Radio Fields: Melinda Hinkson:
the Warlpiri public sphere


Radio Fields: Melinda Hinkson
The Warlpiri public sphere

Dedicated interest: radio and the politics of relatedness in central Australia: The cultural politics of radio: two views from the Warlpiri public sphere
Melinda Hinkson, Australian National University, Canberra
Now at Deakin University, Melbourne, with Visiting Status at ANU

Taken from Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, with an Afterword by Faye Ginsburg at


The distance from the top to the bottom of Australia, from Cape York in the North to Hobart in Tasmania in the South, is 4,467 kilometers or 2,776 miles. Most of the centre of Australia is desert. J.T., 2015.

Paragraph 1 follows:

Warlpiri people residing at the town of Yuendumu, central Australia, have been involved in a range of audio-visual media projects over the past three decades, from radio broadcasting through to film and television production and video-conferencing. In this paper I consider two moments in this recent history with a specific focus on radio, as a way to reflect upon the shifting relations between Warlpiri people and the Australian state.


Warlpiri radio broadcasting reveals the distinctive cultural imperatives that may be observed more broadly in Warlpiri social interaction, but simultaneously broadcasting activity occurs against / in response to the demands of the Australian state. Increasingly these demands call out a new kind of Warlpiri subject, the responsible individual worker who would reorder his or her social obligations so as to bring them inline with those of ‘mainstream’ Australia.


In the first case considered here we glimpse the contradictory nature of the emergent community-based mediated public sphere, and the ongoing challenges that Warlpiri social imperatives pose to the realisation of a Warlpiri ‘community’.


In the second, the time of a neo-liberal intensification of state ‘intervention’, we hear senior Warlpiri voices reflecting on the similarities and differences of the colonised past and present.


These voices, carried by radio waves and internet, are directed both to the local community and more distant listeners. In attending to these two moments in the history of community development this paper considers what radio activity reflects Warlpiri people’s sense of who they are in turbulent times, and on the increasingly complex parameters their public sphere.



microphone-lores The town of Yuendumu originated as a ration depot on the edge of the Tanami Desert, central Australia in 1946. The establishment of such depots, which were subsequently gazetted as Aboriginal reserves, was a cornerstone of ‘protection’ era policy in Australia, wherein nomadic Aborigines of the continent’s interior were sedentarised and segregated from rural towns. [See Note 1] (The Notes are end-notes, at the foot of this file: click on ‘See Note 1’ to go there.)


Warlpiri people remember the early days of the settlement in terms of clear demarcations between themselves and the state agents who oversaw the town’s operations. Their camps were physically set outside the town perimeter. Adults worked as domestics, cleaners, gardeners, labourers. All were fed in a central dining room. Yet one of features of this early period of settlement, which in state terms was a focused exercise in the training of citizens, was that Warlpiri people retained a degree of autonomy from Europeans that enabled them to continue organising their social world according to long held cultural imperatives.


They were subject to a strict authoritarian regime and regulated work routines during week days, but then left to themselves after hours and on weekends. Warlpiri language was banned from the school classroom, but continued as the lingua franca of the camps. Boys continued to be made into men through circumcision ceremonies, customary marriages and polygyny continued to be practiced, the extended kin relationships that organised land tenure and enacted cosmology continued to be fostered. In short, a kind of domain separation ensured that two forms of authority co-resided, [Note 2] probably for about the first fifteen years of settlement. The children who were schooled during this period grew up with a distinctly bi-cultural orientation to their social world.


In 1967 more than 90% of Australians voted ‘yes’ in a national referendum to amend the constitution to enable the Commonwealth government to make policy for the benefit of Aboriginal people. [Note 3] The referendum symbolised an important, albeit somewhat indeterminate, shift in public sentiment regarding the place of Aboriginal people in Australian society and a series of significant governmental moves followed.


Warlpiri people experienced a radical shift in the nature of settlement life with the end of assimilation and introduction of the approach of self-determination or self-management following the election of the Whitlam labour government in 1972, and the earlier commencement of welfare payments. Increased mobility followed as the newly available cash allowed people to purchase motor vehicles, and the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 encouraged them, along with the anthropologists and linguists who would document their customary land tenure laws, out of the settlement and back onto their lands. Small outstation communities were established on land newly recognised under Aboriginal freehold title. A kind of cultural renaissance followed the newly established connections to customary lands, and was fostered further with the creation of new community controlled organizations — an art centre, bilingual resource agency, outstation resource agency and a media association.


