30 years on – and where does Ayers Rock stand?

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TTN: 30 years after Ayers Rock was officially handed back to the Anangu indigenous people of the region, Kathy Marks of Fairfax tracks how successful (or not) employment management programs in the area have been.

283 of 800 staff at Desert Gardens Hotel are indigenous – but local traineeships aren’t filled, that quota is met by interstate-indigenous – and tourists are still left asking why the local voices aren’t presenting the local product.

Thirty years on from the Ayers Rock hand-back intercultural strains still persist

From Fairfax, 24th October 2015

It’s a powerful image, encapsulating the euphoria of a historic moment. As Aboriginal elder Nipper Winmati brandishes the title deeds to Ayers Rock, his grandson Vincent Nipper is hoisted aloft by Reggie Uluru and punches the air with his pint-sized fist.

The hand-back of the rock to its traditional owners on October 26, 1985, followed a long battle by the Western Desert’s Anangu people and marked the symbolic pinnacle of the land rights struggle. At the festivities in Mutitjulu community, in the shadow of the ochre monolith, “everyone was dancing and singing. We were so happy that we got our land back,” recalls Rene Kulitja, a traditional owner and acclaimed artist.

Minutes after being handed the deeds, Anangu owners leased the land back to the Commonwealth for 99 years. The national park enclosing Uluru, as it was later renamed, and The Olgas, now called Kata Tjuta, would be jointly run by them and the federal parks service, in a marriage of millennia-old land management skills and modern scientific practices.

At Mutitjulu, in the continent’s dusty red heart, the air fizzed with optimism. Not only would Anangu be looking after their ancestral country – the waterholes, the sacred sites, the important animals and plants – but there would be plenty of work: in the park and in the newly built resort at nearby Yulara.

“People thought, ‘My grandson will have a job and a house and a car. There’ll be food in the fridge and a green lawn to water. Even the dogs will be healthy,’ ” says Leroy Lester, son of veteran land rights campaigner Yami Lester, who officiated at the hand-back ceremony.

However, although Uluru’s custodians still look back with pride to 1985, their dreams have largely evaporated. At Mutitjulu, where the Howard government launched the 2007 federal intervention, residents grapple with the familiar gamut of social and economic problems. At Yulara, until very recently the resort was a sea of white faces. At the park, World Heritage-listed and rechristened Uluru-Kata Tjuta, the grand vision of joint management has crumbled.

And while the 30th anniversary is a joyful occasion, the lead-up was so fraught that locals threatened to boycott this weekend’s celebrations. Some remain sour. “Look around you – what’s to celebrate?” demands Vincent Forrester, a long-time activist and Mutitjulu elder.

It’s a hot October morning, and a steady column of people is snaking up Uluru’s steep red path, disregarding a prominent sign in seven languages asking visitors not to climb the Anangu’s “sacred” rock. Below, a small crowd has congregated for the Mala Walk, led by ranger Adam Hill, a Ngarrindjeri man from South Australia’s Riverland.

As Hill guides the group around the rock’s base, he explains tjukurpa, the law and culture underpinning Anangu society. He also recounts how the ancestral mala people (the mala, or rufous hare-wallaby, is a small marsupial) camped at Uluru before being chased south by a dog-like monster. In a murmured exchange, two Frenchwomen wonder why Anangu are not here telling their own stories. They might be shocked to learn that, of the park’s 38 full-time staff, just two are from Mutitjulu.

Tony Tjamiwa was a pivotal figure in the fight for Uluru, and the senior lawman for the mala tjukurpa (ancestral story). Later, he became a member of the board established to run the park. It was an era when, as one insider tells it, parks staff “worked alongside knowledgeable traditional owners, rather than saying, ‘You can’t come out when we’re burning on country because you haven’t got a fire management certificate.’ ”

Staff also facilitated regular trips out bush, where elders performed inma (traditional song and dance) and passed on cultural knowledge to the young people. It was all aimed at keeping tjukurpa strong – “tjukurpa katuja ngarantja”, meaning “tjukurpa above all else”, is the subtitle of Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s management plan.

