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ETHNONYMS: Ngaayatjara, Ngadadjara, Pitjantjatjara, Western Desert Aborigines


Identification. The Ngatatjara speak the Warburton Ranges dialect of the Western Desert Language Group (Pitjantjatjara) in Western Australia and adjacent southwestern Northern Territory and northwestern South Australia. Their name for themselves, which means "those who have the word ngaata," which in turn means "middle distance," identifies the Warburton Ranges group in contrast with other, similarly identified dialect groups around them and does not imply any kind of tribal identity.

Location. The Warburton Ranges region is located at approximately 26° S and 127° E. The Warburton region includes rocky hills rising to an elevation of 700 meters above sea level and 300 meters above the surrounding terrain. Most of the region around these ranges consists of sandhills, sand-plains, and low knolls of laterite. There is no permanent surface water, although some relatively dependable water can be obtained by digging into dry creek beds and at other special localities. Weather records indicate that drought or semidrought conditions prevail throughout this region about 50 percent of the time, making it unsuitable for sustained, European-introduced agriculture or pastoralism.

Demography. In 1981 the Aboriginal population of Western Australia was estimated at 31,351, but no accurate count is available for the Ngatatjara as a separate group within this total. Even if one includes people who are only part Aborigine, the total for the Warburton Ranges people and related groups nearby stands at less than 2,000, with high mobility as a further complicating factor in achieving an accurate enumeration. Before resettlement by the government in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of these people followed a traditional, nomadic hunting-and-gathering way of life that dispersed them widely over the landscape. By 1970, the resident population at the Warburton Ranges Mission stood at around 400, and many Warburton people had already moved to other locations.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ngatatjara dialect belongs to the Pitjantjatjara language, which is spoken over a wide area ranging from Kalgoorlie and Cundeelee, Western Australia, to the south and west; Ernabella and Musgrave Park, South Australia, to the east; and Papunya and Areyonga, Northern Territory, to the north. Currently accepted linguistic classifications place Pitjantjatjara within the Wati Subgroup of the South-West Group in the Pama-Nyungan (also called the Western Desert) Family. Most Ngatatjara are multilingual, at least at the dialect level, and they often switch dialects when residing in new areas. The Western Desert linguistic family shares many features in common with other native Australian languages, which, with the sole exception of a group in northern Australia, are believed by linguists to be closely cognate and to have diverged from a single, ancestral language within the last 10,000 years. The separation of these languages from their Asian antecedents occurred so long ago, however, that no clear genetic connections have been detected with languages in Asia today.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeology at Puntutjarpa RockShelter, close to the Warburton Ranges, demonstrates continuous use of this area for foraging and habitation for at least the last 10,000 years by Aboriginal people whose technology and economy closely resembled those of the traditional Ngatatjara at the time of European contact. Some changes are noted, such as a shift toward greater dependence upon edible grass seeds and the addition of small, geometric flaked-stone artifacts to the tool kit. But the economy remained oriented toward hunting and gathering wild foods that occur naturally in this area today. Recent archaeology to the west of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, has produced a sequence of Aboriginal occupation extending back 22,000 years, so the possibility exists that ancient ancestors of the present-day Western Desert Aborigines exploited Pleistocene species that are now extinct. European-Australian explorers first entered this region in 1873, but permanent settlement based upon water from a drilled well at the Warburton Ranges Mission did not occur until 1934. What followed was a period during which increasing numbers of nomadic desert people settled at the mission. Although the population at the mission grew as a result of in-migration, periodic epidemics severely reduced the number of inhabitants from time to time. By 1970 the mission was a settlement with government services that included a school, clinic, and a small store but with no self-sustaining economy. The Warburton population has remained primarily dependent upon outside support in the form of mission donations and government aid, although resident Aborigines are now becoming increasingly involved in decisions about their community, and there are indications, such as those shown by the movement by some Aborigines to outstations during the 1970s, that the period of colonial dependency at Warburton and elsewhere in this region is ending.


