Indigenous ranger's quest to preserve Simpson Desert knowledge and 60,000-year-old history of his people

Indigenous ranger's quest to preserve Simpson Desert knowledge and 60,000-year-old history of his people

  • July 8, 2019
  • by Bruce Atkinson
Indigenous ranger's quest to preserve Simpson Desert knowledge and 60,000-year-old history of his people
Elder Don Rowlands is working to preserve the 60,000-year-old story of his people - Photo by Bruce Atkinson

Originally published on ABC 8 July 2019

Key points:

  • Work is underway to gather and preserve Aboriginal knowledge and stories about the Simpson Desert
  • As well as songlines and Dreamtime stories, the desert holds artefacts from stone tools to fighting shields, burial grounds and humpies
  • The Simpson Desert is a vast expanse that covers 176,000 square kilometres across parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia
  • Don Rowlands is a descendent of the Watti Watti family and is a Wangkangurru Yarluyandi elder living in Birdsville on the edge of Munga-Thirri National Park, which is also known as the Simpson Desert.

An Aboriginal elder from south-west Queensland wants to preserve the 60,000-year-old culture and history of his people and the story of their life in the Simpson Desert before it is too late.

Mr Rowlands has been the Queensland Parks and Wildlife senior ranger for Munga-Thirri since 1994 and during this time he has discovered numerous sites and artefacts left behind when his people moved out of the desert about 120 years ago.

The Simpson Desert covers 176,000 square kilometres and stretches across parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia.

"From Birdsville to Poeppel Corner to Dalhousie Springs way over in the west there are stone tools, stick humpies, mikiris [native wells], grinding stones, fighting shields, fire places and burial grounds," Mr Rowlands said.

The 70-year-old does not want the knowledge he has gathered over a quarter of a century to be lost with him and he plans to store it in a database or "keeping place" to be used by his people.

"When I finally get to the place of my ancestors it's not what I take with me, it'll be about what I leave behind and that's what drives me," Mr Rowlands said.

"I so often see it on the news … 'Oh, we have just lost another legend and we didn't get all his stories'. I don't want that to be me.

"I want them to say, 'Well thank the Lord this person and all these other people around him had the foresight or the will to go and get everything, get all the information for the Australian people'.

"I want to do my people proud. I want to do my grandfather Watti Watti, proud.

"I feel that and the other thing that I feel every day is no matter how I think I might give up on this I just can't because it just keeps on calling me to go back.

"The benefit for me is massive because I want my grandkids and my great, great, great grandkids to be able to access this database.

"I've got all my own information, there's 10 tonnes of it, but it just needs to be in some written and recorded [form] so that when I finally go it won't be lost."

Retracing ancient paths

This month Mr Rowlands will spend 10 days in the desert with an archaeologist, anthropologist and linguist to add to the known history of his people, which is largely unrecorded.

In 1980, adventurer Denis Bartell retraced the route of explorer David Lindsay and his Aboriginal guide Paddy, who ventured into the desert almost 100 years earlier and used the water from native wells to survive.

"Bartell found the 'lost wells' and recorded the GPS coordinates, which was a big help to me and others who wanted to go out there and have a look at this country," Mr Rowlands said.

"Then I started as a park ranger and decided I wanted to retrace my people's stories, their footsteps, so it has been 25 years now that I have been walking this journey."

"[We will] get all the stories from all the snippets that exist around the countryside, put it all into one and do a story on each site and have it in a safe place like a database where I am aiming to put all this information so it'll be there for safekeeping," Mr Rowlands said.

"But more importantly it won't be in the fragmented situation it is in now.

"I've got a lot of the stories in bits and pieces, which I can put back together, but I want to go back and do better research at each site and to make sure that I record everything that is there.

"My people, my family in 80 or 100 years' time can go into the database and go out there into the desert and see that place."

Digital archive for easy access

While the locations of the sites will not be revealed to tourists who travel the desert, Mr Rowlands said technology could be used to tell the stories of his ancestors.

As part of the project he wants to develop an app that tourists can use as they travel across the desert to learn more about the Indigenous history of the area.

When he heads into the desert on July 20, Mr Rowlands will take a film crew to record each site so the vision can be used in conjunction with the app, or in a documentary that could be played at the Birdsville information centre, or used in a virtual reality experience.

"You can look in a native well from the comfort of Birdsville or online so tourists can 'visit' all the special places but don't have to go there," he said.

