To hunt and to hold: Martu Aboriginal people’s uses and knowledge of their country, with implications for co-management in Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park and the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.

To hunt and to hold: Martu Aboriginal people’s uses and knowledge of their country, with implications for co-management in Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park and the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. Thesis

School of Social and Cultural Studies (Anthropology) and School of Plant Biology (Ecology)

  • Author(s): Walsh, Fiona
  • Published: 2008
  • Publisher: University of Western Australia
  • Volume: PhD

Abstract: This ethnoecological study examines land uses by modern Martu Aboriginal people on their country. They occupy very remote settlements—Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji—in the Great and Little Sandy Deserts. In 1990, their country included Crown Lands and Rudall River National Park. The study investigated the proposition that the knowledge and practices of Martu were of direct relevance to ecosystem processes and national park management. This research commenced in the wider Australian research context of the late 1980s – early 90s when prevailing questions were about the role of customary harvest within contemporary Aboriginal society (Altman 1987; Devitt 1988) and the sustainability of species-specific harvests by Australian indigenous people (Bomford & Caughley 1996). Separately, there was a national line of enquiry into Aboriginal roles in natural resource and protected area management (Williams & Hunn 1986; Birckhead et al. 1992). The field work underpinning this study was done in 1986–1988 and quantitative data collected in 1990 whilst the researcher lived on Martu settlements. Ethnographic information was gathered from informal discussions, semi-structured interviews and participant observation on trips undertaken by Martu. A variety of parameters was recorded for each trip in 1990. On trips accompanied by the researcher, details on the plant and animal species collected were quantified. Martu knowledge and observations of Martu behaviour are interpreted in terms of the variety of land uses conducted and transport strategies including vehicle use; the significance of different species collected; socio-economic features of bush food collection; spatio-temporal patterns of foraging; and, the ‘management’ of species and lands by Martu. The research found that in 1990, hunting and gathering were major activities within the suite of land uses practiced by Martu. At least 40% of trips from the settlements were principally to hunt. More than 43 animal species and 37 plant food species were reported to be collected during the study; additionally, species were gathered for firewood, medicines and timber artefacts. Customary harvesting persisted because of the need for sustenance, particularly when there were low store supplies, as well as other reasons. The weight of bush meats hunted at least equalled and, occasionally, was three times greater than the weights of store meats available to Parnngurr residents. Resources were procured from an area generally within 50 km of the settlements. High flexibility and opportunism characterised resource and land use patterns by Martu, these strategies are interpreted to be responsive to the extreme spatial and temporal variability of their desert environment. ‘Management-type’ concepts expressed by Martu were investigated. The study found one central concept associated with ‘holding and being held by’ (kanyirninpa) wherein Martu action was believed to be integral to ecological production. Whilst the study commenced with attention to species-specific sustainability of harvesting, it concluded that ecological sustainability must be viewed at organisational scales ranging from localised species populations to wider ecosystem processes. Martu identified declines in the production of their lands but attributed this to factors other than hunting. Martu burn regimes and feral animal hunting ameliorated strong evidence for species declines due to over-harvest. The study speculated that Martu practices had differential effects with some of these slowing, if not stalling, declining biodiversity condition trends. From 1990 to 2007, there was continuity of some Martu practices and major changes on their lands. Changes included land use intensification by non-Aboriginal people, attempts by Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to engage in joint management and increased urbanisation of Martu. Extreme trauma was experienced in Martu communities with escalating sickness and death rates. These changes put great pressure upon Martu individuals and their employees which constrained comanagement opportunities. The importance of Aboriginal customary harvest and associated activities remains poorly recognised in wider Australia (Altman 2004). This dissertation concludes that Martu knowledge and practice was not just relevant but integral to the management of Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park. However, profound differences between the objectives and procedures of Martu and DEC existed. But there were mutual interests including the land area, indigenous ecological knowledge, wildlife survey and burning regimes. Paradoxically, hunting was a subject of significant difference despite it being the principal activity driving Martu expertise and practice. There is potential for comanagement in the National Park but it remains contingent on many factors between both Martu and DEC as well as external to them. The dissertation suggests practical strategies to enhance co-management.

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Suggested Citation
Walsh, Fiona, 2008, To hunt and to hold: Martu Aboriginal people’s uses and knowledge of their country, with implications for co-management in Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park and the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia., Volume:PhD, Thesis, viewed 15 August 2022, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=2622.

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