Australia: Nyirripi, Northern Territory

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Cultural strengthening, Nyirripi

The ultimate goal of community development is empowerment. This year, we exited from our Australian Indigenous project with the Nyirrpi community in Central Australia, as the project launched itself into an evolved, community-run program of cultural and community sustainability.

Nyirrpi is a small remote community of approximately 150-300 people located 500 km west of Alice Springs.

In 2010, at the request of Elders and Cultural Custodians, a partnership was formed between indigo foundation, the Nyirrpi community and the Walpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation (formerly the Mt Theo Program) to support an inter-generational cultural knowledge transmission project.

The project took the form of an annual cultural camp. At the camps, elders and young people from several families spent time together on Country, sharing stories about Country and culture, teaching dances and ceremonies. The people of Nyirrpi viewed the camp as “a time of pride, joy, strong kinship, solidarity and awe.”

The project has contributed to the community holding and sharing their stories, language and traditions across generations, which in turn contributes to understanding and strengthening identity, boosting psychological and physical health. In addition, through the project many young people have developed skills in aspects of event organisation and management, as well as in digital and written recording of culture.

Over the five years that the bush camps have been held, as lessons were learned and capacities were built, new opportunities emerged. And, in 2015/16 the community decided to extend the objectives of the program, increase the number of bush camps and, importantly, to run them independently.

This community-led outcome is in part the legacy of solid support and partnership, enabled by the community recently acquiring government funding for bush camps. Future camps will take a variety of forms, some gender-based, some age-based and some with a focus on specific groups such as young people who are at risk of self-harm.

We view this community initiative and the evolution of the project as a rewarding outcome. We wish the community every success and look forward to news from the program, the community more broadly and to staying in touch.

We will also continue a relationship with the community through our partnership with the Wurlukurlangu Artist Aboriginal Corporation, whereby we can support Nyirrpi artists in their artistic development and promote and celebrate Warlpiri culture in the broader community.

Our huge thanks to the Nyrippi Community and Walpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation. And of course to our Project Coordinator Alice Roughley, who has led this project with integrity, insight and commitment

The cultural camp is

a time of pride, joy, strong kinship, solidarity and awe.

red hand on dirt

background information

For a number of years indigo foundation looked for a way to expand the reach of our community development work to an Aboriginal community in Australia.

Finding a project where our support could have an important impact (given our relative small amounts of funding), meaningful relationships can be developed and which is appropriate to the community had proven difficult.

In 2010 the Mt Theo Program invited Sally Stevenson and Libby House to Yuendumu and Nyirripi to discuss and assess the possibilities of indigo foundation working with Mt Theo to provide support for Walpiri youth.

The Mt Theo Program is an internationally acclaimed youth program based in Yuendumu, 250kms from Alice Springs. It is the largest and closest community to Nyirripi, which is a further 150kms west and has a small population of around 150 people.

The visit was successful and resulted in a three year agreement for indigo foundation to provide support to the young people of Nyirrpi through the Nyirrpi Youth Committee as well as general support to the Mt Theo Program.

The Nyirripi community was very clear that one of the most effective ways for indigo foundation to support young people was to fund cultural strengthening trips into the bush.

The first indigo foundation cultural camp took place in October 2010 after a month of preparations. The location was ‘Old Nyirrpi’, a soakage with large overhanging gum trees where many families lived before moving to the current ‘new Nyirrpi’. Authorisation was granted by Traditional Owner of Old Nyirrpi, Molly, who also agreed to come on the trip to teach. The key focus of the trip was to encourage young men to learn and practice ceremony for their skin and ‘Old Nyirrpi’.

Male elders taught the young men, whist the female elders taught the accompanying songs and stories around the mens’ ceremony which included hunting, collecting bush tucker, digging for fresh water, collection of ochre for painting.

More than 60 Warlpiri people participated, as well as the two Mt Theo Youth Workers.

future plans

The community would like to extend the project with additional cultural activities that contribute to maintaining and share Walpiri culture more broadly. Activities suggested by the community include taking a group of dancers to the Laura Dance Festival in Cape York Peninsula, Spinifex/wax for traditional making of boomerangs and spears, smoking ceremony for newborns, painting stories and further publishing of Walpiri stories.

These activities would provide further network and partnership building opportunities.

program reports

The 2014 ‘indigo camp’

by Alice Roughley Project Coordinator

In 2014 the indigo foundation Board agreed to continue working in Australia’s western desert with the Nyirripi community (440 km from Alice Springs) and the Walpiri Youth Aboriginal Development Corporation (WYDAC) to support cultural sustainability, by sponsoring a ‘cultural camp’ for the community. Transmission of traditional knowledge and customs from Aboriginal Elders to young people on ‘Country’ can have beneficial outcomes for individuals and communities. Research confirms that there are significant interdependencies between connection to Country, maintenance of cultural practices, identity and psychological and physical health.

Alice travelled to Nyirrpi in June 2014 marking our fourth visit to participate in the cultural camp. The camp has gathered momentum with increased community participation each year. Regular visits by indigo foundation volunteers provide a great opportunity to be in community and enhance the relationships and trust between the community, WYDAC and indigo foundation, to support and encourage the efforts of the young Aboriginal people in preparing for and conducting the cultural camp and to speak with community members and WYDAC about potential future cultural sustainability opportunities.

