Spinifex people

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The vast and harsh Nullarbor Plain, as seen from space. Courtesy NASA.

The Spinifex people, or Pila Nguru. are an Indigenous Australian people, whose traditional lands are situated in the Great Victoria Desert,[1][2] in the Australian state of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia and to the north of the Nullarbor Plain. They maintain in large part their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle within the territory,[1] over which their claims to Native title and associated collective rights were recognised by a 28 November 2000 Federal Court decision. In 1997, an art project was started in which indigenous paintings became part of the title claim. In 2005, a major exhibit of their works in London brought the artists widespread attention.

The name Pila Nguru does not rightly translate to 'Spinifex People', although it may be inferred. "Spinifex People" more accurately translates as "Arnangu Pilatja", meaning "people of the Spinifex". In the name "Pila Nguru", Pila translates to "spinifex", and Nguru is the affix; -nguru means "from", and thus the word Pilanguru translates to "from (the) spinifex", or as "home country in the flat between sandhills".[3] For instance, when asked where are you from, a Spinifex person could answer, "Ngayulu pilanguru", which means "I am from the Spinifex" (in this case, the word 'country' is inferred). Thus, "Arnangu Pilatja" is the more proper designation for the people. In South Australia, the word Arnangu is written Aṉangu (with the n underlined).

The word "Spinifex", used to denote the people, does not itself directly describe the people. By itself, the word spinifex comes from the Spinifex grasses, which are prevalent in the region, meaning that referring to the people as the "Spinifex people" as opposed to simply the "Spinifex" is preferred. The transliterated Arnangu word "pilatja", meaning "of the spinifex" is also used by many of the Spinifex people.

As European settlers of the region considered the lands remote, inhospitable and unsuited for agriculture or even pastoralism, there has been comparatively little direct contact between the two cultures and peoples.


Settlers were granted pastoral leases from around 1910, but once they saw the arid land, they did not attempt agriculture. Some religious missions were attempted in the 1930s, since the new railway often attracted curious indigenous people to it out of the bush. By the 1950s, so little was known about these people that the British chose the Nullarbor for nuclear weapons testing, as they believed it to be devoid of people.

Cundeelee was the only Mission between Kalgoorlie W.A. and Port August in S.A. after the close of Ooldea Mission in 1942. It was gazetted as a Mission in 1950, though in 1958 it was settled in tents. Later corrugated aluminium Nissen huts were erected, followed by three Missionary residences cum-homes for children; a school and residence, 6 Bed 'C Class' Hospital, store, mechanical workshops etc. It ceased to be a Mission when it was handed over to Community control in 1978-79. It ceased to be a Community when 'Upurlupurlila Ngurratja', new Community Village for the "People of Cundeelee", was built at Coonana. Here there was a more ample water supply to allow conventional housing. This was inhabited in 1986 with the start of the new school year, and finally closed early 2014, as the Community at Tjuntjuntjarra became the home of the Arnangu Pilanguru - the People from the Spinifex.

Upurlupurli is the Arnangu dreaming name of the rock hole just South of the old Mission site. It means 'tadpole' which abounded in the water there when refilled by rain. It was a ceremonial meeting place between the Desert and Coastal Ngatju and Mirning peoples before the Trans-Australian Railway was built. From the late 1920s until 1942, Karonie T.A.R was the main depot for a series of Government ration depots from which food on a monthly basis was distributed to itinerant Arnangu 'Aboriginal people', probably because of prevailing drought. Cundeelee became the main ration depot from about 1939 until its close in 1942. The other distribution points were at Zanthus T.A.R. and one distribution point about half way from Cundeelee to Queen Victoria Springs.

Atomic testing, 1953-1957[edit]

When graded roads were built for the Giles Weather Station (part of the Weapons Research Establishment) during 1952-1955, officials learned that indigenous people - probably then around 150 - lived west of the sites. An officer, the expert bushman Walter MacDougall (1907–1976), was sent to warn them of the impending tests. A total of nine small hydrogen bombs ranging up to 25 kilotons were tested at Emu Junction (2 tests, 1953) and Maralinga (7 tests, 1956–1957). Given that only one officer and an assistant were assigned to warn the Spinifex people who lived across an enormous area far to the west of the test sites, many of the Spinifex were never informed, nor did they leave the area. Officially, all were forced to leave their lands and were not allowed within 200 km of ground zero. Officials made a leaflet drop, but the Spinifex could not read the leaflets and were wary and afraid of the aircraft.