While self-determination is often characterised as supporting Aboriginal autonomy, in Australia the shift in policy drew Aboriginal people into closer involvement in the workings of the state. [Note 4]  Life at Yuendumu could no longer be characterised in terms of a clear separation of Warlpiri and European domains. The old government superintendent was replaced by a new process of community governance in which Warlpiri people would be drawn more directly into service delivery and the running of their own town through community council, organisational committees and boards of management.


A new period of interculturalism was born in which Warlpiri people would come to speak of themselves doing things ‘two ways’, working alongside the non-Aboriginal advisers and coordinators of the new oranisations. Educated Warlpiri moved to take up newly created positions as teachers’ aides to help deliver the school’s new bilingual education program. Media activity, in the first instance video production, was initiated under the auspices of an Adult Education program, then with the support of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies research fellowship undertaken by the late America researcher Eric Michaels, to explore the effects of introducing national television into remote Aboriginal Australia. [Note 5] All of this activity aimed at generating new forms of work and enterprise that were supportive of Warlpiri aspirations to continue living a life that was distinctively Warlpiri.


Early media activity in the town both exemplified and recorded the flavour of social activity in this dynamic period — video records were made of culturally engaged school-based activities, as well as trips to country outside the settlement by people re-establishing connections to places not visited for many years, old people reminiscing, and meetings between residents and visiting bureaucrats about all manner of community development issues. Undertaken in a period prior to the launch of the first national satellite and before the development of legislative guidelines for remote broadcasting, the activity at Yuendumu was indeed relatively independent. [Note 6]


Community-based media activity shifted onto a new footing after the federal government responded to calls to recognise the distinctive issues posed by the launch of national media, especially television, for remote living Aboriginal people, by introducing the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS).


BRACS equipment delivered to small towns across remote Australia enabled residents of these places to receive and rebroadcast to a local area of approximately one kilometre in diameter two television and two radio stations. Built into this equipment was a capacity to interrupt the incoming satellite signal and insert locally produced material. However, the equipment came without the necessary training and other financial support that would enable local production, and as a result only a small number of towns established their own media associations and their own locally produced content.


Radio broadcasting has historically been overshadowed by the relative excitement of visual media, yet it is the mode of mediated communication that Warlpiri people are most straightforwardly able to undertake on their own terms. At Yuendumu the early burst of video production and local television broadcasting soon gave way, in a period of dwindling resources and support, to radio-based work.


Radio broadcasting that utilises the first and subsequent generations of BRACS equipment is technologically straightforward, the least demanding of financial support and requires very little training. So throughout the mid-1990s in a period when Warlpiri Media Association was relatively underresourced and a succession of non-Aboriginal managers came and went, Warlpiri media workers went about their business, broadcasting music and messages to the local community with very little support or encouragement of non-Aboriginal managers.


There is a sense in which radio work is particularly well suited to the dynamics of Warlpiri daily life. Radio workers can simply walk into the studio, flick a switch to override the incoming signal and start broadcasting material of their own selection, which will be immediately heard by those listening. On completion of a session they simply switch over to the incoming signal and walk out of the studio. This was the informal and low-key approach to radio work throughout much of the 1990s by the small number of radio workers attached to the media association, with an average of about six hours of local broadcasting per week.

  Case One. Mediated Relations:

Women broadcasters and the PAW Radio Network


microphone-lores Part of the story of Warlpiri people’s interactions with radio is about the changing government policies that have variously constrained and enabled new areas of activity. Warlpiri Media’s expansion and eventual evolution into the regional Pintupi Anmatyerre Warlpiri Media Association reflects the response of its coordinating non-Aboriginal staff to diverse governmental pressures and local and regional needs and interests. What started as an entirely local project established in the early 1980s was regionalised by 1995 when the organization became training provider for seven neighbouring Aboriginal towns. This expanded focus was partly driven by demand from residents of the towns in question, partly by the organisation’s need to generate new forms of revenue in order to sustain activity locally.


In 2001, following the appointment of an enthusiastic radio trainer with experience in the community radio sector, Warlpiri media established the Pintupi Anmatyerre Warlpiri Radio Network (PAW Radio), which would create networked radio links between eleven towns spread across 480,000 square kilometres of the central and western deserts northwest of Alice Springs. The residents of these towns share close familial and ceremonial ties and there are high levels of mobility as people travel to attend to the demands of these relationships.


The radio network was integral to the emergence of a new kind of public sphere — not local, not national, not even regional in the conventional sense, but rather specifically drawing together the residents of these predominantly Aboriginal towns in a shared aural orientation to each other and the wider nation. Its launch heralded a new era in the mediated engagements of central Australian Aboriginal people and with it, a new approach to broadcasting.


