Let’s end the Nuclear Nightmare at Muckaty, NT.

by Bruce Reyburn
in Tennant Creek/Nyinkka Nyunyu town
Mabo Day 3 June 2010


It is “Milo” week for some indigenous people in Tennant Creek – no welfare payments – no bread, no money to pay the already rescheduled payments on their small but crippling household debts (rent, power, food, white goods, firewood now the cool weather is here) – let alone the simple luxury of some tobacco to chew. A tin of Log Cabin is now about $35. People live hand-to-hand.

The government is constantly talking about cutting-back on the few positive measures which have been gained over decades of long suffering, CDEP to be cut – no money for outstations where people can live quieter lives to that in town. Life is far from easy under this form of occupation.

Enter the picture a government prepared to pay $12 million dollars to solve one of the headaches on the desk of a Minister in remote Canberra – where to find a location for a national nuclear waste facility.

And the war of words is on – spin abounds – as non-indigenous players large and small pay their dues in order to get their share of the nuclear waste spoils.


In an article about the proposed radioactive nuclear waste facility at Muckaty (“Nuclear Dreaming” – Good Weekend 29 May 2010, begins page 19 ) John van Tiggelen describes his experience of a quick visit he made to Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek.

A part of Muckaty is the government’s chosen site for a low level nuclear waste storage facility (for 200 – 300 years). One group of traditional owners has ‘volunteered’ a site for the radioactive waste facility.

Trying to locate the proposed site van Tiggelen writes:

“The designated 150-hectare block on Muckaty Station is variously said to be located eight or 10 kilometres from the Stuart Highway. We pick nine. It does not really matter. The same dun-coloured scrub stretches out in every direction. There are no distinguishing features. There are no sacred sites. Ancestral songlines are said to track through here, or at least near here, but their detail is fading fast in the glare of the social malaise afflicting the families of the town-based traditional owners.”

Van Tiggelen continues:

“With the passing of every old man and woman, the traditional dancing gets a little simpler, the songs a little more rudimentary and the genealogical claims as to who’s what and what’s whose a little more convoluted and contested. Muckaty, as the name’s derivation from the word “musket” might suggest, is a land of wounded dreaming.”


It is clear from his account that the party of environmentalists he was with jumped out of the car, had a quick look, took some photos and departed. This superficial interaction with country allows van Tiggelen to make the claim that he had seen it with his own eyes.

And that is the problem – his eyes are not those informed by knowledge of Dreaming law or a host of other important cultural considerations.

He paints a very negative picture. These are very broad and sweeping assertions which I, as a former anthropologist who worked in Tennant Creek in the 1980s, would be most hesitant to make. My own view is that much of the cultural core of what is needed to be passed on is passed on.

So much cultural revival has happened in Tennant Creek and the surrounding Barkly region since the early 1980s it is difficult to assess the state of Dreaming knowledge, the levels of dancing and the degree of knowledge of who is related to which country and which people. Land claims were a real shot in the arm for the senior traditional law-people, and those with knowledge of country and relationships.

Van Tiggelen cites no indigenous or non-indigenous authorities for his views. He appears to have no personal or professional cross-cultural qualifications which would enable his words to be taken as those of an expert in such matters. Nor is he himself a senior indigenous lawman.

Rather, as a non-indigenous working journalist he is not a person-with-country (as are First Peoples). That part of is Being is denied by his own Western culture. He has to earn a living producing copy to pay either his rent and/or his mortgage etc. He has a deadline to meet. Rather than seriously subjecting his views to testing, time probably required him to get his copy in so he could move on to his next paid assignment.

The 19th and 20th century ethnocidal process of singing indigenous people and their cultures to a premature end must be left behind us in the 21st century.


In her book about contemporary indigenous life in Tennant Creek (Aboriginal Business – Alliances in a remote Australian town), anthropologist Kimberly Christen paints quite a different picture. It would be interesting to hear what someone like her has to say vis-à-vis van Tiggelen’s depiction of Tennant Creek cultural life.

One quote is relevant in this context:

“Spencer and Gillen’s (1901 – BR) detailed description tell a story of a peopled landscape , a cosmology teeming with human and animal relatives, plants and animal totems, and site-specific, culturally maintained networks of relation. The ‘monotonous scrub’ found by Stuart (circa 1860 – BR) is transformed into a dynamic landscape of ancestors, rocky crags, and viewable network of tracks as Warumungu guides enlivened the landscape with their knowledge of the country and its inhabitants.” (KC 2008 page 45)

The anthropologist Stanner, passing through Tennant Creek in the early 1930s also found a landscape signified by Wirnkarra (Dreaming) considerations – a totemic landscape.

This is pretty much in line with my experiences when I worked on the Warumungu land claim near Tennant Creek in the early 1980s. I also did a sacred site survey in the Tennant Creek town area, for example, for the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority.

As with the land claim work out of town, even within the town a small group of otherwise unremarkable trees, a type of plant, a very minor rocky formation – as well as other features Western eyes would see as ‘natural’ – could have Dreaming significance.

We are dealing with a living Creation Cosmology here. The whole of life is subject to a process of trans-signification. It is not a matter of individual sacred sites as conceived by a modern ‘atomistic’ mentality. There is a vast complex at work.