In the later stages of the bomb trials, MacDougall discovered that up to 40 Spinifex [people - read arnangu] may have been hunting over the eastern portion of the prohibited Maralinga area while the tests were being conducted, moving as far east as Vokes Hill and Waldana. One family of twelve were the nearest people, living at Nurrari Lakes less than 200 km west from Maralinga. Although close enough to hear the larger bombs explode, they were healthy several years after the tests.

The Australian Royal Commission was unable to determine if Maralinga Tjarutja or Pila Nguru people had been exposed to damaging levels of radiation from fallout, due to the lack of medical records and medical centres. Maralinga bomb plume maps show prevailing northerly winds during tests, whereas the Spinifex lands are 300 km to the west of Maralinga. The closest group was at Nurrari Lakes about 180 km west. Scott Cane's otherwise definitive native title study, Pila Nguru (2000), contained almost no details as to how bomb testing radiation affected the Spinifex people.

Native Title[edit]

In 1997 the Spinifex Arts Project was begun to help document the Native Title claims. Both Native Title paintings, the Men’s Combined and the Women’s Combined, document the entire Spinifex area; they show the claimants' birthplaces and express the important traditional stories that cross and give shape to the area.[4]

The Spinifex people were the second tribe in Western Australia to receive recognition of their Native Title land rights in 2000,[5] in accordance with Section 87 (agreement) of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. The ruling, by the Federal Court of Australia, in a case brought by a third party on behalf of the Spinifex People, found that agreement had been reached between the applicants and the two named respondents: the State Government of Western Australia and the Shire of Laverton, over a sector of land encompassing around 55,000 km2.

This territory - which was designated as either unallocated land or park reserve, and contained no pastoral leases - lies to the north of the lands of the Nullarbor People, to the east of the Pilki People and to the south of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, the eastern boundary being formed by the South Australian border. Apart from the area of two Nature Reserves, the only specific "other interests" identified within the territory was for public right-of-way along an existing road which traversed some of the territory.

The Native Title claim was made by twenty-one families constituting the current Spinifex people. Some People of the Spinifex had begun returning to their land from around 1980. From 2001 many of those who left to live at the Christian missions have since returned to their homelands and the Unnamed Conservation Park Biosphere Reserve (now Mamungari Conservation Park). In 2004 the government turned over the pristine wilderness area of 21,000 sq/km jointly to the Pila Nguru and the Maralinga Tjarutja.


In early 2005, the Spinifex people became famous for their solo and group artworks, due to the effect of a major art exhibition of their work in London.[6] Their boldly-coloured 'dot paintings' are not the usual polished commodities produced by many northern tribes for sale to a non-aboriginal art market, but are authentic works that the Spinifex People have made for their own purposes.[2]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kalgoorlie, W.A. Pila Nguru: art and song from the Spinifex people. Paupiyala Tjarutja, 1999.
  • Cane, Scott. Pila Nguru: an ethnography of the Spinifex People in the context of native title. 2000.
  • Scott Cane (2002). Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People. Fremantle: Printing Press. ISBN 1-86368-348-8. 


  1. ^ a b Cane, Scott (2002). Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People. Fremantle Arts Centre Press. ISBN 1-86368-348-8. 
  2. ^ a b Anne Loxley, "Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People", The Sydney Morning Herald, 2002-08-03. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  3. ^ Mens Combined - Pila Nguru from Paupiya Neil Murphy Indigenous Art. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  4. ^ The Spinifex Arts Project website, accessed 28 Nov 2010
  5. ^ Spinifex Government of Western Australia, Office of Native Title. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  6. ^ Nomads' art wins praise in London Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005-03-15. Retrieved 2007-04-21.

External links[edit]