The radio network utilises digital equipment whose operation requires radio workers to have reasonable levels of literacy. The first group of young adults who presented themselves as interested to take up the work of radio broadcasting were, notably, women. Throughout the 1990s one Warlpiri woman, Valerie Napaljarri Martin, had provided the stable point of reference in a workplace that turned over both Warlpiri and non-Aboriginal staff with great frequency. At the time of PAW’s establishment Napaljarri had moved into Alice Springs, but before leaving she recruited her niece to take up a position as media worker. This woman was followed by her own niece and Napaljarri’s daughter, as well as her daughter’s close classificatory sister. Two of these women were also closely related to the radio trainee at nearby Mount Allan, as well as to a highly mobile male radio worker who broadcasted variously from three different towns. While not all Warlpiri people employed by the media association are related, as this brief survey suggests relatedness is a significant consideration.


Importantly, the women working at Yuendumu also shared the distinction of having completed unusually high levels of education through their enrolment in a senior girls class at the Yuendumu school in the mid-1990s. The class utilised the community’s video conferencing equipment — the Tanami Network [Note 7] — in a Northern Territory sponsored trial of the delivery to Yuendumu of secondary school level curriculum. Classes were taught via videoconference by teachers based at the Northern Territory Correspondence School in Darwin, with tutors working alongside students in the classroom at Yuendumu.


In the course of this trial a number of students graduated to work at advanced secondary levels, an unprecedented achievement in a town whose school was then only teaching to postprimary (year eight) level. The trial meant that for the first time young women (a number of them mothers to infant children) were able to gain a partial secondary education without leaving their home town. Prior to the trial students had to attend boarding schools hundreds of kilometres away if they were to complete secondary education.


The outcomes of the trial were considered by local educators to be quite remarkable. The women received a new kind of affirmation as a result of completing their studies, and the effects of this were widely observable at a broader social relational level. In the period following their completion of various stages of the trial, members of the class secured most of the jobs on offer to Warlpiri people in Yuendumu’s community organisations. Their higher levels of numeracy and literacy, computer proficiency, and all round confidence made them desirable employees and enthusiastic workers.


Their education experience also encouraged these women to consider a wider horizon of possible futures than they might have otherwise. There was something of a dialectical relationship between educational achievement and radio work. It is notable in this respect that while one broadcaster’s mother had relocated to Alice Springs, she had elected to stay and work at Yuendumu.


The establishment of PAW Radio sparked unprecedented radio activity, and a major increase in numbers of young people approaching the organisation looking for work. There was a dramatic increase in the number of hours of local radio broadcasting across the networked towns, with radio workers from at least two locations broadcasting regularly for six to eight hours a day, five days a week.

  Requests and the politics of dedicated listening


Broadcaster: Yuwai, nat that one, Cold Chisel, “Forever Now”, ngulaju. Umpuku Pukarac, Ingrid, Wakku, Nana, Minu, Jampijin, Derek, Warwick, Japangard and… Yah, jinta kari, ‘nother one, Spinifex Band and Rising Wind; double play nyampuju. Spinifex “Pina Yantarni” and Rising Wind “Kamta-kangku pantirli”. Double play ngulaju. Tiffany, Olivia, Edith, W, Leanne, Sharmane, and kurdu-k. Nyambpu now, double play, umpuj.’


Translation: ‘Yes that was Cold Chisel with “Forever Now”, going out for Pukarac, Ingrid, Wakku, Nana, Minu, Jampijin, Derek, Warwick, Japangard… … And now here’s another one, two songs from Spinifex Band and Rising Wind. Spinifex’s “Come Back” and Rising Wind’s “The Woman is Waiting”. This one’s a double play for Olivia, Edith, W, Leanne, Sharmane and the kids. Here it is now’. [Note 8]


microphone-lores The women radio broadcasters take a distinctive approach to their on-air work. When they are broadcasting the radio room is a buzz with excitement. The telephone rings incessantly with listeners calling in requests and dedications. Announcers follow the same procedure for each song played — they announce not just the name of the caller, but a list of names for whom a requested song is to be played. On the completion of a song the same announcement is made, the same list of names carefully recited. Rarely do these women play a song without an accompanying dedication. Rarely is a song announced as having been requested by a single individual.


Music is a major dimension of life in the central and western deserts. From their own ceremonial music that enacts the fundamental relations between persons, country and spirit through to Country and Western, gospel, hip-hop and their own innovative rock and roll, a passion for music is an observable inter-generation phenomena. Many popular genres of music are represented in the PAW computerised database, and most broadcasting sessions run by the women are likely to include an even sprinkling of most styles. The songs of Warlpiri and other desert bands are interspersed with the latest top 40 hits, 1970s American classics, Australian pop, reggae, dance, as well as songs by Aboriginal bands from across the country. The most recently released popular songs are repeated often during the one on-air session. Choice of material may be influenced by many factors, but the most significant in the case of the young women broadcasters are requests and dedications.


