Ngaanyatjarra culture

Ngaanyatjarra law and culture survive because of their connectedness to country.

To understand Ngaanyatjarra people you need to understand their cultural system organised by Dreaming or Tjukurrpa Beings who as they journeyed across the lands created the Ngaanyatjarra world – the earth, skies, water, the existence of everything, living and dead. As David Brooks explains, Tjukurrpa stories integrate every aspect or dimension of desert life, providing a believe system or ideology that guided Ngaanyatjarra reality everyday. This included challenges, issues, questions, needs and dilemmas presented by life so they could be understood or resolved.

Tjukurrpa Beings created the features in the landscape, resources, animal and plant food as well as the human social and moral order. Tjukurrpa provided the ritual knowledge so successive generations could sustainably reproduce in a desert environment, socially and spiritually.

The Dreaming culture of the Ngaanyatjarra is fundamentally the same as other Aboriginal people, though its vast scope originating from a millennia of life in a desert landscape. In the current political environment seeking recognition of Aboriginal history it is priceless that the Ngaanyatjarra culture and social system remains alive and intact.

The mythical world of the Dreaming characters can be intuitive, bloodthirsty, humorous and ironical. The main characters include Wati Kutjarra (Two Goanna Men) travelling through other people’s country sometimes wise and knowledgeable, then at other times foolish and over enthusiastic. The story Wati Kutjarra is associated with Papulankutja (Blackstone).

Another character Yula prowls the landscape alone, inciting rumours of his sinister and problematic nature. Yula, also known as Nyiru in Pitjantjatjara, pursues the Seven Sisters who use magic to avoid the attention of this lusty old man.

Ngirntaka is a perentie lizard man with an enigmatic personality. The landmarks that bear his name and imprint are prominent hills or bluffs overlooking the horizon. He is show-off but also a maparnitjarra or magic man.

The Tingarri people sweep through the sand ridges (up-to 50km plus long) of the North like an invading army, over-running and incorporating smaller groups on their way.

The landscape in which the Dreaming Beings lives on are unchanged. They are still on their country keeping the Tjukurrpa alive and vital. For the past 30 years or so, Tjukurrpa have been and still are celebrated in various art forms (predominately painting) by the artists who depict their stories using a mix of iconography and walka – marks or patterns.

Traditional society

Human habitation has been recorded in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands going back some 10,000 years.Traditionally, the Ngaanyatjarra comprised of numerous clans or tribes, usually a family group of about a dozen people and children.

Men started their initiation, that is to say, learning men’s business in law and culture into wati (men) when they were in their early teens, tjilku (male children), and continued until reaching marriageable age at around 30. Passage to this status was marked by the right to wear a red headband, though as post-initiates (tjawarratja) they were still required to dwell apart from the main camp as elders continued to instruct them.

Learning the law required that the initiates had to supply their elders with foodstuffs like meat, a scarce resource in the area. The Tjukurrpa belief system also functioned as a cross-generational mode of exacting obedience and an income from the younger men.

Females entered into wedlock just after the onset of puberty. Young female teenagers were taken to women’s sacred sites for women’s business where they were given sex education and taught Tjukurrpa. It was acceptable for a man to have more than one wife at a time.

Ceremonial induction for men and women consisted of learning the complex details of Tjukurrpa. The process is gradual so that complete knowledge only comes after 50 years of age—the normal age after which one can begin gain recognition as a knowledgeable elder. Not everyone over the age of 50 achieved recognition as a knowledgeable elder.

Moiety system

The Ngaanyatjarra had a moiety system divided into sun-side (Tjirntulukultul(pa)) and shade-side (Ngumpalurrungkatja), with a six classifications.

Sun side

Tjarurru men have Purungu children as the offspring of marriage to either Panaka or Yiparrka women. Panaka men marry only Tjarurru women, producing Karimarra  offspring Yiparrka men marrying a Tjarurru women have Milangka offspring.

Shade side

Purungu men have Tjarurru through marriage to either Karimarra or Milangka women.
Karimarra men only marry Purungu women to have Panaka children Milangka men marry Purungu women and produce Yiparrka children.

Contemporary society

Estimates of the number of Ngaanyatjarra are approximately 1600 permanent residents with another 1100 Ngaanyatjarra who often visit the area to stay with relatives.

Adapting to modern society has resulted in considerable trauma and alienation resulting in family violence. Sadly suicide is not uncommon. Alcohol is not permitted on the Lands as alcohol abuse can lead to violence. Access to vehicles and funeral funds has resulted in a transient society with frequent visiting relatives and attendance at funerals during the year. The benefits of important social connection can sometimes come at the expense of education, sustainability and stability for the community.


David Brooks, 2012, PhD thesis: Dreamings and connections to country among the Ngaanyatjarra and Pintupi of the Australian Western Desert, P. 11 Acker, T & Carty, J (eds.) 2012, Ngaanyatjarra Art of the Lands, UWAP, Crawley, WA viewed August 2020

Acker, T & Carty, J (eds.) 2012, Ngaanyatjarra Art of the Lands, UWAP, Crawley, WA viewed August 2020