`THIS is Malbunka land," says Mavis Malbunka, feet sturdily
planted in the red dirt of Ipolera. "My ancestors used to live
here before the missionaries came and took them to Hermannsberg."
As she describes her land, what before seemed like harsh, barren
desert suddenly becomes alive, a place filled with sustenance and
On the tour she gives for interested whites, Mavis lifts the
underside of a plant to reveal a tiny bush tomato and talks about
wichitty grubs that are prized from red-river gum trees and honey
ants underneath mulga trees. She points out an ancient grinding
stone. Her husband, Herman, does a separate tour on the opposite
side of the property.
In other parts of Australia, the national clamor over whether
Aboriginals should be given back their land 200 years after being
dispossessed is deafening. A high court ruling last year opened the
door for Aboriginals to claim land under limited conditions, and
some whites are angry or frightened.
But here in the Northern Territory, the sparsely populated "red
center" of Australia, a 1976 Land Rights Act has given some
Aboriginals title to land that their families once lived on.
Ipolera, part of a 468-square-mile land trust held for several
related Aboriginal families, is viewed as one of the few land
hand-over success stories.
Mavis grew up at the Lutheran mission in Hermannsberg, about 10
miles from Ipolera, after her parents died. Set up by Germans to
convert Aboriginals to Christianity, the mission was also a haven
from the massacres carried out by police (or with police
connivance) as late as 1928.
Mavis recovered her family's land in 1982 when the 100-year
lease held by the mission expired. She and her husband wanted a
place for their extended family, then numbering about 20, where
they could follow a tribal lifestyle and maintain their sacred
The group puts a strong emphasis on sharing food and the care of
children and on maintaining ancient kinship relationships and
sacred ceremonies. They try to maintain the traditions that
survived their years of living in the mission.
AFTER the mission signed over the land to the land trust, Mavis
and Herman put the first water bore in themselves. The first
government funding came six years ago, enabling them to start
building. Now the community of 20 adults and 11 children has
houses, a school, a tourist campground, a store, and a
"I have Lutheran knowledge and skills. This," she says,
pointing to the houses around her, "is what I learned from the
Painted on the cement front of the school built in 1989 are
birds and animals significant to her people. "The spinifex pigeon
you can't eat, it's a spiritual bird, it's our totem," Mavis
explains. "But the emu you can, the goanna you can." Inside the
school is a computer, a copier, and a fax machine.
The community provides jobs for school dropouts in the store,
training for young men in woodworking, paddock-building, and
horsebreaking, and also teaches office administration. Mavis wants
to set up a cattle operation in addition to the tourist business.
"I'm thinking of our children's future," she says.
Because Mavis and Herman wanted to be self-sufficient and not
rely on government handouts, they started the small tourist
business to cater to people increasingly eager to learn more about
Aboriginal life. It's a delicate balancing act: Sometimes white
business practices conflict with Aboriginal tribal priorities. …