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Nyaningu %26 Ngunanti in camp on the Watarrka track.Writing up some of ther work

Nyaningu, fondly known locally as Cooky, was born a ngintaka (perentie) at Ngarutjara in the late 1920s into a healthy, peaceful, traditional Pitjantjatjara group.

These resourceful, strong, sensitive people had their trademark rich cultural heritage and wonderful sense of humour, and carried their knowledge and wisdom in their heads, consulting it daily as they followed the story and songlines of their ancestors, rather than keeping it on forgotten bookshelves.

As a child Nyaningu's elders observed his abilities and he was selected to ultimately become a nintilpai - a story and song lore teacher, and so began his career of learning. He was also taught many other valuable skills as part of the manhood process towards initiation, and has developed a phenomenal memory.

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We have two immediate goals:

  1. To write Uncle Cooky (Kunmanara) Nyaningu’s biography and
  2. To film he and oher elders telling and explaining inma songline stories and their own caring messages, on location at as many as possible of the sacred sites across Pitjantjatjara Lands, some areas of which are already being desecrated by mining companies - and others which can be expected to be under threat in the future.

Nyaningu's Pitjantjatjara family were living just the same as their ancestors had, until the white pastoralists came. Then they were presented with a succession of difficulties that Aboriginal people had never had to deal with before. Strange animals - nyanganpa ngura kutjupitja tjuta - appeared on the Lands. Waterholes reliable for thousands of seasons often became dry with grazing stock now using them. Strange fences appeared. Anangu (people) were becoming displaced. Some became sick with diseases they'd never known before, and died suffering. Others simply vanished.

Nyaningu's wider family group, led by his father and his uncle, joined the Ernabella Mission in approx 1937. It provided sanctuary, and a healthy degree of protection from sexual exploitation by white stockmen. 

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Because Ernabella was a mission established on an almost unique policy in caring for their flock, much of Pitjantjatjara culture is still intact in the current senior eldership who were all young people growing up during the mission years. But within five to ten years of now it's unlikely many these elders will not have passed away, taking with them some of the richest understandings of ancient Australian history and spirituality.

Ernabella staff were commissioned to truly respect Tjukurpa (Aboriginal culture, lore and law), carrying the responsibility of at no time ever attempting to ban, stifle, criticise or discourage adherence to and continuation of practicing traditional, customs and laws. All religious mission activities were optional. The mission primarily provided sanctuary and protection from white pastoral invasion which had gradually taken over most of the Lands, and it also provided medical care and education, taught animal husbandry, food cropping, building and machinery operation.

So Nyaningu was brought up surrounded by a very stable eldership and kinship system, was initiated and became a man in the traditional way whilst also accepting the option of learning whitefella ways from the missionaries. Between 1975 and 1983 he attended Nungalinya College in Darwin achieving ordination as a Uniting Church minister. In his dual role as both elder and minister he has travelled and taught widely and his wise counsel and input into peoples’ lives has made many positive differences.

We are very keen to gather the wisdom of our elders before science, in the hands of the unwise, buries it. 

Nyaningu has become one of the first generation of senior Pitjantjatjara elders to experience the utter frustration of being unable (different lifestyle these days: elders no longer teaching while the group lives and travels their vast region systematically, on foot) to hand to young initiates the fullness of the knowledge with which he was entrusted and obligated.

Some reluctance for young people to take advice from elders is due to infiltration from other cultures and forms of entertainment, but some is also a direct consequence of the deligitimisation of Aboriginal Law - Tjukurpa. The loss of the authority elders once held is part of the process of colonisation, subordination and oppression, and is an intentional consequence of successive Australian Governments administering ongoing campaigns of sometimes-subtle (i.e. the lip service of Native Title which restricts more than it gives) though seriously destructive (Withholding of wages, Stolen Generations, NT Intervention, withdrawal of teaching school-children in language) assimilation policies.

Now in his twilight years, Nyaningu has recently been keeping private journals of his contemplations with the specific intention of passing down his knowledge of Pitjantjatjara Tjukurpa with his wise advice on life to future generations in a new way: via both his biography and through the new technology of digital video: telling his stories on film, with links accessible (many will by necessity be restricted according to eligibility) through this website or another to be established for this purpose. He is considering eventually producing a DVD suitable for public viewing.

Cooky (Kunmanara) Nyaningu is particularly keen for his own life story to be understood so that future generations will know who is teaching them from beyond the grave; from Beyond The Dreaming.

Brouss Ngunanti Chambers

March 18, 2012


See also the ABC's 'Compass: Ernabella: No Ordinary Mission' by visiting http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s3177987.htm

Isaac Asimov wrote,"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom."