Home Featured A Warlpiri ancestor disappeared down the ‘white pipeline’. Finally it was time for him to return | Indigenous Australians

A Warlpiri ancestor disappeared down the ‘white pipeline’. Finally it was time for him to return | Indigenous Australians

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A Warlpiri ancestor disappeared down the ‘white pipeline’. Finally it was time for him to return | Indigenous Australians


One day, in the central Australian desert, a body fell out of a tree. It was the body of a Warlpiri ancestor, who had been given a traditional tree burial at Pikilyi, near Yuendumu. After he fell, or was knocked down from that tree, he was scooped up by the “white pipeline” and taken away from his country to Adelaide.

That pipeline of white people – some well-meaning, some not, some unthinking – funnelled things belonging to First Nations people away from their country – to museums, to private homes, to researchers’ collections across Australia and around the world in a grand, stolen diaspora.

In this case, the ancestor was found by a pastoralist in the mid-1960s. That pastoralist passed him on to the local mission. For reasons that are unclear, the mission decided to then give him to researchers from the University of Adelaide dental school, who took him to the city, on Kaurna land.

Through the Warlpiri Project, which works to repatriate both remains and objects, I found out that my relative Murray Barrett was part of that white pipeline when he worked in Yuendumu as a dental anthropologist.

Now they were bringing the ancestor back to Yuendumu and those generous people invited me to travel with them.

The ancestor

It’s believed the ancestor had been buried in traditional Warlpiri fashion on a platform in a large bloodwood tree at Pikilyi, later known as New Vaughn Springs station. The full skeleton came to light when the Braitling family, the owners of the station, were digging a fence line.

Elder Warren Japanangka Williams says the Braitlings “didn’t know it was a burial place”.

“They were doing some digging for the posts, they found this body on the ground,” he says.

“One of our missionaries, the late Rev Tom Fleming, he got hold of the body and they took it to Yuendumu. Then the dental crew, Murray Barrett, took the body to Alice Springs and then to Adelaide. We only found out later.”

Wrapped in the yellow, black and red flag, the Warlpiri ancestor rests on a table as the Yuendumu community comes out to welcome him.
Wrapped in the yellow, black and red flag, the Warlpiri ancestor rests on a table as the Yuendumu community comes out to welcome him. Photograph: Jamie Jungaryyi Hampton

The Pikilyi ancestor was kept in a box labelled “Queen of the Wailbri”, because he was misidentified as a woman. (The scrawl could also read Wallbri or Warlbri – the spelling is now officially Warlpiri). A note on another side of the box says it contains “clean packing straw and Her Majesty”.

More than 50 years later, an audit of the University of Adelaide’s collection by the South Australian Museum found the box.

Jamie Jungaryyi Hampton – an unassuming but inexorable force behind the Warlpiri Project – has stitched the ancestor’s story together from a range of sources, including an interview with Jol Fleming, Tom Fleming’s son. Fleming told Hampton he remembered the tree incident was around the mid-60s because he connected it to an incident with the family’s car from that time.

“We had an old EH Holden that I was driving and he hit his head on the roof … that was 64, 65 or 66,” Fleming told Hampton.

“There was a dirty great big bloodwood tree at the front … of the house and [the body] was obviously put in that and had fallen down at some stage.”

The kinsman

A plaque on the Yuendumu church reads: “The Wallaby Dreaming was given in memory of Murray J Barrett, a much-loved friend of the Warlpiri people.”

The dreaming is thought to refer to a depiction on one of the church’s stained glass windows.

Everyone in Yuendumu seems to know Barrett’s name; some of the older folk remember his visits, between 1951 and 1971.

Barrett, along with Tasman Brown and a range of researchers, ran a 20-year study of the Yuendumu.

Barrett took measurements. He also took recordings, of songs and of stories. He and his mentor, Prof Thomas Draper Campbell, made documentaries of daily life in the community. Barrett took care of the community’s dental concerns. He noted how the western diet, the sugar and the flour, wreaked havoc on Warlpiri teeth. He also took that ancestor back to Adelaide.

Barrett was married to my grandmother’s sister, Getha. Growing up, I heard about Barrett’s good work, and it’s hard not to be defensive or consumed with white guilt as I worry about whitewashing his story.

The Warlpiri people I meet speak kindly of him even though they’re distressed that the ancestor was taken. I ask why they seem so fond of him and several of those close to the Warlpiri say simply “generosity”.

