October 15, 2009

First contact with "devil men"

Aborigines:  'I was terrified. I didn't know anything about white fellas'

Until 1964, they had never been in contact with the outside world. Newly discovered footage captures the moment their innocence ended

By Kathy Marks
It was 1964: the US had gone to war against North Vietnam, the first Ford Mustang was rolling off the assembly line and Beatlemania was reaching fever pitch. Meanwhile, in the Western Australian desert, a group of Aborigines were still living as their ancestors had done for thousands of years, with no inkling of a world beyond the expanse of sand and spinifex grass they called home.

That innocence was about to end: in October, the group--the last desert-dwelling Aborigines to make "first contact" with white Australians--was found by patrol officers scouring the dump zone of a rocket test range. The remarkable encounter was filmed and photographed. But the footage did not come to light until recently and it is only now being widely viewed, thanks to a new documentary called Contact.
And:Among them was Yuwali, who was 17 at the time. She and her family thought the officers were "devil men" who had come to eat them. They had never seen a truck before. "I said to the kids, 'you know those big rocks we play on, the rock has come alive,'" she recalls in the film.

She adds: "I was terrified. My whole body was shaking. I didn't know anything about white fellas. Seeing one for the first time was a real shock. It looked like his skin had been peeled off."

But this was no hallucination: Yuwali's world had changed, beyond recognition, forever. Before long, the Martu were taken to a church mission, where they were given clothes, taught English and schooled in becoming good Christians. In the documentary, surviving members of the group take the directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean to their homeland in the Percival Lakes area of the Great Sandy Desert. The area is extremely remote: even now, it is a four-day car journey to get there--half of it entirely off tracks--from the nearest town, Newman, in the Pilbara region.

Until the white men arrived, Yuwali and her extended family had no concept of the modern world. They had no idea that Australia had been colonised for nearly 200 years. They led a traditional lifestyle, wandering through the desert, their route determined by the seasons, the availability of food and the mythical "Dreamtime" tracks. They hunted with digging sticks and dingoes.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Christians vs. Uncontacted Tribes and Indiana Jones Tribe Found?

Below:  "Yuwali was part of the group recorded in 1964. She still lives in the Pilbara region."


Lynette said...

I wondered whether this is about the Pintupi people who were 'discovered' in the 1960s. Fred Myers wrote the ethnography - Pintupi Country: Pintupi Self in 1991:


It appears to refer to the "Martu tribe" so I'm guessing it is refering to the Mardu Aborigines:


I am curious to know why it only emerging now but as it appears to be from the era of nuclear testing in Central Australia and information about this is still very restricted I will wait and see. A similar film about the meeting between the Leahy brothers and the people of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s is called "First Contact" 1983:

Recently there was a movie made named "End of the Spear" (2005) which uses the same 'undiscovered people' trope and is supposedly a dramatisation of a true story. The blurb from the back cover is quite disturbing:

Mincayani is born into the most violent society ever documented by anthropologists, the Waodani, in the Eastern rainforest of Ecuador. As he grows he learns what every Waodani understands, he must spear and live or be speared and die. Mincayani's world changes when he and his family kill five missionaries. This incident propels Mincanyani's people down an extraordinary path that culminates in them not only departing from violence, but also caring for the enemy tribes they had once violently raided."

The DVD started with a preview of the 'counter-documentary' by the same company - "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" with an audio commentary describing how "five men voyage beyond time" to visit the Waodoni (a documentary with science fiction styled time travel - Indigenous peoples as 'stone age' people in the 'space age' somehow being the contemporary mythical ancestors of everyone else!)

The trope of discovering "a lost tribe" used here reminds me of an article called "Brigadoon, Or Musical Comedy and the Persistence of Tradition in Melanesian Ethnography" http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=11974250 which critiques how anthropologists "discovered" one particular "undiscovered" Papuan people several times of a number of decades (hence Brigadoon).

Rob said...

I suspect the original film was shelved and forgotten. That probably happens a lot.

FYI, I reviewed End of the Spear in Spear's Point Is Obvious.