Tjamiwa’s death in 2001 prompted an unprecedented 20-day closure of the climb. His son Andrew Taylor was a ranger for two decades, overseeing traditional patch burns of the landscape, conducting flora and fauna surveys, and tracking feral cats and foxes. Taylor was proud to wear the ranger’s uniform, with its image of Uluru on the sleeve. “It felt good to be able to continue my father’s work,” the quietly spoken 50-year-old reflects. “We were teaching young whitefellas the Anangu way.”

However, in 2008 he and two Anangu colleagues – Malya Teamay, whose painting still adorns the park entry pass, and Daisy Walkabout, a renowned tracker who helped search for Azaria Chamberlain – were laid off. They did not meet Australian Public Service (APS) standards of literacy and numeracy, Canberra had decreed. No matter that they could read the landscape like seasoned scholars, and speak four or five Western Desert dialects, including Pitjantjatjara.

Taylor was kept on as a contractor, but “the pay became less and less”. In 2010, he moved back to his birthplace of Pukatja (Ernabella), in South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, where he works in the store.

When the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), a federal government agency, bought the Ayers Rock Resort in 2011, the place had two Aboriginal employees. The ILC, whose subsidiary Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia owns and operates the resort, set up the National Indigenous Training Academy, seeking to create a 50 per cent black workforce by 2018.

Many were sceptical, but four years on 283 of the 800 staff are Indigenous. Aboriginal people are behind reception at the five-star Sails in the Desert. They are on the IGA checkouts, selling fuel at the Shell station and whipping up iced coffees in the Kulata Academy Cafe, which is staffed solely by trainees. (All these outlets, which are part of the resort, are owned by Voyages.)

Ashlee Murphy, from Brisbane, is front-office supervisor at the Desert Gardens Hotel. “I didn’t really have a stable home until I came out here. I was just couch surfing with family and drinking all the time,” says the personable 23-year-old. “Now I’ve got a job and my own little apartment. I feel like my life began out here.”

Around the sun-baked Yulara township, such stories are common. Unfortunately, few come from the Anangu people. Most of the trainees and direct hires are urban, relatively well-educated young Indigenous people from Queensland and NSW. Just four Anangu, all from the APY Lands, have completed traineeships.

To its credit, Voyages is exploring ways to boost that number. It has also founded a work experience program called Real Jobs, aimed at Mutitjulu residents and intended as a stepping-stone to full-time work or training.

Nyinku Jingo, 41, is one of 25 people who have signed up. She stacks shelves at the IGA, paints at the resort’s Wintjiri gallery and gives talks about native plants. Real Jobs is “getting Anangu into work”, says Jingo, seated on her concrete deck in Mutitjulu, her voice almost drowned out by squabbling camp dogs.

Alongside the new jobs strategy has been a push to indigenise the resort. Hotels are plastered with desert artworks, chefs are cooking with bush ingredients and guest activities include campfire yarns and dot-paintingworkshops. Vincent Forrester, a guide for Uluru Aboriginal Tours, the sole Anangu-owned tour company, complains: “This place should be leaving the culture to us. They’re taking money off blackfellas.”

For three years, to the bemusement of locals, a troupe of dancers from NSW performed daily at Yulara. Though they have now left, a didgeridoo player from Brisbane is still entertaining guests at an outdoor dining spot – indicating, perhaps, that Voyages needs another stint at cultural boot camp.

Nyinku Jingo used to be a park ranger. In 1990, she was one of four Anangu trainees. There is now just one traineeship a year – and it has not been filled since 2013.

In the 1990s, according to Jingo, Uluru-Kata Tjuta had almost a dozen Anangu staff. Although overall numbers have declined, the enforcement of APS rules and a more conservative management culture have effectively frozen Anangu recruitment. White graduates, some studying for PhDs, have filled many posts.

Some elders feel exploited. Leroy Lester, another former ranger, explains: “The old ladies taught the whitefellas about the animals and the plants and the seasons, and then the whitefellas went off and got doctorates, and the old ladies – the real professors – got nothing.” Anangu occupy eight of the 12 seats on the park’s board, yet at times their wishes have been blatantly flouted. “Our words fall on deaf ears,” laments one frustrated traditional owner.

