Aboriginals Share Their Culture to Keep It

In the sparsely populated `red center' of Australia, a small group of indigenous people help themselves

`THIS is Malbunka land,'' says Mavis Malbunka, feet sturdily planted in the red dirt of Ipolera. ``My ancestors used to live here before the missionaries came and took them to Hermannsberg.'' As she describes her land, what before seemed like harsh, barren desert suddenly becomes alive, a place filled with sustenance and spiritual vitality.

On the tour she gives for interested whites, Mavis lifts the underside of a plant to reveal a tiny bush tomato and talks about wichitty grubs that are prized from red-river gum trees and honey ants underneath mulga trees. She points out an ancient grinding stone. Her husband, Herman, does a separate tour on the opposite side of the property.

In other parts of Australia, the national clamor over whether Aboriginals should be given back their land 200 years after being dispossessed is deafening. A high court ruling last year opened the door for Aboriginals to claim land under limited conditions, and some whites are angry or frightened.

But here in the Northern Territory, the sparsely populated ``red center'' of Australia, a 1976 Land Rights Act has given some Aboriginals title to land that their families once lived on. Ipolera, part of a 468-square-mile land trust held for several related Aboriginal families, is viewed as one of the few land hand-over success stories.

Mavis grew up at the Lutheran mission in Hermannsberg, about 10 miles from Ipolera, after her parents died. Set up by Germans to convert Aboriginals to Christianity, the mission was also a haven from the massacres carried out by police (or with police connivance) as late as 1928.

Mavis recovered her family's land in 1982 when the 100-year lease held by the mission expired. She and her husband wanted a place for their extended family, then numbering about 20, where they could follow a tribal lifestyle and maintain their sacred sites.

The group puts a strong emphasis on sharing food and the care of children and on maintaining ancient kinship relationships and sacred ceremonies. They try to maintain the traditions that survived their years of living in the mission.

AFTER the mission signed over the land to the land trust, Mavis and Herman put the first water bore in themselves. The first government funding came six years ago, enabling them to start building. Now the community of 20 adults and 11 children has houses, a school, a tourist campground, a store, and a solar-powered telephone.

``I have Lutheran knowledge and skills. This,'' she says, pointing to the houses around her, ``is what I learned from the Lutherans.''

Painted on the cement front of the school built in 1989 are birds and animals significant to her people. ``The spinifex pigeon you can't eat, it's a spiritual bird, it's our totem,'' Mavis explains. ``But the emu you can, the goanna you can.'' Inside the school is a computer, a copier, and a fax machine.

The community provides jobs for school dropouts in the store, training for young men in woodworking, paddock-building, and horsebreaking, and also teaches office administration. Mavis wants to set up a cattle operation in addition to the tourist business. ``I'm thinking of our children's future,'' she says.

Because Mavis and Herman wanted to be self-sufficient and not rely on government handouts, they started the small tourist business to cater to people increasingly eager to learn more about Aboriginal life. It's a delicate balancing act: Sometimes white business practices conflict with Aboriginal tribal priorities.

``We save Tuesdays for the funerals that may happen during the week,'' Mavis says. ``When we lose someone, we move away from the ``sorry place'' for awhile. And Thursday is a day off just in case we have [community] business. The big tour operators don't respect our time.''

To get around this dilemma, Mavis wants to train some tour operators to make visits that don't involve sacred sites when she and Herman are absent. They also are training some of the young people to conduct tours, but only a few are qualified to do tours, she says, and those few don't feel ready.

Tour operators aren't pleased with the limitations Ipolera sets on the number of people per tour or the days unavailable for visits. The excursions are becoming more popular, and attendance has doubled over the past year, from 350 to 700 people.

Being a successful Aboriginal community is putting pressure on Ipolera in other ways. ``Mavis and Herman have got a big job,'' says Stephanie Radke, a training officer for the adults who work at Ipolera. ``Because they're successful, there is more pressure, more expectations. Government project officers, ministers, video crews, all want to come.'' That's on top of quite substantial tribal business responsibilities that Herman has as an elder.

``We want the government to understand,'' Mavis says. ``We don't want the government to push us too much.''

Other groups have started tourist operations and art collectives outside Alice Springs.

But Dave Price, a senior project officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Australian government agency that oversees Aboriginal affairs and provides funding for projects, says mixing the two lifestyles is difficult.

``It's a totally different economic system from the Europeans [whites],'' Mr. Price says. ``The government encourages enterprises, self-determination, economic independence, and there's a lot of criticism when things go bust. But to really give it a go, you have to go long term, learn to make things work in a way that fits in with their value system and traditional economic practices. To do that and make money is pretty hard.''

Price says one reason Ipolera is doing so well is that it's a small community based on one large extended family with an intact authority structure. Other larger communities, which may have rival power structures and conflicting community expectations, have a more difficult time.

For Mavis, the problems are of a different nature: government structures that try to ``help'' Aboriginals ready to stand alone. The Central Land Council (CLC), a government body set up to provide advocacy for Aboriginals on land claims and other issues, is ``oriented toward the bigger communities. The CLC is not happy with us running with our own ideas,'' she says.

What gives Mavis the fortitude to deal with the complexities of the white world is the strength of her centuries-old culture. She wraps up the tour of that culture with a recipe for cooking meat:

``Dig a hole. Heat some rocks in it, then take them out. Layer grass, the food, vegetable grass, other kind of grass. Put in the hot rocks, more grass, then heavy bark, which is covered by damp sand. Draw an animal track in the sand, like an emu track. When the track cracks, the food is done.''

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