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Warren Japanangka Williams of the Warlpiri Project men’s group holds up a photo of Bullfrog from the collection of photos and drawings returned from the estate of US anthropology professor Nancy Munn, who did her PhD field work at Yuendemu between 1956 and 1958. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian
Anthropologist Nancy Munn studied the Warlpiri people from 1956 to 1958. Now, with the repatriation of her collection to Australia, a younger generation is reunited with its ancestral heritage.
A group of Warlpiri men contemplate a black and white photo of a lean Aboriginal man. He sits, his hat at a jaunty angle, his beard neat, the scarification lines on his chest stark.
“Ahhh that’s the warrior,” one murmurs. “Bullfrog!” says another.
“That’s my great-great-grandfather,” Jamie Jungaryyi Hampton says.
Hampton has never seen this picture before. For more than 60 years it has been in Chicago along with hundreds of other photos, drawings and men’s secret sacred ceremonial objects from Yuendemu in the Northern Territory.
Emerita professor Nancy Munn studied the Warlpiri people at Yuendemu from 1956 to 1958. When she left, she hauled a large collection of Warlpiri objects back to the US, including that 1957 photo.
The Warlpiri Project men’s group with photos and drawings from the estate of Nancy Munn: ‘All the stuff that was taken has been there, waiting to come back.’ Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian
Munn got her doctorate (on the Warlpiri people) from the Australian National University in 1960 and went on to become an esteemed professor and “renowned expert on the commingling of space and time” at the University of Chicago.
When she died in 2020, the long process of returning this cultural heritage to the Warlpiri people began. On Friday a men’s group from the Warlpiri Project came to Adelaide to be reunited with their ancestors’ stories.
“It’s a time capsule,” says Karl Japaltjarri Hampton, Bullfrog’s great-grandson and Jamie’s father.
“All the stuff that was taken has been there, waiting to come back. And a lot of the stuff, I think our ancestors did this because they knew that in 50 or 60 years’ time, maybe we’d come along and would pick it back up again.”
Hampton Sr describes the emotion of the morning, as the group unpacked a crate of their ancestral belongings and discovered pictures of and by their relatives, their parents.
The return of the “time capsule” was a result of a collaboration between the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the Warlpiri Project, which works to repatriate both ancestors and objects, and the South Australian Museum.
Prof Francoise Dussart of the University of Connecticut, a friend of Munn’s who also worked with the Warlpiri, helped the team get the crate back to Australia.
There were about 350 drawings, 300 photographs and Munn’s original journals and notes alongside the sacred objects. That collection is now back in Warlpiri hands.
Hampton Sr encourages people from anywhere in the world to get in touch if they think they have Warlpiri objects.
He says getting the Munn objects back is a critical part of teaching the next generation, and helping them be proud of their heritage and identity by showing them what the Warlpiri taught the linguists, anthropologists and others.
“It’s also about truth-telling, about what happened in the Tanami Desert,” he says. A lot of our old people, for the first time, were seeing white people.”
‘It’s our cultural stuff that was taken’
Part of that story is about the Coniston massacre. Colonisers killed more than 50, and perhaps as many as 200 Warlpiri, Anmatyere and Kaytetye men, women and children in that 1928 massacre, which began after a white dingo trapper, Fred Brooks, was found murdered on Coniston station, about 70km from where Yuendemu now is.
Bullfrog, the warrior also known as Japanangka, was the one who killed Brooks. It’s thought Brooks had stolen one of Bullfrog’s wives and Bullfrog did what was expected under traditional law.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations that escaped massacre were typically moved from their traditional lands, their hunting and fishing areas. They often had no choice but to trade their cultural goods for meagre amounts of sugar, flour, tobacco, tea and alcohol.
By 1946 the government had established Yuendemu as a ration station and a mission, and it started to draw in anthropologists who wanted to learn from the Warlpiri inhabitants.
Warren Japanangka Williams and Jamie Jungaryyi Hampton hold up a drawing from the collection. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian
Warren Japanangka Williams, Bullfrog’s grandson (every Warlpiri man in the room is related to Bullfrog in some way) says they hope to get all the objects taken back to the community.
“We hadn’t heard anything about this [collection],” he says. “We never heard of it, a couple of years ago we found out that everything was elsewhere. So we jumped to it. That’s how we got onboard.
“We started to bring our younger generation into this community because without them being there, we lose the connection.
“We have to start collaborating with our young people. Telling stories through the objects that we get back, they got another story, and we pass that information on.”
Robin Japanangka Granites with a photo of himself as a young boy in Yuendemu. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian
Robin Japanangka Granites says he’s “lost for words”. “It’s just been so much happiness in us,” he says. “We cried. It’s our cultural stuff that was taken away from us … we don’t just go and open the case and grab what we want … we come in slowly and quietly, making sure that everything’s quiet.
“We sing out [in a ceremonial call] – that’s a signal that we are coming to pick you up. We’re taking you back to a warmer place back home. Back to the communities where you belong.”
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said the return of the sacred objects after more than 60 years was a significant moment for the Warlpiri nation and that it was “so important for future generations to have these precious materials returned to their rightful place”.
One of the next generation is Mike Jungaryyi Doolan. “This is just the start, the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “There’s more out there that we didn’t know about.
The Warlpiri Project men’s group with the crate of returned objects
“This is what I look at as Warlpiri identity. What identifies us as Warlpiri men, which is really powerful.
“I want to be a part of this right through, I’m just really proud of Warlpiri identity, and I’m honoured to be here.”
Bullfrog, the warrior, is buried in the old Yuendemu cemetery.
The Munn collection has travelled around the world and back again. Now it has just one more stretch to go, from Adelaide to Yuendemu, and to all of Bullfrog’s descendants waiting there.