Martu people

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The Martu (Mardu) are a confederation of indigenous Australian peoples, who are part of the Western Desert cultural bloc.


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,[1][2] Wiluna, Punmu, Parnngurr and Kunawarritji. Writing in 1974 Norman Tindale stated that the term had been applied to several groups in this area, among them to the Kartudjara, and had no tribal significance but simply denoted that the people there had undergone full initiation.[3]


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.[4] Martu Wangka – a hybrid language predominantly melding Kartujarra and Manyjilyjarra, is also spoken.[5] Some members of the Warnman people may still speak Wanman as a first language rather than Martu Wangka.[citation needed]. Many Martu speak more than one language and for many, even children, English is a common second language. [6]


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.

Social organization[edit]

The Martu are said to comprise 12 distinct tribal groups, defined in terms of their traditional languages:

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[1], after almost two decades of struggle.[7] 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".[1]

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


The Martu's sexual division of labor allows them to gather both prediactable and high-risk items, ensuring that there is always enough food for all members in a camp. Men generally hunt wallaroo or Australian bustards but only succeed about 20% of the time. Feral camels, a species introduced to Australia in the past decade, are occasionally hunted by some, but others feel pity for the animals because they are not indigenous, and will not hunt them. Women, with a success rate of 90%, hunt goanna (large lizards) which can provide up to 40% of the Martu diet. Older women with extensive knowledge of the landscape light brush fires in order to expose the hiding places of the goanna that have burrowed into the ground. Sticks are thrust into the uncovered holes to force the lizards out. The goanna are usually cooked over a fire and shared amongst other members of the tribe. Controlled brush burning also helps maintain much of the indigenous vegetation by removing invasive grass species. Tightly monitored burns additionally help prevent large, uncontrolled wildfires that can ocur due to extremely high temperatures and dry plants and grasses. [8]

Sharing of Goods[edit]

The sharing of commodities such as food and tobacco aids in maintaining the egalitarian nature of the Martu people. Hunters will bring their catch back to the camp to share with other members of the tribe. Goanna hunters decide on their own how to distribute the meat but hunters of larger game allow an elder man to distrbute the meat to the hunter's family and to others in the camp. Food sharing is one of the few ways to gain prestige in a Martu tribe as they own very few personal belongings. Someone who is able to give away large quantities of meat is seen as more prestigious than someone who cannot.But prestige is generally not considered the driving force behind food sharing. It is a culturally accepted norm that has allowed the Martu to survive. [9]

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.[10][11]
  • 2008: Conversations with the Mob – a book of photographs by Megan Lewis, annotated by Kate McLeod (Crawley WA; University of Western Australia Pres).[12]
  • 2009: Contact – a film made by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler about the events of 1964 event and including footage of the encounter.[13][14]
  • 2015: Cooked – a Netflix documentary mini-series based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name[15][16] 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]




External links[edit]