A Letter to Australians


We are writing from Ernabella (Pukatja Community), our home on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in northwest South Australia.

We are writing now because we feel that we are being pushed around by the Federal and State Governments. We also have the opinion that our people and our communities are being systematically disempowered.

We want people to know about what is going on here.



For many years, we are suffering the effects of government strategies of extreme delay in service delivery. We are badly affected by the imposition on us of inappropriate and ineffective systems of administration and governance. We are held back by a lack of thoughtful, respectful and culturally aware consultation and planning between us Anangu, and governments and their agents on whom, unavoidably, we depend. All of these things put an almost intolerable burden on our wellbeing and our capacities.

We will tell you our story so you can understand.

Pukatja (Ernabella) has been a permanent settlement only since 1937, when our people started gradually to come in from traditional life in the desert. For the first 35 years we built our community, supported by the Presbyterian Board of Mission. The mission respected our culture and our traditions. It offered medical help and education, with no conditions attached. ( Responsibility for the administration of Ernabella Mission was formally handed over to the Ernabella Community Council later Pukatja Community Council on 1 January, 1974.)

Today, there are lots of bad stories in the newspapers and on television about the problems in our communities. We are worried about a lot of these problems. But we also know that a lot of strong things are happening because we have set up our own programs and we are sad when people forget about this and say that self-determination does not work.

We want to talk about some of the good things that we Anangu have done to make our community strong in the years since the missionaries left. Why do some people in the government and newspapers say that Anangu can’t do things for ourselves? Why do they want to take away the good things we have done? Why don’t they support us to solve other problems in our community, instead of saying they need to solve it for us?


A sports festival at Pukatja last week attended by schools from across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, photo by Murray Muirhead

Nowadays, our community of over 600 Anangu has a school that goes from Pre-school to Year 12 and employs 12 Anangu Education Workers who teach in all classes and speak our Pitjantjatjara language, which is still strong. We have an Anangu Tertiary Education Program (AnTEP) that runs in partnership with the University of South Australia to train Anangu for work in schools, clinics and other community jobs. Anangu Education Services (AES) administers educational affairs all across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands and houses our own Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Education Council (PYEC) whose Director, Katrina Tjitayi, lives in Pukatja.

We have a TAFE campus that provides education for men and women in business skills, building and carpentry skills and a clinic, which employs Anangu assistant staff. We also have an Aged Care Respite Centre where 16 frail tjilpis and pumpas from across the APY Lands live and are cared for close to their country. The Centre also provides hot meals twice a day for some older people living in our community. Our independently incorporated art centre, Ernabella Arts, is the oldest in Australia and has operated continuously for 58 years. It is known all around Australia and around the world.

The Pukatja Community Council owns and operates its own community store and garage. The Community Council is an elected Anangu council which governs the Pukatja community, working co-operatively with the other community organisations.

Our Community Council, and the other Anangu organisations and businesses we have set up, employ outside professional and technical staff to help us when necessary. This works well when we can choose who we employ and when they work with us not for the governments, who have other interests. But we also have strong Anangu working in each of the community organisations and these organisations couldn’t do a proper job for Anangu without them.

Like we said, there have been a lot of stories on TV and in the newspapers about all the bad things that are happening in our communities. But there are other stories too. And these never seem to be heard. At Pukatja we have achieved many things because Anangu have been involved in the organisations we have set up. Some of the achievements that we want to celebrate include a school attendance rate that is now over 80 per cent. Last year, 12 students successfully completed Year 12. The school runs a Vocational Education Training Program where students are prepared for post-school jobs including work at our community workshop (Wali K) and PYEC having developed and applied bi-lingual education across the Lands with continuously improving results in students’ literacy, numeracy and social functioning.

We are also really proud because this year, 12 TAFE trainees graduated in Certificate II in Business and are working in the art centre, the community office and the school. The Art Centre has two young men working in the Ceramic Studio on a TAFE technical skills program, who are also Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) participants. We are also proud because the Art Centre sells and regularly exhibits artists’ work all around Australia and overseas, providing its members and their families with income and great community strength and purpose.

Our community also runs a Night Patrol employing Anangu CDEP participants, and a Family Support Program staffed by Anangu which has delivered refrigerators and cleaning equipment to every community household and manages the households’ repayment for this equipment. Our Anangu Family Support Workers, together with other community members, are involved in a Substance Abuse Program and cook meals for mothers and pre-school children of families at risk. The community, together with the (Uniting Church) Anangu Area Ministry Council, recently hosted a party of 20 young Canadians here on a cultural exchange. Our schoolchildren took the visitors out bush for witchetty grubs and honey ants a simple thing but also typical of our capacity and readiness to share our culture for the benefit of all.

All these achievements make us proud, but we don’t get to read about them in the newspapers because people want to tell bad stories about our communities maybe so they can come and takeover.

We don’t understand why the Federal Government doesn’t listen to us if they really want to solve some of the problems in our community. We know that we have a lot of wisdom and knowledge but the people from the Government won’t listen to us and work with us. Maybe they still think we are tjitjis (children) who can’t look after ourselves.

We are seeing a lot of changes in our community now that are confusing to us. Changes that are destroying some of the good things that were happening and destroying Anangu responsibility for our affairs. Taking away Anangu self-detemination.

We don’t know why these changes are being made without someone asking us what we need. We had successfully introduced a ‘no work, no pay’ policy for our CDEP workers. But now the Government is making lots of changes to CDEP. Maybe it will take away our pay and our work.

In 2004 the voting system by which we elect our Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Council Executive and our Chairperson was changed by the State Government. The original system that we negotiated for in the Land Rights Act reflected the communal way in which Anangu make decisions. Now it has been replaced by a system that replicates White Local Government election processes with the Lands divided into ten electoral wards on a White model. Except that in the two elections since the changes were made no electoral rolls were used despite many Anangu being registered voters on the Federal rolls.

In 2005 the South Australian Parliament made some big changes to our Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act (1981) which we fought for in the 1970s. Many Anangu are worried about this and wonder what will happen to our land and our communities now these changes have been made. But most Anangu don’t even know about the changes. When our land rights were recognised in 1981 we thought that the whitefella law would help us to protect our land properly. But now that whitefella law has been changed again.

Now, in 2006, our CDEP program and our Municipal Services have been changed and we don’t know what the future holds. And funding for our Community Office has disappeared even though the Community Council is still trying to look after our community.

We feel like the grass is being burnt under our feet and no one is listening. Maybe the Government wants us all to move to Alice Springs or Adelaide. But we can’t leave our country or it will die, and our children will die, and we will die. Then no one will be able to hear us.

Makinti Minutjukur
Pukatja (formerly Ernabella Mission)
8 September, 2006

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.