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Identification. The term "Pintupi" refers to a group of Australian Aboriginal hunting and gathering people originally from the Western Desert region of Australia. Their shared social identity derives not so much from linguistic or cultural practice but from common experience, destination, and settlement during successive waves of eastward migrations out of their traditional homelands to the outskirts of White settlements. Pintupi is not an indigenous term for a particular dialect nor for any sort of closed or autonomous Community.

Location. The traditional territory of the Pintupi is in the Gibson Desert, in Australia's western territory. This territory is bounded by the Ehrenberg and Walter James ranges in the east and south, respectively, by the plains to the west of Jupiter Wells in the west, and by Lake Mackay to the north. These areas are predominantly sandy desert lands, interspersed with gravelly plain and a few hills. The climate is arid, rainfall averages only 20 centimeters annually, and in some years there is no rainfall at all. Daytime temperatures in summer reach about 50° C and nights are warm, while in winter the days are milder but nights may be cold enough for frost to form. Water is scarce here, and vegetation is limited. The desert dunes support spinifex and a few mulga trees, and on the gravel plains there are occasional stands of desert oaks. Faunal resources, too, are limitedlarge game animals include kangaroos, emus, and wallabies; smaller animals include feral cats and rabbits. Water is only periodically available on the ground surface after rains; the people rely on rock and claypan caches in the hills and underground soakages and wells in the gravel pan and sandy dunes.

Demography. Population figures for the Western Desert peoples as a whole are difficult to obtain. The sparsely populated Pintupi region was estimated to support one person per 520 square kilometers, but given the highly mobile, flexible, and circumstance-dependent nature of the designation "Pintupi," it is difficult to come up with absolute numbers. The people suffered a population loss during the years of settlement in the east due to the unaccustomed overcrowding and to violence that arose between the Pintupi and White settlers and other Aboriginal groups.

linguistic Affiliation. Pintupi is a member of the Pama-Nyungan Language Family, also called the Western Desert Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

The Pintupi were among the last of the Western Desert Peoples to experience the effects of contact with Whitesprior to the early 1900s, most of their contacts were with other Peoples of similar culture who lived in adjacent territories of the desert. With the establishment of White settlements in the areas to the north, east, and west of Pintupi territory, Pintupi began to migrate to settlement outskirts, attracted by the availability of water and food during times of drought. In the early days of this migration, Pintupi tended to settle in camps separate from those of other migrants such as the Aranda and Walpiri, but as these communities grew in response to further droughts in the desert, the government began to establish permanent camps. Pintupi resisted integration into the broader population of the camps, attempting to maintain their own separate settlements apart from the rest and participating minimally in the affairs of the larger settlement. The trend since the late 1970s has been for the Pintupi to move back toward their traditional Gibson Desert territory, a process that has been facilitated by the drilling of new bore holes at outstations so that access to permanent water sources may be achieved.


Pintupi traditional life is highly mobile for most of the year, so encampments are only temporary, sometimes simply overnight. Such camps are segregated by gender and marital status: unmarried men and youths live in one camp, with single women in another nearby; each husband-wife pair and their young children camp together. These camps tend to be quite small. Larger aggregates of people occur at permanent water holes after periods of heavy rains. Camp shelter is a simple windbreak made of brush or, more recently, corrugated iron. The more sedentary settlements around bore holes are quite largeas many as 300 to 350 peoplebut the spatial deployment of individuals and family groups follows the pattern of traditional encampments.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Pintupi were traditionally a hunting and gathering people. Australian Aboriginal policy included attempts to introduce the concept of working for a wage, and Pintupi who came to settlements were largely employed on cattle stations, working with the stock. At present, most Pintupi are dependent upon assistance payments from the Australian government.

Industrial Arts. Tools and implements of traditional manufacture include digging sticks and stone-cutting tools, boomerangs, spears, and spear throwers. Shelters used to be made of local materials, but now they are constructed from canvas or corrugated iron. Most manufactured items are of a ritual nature.

Division of Labor. For communal use, men hunt kangaroos, wallabies, and emus when such are available; they hunt feral cats, smaller marsupials, and rabbits at other times. Women gather what plant food can be found, honey ants, grubs, and lizards. Food so obtained is shared throughout the residential group. Food preparation is considered to be a woman's task, although men are capable of it; likewise, the preparation and maintenance of the tools necessary for food gathering and hunting is a man's job, but women can do such tasks if necessary.

Land Tenure. Rights in land refer to Dreamtime associations: that is, one has a right to live in and use the resources of areas to which one can trace ties of family or friendship (the latter most often being treated in kinship terms). One's own place of birth, or the places where one's parents were born, establish claimsbut not claims to the land per se, simply to rights of association with others who also use that land.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Pintupi recognize two endogamous patrilineal moieties, which are crosscut by generational moieties, themselves consisting of eight paired (as wife-giving/wife-taking) patrilineally defined subsections. These distinctions of relatedness do not translate into rigid, on-the-ground groupings of individuals but rather provide the terms according to which people may forge ties with one another, make claims for hospitality, or be initiated into Dreaming lore.

Kinship Terminology. Terminologically, Pintupi Differentiate initially according to subsection membership and further according to gender; that is, members of a single subsection are styled as siblings, but within a subsection the Children of the set of "brothers" are understood to belong to a different category than the children of the set of "sisters."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. First marriages are generally arranged by the parents, rather than according to the preferences of the prospective spouses. A man approaching marriageable age will begin to travel with the camp of his prospective in-laws, contributing his hunting skills to their support. Upon marriage, the husband joins the camp of the wife's parents until the birth of the first child or children, while the wife begins instruction in her domestic responsibilities and in women's Ritual lore. Once children are born, however, the couple will set up their own distinct camp. Polygyny is common.