Prior to 1934, all Ngatatjara were highly mobile and relatively opportunistic in their settlement pattern. During periods of sustained rains in particular parts of the desert, families congregated to take advantage of the water and to hunt game attracted by improved vegetation growth produced by such rains. Such maximal groups are estimated to have been as large as 150 individuals, but the duration of such aggregations was limited by the amount of game and water available and tended to be only a few weeks. These were major social events, when ceremonies and initiations occurred along with betrothals and curing activities. As drought conditions worsened, extended families departed in search of better hunting, with even smaller family groups setting out for more reliable water sources as drought stress increased. In extreme cases of long-term drought, families would leave their home area altogether and take up temporary residence with related families in areas as far as 500 kilometers away. Particular campsites might not be visited for several years in succession, or they might be visited several times in the same year, depending upon rains and associated plant and animal resources. There was no bounded territory within which such groups confined their foraging, nor were their social groups fixed in size or composition. Minimal social groups consisting of members of related families and totaling about ten to fifteen individuals could be found residing and foraging together around more or less dependable water sources during droughts. Domestic architecture consisted of conical or semicircular bough shelters during the summer, mainly to provide shade, and open-air campsites with linear or semicircular bough windbreaks during winter. Each family campsite had a central hearth that served as the focus for its social activities along with subsidiary hearths for warmth while sleeping. There were also taskspecific sites that included quarries, hunting blinds, woodworking localities, and ceremonial and rock-art sites.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy prior to 1934 and among isolated and uncontacted groups after 1934 was based primarily upon a limited number of edible wild plant foods that were harvested according to the particular conditions of rainfall and geography rather than on an annual seasonal basis. On most occasions, from day to day, women obtained the bulk of the diet, which consisted of plant staples and small animals, mainly lizards. Even before 1934, feral species introduced in other areas by European-Australians had spread to the Western Desert and had become an important part of the Ngatatjara diet. These animals included rabbits, feral cats, and, occasionally, camels and goats. Aboriginal men expended considerable time and energy in hunting but with generally poor returns. The principal kinds of game sought by hunters included kangaroos, wallabies, and emus. Allocation of all food supplies, including plant foods as well as large and small game, was structured by kin-based rules of sharing that resulted in an egalitarian distribution of food within the camp.

Industrial Arts. Subsistence technology was characterized by different technological responses to the requirements of mobility. These alternatives included multi-purpose tools like the spear thrower, which could also be used for lighting fires and mixing tobacco and pigments and as a percussion instrument to accompany songs and dances; appliances like heavy stone seed grinders, which were left at the campsite as permanent fixtures to be used whenever the family returned; and instant tools consisting of materials collected at the spot and fashioned as needed for a particular task. Despite the strictly utilitarian nature of most Ngatatjara technology, spear throwers were often decorated with complex incised designs that served a maplike function to aid men and their families in pinpointing geographical landmarks.

Trade. Long-distance transport and exchange of materials and artifacts occurred throughout the Western Desert. But this took place mainly within the context of the ceremonial life, often between individuals with a mutual affiliation to the same mythical ancestors and places where those ancestors traveled in the mythical past. Ceremonial exchange networks covered vast areas of the Western Desert, with the result that exotic items, such as incised pearl shells from the northwest coast of Australia and incised sacred stones from central Australia, circulated within these networks, either between individuals or between patrilineages.

Division of Labor. Division of labor or activity by sex was more pronounced in the domain of ritual and sacred affairs than in daily life. Under conditions of desert living, there was a general tendency in domestic activities for the women to focus on foraging for plant foods and small game, such as grubs and lizards. Males concentrated on hunting, with the corollary that women generally did not handle hunting equipment like spears and spear throwers. Women generally performed food-processing activities such as seed grinding as well as certain technological activities like the collection and production of spinifex resin adhesive. Men, on the other hand, were usually involved in stone artifact production and use. However, exceptions occurred in all of these activities under conditions of desert living, and new trends have arisen due to changes in the context of settlement near European-Australians. For example, in the 1960s women began taking a more active role in hunting large animals, using special dogs. Ritual activities, however, involved strict exclusion, mainly of women from male ceremonies but of men from female rituals as well. While some ceremonies were conducted jointly, by both sexes, the rules of participation by sex are more defined and strictly enforced than was the case for domestic activities.

