|"Perhaps I am peculiarly fitted to write of Lasseter's experiences ~ I myself roamed with a tribe of natives in Northern Australia".|
|Idriess, Ion. L. Author's Note. Lasseter's Last Ride.|
The parameters of this work do not allow a wider discussion on the Aboriginal situation in Central Australia during the 1920's and 30's, the devastating consequences of pastoral activity and white penetration into Aboriginal lands during this period are well documented elsewhere. This entry will be confined to events and circumstances that relate directly to the C.A.G.E. Expedition and the Aboriginal people they met and whose lands they crossed.
The 1930 C.A.G.E. Expedition travelled through the Western MacDonnell Ranges during a time of great upheaval in the few Aboriginal communities inhabiting the area of interest, a severe and widespread drought lasting several years had forced many tribal groups east to sanctuary at Hermannsburg Mission or to subsistence survival at the remote cattle stations and fettlers camps along the new rail line to Alice Springs. Much of the western desert beyond pastoral activity was depopulated by the traditional owners, exotic diseases exacerbated the situation, the Jumu people whose country lay along the northern MacDonnells and across the path of the Expedition had all but died out by 1940 or migrated east to Alice Springs. In fact the Expedition did not encounter any Aboriginals between Archie Giles station and Illbilla.
An important consequence of the drought and its effect on Aboriginal life that Blakeley failed to appreciate was the disruption to traditional hunting and cultural bounds, necessity caused the remaining Aboriginals to spread beyond their usual tribal areas and finding much of the neighbouring country uninhabited, established new borders, occasionally new boundaries were fiercely contested and a round of vicious and bloody reprisal would eventuate. Albrecht records such an incident in 1930 that forced twenty Aboriginals into Hermannsburg and the Lake Amadeus Land Claim, No. 28, notes that the Kukaja people had all but taken over the adjacent Jumu land.
Illbilla waterhole in the Ehrenberg Ranges, the Expeditions initial destination, lay in an area that was under considerable pressure from competing tribes. The waterhole is strategically located in close proximity to the junction of four tribal lands, the Pintubi to the west, Wenamba to the south west, Kukaja and possibly the Mantuntara to the south east and the nearly extinct Jumu to the east. Adding to the tensions were the Walpiri people from the north east fleeing the aftermath of the Conniston massacre and advances from the south west by the aggressive Pitjantjatjara. The Expedition chose an unfortunate time to arrive at Illbilla.
Blakeley records meeting two, apparently different Aboriginal groups, at Illbilla, the first was Rip van Winkle and his family group of three women and six children later joined by a very tall male. For some reason Blakeley concluded that Rip van was an outcast of a tribe and gave a disparaging description of the man and his family, later explanations from Rolfe Entata and Billy Buttons indicated that Rip was considered a social pariah in the area and not well liked. Later during the Expeditions enforced stay at Illbilla, five adult males and two small children visited the camp, it was apparent that Rip feared these men, he had spent some time the previous day looking anxiously to the west at the numerous smoke signals and he clearly expected unfriendly visitors from that direction. Rip hurriedly left the C.A.G.E. camp for the waterhole just prior to their arrival.
This second group of Aboriginals Blakeley called the Sandhill people and he found it impossible to understand their language, signs or sand maps, even with Mickey's reluctant help. Blakeley was quite ignorant of the profound cultural and linguistic differences between Mickey, an Aranda man and the Sandhill people who were possibly Wenamba or Pintubi, part of what is nowadays known as the Western Desert cultural bloc, These tribes and the Aranda had a history of bloody warfare between them, hence Mickey's real concern for his safety, his presence at Illbilla probably added to the undercurrent of tensions between the Aboriginal people in the vicinity of the waterhole at the time the Expedition was camped there.
Apart from those Aboriginals accompanying Paul Johns and Billy Buttons, later arrivals at Illbilla, the Expedition encountered a total of seventeen Aboriginals between Giles station and the Kintore Range, a distance of nearly four hundred kilometres. Although it is possible that many more Aboriginals observed the Expedition but avoided contact, the white mans reputation for violence had long preceded the Expedition. The next Aboriginal encounters were to the south west of Illbilla, the first of these when Lasseter and Hall in the Golden Quest II swooped low over a small band of Aboriginals camped at the edge of a mulga patch, the roaring plane scattered this group in terror and while Hall may have found it amusing, Blakeley was livid when he heard of the incident, sharply pointing out to Lasseter that he and the rest of the Expedition may have to depend on these people for assistance in the event of a mishap.
The second encounter further south west into the desert also proved fruitless, while Blakeley and Lasseter were checking a way through the sandhills they were surreptitiously observed by three Aboriginals. Blakeley became aware of their presence and waited patiently behind some bushes for their approach, however these men fled when they saw Blakeley lurking. To this point in time the Expeditions attempts at useful communication with the desert people had been a complete failure and the nonsense with the plane had probably soured future relations. These people were possibly Wenamba or Pitjantjatjara, the last people that Lasseter should have fooled with.
