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March 9, 2015

Three weeks in the desert: engaging with Indigenous communities

Brendan Ferguson explores the Martu people’s deep connection to country through a Social Return on Investment analysis.

An important conversation

Eleven people were crammed into the living room of a house in Parnngurr, Western Australia – a Martu community on the edge of Karlamilyi National Park, 370 kilometres east of Newman. Some sat at the table, others were perched on food storage containers or seated on the concrete floor. The kids were told to play outside. This conversation was important.

KJ martu on country
Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa aims to preserve culture and build viable economies in Martu communities through its on-country programs.

I passed around a piece of paper on which I had drawn three pictures: a waterhole surrounded by trees, a man in jail and a bundle of cash. The eight Parnngurr elders in the room included the most senior Martu cultural leaders. They were debating, in Martu wangka (language or talk), the relative merits of each picture. Not so much the artistic merits (I hoped) – drawing isn’t my greatest strength – but the value to Martu people of the cultural, social and economic outcomes represented by those images.

The group identified three outcomes (among others) – maintenance of connection to country, less time in lock-up, and increased income – as being integral to the work of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ), our client in this project.

A swift consensus was reached on prioritisation. Of those outcomes, maintenance of connection to country was most valuable to Martu. This wasn’t surprising. All eight of them are pujiman (Martu bushmen), who grew up in the desert and came into contact with ‘whitefellas’ as late as the 1960s.

“The return of people to live on the country has supported the maintenance of law and custom among [the Martu people]. They remain one of the most strongly “tradition-oriented” groups of Aboriginal people in Australia today partly because of the protection that their physical environment gave them against non-Aboriginal intruders. It is not a welcoming environment for those who do not know how to locate and use its resources for survival. Of great importance is the continuing strength of their belief in the Dreaming.” – Federal Court of Australia, James on behalf of the Martu People v State of Western Australia, [2002] FCA 1208 (French J)

The Martu are the traditional custodians of a vast area of desert lands, described in 1969 by archaeologist, Richard Gould, as “the harshest physical environment on earth ever inhabited by man before the Industrial Revolution”. KJ works with the traditional owners of the Martu native title determination, which traverses the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson deserts and covers a landmass more than half the size of Victoria.

“With KJ we can look after country,” said Nola Taylor. “We can make the land brighter; make it smile again.”

SVA’s engagement

KJ aims to preserve Martu culture, to build a viable, sustainable economy in Martu communities and to build realistic pathways for young Martu to a healthy and prosperous future. KJ’s on-country programs include teams of ranger employees, Kalyuku Ninti (Return to Country) trips and Puntura-ya Ninti (Culture and Heritage) programs. Roughly half of KJ’s annual revenue is derived from the Australian Government’s Working on Country program.

SVA Consulting has been engaged by KJ to conduct an evaluative Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis of its on-country programs. SROI is a methodology for measuring the cultural, social and economic value not reflected in conventional financial accounting. The SROI analysis is driven by stakeholder engagement, which in this case necessitates a three-week field trip to the Martu communities in which KJ has a presence on the ground – Punmu, Parnngurr and Jigalong. My colleague, Anna Crabb, and I were half way through that trip when we facilitated the conversation in Parnngurr.

It isn’t easy to describe a typical day in the desert, only common themes.

Dawn exercise became a constant, but while some morning runs were uneventful, others were punctuated by near misses with snakes and teeth-baring dingoes. Hunting trips were a regular fixture, but patience, skill and luck determined the success of the venture. If camel is on the menu, I can recommend the backstrap. If it’s kipara (bush turkey), I suggest cooking the bird in a pit of hot coals without the use of aluminium foil.

KJ martu on country
(On right) Brendan Ferguson who with colleague Anna Crabb interviewed 95 people for the SROI analysis.

Most importantly, though, the timing, location and speed of our interviews with Martu varied dramatically. Some were planned in advance; others followed a chance meeting in community. Some were conducted at the KJ Ranger Coordinator’s house; others took place in the red dirt next to the community’s basketball court. The speed of interviews was highly dependent on the confidence and English language skills of Martu interviewees. Those involved in this project, as well as the corresponding SROI analysis conducted by SVA in 2011, noted a dramatic increase in confidence amongst interviewees.

With the help of Tim Schneider, Coordinator of KJ’s Leadership Program, I interviewed a young man in Jigalong. Tim explained that, just a few years earlier, he had been asked to speak to a timid boy who refused to leave his bedroom. Tim suspected that the boy was suffering a chronic form of depression. Through a crack in the bedroom door, Tim managed to convince the boy to go out on-country the following day with the other KJ rangers. Today, Tim explained, he is one of the hardest working rangers across all three communities.

“When I got out on-country,” the young man said, “I felt at home.”

By project’s end, we had interviewed 95 people (including 54 Martu) to feed into our SROI analysis and the majority of my clothes were permanently stained by red dust.

If we work and stay out of trouble, then the old people have greater respect for us and are more willing to pass on their knowledge.