"People in wheelchairs and older people can still access the stories of my people.

"There's a lot of things I'd like to do but the priority for me is to record these sites and stories and the songlines.

"They're the most important bits because I think, even now, I don't know whether all Australians really appreciate Aboriginal culture and what it means."

Song lines a 'map' through the desert

Luise Hercus spent many years gathering the stories and mythology from the last survivors of the desert Wangkangurru people.

Mr Rowlands and the team of experts will be building on her work recording the songlines that his ancestors recited to help them navigate through the desert.

"The songlines and storylines and the Dreamtime are all a little different and I can only explain what I know so through this process … I want to learn more about the whole thing too," he said.

"When we were kids we were taken away from our oldies and told not to meddle with that 'devil talk' … and we ran away from the oldies when we saw them because they would say g'day in lingo and if a white fella saw you saying g'day in lingo the next day at school you could cop the cane and all that.

"I know some of the stories, I know how some of it works and all that but the songlines are the most important bit for traveling across the country or going from place to place.

"There's a lot of stuff out there and I'm not going to pretend I know, but I do know this, that I have to go and get all that together and leave it behind in this database and I've got a good team of people that I have been talking with."

In the past five years Mr Rowlands said he had started to realise that he had been "slowing down" physically but was still active in the mind.

"We all get beaten by age in the end so I want to get this done before then," he said.

Leading researcher on the job

Professor Peter Sutton, an anthropologist and linguist at the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide, first started working with Aboriginal people in 1969 and since then has recorded and mapped Indigenous languages throughout Australia before they were lost.

Professor Sutton has also mapped thousands of Aboriginal sites and has worked with Mr Rowlands on two native title land claims for the Simpson Desert.

He said Mr Rowlands' project was "vitally important for the families who come from there, the descendants of those old people who put that knowledge down with Luise Hercus and others".

"The ideal in my view, and that's the view of a lot of people, is you really need to have access to a kind of geographic information system online where the knowledge is actually held in a cloud, so it's not subject to being destroyed so easily," Professor Sutton said.

He likened Mr Rowlands' plan for a database to a flight simulator, where you "sit down in front of a screen with a navigation toggle and find your way around the landscape".

"Users could zoom in on a particular place, click on a story and hear old people's voices telling the story maybe with a translation supplied underneath," he said.

"They could hear the songs for the site, hear the person pronouncing the name correctly, rather than in some sort of anglicised English sort of way and it means people with short attention spans can dive in and dive out," he said.

Professor Sutton said that would preserve and educate future generations in a way they could relate to.

Preserving the past for the future

While similar artefacts could be found in other parts of Australia, Professor Sutton said the Simpson Desert was a "great preserver of things".

"I've seen there myself the wooden framework of humpies still standing after more than 120 years and in one case with a flat grindstone and a millstone sitting on top of it, right in the mouth of the hut, as if someone had just got up and walked away yesterday," he said.

"So it's a great preserver because there's nothing really to rot the wood and the gypsum mourning caps are probably preserved through the same arid conditions and isolation from people who steal these things."

Professor Sutton said there were two schools of thought on the future of the availability of Aboriginal traditions to other people.

"Those who want to close them off and shut them down and basically take Australia back to the Ampol road map of 1952, which would have almost nothing to do with Aboriginal people except names like Wonthaggi and Carandotta," he said.

"That's what will happen if the gatekeepers of that tendency have their way."In other words, no-one in Australia will know anything except a very small number of people and then the rest of the people would then have to be forgiven for being arrogantly ignorant of what was here before.

"And then there's the opposite view, which is mine, which is a more libertarian one, which says, 'Okay, things are different now'.

"It's important that people have respect for what was here before.

"You can't respect something you don't know so in order to gain that respect you have to spread at least basic knowledge and share it."

Man on a mission

Mr Rowlands said during his time working as a park ranger he had found "so many special spots, special things that you won't find anywhere else in Aboriginal Australia".

"To connect that country and my people is hugely important for me and I think it's hugely important for the rest of Australia to understand how we lived out there and why we lived there and why we still call it home," he said.

"If we don't record this and make this available for Australia it would be a sad loss in the history of Australia and the history of the Simpson Desert and the history of the Wangkangurru people."

You can follow Mr Rowlands' journey on the Watti Watti Desert Journey Facebook page.

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