Friday, September 05, 2008

HM, Pt 7: Why We Didn't Climb (The Long Rant About Aboriginal Rights)

I suppose the best way to start this particular entry is to aswer the question my mom left in the comments. "Do people climb Ayers Rock?" Yes. They do. The traditional owners- who call Ayers Rock "Uluru" and refer to themselves as the "Anangu" (as opposed to "aborigines")- really, really wish that people wouldn't climb it.

Uluru is a tremendously sacred landmark that is integral to the indigenous people of Central Australia's creation story. Uluru is to the Anangu people as the Garden of Eden is to Christians. They believe the deep grooves were carved in the rock by the Ancestors during the Dreaming, or time of creation.

There is a chain fence that people hang onto as they go up the only climbable slope. According to the Anangu, their ancestors, the Mala, took this same path when they first came to Uluru. They themselves never climb out of respect for its spiritual significance, and they all but beg visitors not to. Lots of people do it anyway. Even though the Anangu were technically given back stewardship of the land in 1985, they had to accept- as a condition of the land grant that gave back what was theirs in the first place- that the climb remain open.

I knew that the indigenous people of Australia had been oppressed after colonization in the 1900s. I knew it was a sad and bloody story, as such conflicts almost always are, and I knew there was a huge movement to reclaim this land. I had no idea how bad it was, how deeply desolate the poverty is, or how unabashed the racism is. I just didn't know. I'm not sure I even really know now.

Yes, Mom. There are caves. But a lot of them don't have happy stories associated with them.

Joel and I took a helicopter flight around the National Park our second day there. We were wondering if there was any way to connect with the people of Mutitjulu, which is the name of the community where the traditional owners live in the National Park. We asked our pilot about that, and he said, "You'd have to stay here for years." In addition to flying tourists and photographers, the pilot, Houman, also flies search and rescue missions. He's met quite a few people who live in Mutitjulu through his work. "They're very suspicious of outsiders," he said.

There is a cultural center in the National Park, which has been developed by the Anangu in cooperation with the National Park Service, to tell their stories in their own words. All of the art that Joel and I purchased was created by local women who were not only paid to create it, but also received 60% of the sales. Considering gas was $8 a gallon and a gallon of milk costs $8.75, there's no doubt in my mind that they live in poverty, despite the fact that they reside in the shadow of the most spiritually and culturally rich place in their country.

The only grocery store in a hundred mile readius is in the overpriced resort complex. We had to throw down a Visa card for three days worth of meals we could cook in the cabin. Simple things, like hot dogs we could cook over a firepit (rentable for $5 a day with a $20 deposit), a loaf of bread, peanut butter, canned soup, cereal, and milk cost a small fortune, but nowhere near the $14.95 we paid for a shared cheeseburger at the snack bar.

We sighed at the fact that we'd been spending money like rock stars since the day before the wedding, but we knew we'd be home soon and back to our careful budget. The Anangu woman and her three kids trying to pay for groceries in front of us had no such relief to look forward to. We felt bad, in that privileged white people way, so we picked up as much litter as we could when we were out gathering firewood.

Had we not been driving out to photograph the sunrise over Kata-Tjuta, or the Olgas, we might never have delved any deeper than that. As I said before, we were driving along the only road shortly before dawn. There was a car on the shoulder with its blinkers on. Someone whistled as we drove past; Joel said, "Oh shit! What'd I do?"

"You're on the correct side of the road," I said. "I think they need help."

We turned back and met three woman, three children, and a dog. Joel looked under the car, under the hood and tried to start the engine. I played with "Little One," their dog, and tried to figure out what happened. English wasn't their best thing, and while I think, but I'm not sure, that they were speaking Pitjantjatjara, it was obvious that they were freaked outr.

They told us they'd been out all night. They were trying to get to Alice Springs originally, but the car started breaking down. They tried to get to the single mechanic at the resort's service station. They were about 2km away when their van died for good. None of them were wearing shoes. One of the woman said, "We have no tucker."

We gave them all the food we had, our blanket and our matches. They walked right into the bush and started a campfire. We checked the map, and the closest emergency phone was at the trailhead were going to shoot from. Joel and I drove to the phone, which was broken. He left me there with the cameras and drove back to the rangers station. When he drove past the women, two of them asked to ride with him. He dropped them off again at their broken down car- their transmission was shot- and picked me up at the trailhead.

We checked on them once more time. They invited us to sit by their campfire. Two of the women were sisters, traveling with their aunt. They had three young children with them who looked to be between the ages of 8-12. The sisters were probably only about 40, but they looked almost 70. They were all widows.

Two of the kids were playing in the car, laughing. "Oh, they laugh now. They won't be laughing if we're stuck out here another night," one woman said. Could that be right? Would the park rangers really leave woman and children out here alone? They asked us for more food. I only had another bottle of water, but I got it anyway. While I was at the car, the women were cheering and laughing and waving. "You want the kids to come out of the car?" I asked, pointing to their car.

"No! You! Come here!" They laughed. They asked me if I had any cigarettes. We said no and promised to stop at the ranger station to find out what the delay was. I told them I was a photographer, that I shoot pictures of people, not as a tourist, but as an artist. I asked permission to photograph them; I had to. They said no. Their hair wasn't done.

It wasn't. There was an unkempt nature to their appearance that exceeded the long trip, the long night in the broken down car in the desert. In short, it was bad. The car still needed to have the windows down after the first trip to the ranger's station 90 minutes earlier. "You go in," Joel said. "I've already been that pushy Yank asking for a tow truck once today."

I waited patiently for the dispatcher to finish her conversation with the ranger going out in the all-terrain vehicle. They were talking about a lot of things, but the women and children in distress weren't something they discussed. "Are they still out there?!?" the dispatcher asked me. "Okay, I'll hurry them along," she said, reaching for her walkie-talkie. The ranger drove away without a word.

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