The Last of the Nomads

It is a great love story. For Warri and Yatungka’s love was stronger even than their love for being on country. It was stronger than the love of tribe and community and family. It was stronger than their love for Aboriginal tradition and their respect for tribal law.

For Warri and Yatungka, the last of the nomads, spent 30 years in exile for their love ...

Just outside Wiluna, I stop under the Western Desert’s blue sky and cartoon clouds (puffy white tops with flat, dark-grey bottoms) to spend time with Warri and Yatungka.

Warri stands tall with his spear, looking out over the country, to the horizon.

Yatungka sits by him, with a coolamon (dish) full of quandong fruits.

The sculpture memorialises the couple and their love. It keeps alive their story ...

a love so strong

Gibson Desert dweller Warri, almost as thin as the spear he carries, walks down the sandy rise behind tracker Mudjon — who once went out to hunt Warri and his wife Yatungka for their prohibited love, but was now bringing the emaciated old man in to Wiluna.

When Warri and Yatungka came in from the Gibson in 1977, they were hailed “the last of the nomads”. They made news around the world.

Warri and Yatungka were, indeed, among the last to leave a nomadic existence in Australia’s great, arid deserts. They were genuine and practising examples of people living the ancient lifestyle of “the oldest surviving culture in the world”. Their significance cannot be overstated.

Warri and Yatungka had fallen in love, but their relationship was prohibited under the law of their Mandildjara tribe, which was part of the Martu people.

Over tens of thousands of years of living in family and small language groups, this tribal law kept Indigenous DNA strong. Yatungka was supposed to marry someone approved by elders.

And so the young lovers ran away into the Gibson Desert.

They were given permission to be on that land by the custodians, the Budijara people, and spent nearly 30 years there together, wandering naked from waterhole to scant waterhole, living off the land. Living with the land.

But while they lived with their love, they also suffered the terrible pain of their exile — of not being on their traditional lands. And they lived knowing that their return would bring retribution under tribal law.

When they fled, Mudjon was originally sent to bring them back, but Warri and Yatungka escaped further into the remote desert. They were never forgotten. By the mid-1970s, aged, the desert dessicated by three years of drought, they were struggling to survive.

Wiluna’s Martu elders were worried about the elderly couple, and ready to overlook their past transgression. And so they approached expedition leader Bill Peasley (who they knew and trusted), asking him to organise a search party, and to take Mudjon with him.

When they found Warri and Yatungka, emaciated and weak, Mudjon told them they would not be punished under tribal law, and convinced them to come into town. They joined what was left of the Mandildjara, living on the edge of Wiluna. For the Martu had left the desert for the town fringes. The few family groups remaining were too fragmented to uphold law. Warri became ill and died in April 1979, and Yatungka died a month later. The poignancy of their story is as vivid today as it was then. Their love was so strong that they had chosen it over community. They chose it even over the love of being on country.

Whether they were exactly the last of the Aboriginal nomads to come out of the deserts of Western and Central Australia is certainly debatable. But it is definitely true that by the 1980s, desert people who lived this truly nomadic, traditional tribal lifestyle, without contact with the changing world, were gone forever.

Warri and Yatungka represent an end. The “coming in” of Warri and Yatungka, the last of the nomads, marked the end of a tribal lifestyle that stretched back more than 30,000 years. The “world’s oldest culture” was in transition.

In his book, The Last of the Nomads, W.J. (Bill) Peasley writes: “Slowly we drove away from the waterhole, the last nomads of the Mandildjara. It was, indeed, a moving moment.”

For more, read the full article here.

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