The lead up

Even though Nyirrpi is a small community of only 250 people, organising the camp weekend is a big job. Kathleen Gibson (WYDAC Youth Committee Rep), Simon Dirs (WYDAC Outreach Worker), and Martyn and Paris (the two WYDAC Nyirrpi youth workers) put in a huge effort to prepare healthy and delicious meals before the camp, order supplies and transport camping equipment.

In the Old Nyirrpi riverbed

Saturday morning was a frenzy of activity. As we drove through the town children were running down the street shouting ‘indigo camp, indigo camp’. It was delightful to witness the excitement and ownership the camp now has. Kids and elders alike were rallying to be first on the bus or in one of the 4WDs going out to the camp. The vehicles were a colourful site loaded with swags, blankets and camping equipment.

We couldn’t have hoped for better weather- 28 degrees by day with chilly nights. The dry river bed at Nyirrpi is a long wide sandy expanse edged with desert vegetation. Unseasonal heavy rain just before the camp had left the bush looking green and fertile. It wasn’t long before people had tents up and swags and blankets laid out in circles around small fires. And then the old ladies started to sing traditional Walpiri songs – a beautiful sound that could be heard until well into the night.

During the afternoon some of the young boys walked down the river with us to a special site where they uncovered a tree root to show us a snake’s head. During the evening we sat around the camp fire with a group of young boys who taught us a couple of Walpiri songs. They laughed and laughed at our Walpiri accents!

The old women shared bush tucker they had collected including bush coconut, bush sultana, bush figs and bush tomatoes. June is an excellent time of year in Nyirrpi for flowering and fruiting plants. On Saturday we joined the girls and boys making holes in coloured beans for beads and in an athletic game of softball before lunch and volleyball after lunch.

The local police officers and nurses dropped in and spent some time chatting with community members. It was good for them to see the community together on Country, enjoying themselves in a relaxed and peaceful environment.

There was great anticipation for the dance ceremony to be held in the evening. Damper was prepared over the camp fire by an elder who demonstrated her technique to a teenage girl. A couple of men worked with some other young people preparing kangaroo tails and yams for the feast.

At about 4pm on Saturday the fun began with women and men separating to be painted up. The men were covered in ochre and women in patterns associated with their skin names. The old ladies chanted as they painted us. They demonstrated the dance moves. And then we danced! The men danced followed by the women. The feast followed the dancing. Kangaroo tails and damper disappeared rapidly. Everyone was in high spirits by the time the fires were glowing under a magnificently star lit night.

On Sunday, we headed out to the other side of Nyirrpi with some women and children to hunt for honey ants. We then drove to Emu Bore where we were shown trees for collecting beans for necklaces.

The next day we were farewelled by the waving hands of many in the community who now look forward to next year’s camp and possibly a couple of gender specific cultural camps before then. We are struck by the richness and complexity of Aboriginal culture, the warmth the people have shown us and equally, by the beauty of the landscape.

The indigo foundation camp is the only camp where the whole Nyirrpi community to come together on Country and every year there are more people attending than there were the year before – 60 last year and 110 this year. The children learn language, song, dance, hunting and the importance of being on Country, a celebration of culture. If this camp contributes to instilling a sense of identity for the children then our hope, shared with the edlers, is that their self esteem and confidence will be enhanced.

indigo foundation’s contribution is but one of many. Our partners at WYDAC contribute continually in many ways through genuine respect and community partnerships. Their projects are many and we are grateful for our partnership.

Nyirrpi Arts

The Nyirrpi artists take great pride in their work. A Nyirrpi woman, Ursula Napangardi Hudson, won the competition for the design of the Indigenous jersey for the Melbourne Football Club. In 2014 the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, based in Yuendumu, opened a new art centre in Nyirrpi, an initiative that provides employment and income for artists. Warlukurlangu puts proceeds from gallery sales into community facilities.

Indigo foundation’s project in Nyirrpi also aims to contribute to enhanced community strength and identity through promoting their art. In 2013 an artist in residency project brought five Nyirrpi artists to the University of Wollongong. The University, WYDAC and Warlukurlangu Aboriginal Artists Cooperative provided significant support to the residency which showcased the Walpiri arts culture and the talents of the Nyirrpi artists.

Highly successful exhibitions of Nyirrpi art works in Canberra in 2013 and 2014 promoted the vitality of Walpiri culture. By coincidence, in 2014, a number of Walpiri artists were in Canberra for another Walpiri exhibition at the National Museum. The absolute high point of our opening night was their arrival and their address to the crowd of more than 70 people, which made the event real. ABC radio announcer, Alex Sloan declared the exhibition open and said to our Walpiri guests, “Thank you for painting our country for us”. Sales from the paintings support future ‘indigo camps’. We look forward to hosting further exhibitions of Walpiri art to raise funds to support the current project and it expand it with additional cultural sustainability activities that the community has identified.

The vibrant and often contemporary artworks are one more way of celebrating Walpiri culture.


Thanks to WYDAC, Simon Dirs, Martyn Ralph, Paris Sheppard, Kathleen and Gail Gibson, Colin, Michelle and Jane and the Nyirrpi community.