The women broadcasters estimate that about half the calls they receive while broadcasting are from those they refer to as ‘family’, the other half from ‘anybody’. In the course of a broadcasting slot phone calls are likely to be received from across many of the networked towns. But it is also common for radio workers to receive several calls from the same destination, as it is for the same song to be requested and played several times. Significantly, calls are also received from Aboriginal people locally related but living outside of the networked towns.


As suggested by the lists of names, caller’s requests tend to be made on behalf of some kind of social grouping with whom the caller is associated. But what kind of social grouping? During two sessions I spent in the radio room in November 2002, I noted a variety of relationships being invoked. For example, Marlette Napurrurla, a close classificatory sister of one of the broadcasters, has ready access to a telephone at the Childcare Centre where she works. She calls the radio room a number of times during the broadcast session to request ‘gospel songs’. The dedication announced by the broadcasters is for all the Warlpiri women working alongside Marlette at the Childcare centre, as well as a number of named children, including Marlette’s grandson.


The radio workers explained to me that the playing of requests takes preference over the playing of their own choice of song. But when one listens to PAW Radio things do not appear to be so clear cut. For there is a third approach these women regularly take — they dedicate songs to relatives and friends who do not ring in. During the session I sat in on, one of the two women broadcasting sent a dedication to her sister and others, currently living in the large regional centre Alice Springs. The song was Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”.


Alice Springs lies well outside the range, as the broadcaster is fully aware, and so her sister will not hear the dedication being made. But dedications can travel via alternative routes to radio waves. The intensity of Warlpiri mobility means that someone who knows the broadcaster’s sister and has heard the dedication is likely to meet her in coming days and tell her that she’d been named by her sister on radio. In this sense radio activity helps animate nostalgic longing for home and one’s place within a specific set of associations.


During her broadcasting session the woman in question made two other unsolicited dedications, one to her close classificatory mother and to other Warlpiri and some non-Aboriginal staff with whom she works at the local Warlukurlangu Artists Association. This was followed by yet another unsolicited dedication to ‘everyone in South Camp’, among whom a close classificatory brother was named.


What is revealed in the ‘groups’ named in these requests and dedications is the inherent dynamism of Warlpiri social relations in the post-colonial present. The assemblages of people listed are in many cases kin, but more often members of highly dynamic residential groups whose constitution changes frequently. [Note 9] They are also ‘friendship’ groups and workplace groups, but rarely inclusive of all members of a workplace. None of these groups may be considered permanent or bounded; they are networks of individuals that reflect the cross-cutting layers of allegiance and association that constitute contemporary Warlpiri life.


The articulation of these networks, the public naming of oneself in association with particular others, reflects a core moral principle of Warlpiri sociality: one should move with, camp with, and look after others, not simply oneself. As the parameters of the Warlpiri universe strain against and transcend the local, new communications media such as radio provide both the mechanisms for such expansion, as well as its possible accommodation.


As suggested by the tendency to make unsolicited dedications on behalf of kin, the radio workers are by no means neutral points of mediation in the public invocation of on-air relationships. The status of the relationship between the broadcaster and those calling in is highly significant, as is reflected in the criticisms of the women’s approach to their work by some residents. ‘They only play for their own family’, one man complained to me, an accusation that was repeated by others whose views I sought on the women’s broadcasting style. One Yuendumu resident told me she got frustrated with the radio workers because they never played her family’s requests. Now she waits until one of her own relatives is broadcasting from nearby Nyirripi before calling in, because she knows he will always play her songs. When confronted with the accusations of family bias the women smile and tell me ‘sometimes we forget other people’s requests and get growled’.


This political context of broadcasting renders complex any idea that Aboriginal media be simply understood as community owned and driven, and indeed constituted in something called ‘community’. [Note 10] The question of whether the women consider their activity to be work on behalf of a wider community is also implicitly raised by some of the criticisms of their approach. ‘They don’t run the show smoothly. They just walk in and out as they like.


There should be proper training for them’, remarked one senior man. He continued, ‘you’ve got to remember, we’ve listened to a lot of radio for a long time. We know what good radio is’. Criticisms such as these reflect intergenerational tensions around understandings of the relative importance of work.