It’s all the more startlingly generous against the backdrop of white interactions with the Warlpiri; from dispossession (including by the Braitlings) to the Coniston massacre and, in more recent times, the police killing of Kumanjayi Walker.

Prof Richard Logan, the head and dean of the dental school, speaks eloquently about the long relationship between the school and Yuendumu. Barrett’s research was “incredibly important”, he says. It led to more than 250 research papers and changed how orthodontic treatment worked around the world. In one case, it helped someone from Yuendumu prove their age to get a drivers licence.

Barrett was given a skin name (Jungarrayi), a sign of his place within the community. He documented genealogies, which helped the Warlpiri secure land rights.

“The reason for the success of the project [was the] mutual respect that existed between the dental school staff who visited here and the Yuendumu community, as well as your generosity in being involved and the kindness you showed the researchers,” Logan tells the people in Yuendumu.

“Of course, 50 to 70 years ago, the world was a very different place and attitudes and practices at the time didn’t match what we now know is appropriate behaviour.”

The ancestor ended up “just being given” to the school, Logan says.

“This happened without consideration or permission from the community at the time,” he says. “This was wrong. On behalf of the university and the dental school, I’m sorry that this occurred.”

My mother’s cousin and best friend, Jilly Watt – Barrett’s daughter – has happy memories of staying with the Warlpiri kids while her dad worked, hearing their stories, sleeping out around a fire.

“They taught me how to identify animal tracks in the sand and survive on bush tucker,” Watt says.

She has been working with Hampton, returning things her dad had.

“[It’s] such a blessing for the Warlpiri elders and community of Yuendumu that the collection of their artefacts and sacred objects are being returned to them,” Watt says.

Her father’s last visit to Yuendumu was in 1974, the year before he died. He told his family he wanted a traditional tree burial.

The return

On a bright November day, a group of Warlpiri elders, Hampton and SA Museum staff take the ancestor to Adelaide airport. They guide him through security, through the X-ray machine and on to the plane to Alice Springs.

They drive through the Heavitree Gap, after first notifying senior Arrernte men, the custodians.

Then they drive him through the grey-green spinifex and mulga and ochre dust of the Tanami desert, to Yuendumu.

“Taking the body back … is one of the most exciting trips I’ve ever taken,” Williams says, as he squints into the sun streaming through the airport windows.

“Our community are ready for the body to arrive. We’ll get a big reception. Then we take it from there to the resting place and put him to rest there.

“It’s probably one of the biggest celebrations they’ve ever had before. It’s something very special.”

Warlpiri men welcome the ancestor
Warlpiri men welcome the ancestor, ‘I got goosebumps,’ says Simon Japanangka Fisher, who led the ceremony. Photograph: Jamie Jungaryyi Hampton

Warlpiri man Simon Japangardi Fisher says he “had tears” hearing that the ancestor had been sitting in Adelaide. He speaks of the anguish his community has endured, through the assimilation times, the stolen generations, the loss of ancestors. But he’s happy now the ancestor is “going back where he belongs”.

“It’s overwhelming. Taking those bones back where they belong. It’s been 60-odd years. The community’s getting ready, looking forward to it,” he says.

In Yuendumu, wrapped in the yellow, black and red flag, the ancestor rests on a table as the community comes out to welcome him.

A procession of men daubed in ochre to signify sorrow and respect – red for the leaders, white for the non-Aboriginal men – walk in.

The Warlpiri give him a welcome ceremony. The men circle around the table, then form a line to place eucalyptus leaves on the ancestor. People are jostling to join now. Women stream in, some with babies on their hips, some in wheelchairs.

The SA Museum’s head of humanities, John Carty, who coined the phrase “white pipeline”, is there.

“We’re so sorry,” he says.

The museum’s Aboriginal heritage and repatriation manager, Anna Russo, says she felt “real relief” that the ancestor is on his way home.

Fisher’s son, Simon Japanangka Fisher Jr, leads the welcome ceremony. He says he was shocked when he heard about the ancestor being in a box in Adelaide.

“I got goosebumps,” he says. Asked if the wrong has been righted, if it’s enough sorry, he says: “It’s enough.”

Then the schoolkids sing, their voices mixing with the smoke from smouldering eucalyptus leaves. They sing about intruders arriving and running away, frightened. And of a baby kangaroo, searching for its mother. “Are you my mother?” the kangaroo asks the emu.

The women start to dance, laughing at others, at themselves, calling others to join as they pound the red dirt with their feet.

Later, the men take the ancestor on the final leg of his journey, back to Pikilyi, where they bury him, finally, under the stars and the soil of his home.