighbours of the Martu, occupied the area. Most members of the Martu now live at Jigalong, Wiluna, Punmu Community,[1] Parnngurr Community,[2] and Kunawarritji.[3]

There are 12 groups within the Martu, defined by their traditional languages: Manyjilyjarra, Kartujarra, Kiyajarra, Putijarra, Nyiyaparli, Warnman (or Wanman), Ngulipartu, Pitjikala, Kurajarra, Jiwaliny, Mangala and Nangajarra. 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 Martu Wangka – a hybrid of languages such as Kartujarra, Manyjilyjarra, and Nyangajarra. Some members of the Warnman people may still speak Wanman as a first language rather than Martu Wangka.

Modern history[edit]

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.[4][5] It was geographically the largest claim in Australia to that time. However, Karlamilyi (Karlamilyi National Park) was not included. Martu representative Teddy Biljabu commented that they had been given "a body without its heart".

Kinship system[edit]

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
Purungu Milangka Karimarra
Panaka Purungu
Milangka Purungu Panaka

Literature, films and television[edit]

  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Punmu
  2. ^ Parnngurr
  3. ^ Kunawarritji
  4. ^ Martu title rights
  5. ^ Red soil of the Martu comes home. Determination of 27 September 2002 awards native title over 136,000 km² in the Western Desert to the Martu people.'Talking native title', Issue 5, Dec. 2002, p. 1-2,

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]