People make work meaningful by grounding it in their existing social networks wherever possible. But as suggested in the friction surrounding the women’s approach to broadcasting, the demands of family are not necessarily compatible with those of community-based work. Indeed the question of whether the women regard their on-air activity as ‘work’ is interesting to consider. Two of the broadcasters are undertaking further study at Batchelor College as part of their training; they received ‘top up’ wages as well as their fortnightly Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) scheme payments. This scheme has enabled remote Aboriginal community organisations to establish distinctively flexible working arrangements suited to local circumstances. A third refuses to take a wage, preferring to receive the parenting allowance she is eligible for as a single mother of two. Through this kind of arrangement she feels she is ‘not really working’ and retains flexibility to come and go from broadcasting as she pleases.


There is some reluctance on the part of the women to undertake the kind of on-air tasks that would give their programs a more formal structure — the paying of paid advertisements, conducting interviews, playing pre-recorded programs such as locally produced oral histories and biographies. In 2002 they needed active encouragement of non-Aboriginal coordinators to carry out these tasks.


This case study reveals the significance of radio as a medium for exploring what it is to be Warlpiri in the present. Networked broadcasting has been embraced by young women because it mimics and indeed supports the kind of intensive sociality displayed in other contexts of daily life. While the PAW network extends well beyond Warlpiri territory, there is a sense in which it functions as a communication mechanism primarily oriented to the local. The case we shall now move on to consider deals with radio’s mediation of Warlpiri experience of events directed at them, originating elsewhere.

  Case Two. Yapa patu wangkami:

Remembering interventions


microphone-lores The period in which PAW Radio was established coincided with a highly productive set of collaborative relations between Warlpiri and non-Warlpiri staff of the media association. Other television, film and video productions completed in this period produced something of a financial buffer for the organisation, enabling the new network to be established and the spike of enthusiastic broadcasters to be supported and paid.


In 2007 the federal government launched the Northern Territory ‘Emergency Response’ Intervention, ostensibly in response to the findings of the Little Children Are Sacred Inquiry, which reported widespread child sexual abuse across remote Aboriginal communities. Enabled with the rapid passing of complex legislation and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, the Intervention mobilised the army into remote towns, followed by increased permanent police presence to help ‘stabilise’ these places, it introduced mandatory quarantining of half the income of all welfare recipients to ensure money would be spent on food and care of children, promised to deliver improved housing, imposed tougher restrictions on alcohol and pornography, and a raft of other measures. [Note 11] After initial hope as well as fear as to what the Intervention might actually mean on the ground, Warlpiri people became increasingly disappointed at the lack of any significant changes to their circumstances and also angry and apprehensive at government rhetoric and shifts in policy discourse that Warlpiri interpret as a direct threat to their existing way of life. [Note 12]


While the announcement of the Intervention was dramatic, the shift in policy it represented had in fact been unfolding in Australia over the past decade and a half. Over that same period a shift in the national politics of representation could also be observed, as one set of images that oriented the general public to remote Aboriginal Australia — culture, community, self-determination — were displaced by ideas of failure, suffering, abuse. [Note 13]  Warlpiri people have been observing this shift in discourse and sentiment with a growing sense of alarm.


Coupled with the coercive Intervention measures and heightened government attention to those aspects of their lives the state identifies as dysfunctional, they sense echoes of the civilising experiments of the early settlement days. Yuendumu’s residents have been outspoken critics of the Intervention and have utilised every opportunity to make their views known to wider Australia via whatever media interest has come their way. [Note 14]

  Working with and against the neoliberal state


microphone-lores By mid-2007 the radio studio had undergone considerable change. The group of women who had been the major drivers of broadcasting five years earlier were no longer working for PAW. One of them had died suddenly of heart related problems in 2004 and her female relatives stopped working there soon after. The studio had subsequently become a predominantly male domain, although in mid-2009 plans were underway to build a second studio which would function as a separate women’s space, as a way to encourage further young women into radio.


Broadcasting appeared more technically demanding and complicated than ever before. The organisation had recently begun to record everything that goes to air to ensure compliance with the Community Broadcasting Associations Act. The organisation had a commitment to broadcast twenty hours per week, but was finding it hard to maintain these hours. Broadcasters continued to come and go.


The Intervention influenced those working in radio in three main ways. First, it brought increased government revenue into PAW through the placement of paid radio advertisements to advise residents of the PAW member communities of the stream of changes being introduced. In other words, radio became a primary carrier of government discourse about the shifting policy landscape to its remote Aboriginal subjects. Up to twenty paid government advertisements were played on air per day.


Second, one of the measures associated with the Intervention was the abolition of the CDEP scheme and the replacement of a limited number of positions with government sponsored places in ‘real jobs’ — full-time, salaried positions — funded for three years.


This is a significant development for the organisation, which had previously found the flexibility of CDEP suitable in accommodating its highly mobile workforce. The change brings with it an unprecedented distinction between a small number of ‘professional’ workers who receive intensive training with the aim of producing new levels of sophistication in their media skills, and the larger casual pool of workers who would continue to come and go according to other pressures and stimuli in their lives.