The transfer of knowledge

The significance, for older Martu, of maintaining a connection to country extends beyond their personal connection. They harbour an intense desire to see the younger generation take responsibility for their lives, and demonstrate that they have earned the right to assume and protect Martu Jukurrpa (culture). KJ’s on-country programs facilitate the transfer of knowledge from older to younger Martu.

“If we work and stay out of trouble, then the old people have greater respect for us and are more willing to pass on their knowledge,” said Jeremy Sammy, a casual, Punmu based ranger.

Over the five years in which KJ’s on-country programs have been operating, older rangers have displayed an increased willingness to go out on-country with younger rangers, sharing the stories and dreaming associated with significant sites. This change has created a sense of hope and pride in Martu about their future. As many pujiman are aging quickly, there is a limited window of opportunity during which important sites can be located and mapped, and the transfer of knowledge can occur.

“There is a process of spiritual, social and cultural healing that takes place when people go back on-country. That’s something that isn’t often seen; there’s a different side of our people that comes out. There’s a real big change in our mob when they’re out on-country.” – Darren Farmer, Martu Translator, Wiluna

“We can only pass on knowledge about our country if we go out there,” said Jimmy Williams, an older male in the Parnngurr community. “Before KJ, the young people were just wandering around the community. We want them to be out there, learning about their country.”

We were fortunate enough to visit two significant sites, roughly 40 kilometres east of Punmu, at the invitation of Martu. We watched as four pujiman stood around a soak, recounting a dreamtime story in Martu wangka to three younger Martu men. The waterholes had been crucial to their survival when living a traditional life; the associated dreaming remains at the heart of Martu culture and identity.

One of those pujiman is Minyawu Miller. Minyawu is short – no more than five foot – and immaculately dressed. I’m told this is the product of his years working as a Jigalong stockman, following his emergence from the desert. As he and his wife, Nancy Chapman, recounted the story, they became increasingly animated, physically reenacting the scene as it reached its climax.

KJ group on rocks
Martu pujimen recount a dreamtime story to younger Martu men: KJ’s on-country programs facilitate this transfer of knowledge.

“I first heard that story many years ago ‘cause this site is close to community,” said Carl Marney, one of the younger men listening to Minyawu and Nancy.

“Now I’ve heard many stories on KJ trips about sites that are a long way from here. We couldn’t get there before. No car.”

That success is predicated on the alignment of Martu interests with those of mainstream Australia.

The impact of KJ’s work

KJ minyawu miller
Minyawu Miller, pujiman (Martu bushman) who grew up in the desert.

KJ’s on-country programs have generated transformative change across Martu communities. Over the last five years, the programs have produced a wide range of cultural, social and economic outcomes (as well as environmental and health outcomes which were beyond the scope of our analysis). Using financial proxies to estimate the value of these outcomes, our report concluded that KJ’s on-country programs have generated $55m worth of social value, from a $20m investment required to deliver the programs over that five-year period.

By improving the lives of Indigenous Australians, KJ has demonstrated success where many other initiatives have failed. That success is predicated on the alignment of Martu interests with those of mainstream Australia.

Overwhelmingly, Martu want to spend time on-country, caring for their country. KJ’s on-country programs enable Martu to fulfill their desire to live on, and care for, their country, rather than moving to town. The programs resonate with Martu and make a substantial contribution to the long-term vision of a healthy and vibrant Martu community.

“KJ gave me a reason to come back from town [Port Hedland]. If I hadn’t come back, I’d be dead. Dead or in lock-up.” – Young male KJ Ranger, Parnngurr

Concurrently, the Australian and Western Australian Governments value the creation of sustainable employment for Indigenous Australians and the conservation and management of land encompassed by the Martu determination. By employing 275 Martu in the last financial year, KJ has made a direct and meaningful contribution to the targeted improvement in Indigenous employment outcomes identified by the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Closing the Gap initiative. Furthermore, by engaging Martu with employment in dry communities, KJ has significantly reduced alcohol consumption and associated criminal activity. Our report concluded that, simply through advocacy support for Martu in their interactions with the justice system, KJ has effectively saved over 41 years of incarceration time amongst Martu.

“KJ provides a real benchmark for other ranger programs; the non-Indigenous staff in the community are extraordinary.” – Deen Potter, Magistrate, Pilbara Region

Achieving this alignment between Martu and mainstream interests has been no accident for KJ. Advisory Director, Sue Davenport, first started working with Martu in 1987. The mutual respect developed between Martu and KJ’s non-Indigenous staff has only been achieved through deep and protracted engagement. The on-going challenge for KJ – and for many Indigenous organisations around Australia – is to continue to strengthen that partnership and build both Indigenous and whitefella capacity. But it’s a long play.

As Jigalong Senior Sergeant, Neil Gordon, explains, “We need to remember that KJ is still a very young organisation. We won’t know the true impact of its work for another 20 years and even then the results will be preliminary.”

If you’d like to know more, contact Brendan on

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