Domestic Unit. The Pintupi domestic unit minimally consists of a man, his wife or wives, and their children. However, it is usual that there may also be one or more other dependentsone or more of the husband's or wife's parents or a widowed sibling.

Inheritance. For the Pintupi, ritual associations with Dreaming sites, which also imply rights to resource usage in the associated territory, are the principle benefits of the Concept of inheritance. Such associations and rights are normatively passed down patrilineally. Portable personal property is negligible among the Pintupi and its distribution is not normatively prescribed, except that it be given to "Distant" kin because it is felt that "near" kin would be reminded of their grief by personal effects of the deceased.

Socialization. Child rearing is the province of the mother during the early years, but it tends to be shared by cowives and other female kin in the camp. At this early stage, children are treated with great indulgence, but they are taught early on that principles of sharing and cooperation are important. Both male and female children are granted a great deal of freedom. Male initiation, by which young boys begin their transformation to manhood, involves introduction into ritual lore and circumcision, after which point they embark upon a period of their lives when it is expected that they will travel widely. In such a way young men develop broader social ties and are exposed to greater amounts of ritual lore. It is only after marriage that women begin to be educated into "Women's business," the ritual lore held exclusively by women. There is no female counterpart to the traveling period of male youths.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The patrilineage is the largest unit of organization of functional significance for the Pintupi, and it is invoked primarily in the context of ritual life, in justifying one's presence in a place (through reference to the Dreaming) , and in marking the intermarriageability of members of one group with another.

Political Organization. Pintupi egalitarianism militates against formai leadership to any great degree. Leaders are elders who are schooled in ritual lore and whose skill in achieving consensus in any gathering has been acknowledged. Since few decisions in Pintupi traditional life require the involvement of large numbers of people, the role of a leader is Primarily to mediate disputes. In the mission-based settlements, councillors also serve to keep the peace and to allocate government-provided resources, but the concept of Hierarchically organized authority is neither customary nor particularly comfortable for Pintupi.

Social Control. Most social control is effected through the mediation of friends or kin, but there are some circumstances requiring the application of collective sanctionsprimarily in the case of violations of sacred tradition, such as the giving away of ritual secrets.

Conflict. Disputes between individuals can erupt at any time over any number of disagreements, but they tend to be most common during times when large numbers of people are gathered together. At such times, fighting can break out and may result in injury or even death. Disputes over women are common. In disputes occurring between individuals, it is common that the aggrieved party will seek out his opponent to spear him in the thigh, and he may commonly attempt to secure the support of his kin in this effort to seek revenge. Acts of "sacrilege" are the single most likely cause for largerscale hostile action. In the sedentary communities near mission stations, the possibility of conflict, exacerbated by the availability of alcohol, is dramatically higher than it is in traditional Pintupi life.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Central to Pintupi beliefs is the Dreaming (tjukurrpa ), according to which the world was created and continues to be ordered. The Dreaming is both past and Present. In its unfoldingthat is, through the activities of the ancestral heroesnot only were the physical features of the world created but also the social order according to which Pintupi life is conducted. Particular geologic features of the terrain are understood to be the direct result of specific deeds of these heroes. Yet the Dreaming is also ongoing, providing the force that animates and maintains life and the rituals that are required to renew or enrich that force.

Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners are patrilineage elders, whose depth of knowledge of the sacred traditions of their patriline and its totems qualifies them for the instruction of younger and less knowledgeable initiates. The accumulation of ritual knowledge is something that occurs over time, as an individual is gradually led deeper and deeper into the secrets of ritual life. Practitioners are responsible not only for transmitting this ritual knowledge to younger generations but also for maintaining the sacred sites and the spirits associated with them.

Ceremonies. Both men and women have a rich store of ritual lore, linked to the Dreaming, with attendant Ceremonies that are performed in the context of initiations and as a part of the process by which sacred sites may be maintained. As with other Western Desert peoples, ceremonial occasions are tied to times and places where large numbers of people can congregateat water-hole encampments during periods of heavy rains, for example. During these ceremonies there is singing, chanting, and the reenactment of myths appropriate to the specific occasion.

Arts. Pintupi visual art, bodily adornment, and songs are tied to ritual practice, specifically to the Dreaming, and each myth has specific signs and chants associated with it, as well as dramatic reenactments that must be performed. There has been some Pintupi participation in the production and sale of acrylic paintings of Western Desert themes to Australians and Europeans interested in local art.

Medicine. Traditional curing involved sorcery and the use of herbal remedies. The Pintupi today avail themselves of medical care provided through the Australian government health services.

Death and Afterlife. Behavior after the death of a loved one focuses on the grief of the deceased's survivors: people abandon the site at which the death occurred; close kin distribute the belongings of the deceased to more distant kin (whose grief will ostensibly be much less); the bereaved physically harm themselves as an expression of grief; and "sorry fights"ritual attacks by relatives upon the deceased's coresidents for their failure to prevent the deathalso occur. Actual interment of the body is done by the more distant relatives, for close kin are thought to be too grief-stricken to carry out the necessary work. The spirit is thought to survive the body and to remain in the area of this first burial, only departing after a second ceremony is held months later. Where the spirit ultimately goes is vaguely described as somewhere "up in the sky."

See also: Aranda, Mardudjara, Ngatatjara, Warlpiri


Hansen, K., and L. Hansen (1974). Pintupi Kinship. Alice Springs: Institute for Aboriginal Development.

Myers, Fred R. (1980). "The Cultural Basis of Pintupi Politics." Mankind 12:197-213.

Myers, Fred R. (1986). Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Settlement, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.