The main body of the Expedition made no further new contacts with Aboriginals but on their return to Illbilla the five men and two boys from the earlier meeting came into the camp and Blakeley persevered with the language and sand maps, making some small progress at last but not learning anything that would be useful to the Expeditions further progress. These Aboriginals presented the men with various gifts, Blakeley received a curved carved stick, probably a churinga, Sutherland a stone knife of superb craftsmanship and Taylor a most unusual artifact, a long thin board with an intricate diamond pattern, according to Blakeley a sandhill god but correctly known as a kulpidji. This gift was later to cause some consternation amongst the Aboriginals in Alice Springs and chastisement for Blakeley.
It is worth remembering that in the two years 1930 and 1931 at least a dozen expeditions more or less invaded the the western desert lands with aircraft and vehicles, firearms, strings of thirsty camels and vast appetites for game and water, and that's not counting the legitimate doggers, bird trappers and prospectors. There were uncounted numbers who ignored the bounds of the Aboriginal Reserves and had other appetites. And into this upheaval landed the hapless C.A.G.E Expedition with antediluvian views on matters Aboriginal and Central Australia. The next significant contacts occurred while Lasseter and Johns were travelling through the Petermann Ranges, these people were undoubtedly Pitjantjatjara and gave the two whitefellows a cool reception, generally avoiding the men. There's an inference that Johns was not comfortable travelling through this land, he was probably aware of the Pitjantjatjara's reputation as tenacious defenders of scarce waterholes, a water supply that five camels could drink dry at a sitting. The Pitjantjatjara saw no compelling reason to assist Lasseter, his presence would likely bring more white men into the country and the Pitjantjatjara were quite aware of the consequences. According to oral history, Lasseter and Johns did not engender cordial relations with the Aboriginals, apart from the earlier incident with the plane, the men also camped on waterholes and apparently used their firearms rather freely by shooting at kerosene tins and other targets. In his diary entries Lasseter portrays a low opinion of the Aboriginal people he travelled with after the camels bolted in late December 1930, his opinions reinforced by ignorance of the language and customs and no doubt fear, possibly this ignorance and prejudice, as well as his liver, was Lasseter's undoing,
Shortly after the Expedition returned to Alice Springs, Pastor Albrecht from Hermannsburg Mission arrived at Illbilla and met an Aboriginal by the name of Kamatu and his small band, including a woman with three children. Albrecht described Kamatu as a tall well built man and the evenings camp at Illbilla was an amicable and enlightening event. Albrecht makes no mention of any Aboriginals that fitted Blakeley's description of Rip van Winkle and his family group or of the five men and two boys and Albrecht infers that Kamatu and his band were Pintubi.
In short the Expedition made very little progress in Aboriginal relations, most likely due to preconceived ideas based on contact with the Aranda people based around Alice Springs and Hermannsburg. Blakeley and many of the white inhabitants of the Centre failed to understand the significant cultural and linguist differences between the Aranda and the Western Desert people and it is curious that Archie Giles, resident in Central Australia for many years and part Aboriginal himself did not emphasise the possible consequences of these differences when allowing Mickey, an Aranda man, to travel west with the Expedition as a guide. And short of coercion, no Aboriginal from the desert was likely to show Blakeley or Mickey the location of the precious waterholes.
Then there is the no small matter of entry to Aboriginal reserves that cover much of Lasseter Country, these reserves had been promulgated as early as 1920 and as Michael Terry writes, "that in order to visit the Petermann Ranges and elsewhere, permits had to be obtained from the Protector of Aboriginals in the states of Central Australia, South Australia and Western Australia. For hereabouts in1920, one third in each of the states concerned was declared the principal Aboriginal Reserve of the interior". The thoroughly professional Terry was granted his permit to enter the reserves on 11/07/30, a fortnight before the C.A.G.E. Expedition left Alice Springs and there is no record yet of the C.A.G.E. men doing likewise. Lasseter and Johns did not have permits to enter these reserves and considering Lasseter's past criminal conviction and Johns unsavoury reputation at Hermannsburg it is most unlikely that they would be granted permits. It may be that Lasseter did not want to test his eligibility to enter the reserves and risk exposure of a shady past, hence the journey to Illbilla which at that time lay outside the reserves, with the intention of separating from the main expedition and then travelling with Johns into forbidden territory.
And some closing comments, firstly I consider Idriess to be 'peculiarly unfitted' to comment on matters Aboriginal, apart from doubts that he roamed with any Aboriginal tribe at any time, he makes a specious connection between the Aboriginals of northern Australia and those half a continent away in the Centre. His comment in the Author's note to Lasseter's Last Ride is a fair summation of the wider Australian perception then and now...one tribe fits all. There is also the issue of Oral History and its inherent inconsistencies and transferring the spoken word to paper does not legitimise rumour. Here I refer to Lasseter's Reef being located on sacred ground and that contemptible nonsense that Lasseter fathered a child to an Aboriginal woman while roaming through the Petermanns. As I emphasise throughout this work much oral history is not worth the paper it's written on.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions. Idriess, Ion. L. Lasseter's Last Ride. Henson, Barbara. A Straight Out Man. Elkin, A. P. The Australian Aborigine. Meggitt, M. J. Desert People. Lake Amadeus Land Claim. Report No.28. Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Nicolas. (Edt.).