Many long-term non-indigenous people living in Tennant Creek during the 1970s and 1980s would have been unaware of the significance of a small group of rocks near the main street which now gives its Dreaming name ‘ Nyinkka Nyunyu’ to the cultural centre. Maybe van Tiggelen did not take the time to visit this centre and to learn a little about indigenous realities.

See www.nyinkkanyunyu.com.au for more info.

I have heard indigenous people call Tennant Creek “Nyinkka-Nyunyu town”. We need bi-culturally enabled people to be telling the narratives of these places – and who better than First Peoples themselves.

One role for caring non-indigenous people, with a bit of bi-cultural understanding, is to clear the way and open up the spaces for those First Peoples voices to be heard, and to resist the temptation to allow those culturally one-sided people who do not know to be taken as knowledgeable.


It is a common mistake, on the part of non-indigenous people (some modern anthropologists included), to regard The Dreaming as something which is set in the past and applied in a purely mechanical way. This is part and parcel of the attempt to ‘fix’ indigenous life – to pin life down – rather than taking up the much more difficult challenge (it appears) to learn how to relate with the original Australian peoples-and-countries.

Kimberly Christen writes:

“Spencer and Gillen defined the Warumungu term wingara (wirnkarra) as the “far-past time” … [Warumungu] ancestors walked about the country, making all the natural features that can be seen to-day… Despite their emphasis on the past, the (Spencer and Gillen – BR) text shows other-than-human ancestors as an integral part of the living, social landscape. Spencer and Gillen’s travels with their Warumungu guides highlight how relations are determined from the sets of territorial connections one inherits, maintains, and creates over a lifetime.” (KC ibid)

Far from fatally wounded, Dreaming has repeatedly shown that it is more than capable of healing itself. Wirnkarra is strong. Dreaming is strong in this part of Australia. This is real Wirnkarra (Dreaming) country, for those with the eyes to see it.


The account by Kimberly Christen is exactly the situation which was described to me today by B. Nappurula – a senior woman and a long-time friend who now finds herself caught up in sorting out more of the Papulanyi’s (Whitefella) madness at Muckaty.

B. is getting ready for a peaceful sorting out the Muckaty business (in August?) by way of singing songs and dances for the country – and challenging those who claim the right to speak for the radioactive waste site to do the same.

She is quite emphatic that this will be a non-violent process and it is the best way to go. (How better will life be when we all accept this level of resolving disputes?)

This approach is itself a most orthodox/traditional approach to resolving questions of who are the right people for country. And it serves to educate younger people – who may think they know – that their level of knowledge is on a lower level than their Elders. The younger people may think they know, but access to the higher levels of esoteric knowledge are only earned by a lifetime of properly maintaining relationships in both tangible and intangible terms – showing respect and regularly meeting obligations to supply goods and services.

“This control of and extension of ancestral and territorial tracks through landed knowledge claims and practices define a landscape where relations can be extended, where others are integrated, and within which negotiations are made than include trade-offs and overlapping claims.” (KC ibid)

According the report of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner from the Muckaty land claim, the picture at Muckaty seems to comply with this.


“Guna” means guts and excrement – and it is the latter sense which i use it here.

Radioactive waste is truly the Whiteman’s guna – and it seems all that goes with it reeks.

My friend B. Nappurula is now into her 70s, we reckon. She has worked tirelessly to build up Aboriginal organisations in Tennant Creek, and to fight to save country and family from the negative impacts of Anglo-Australian colonisation. What a task!

She does not need more stress in her life at this time.

Neither do any of the traditional owners of Muckaty. People are already dying from too much unnecessary chronic stress. It is as lethal as radioactive waste itself.

A part of the problem is the attempt to force narrowly conceived notions of exclusive ownership of private property onto First Peoples whose Ways are founded on entirely different notions. There is a world of debate overdue in relation to this.

This whole mess lies at the feet of Prime Minister Rudd, who happily accepted –as a mess – the mess left for him by Wrong Way John Howard.


It was announced on the ABC news today that the court case by some of the Muckaty tradition owners was lodged in the court on this Mabo Day – 3 June 2010 – and listed for a mention at the end of July. Ideally some common sense and reason could come into play before then.

The first step on a healing path for the traditional owners at Muckaty is for the Federal Government to restore the full workings of the law and to deal with the Muckaty land trust, which is charged (under non-indigenous law – the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights NT Act) with responsibility for that land. The present and proposed legislation sets that aside.

In the 1997 land claim report for Muckaty the Aboriginal Land Commissioner Gray said:

7.3.3 As I have said in para. 4.8.4, the major social division which exists within the claimants is that between those whose residential focus is on Tennant Creek and those whose residential focus is on Elliott. This division does not correspond to any division as between any of the seven groups. Nor does it provide any other basis on which the land claimed could be divided between separate land trusts.
7.3.4 For these reasons, I am of the view that the establishment of a single land trust is the most desirable course. I do not have any reason to believe that the members of the seven different groups will have serious difficulty in participating in the management of the land on a cooperative basis. This is something that should be encouraged.

The Federal Government and the Northern Land Council have not operated in keeping with this inclusive spirit.

The Federal Government now needs to respect this decision by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner and, as a first step, deal with the traditional owners of Muckaty via the single land trust.

If not, the impending Federal Court challenge – the non-indigenous song and dance – provides one opportunity for restoring due process.

And failing all that, a movement of peoples …

Bruce Reyburn
Lionel Murphy Scholar 1990