In an associated development a code of conduct has been developed that the professional trainees are required to sign prior to taking up a position with the media association. The code of conduct is aimed at fostering both individual and public understanding of the responsibilities of workers, and the recognition of a need for some degree of division between responsibility to the workplace and to one’s family. Through these developments, which echo debates in the wider Australian public sphere about the need to foster in remote living Aboriginal people a greater sense of individual responsibility and a distinction between private and public culture, [Note 15] there is a clear sense that the way work is understood and experienced by Warlpiri people is in the process of undergoing considerable change.


Third, the Intervention provoked more radio use as residents sought information about what was going on, as well as avenues to express their bewilderment, concern and anger at the new governmental approach. In response to the heightened public discussion among residents attempting to make sense of the turbulent experiences of the present, a series of oral history interviews were recorded with senior women and men, specifically to be played on radio for both local and wider audiences.


microphone-lores Yapa patu wangkami [Note 16]  is an oral history program structured around Warlpiri memory and opinion in relation to three historical moments — pre-settlement, early post-settlement and the post-intervention present. It draws perspectives from men and women of different generations, thus conveying not only a sense of historical transformation in the Warlpiri world, but of diverse subjective experience across time. The interviews and translations were conducted by Warlpiri media workers — women interviewing and translating the accounts of women; men working with men.


In many cases the interviewers are related to those whose stories they have recorded. This is important as it enables the younger questioner to pose issues for discussion, or raise points of clarification, without being ‘shamed’. The relational context of the interviews also characterises these testimonies as something other than simply ‘stories’ for a ‘public’ — the recordings point to a kin-based process of intergenerational knowledge transfer, which is recognised as a crucial conduit for the activity of the media association. In other words, media work is undertaken in a distinctively Warlpiri way, and shaped by particular kin-based social imperatives.


Yapa patu wangkami can be download for podcast as a series of six programs structured around individual accounts, or as a one hour compilation. Here my focus is with this compilation program.


The program opens with the testimony of Johnny Japangardi Miller, speaking of his memories of living in the bush in his grandfather’s country, prior to Yuendumu’s establishment. What is particularly striking about Japangardi’s account is the way it is explicitly framed against an articulated fear that ‘government’ will ‘take away this land’.


In a forceful, animated voice filled with urgency, he recounts his intergenerational inheritance and responsibility to look after the land — ‘We can’t just give our land away easily. We have ceremonial ties, we’ve got to hold onto it. This land has lots of Dreaming stories. No government can take this land. All these kids were born here. The white people brought us here… I would not give this land away. It has too many precious stories.’ Japangardi’s translated account conveys something of the rhythm of nomadic life, but continuously circles back to focus on the concerns of the present. His story illustrates the ways in which memory is powerfully animated and shaped in and against contemporary experience.


The next account, by Dennis Japangardi Williams, a man in his 50s, recalls a constantly mobile life, even in the supposedly sedentary post-settlement era. Here we are given an evocative sense of the voluntary and forced movement that structured experience for some Warlpiri people through the 1950s and 1960s, as they were forcibly removed into [the town of] Alice Springs by state agents to attend school, from station to station accompanying parents in paid work, and out to bush camps to be initiated or to attend other ritual events.


Senior women recount the depth of knowledge of country that saw their parents and grandparents move from soakage to soakage following seasonally-available fresh water resources and the bush-based expertise that treated the sick, the elderly, the frail. These women emphasise the physical strength and health of Aboriginal people in the presettlement period, in contrast with the widespread and debilitating influence of diabetes, substance abuse, malnutrition in the present.


Listeners learn from two generations of men and women of the harsh treatment they experienced at the hands of school teachers, the constant attention of missionaries, and the routinised physical education and feeding regimes. Many Warlpiri people recall those days in largely positive terms. While decrying the physical abuse by their teachers, older Warlpiri people regard the relative order of life under the superintendant as ‘really good’. Memories of the past are a foil for thinking about the present, and vice versa.


In these recollections the present is cause for concern on two fronts: speakers reflect not simply upon government action and inaction, but also upon the trouble caused by young people today — and interestingly, those reflecting on the ‘problems’ of today’s teenagers are not so old themselves, in one case a man in his early 20s passes critical comment on today’s kids ‘who think they’re already adults’.


There is also a sense in which the current governmental changes are being felt so intensively, that transformations in experience between the generations are also intensified. In this way a man in his 20s can speak confidently about Yuendumu being ‘a really strong place’ when he was a child and a ‘big mess’ in the wake of the Intervention.