Land Tenure. Concepts of tenure over land are dominated by the principle of joint affiliation and control by corporate groups, primarily patrilineages in which the members claim descent from a common, mythical ancestor. Such ancestors are believed to have lived and traveled in a mythical past called "the Dreaming" (tjukurpa ), and the places where they lived, traveled, and had their adventures are also referred to by this term. These places are regarded as sacred sites that currently contain the spirit of the particular ancestor. Tenure applies specifically to these sites rather than to the control of territories, but the related idea of trespass ensures that the territory surrounding such sacred sites is also under a kind of de facto control of these patrilineages. Danger of trespass, whether intentional or accidental, is taken seriously by visitors who know that the patrilineage that "owns" the sacred sites within a particular area will punish such trespass. People do not venture into unfamiliar territory until shown the location of sacred sites within the area by members of the local patrilineage, and then only if they have established social relationships with members of the patrilineage, usually through marriage, that qualify them for access. This system of tenure is threatened today by relatively unrestricted movement by European-Australians who seek to establish mines and other kinds of development at or near such sacred sites. Legal arguments about "land claims" over Aboriginal sacred sites are a dominant theme in current Australian domestic politics.


Kin Groups and Descent. Patrilineal descent is an important principle in structuring group affiliation, especially to the patrilineages that claim descent from a common, mythical ancestor and to the specific places where that ancestor lived and performed important acts in the mythical past. Another form of social classification in Ngatatjara society has to do with the dual division of kin into readily identifiable groups, referred to by anthropologists as sections and subsections, to simplify and facilitate expectations regarding whom one may marry or with whom one may expect to share food and access to resources. Aborigines who had resided at the Warburton Mission and at Laverton (and other settlements like Mount Margaret and Cosmo Newberry) tended to group themselves into four sections, correlated with a preference for first cross-cousin marriage. Historically during the period of European contact, different Aboriginal families coming together at such settlements adjusted their section terminology to produce a hybrid "six-section" system that appears to be unique to this area, although it is just as symmetric as its four-section antecedents. However, families arriving from the desert for the first time during the mid-1960s and early 1970s tended to use an eight-subsection mode of classification, correlated with second cross-cousin marriage. During this period such newly arrived desert people at the Warburton Ranges were making rapid adjustments to the "section" system in general use by the mission population.

Kinship Terminology. Classificatory rules of kinship permit extension of kin terms normally used between blood relatives (consanguines) to other individuals of the same sex and generation level. Such categories subsume basic expectations about behavior, such as with whom one may share food or access to resources or whom one may address directly or not, regardless of how one may feel about a particular individual.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygynous marriage is preferred, although monogamous marriages continue to be common. Residential rules favor patrilocality, but in actual cases residence is often determined by movement in response to drought and other local factors. Strong obligations of both avoidance and sharing behavior exist between in-laws of similar and different generations. Divorce, however, can occur by mutual consent and without formality.

Domestic Unit. People who habitually camp and sleep together, mainly spouses and their offspring, are considered a family and constitute the minimal social unit. Related family units sometimes group themselves in clusters within the overall campsite when conditions of rainfall and hunting permit.

Inheritance. Affiliation for purposes of ceremonial and land-tenure group membership are inherited patrilineally, but portable property is not considered important enough to warrant special rules of inheritance.

Socialization. Infants are closely nurtured until weaning, after which they rapidly assert their independence by forming play groups consisting of children of mixed ages that sometimes establish separate, temporary campsites of their own and can even travel cross-country and feed themselves by means of their own foraging. Child rearing is benign, and physical punishment is rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. No corporate groups exist above the level of patrilineages, and these operate primarily in the domain of sacred and ceremonial affaire. In such patrilineages, age and subgroupings into alternating generations are sometimes important, expecially in the conduct of ritual activities.

Political Organization. In matters of daily life, Ngatatjara society is essentially egalitarian. Joint decisions involving several families are reached only after considerable argument, and the parties may exhibit reluctance to impose or accept decisions. Matters involving sacred affaire present indications of a more coherent leadership structure based upon relative age and sacred knowledge.