An Anangu-owned arts organisation named Maruku, with deep roots in the community and solid experience in events management, was widely expected to organise the 30th anniversary festivities. Instead, park managers gave the contract to a Darwin-based company. One Mutitjulu resident calls this “yet another decision made by whitefellas totally disconnected from the tjukurpa of this area”. Another fumes: “This is as important to us as your Anzac Day. It’s our day for remembering when we fought for our land rights and got our country back.”

Also distressing to Anangu is the run-down Cultural Centre, next to Uluru, with its dated displays and disintegrating mud-brick walls. By contrast, the park has spent $21 million on a new sunrise viewing area for tourists.

These days, taking Anangu out bush is “seen as too much hassle – the old people slow things down and get in the way”, says an insider. One trip last May was cancelled at the last minute because the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, decided to visit Uluru. Rangers are flat out looking after tourists, including rescuing those who get into trouble climbing the rock. Andrew Taylor worries that “our children won’t learn the proper way of looking after this place”.

According to Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s acting manager, Kerrie Bennison, elders “come out with us maybe half the time. The important people are really busy, and they’re getting old. They can’t walk and walk like they used to.” She adds: “They trust us to do things properly. Fire management and identifying species from burrows and tracks – Anangu taught us those things years ago.”

The widow of Nipper Winmati, Barbara Tjikatu, grew up “walking the country naked, from waterhole to waterhole”. The highly esteemed elder is in her 80s, cloudy-eyed but still breathing fire. “I want the park to respect the importance of us working as equals together, and not lose sight of that,” she declares, through an interpreter. “I’m from the bush, and I don’t want all the things done in the whitefella way.”

When the desert heat reached its suffocating peak, Mutitjulu’s children used to cool off in nearby sewage treatment ponds. Now they have a swimming pool, funded by park entry fees: 25 per cent goes to Aboriginal owners and their communities.

Mutitjulu folk still grumble about overcrowded houses and unreliable services – last summer, they sweltered when air-conditioning broke down. But their principal concern, emphasises Judy Trigger, an artist and traditional owner, remains jobs.

In early October, in a dry creek bed dotted with river red gums, around 300 Anangu gathered to mark the creation of the Katiti Petermann Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), five million hectares of Aboriginal land surrounding Uluru-Kata Tjuta in the Northern Territory’s south-west corner. Converging from as far afield as the APY Lands and Warakurna, in Western Australia (Anangu were criss-crossing this region long before state borders existed), they camped amid the saltbush and spinifex.

A ranger group from Kaltukatjara (Docker River), near the West Australian border, is already managing the area – encompassing the rugged Petermann ranges and giant salt pan of Lake Amadeus – in collaboration with traditional owners.

IPA status means extra federal funds to look after the land, which is traversed by songlines and home to numerous threatened species. As well as ancient skills passed down through the generations, the rangers use modern technology, such as CyberTracker software, to record field data. And unlike in the park, they work under their own direction. Their co-ordinator is an Anangu man, Benji Kenny. “It’s Anangu getting paid to look after our own country,” says Kenny.

There is talk of setting up a similar group at Mutitjulu, to operate across Uluru-Kata Tjuta and the IPA, building on an existing band of part-time community rangers.

Meanwhile, Anangu are being encouraged to exploit new opportunities for sustainable tourism in the park. A review of joint management is also under way, and could recommend some form of traditional skills accreditation acceptable to the APS.

Among those celebrating the new IPA were stalwarts of 1985, including Barbara Tjikatu and a grey-bearded Reggie Uluru. Once the formalities were out of the way, a film chronicling the battle for the rock was screened in the creek bed. There was much cheering and laughter, but those present also mourned those who had passed away – and they reminisced about a time that seemed so full of promise.

Sitting in the red dirt, Tjikatu takes the white interpreter’s hand and interlocks fingers with hers. Two hands, black and white, illustrating how joint management should be practised. Then she places her hand over the interpreter’s. Black on top of white, tjukurpa above all else. Maybe, just maybe, Barbara Tjikatu will live to see it.