The final two reflections in the compilation program are from senior women Peggy Nampijinpa Brown and Tess Napaljarri Ross. Nampijinpa speaks of the distinction between Warlpiri law, which never changes, and government law, which changes every year: ‘Government mob make different rules every year. They write it down in the newspaper. We see it nearly every day… It hurts our feelings’. And she goes on to say that Warlpiri people wouldn’t treat others in the way they are being treated by the government, as they’d ‘get shamed’. Referring to the government’s refusal on a number of occasions to take on board Warlpiri people’s expressed desires regarding their future, Nampijinpa tells her interviewer ‘We can’t listen to kardiya’s (whitefella’s) message only. They need to listen to our story as well. Can’t they look at what we do and think about supporting us?… They should be supporting us because we do lots of good things for the community and its people… But they keep threatening to take our land away.’


Tess Ross similarly reflects upon the present: ‘In these intervention years we are going backwards. It really hurts us. White people don’t even know our law.’ And then she moves to illustrate the extent to which Warlpiri people have embraced their complex and troubled relationship with wider Australia: ‘We didn’t ever know God. But now we know God exists. We know these political people in Canberra. We know Queen Elizabeth in England. We know where the famous places are in the cities, and we know who we are. We know where our families live in the other communities, and we know where our kardiya [white] friends are.’


These women appeal to two distinct but related ways in which Warlpiri morality is affronted in the present — by the lack of reciprocity they experience in their encounters with representatives of the Australian state, and the suggestion that they have conducted themselves in such a way as to require government intervention. At the root of both issues is the suggestion that the government doesn’t understand Warlpiri people, or the cultural imperatives that characterise Warlpiri ways of doing things, or indeed the cultural distance that Warlpiri have travelled in committing themselves to an intercultural imaginary.


Significantly, this case illustrates ways in which the earlier observed Warlpiri atomism, or ‘lack’ of community, is largely overcome in turbulent times. Warlpiri are adept at mobilising a strong unified front when actions identified as originating from ‘outside’ are felt to threaten the moral order of their social universe.


microphone-lores Why make a radio program about such issues? For a community of people who continue to privilege face-to-face communication over that which is technologically mediated, it might be suggested that the process of local discussion and expression of opinion around these issues may be more highly valued than the finished product, or its broadcast to a wider audience. But the testimonies considered here suggest a more complex situation.


Tess Ross appeals to the thoroughly intercultural parameters of contemporary Warlpiri experience. In the post-intervention period Warlpiri people have travelled regularly between Yuendumu and Canberra and further afield to put their views on the new policy landscape directly to politicians and bureaucrats in face-to-face encounters. They have also taken every opportunity to share their opinions with the wider Australian public via interviews with journalists, and in contributing to a major six part series ‘Voices from the Heart’, publishing Warlpiri perspectives on a range of topics in the country’s only national newspaper, the Murdoch owned Australian. [Note 17] This commitment to a form of mediated political activism belies Warlpiri people’s longstanding experience as both subjects and producers of a variety of media — they understand what is at stake in the contemporary politics of representation, in which negative stereotypes of culture as cause of dysfunction and suffering are becoming increasingly dominant. [Note 18]


Warlpiri people make a distinction between presence and distance as modes of communication and knowing, and make clear their privileging of the former when they appeal to politicians, journalists, researchers, to come and ‘sit down’ at Yuendumu to get to ‘really know’ Warlpiri people.


Yet in seeing themselves simultaneously as Warlpiri and Australian, they are committed to participating in a public sphere that transcends the local and the regional. Consequently they embrace those modes of interaction that enable them to do so.


When Tess Ross states ‘We know Queen Elizabeth in England. We know where the famous places are in the cities, and we know who we are’, she is making clear the impossibility of disentangling the contemporary Warlpiri worldview from both colonial experience and contemporary Australian society. The kind of public sphere being enacted here is more complicated than that which we might elucidate from the work of either Habermas [Note 19] or Appadurai. [Note 20]


Thoroughly constituted in the production of a global imaginary on the one hand, Warlpiri motivation to perform as global citizens derives from their ongoing attention to the local and specific. Yet significantly, these spheres are now understood as thoroughly entangled. In this sense Warlpiri face the same distinctly modern challenge as the rest of us, to coherently integrate the two modes of engagement that characterise contemporary social experience, and to order them according to their distinctive moral imperatives. [Note 21] In this sense the activity around the Yuendumu radio room might be understood as a microcosm of wider Warlpiri experience.

Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[1]  ‘Protection’ was established as the policy approach to remote-living Aboriginal people until the early 1950s when it was replaced by ‘assimilation’. See Tim Rowse 1998 White Flour, White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[2] David Trigger 1986. ‘Blackfellas and whitefellas: the concepts of domain and social closure in the analysis of race-relations’, Mankind 16 (2): 99-117.

[3] See Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus 1997 The 1967 Referendum, Or, When Aborigines Didn’t Get the Vote, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

[4] See Philip Batty 2005 ‘Recruiting the Aboriginal voice: The state development of Aboriginal broadcasting’, In Luke Taylor, Graeme K Ward, Graham Henderson, Richard David and Lynley A Wallis (eds) The Power of Knowledge, the Resonance of Tradition, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 169-181.

[5] See Eric Michaels 1986 The Invention of Aboriginal Television, Central Australia 1982-86, Institute Report Series, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra; 1994 Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards.

[6] Although the media project was dependent upon the skills and resources Eric Michaels brought with him as part of his research project.

[7] See Melinda Hinkson 2002 ‘New media projects at Yuendumu: intercultural engagement and self-determination in an era of accelerated globalization.’ Continuum 16 (2): 201-20.

[8] This section of the paper draws from material published in Melinda Hinkson 2004 ‘What’s in a dedication? On being a Warlpiri DJ’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology [TAJA], 15 (2): 143-162.

[9] For a detailed account of Warlpiri residential mobility see Yasmine Musharbash 2008 Yuendumu Everyday, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

[10] This debate has been a central theme in the writings on Aboriginal media, see for example Eric Michaels’ 1989 For A Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrur la Makes TV at Yuendumu, Sydney and Melbourne, Art and Text Publications; Helen Molnar 1999 The broadcasting for remote Aboriginal communities scheme: small versus big, Media Information Australia, pp. 147-154; Michael Meadows 1993 ‘Reclaiming a cultural identity: Indigenous media production in Australia and Canada’, Continuum 8 (2): 270-292; Faye Ginsburg 1995 ‘Production values: Indigenous media and the rhetoric of self-determination’, in Deborah Battaglia (ed.). Rhetorics of Self-Making, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp 12-138; Melinda Hinkson ‘2005 New media projects at Yuendumu: Towards a history and analysis of intercultural engagement’, in Luke Taylor, Graeme K Ward, Graham Henderson, Richard David and Lynley A Wallis (eds) The Power of Knowledge, the Resonance of Tradition, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 157-168.

[11] See Melinda Hinkson 2007 ‘In the name of the child’, in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds) Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, Arena Publications, Carlton North, pp. 1-12.

[12] See Melinda Hinkson [forthcoming] 2010 ‘Media images and the politics of hope’, in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds) Culture Crisis: Anthropology, Politics and Remote Aboriginal Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

[13] While there is a clear lineage to this discursive shift it is beyond the scope of this paper to attend to in any detail. See Kerry McCallum 2009 (in press) ‘News and local talk: Conversations about the “crisis of Indigenous violence” in Australia’, in S. Elizabeth Bird (ed.) The Anthropology of News and Journalism, Evansville, University of Indiana Press, pp. 151-167; Hinkson ‘Media images and the politics of hope’.

[14] See for example ‘Voices from the Heart’, a six part series from Yuendumu published in the Australian newspaper fortnightly in mid-2007, available at pages/get-the-basics/whats-it-really-like/voices-from-the-heart-of-the-nation.php; Bess Price 2009 ‘Outsiders beat the drum against change for wrong reasons’. The Australian 27 August 2009; Yaroslav Trofimov ‘“Tough love” in the outback’. The Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2009, available at (accessed 20 February, 2009).

[15] Such debates have been fuelled most particularly by the writings and public commentary of Cape York Aboriginal leader and intellectual Noel Pearson. See especially Pearson 2001 Our Right To Take Responsibility, Cape York Institute, Cairns and Peter Sutton 2009 The Politics of Suffering, Carlton, Melbourne University Press.

[16] Available to download as a podcast at 103. The program won the awards for Best Oral History (Radio) and Best Documentary (Radio) at the Eleventh Annual Remote Indigenous Media Festival in 2009.

[17] See ‘Voices from the Heart’, available at; Hinkson 2010 ‘Media images and the politics of hope’.

[18] See for example Helen Hughes 2007. Lands of Shame, Sydney, Centre for Independent Studies; Keith Windschuttle 2009. ‘Bill Stanner and the end of the Aboriginal High Culture’ Quadrant, No. 5, available at; Peter Sutton 2009 The Politics of Suffering, Carlton, Melbourne University Press.

[19] Jurgen Habermas 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, Polity Press.

[20] Aijun Appadurai 1990. Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Public Culture 2(2): 1-24.

[21] John Thompson 1995. The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.