Conflict. Conflicts between individuals and individual families are fairly common and can result in personal violence. Disputes over marriages and sexual affaire are frequent, with some disputes over control of sacred sites and other sacred information as well. Cases of this latter kind of dispute became more common as European-Australian mining exploration extended deeply into the Western Desert during the 1960s and later.

Social Control. Individuals who are aggrieved in some way may call upon their kin to support them against whoever may have offended them. In serious cases this can result in spearing directed at the thighs of males representing their respective kin groups. There are no courts or officials to settle matters at a higher level. Patrilineages can apply sanctions to anyone who trespasses or commits a sacrilege on a sacred Dreaming site under their control. Informal mechanisms like gossip are often effective for social control at the domestic level.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Ngatatjara identify a range of ancestral beings, mainly animals and other natural species, that performed creative acts during the Dreaming that have led to their present sacred geography. Patrilineages affiliated with these different ancestors are responsible for instructing male initiates in these sacred traditions and for maintaining the sacred sites under their care as a way of increasing the abundance of the ancestral species. Dances and songs reenacting the myths of the Dreaming are performed in connection with these two kinds of duties. Traditionally, initiations most often occurred during maximal social aggregations when local conditions of water and food resources were favorable. Novices were "saved up" for such occasions and put through initiations together. Under more sedentary circumstances at the mission, novices are initiated when they are deemed to be old enough, with the result that ceremonies occur more often but with fewer novices at any one time. A similar increase in ceremonial activity at the mission and other settlements is evident with regard to ceremonies involving che "increase" of the ancestral species, either by revisiting the sacred sites or, if these are too far away, by performing such ceremonies in absentia at the mission.

Arts. Decorative body painting, ceremonial paraphernalia, cave and rock painting, and a rich variety of songs and oral narratives characterize the sacred life of the Ngatatjara on ceremonial occasions. The Ngatatjara were among the few people anywhere in the world in the 1960s and 1970s who still practiced cave and rock painting as a regular form of artistic expression. All Ngatatjara visual art, oral tradition, and singing are expressions of jointly held values and beliefs, mainly regarding the Dreaming, and are not generally seen as opportunities for individual artistic expression. Western Desert Aborigine painting, with modern acrylics, is presently undergoing rapid development in the context of a European-Australian demand for this type of art, but Ngatatjara participation in this trend is still somewhat marginal.

Medicine. In addition to individual sorcerers who can perform cures and an array of herbal and common remedies, the Ngatatjara have developed a perception of illness and death as willed by someone else, usually in a distant area. Such a belief may prompt an inquest by a sorcerer to locate the source and/or direction of the malevolent force and to carry out "countersorcery" against it.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional belief is that the soul divides into two parts after death. One part becomes a ghost that hovers around camp and serves as a sort of bogey to keep people (especially children) from wandering at night. The other part is the actual soul substance of an individual's ancestral Dreaming, which, after death, is believed to return to the sacred Dreaming site and rejoin a kind of undifferentiated pool of spirit ancestorslater to reemerge as part of the soul substance of another living person affiliated with that particular Dreaming. When a person dies, the campsite is changed to avoid the ghost, and the body is interred without ceremony. Later, when the group returns to the same area, the remains are reburied in a more elaborate ceremony.

See also Aranda, Mardudjara, Pintupi, Warlpiri


Berndt, R. M. (1959). "The Concept of 'the Tribe' in the Western Desert of Australia." Oceania 30:81-107.

Berndt, R. M., and Berndt, C. H. (1964). The World of the First Australians. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

Berndt, R. M., and Berndt, C. H., eds. (1979). Aborigines of the West. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press.

Gould, Richard A. (1969). "Subsistence Behaviour among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia." Oceania 39:253-274.

Gould, Richard A. (1969). Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert. New York: Scribners.

Peterson, Nicolas, and Jeremy Long (1986). Australian Territorial Organization. Oceania Monograph no. 30. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Sutton, Peter, ed. (1988). Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. New York: Braziller.


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