As the sun began to set behind the rock, and the warm breeze became a gentle, cool gust, about 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across the country and dozens of humble Mutitjulu residents, watched on as history was being made – yet again – on Anangu land.
Right in front of the unassuming ‘handback mound’, where in 1985 Anangu Traditional Owners received the title deeds of Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park from the Australian Government, guests attending the First Nations National Convention for Constitutional Recognition were welcomed by Traditional Owner, Mutitjulu Community and Park Chairman, Sammy Wilson.
The red dust, the camp dogs, the elders and the children were all there. The usually vast Mutitjulu oval area seemed small as it became crammed with excitement. Travellers, ‘relies’ and cousins hugged, as the big day had finally arrived.
Following tradition, Sammy started his welcome speech by acknowledging the ancestors and thanking them for their most precious legacy: Tjukurpa (Traditional Law). Then, he taught the crowd how to use one of the most common words in the local central desert languages: Palya (welcome, thank you, alright, goodbye, and much more…).
Short, but potent speeches, dancing and ceremony ensued under the imposing silhouette of the world’s largest monolith. The air was filled with culture, tradition and power.
First up were a group of men from East Arnhem Land who honoured the rock and paid respect to its Traditional Owners by performing a special fire dance.
“The fire sparks through us and the sparks that glow shows us the way,” wiseman Djunga Djunga Yunupingu told the crowd, as fire is “the life that is in us”.
As the men danced, smoke, dust and clapping sticks were the tangible expression of their mighty message.
“The fire was lit by our ancestors and keeps alive through song and dance.”
“It tells us we’re strong and unbreakable,” he stated resoundingly.
Before leaving the stage, he paid respects to Anangu by acknowledging their fight: “You’ve done the nation the greatest service by standing strong in Uluru.”
Next up, the Torres Strait Islander representation, with a chorus of female voices that haunted the desert wind with coastal rhythms. Male dancers lined up and swayed side to side, as ships navigating the red sand.
Then, came the Mutitjulu mob. The men performed the Kuniya (Woma Python) Liru (Brown Snake) dance, the Uluru Tjukurpa.
For Mutitjulu Community, hosting part of the event was not only a big responsibility; it was also an opportunity for growth.
“Hosting part of the event for the Referendum Council is a challenge for the community that we looked forward to,” Mutitjulu resident, Craig Woods, who helped project manage the community event, told NITV News.
The event comes just months after the Mutitjulu community signed a historic town lease in March that would finally provide local control over decision-making, as well as millions in investment in housing and other services.
“It means autonomy for Mutitjulu Community. Now, Mutitjulu can move forward with developing the community for the next generation. The next generation and the one after it can look after the community in the way we want to look after it,” he explained.
The township leasing agreement meant the local community would become responsible for managing their own affairs. Under the previous arrangement, the Commonwealth’s Director of National Parks was responsible for the community, because of its location within Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, which is under a 99-year lease to the Australian Government.
“We couldn’t do that before... Now that we got a sublease, the next generation can develop it even more,” he said.
Mr Woods says having to host part of the First Nations National Convention has helped Mutitjulu residents learn how to plan events and develop their community.
This is especially important given the community is hoping the sublease will allow them to open new tourism experiences on their land, “the Anangu way”.
“With tourism here, being next to a national icon, the next generation will be the ones to look after this community and control it…
“Any future events that happen in this community we can now hold, because of the location we’re in.”
Mr Woods says despite the fact that Anangu recognise the historic importance of the talks that will be held on their land in the coming days, for them, Constitutional Recognition is not a priority.
“The Referendum Council and the Constitution… Anangu will never fully understand what it’s about. It’s something that Anangu will never fully understand because we have our own Constitution, you could say. It’s Tjukurpa that we understand. Tjukurpa gives us that law and culture and the fundamentals of our culture that we abide by, and the Constitution is something different to that,” he explained.
The First Nations National Convention’s estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders delegates are meeting in Uluru this week to discuss how and if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be recognised in Australian Constitution.
The delegates have been drawn from regional dialogues held in 12 locations around the country.
How the talks will unfold and their outcome is yet to be seen. However, what the regional dialogues held so far have assured us is that delegates are unlikely to settle for a minimalist model of Constitutional Recognition. Instead, they’re pushing for substantial and genuine reform.
The talks will continue until Friday afternoon, when the convention will present the Referendum Council with a declaration of what they would like to see in the Australian Constitution for further consideration by the Australian Government.