This is a response to Nicolas Rothwell’s article Culture War, published online as 2 pieces, Songlines suffering: desert men in pain when secrets on display and Songlines project sparks indigenous culture war in the Weekend Australian, 22-23 March 2014.

By Dr Diana James, Senior Research Associate, ANU

Nicolas Rothwell’s claims in the Weekend Australian that the forthcoming Ngintaka Exhibition at the South Australian Museum will reveal secret sacred information are simply not true.

The Ngintaka Exhibition is a collection of paintings, carvings, ceramic pieces, photographs and films that illustrate the Ngintaka songline story as told traditionally round the fire to children.

This version of the story has been used by Anangu to document their artworks in gallery exhibitions since 1974. The story and song have been taught at the Angatja in the Mann Ranges to tourists and school children since 1988 and is still taught today to Indigenous and non-indigenous children.

The Angatja experience is championed as a flagship of reconciliation by Catholic Schools who include the trip in their Leadership for Reconciliation programme.

The senior men from Amata, Hector Burton, Willy Kaika Burton and Mick Wikilyirri that Rothwell quotes as being in ‘bitter opposition’ to the Songlines Project all attended several consultation meetings with the Project Partners and not once raised the issues or opposition Rothwell refers to.

The most recent of these was a meeting on 6th March this year called by senior Ngintaka traditional owners Robert Stevens and David Miller to listen to any issues Amata community had regarding the Ngintaka exhibition. None of the issues Rothwell refers to were raised at the meeting and there was no explicit or implicit request from these senior men to close the exhibition.

Who is generating then a story that secret information is being revealed?

The Songlines Project has been consistently clear that the story and song versions being used in the exhibition are those recorded at Angatja and approved for publication by the APY Council in 1996. The complaint that the Ngintaka exhibition contains information about sacred men’s law has only been made in The Australian newspaper.

Senior Anangu at the regional governance meetings of the APY Council, Ananguku Arts and the NPY Women’s Council have not made these serious accusations nor have they been raised at the Songlines project meetings open to members of all APY Lands communities.

Nicolas Rothwell shows extreme disrespect of Anangu governance by referring to the traditional owners of the Ngintaka songline who have led the project as  ‘plausible-seeming  desert leaders’. Who is he to judge their traditional knowledge or status?  

He is denigrating senior men in their 80s including the leading artists and cultural leaders Andy Tjilari, Harry Tjutjuna, Sam Watson, Alec Baker and the memory of those recently deceased leaders Tjilpi R. Kankapankatja and Tjilpi T. Edwards.

He pours scorn on the wisdom of the elders who recorded the Ngintaka songline at Angatja in 1994; these elders included Nganyinytja, Ilyatjari, Sandy Mutju, Tjulkiwa, Tiger Palpatja and Muwitja, Paniny Mick, Mick Wikilyiri and recently deceased Mr B. Wangin.

Rothwell is also denigrating those who learnt from these elders and carry on teaching the story, song & dance today: Robert Stevens, Fairy Stevens, David Miller, Sammy Lyons, Rini Tiger, Leah and Lee Brady, Inawinytji Williamson, Janet Inyika, Mary Pan and Tapaya Edwards.

The Anangu and researchers working together on the Ngintaka project are seriously concerned that misinformation about the nature of the exhibition has been circulated causing great distress to senior Anangu artists of the APY Lands.

Hector Burton and Mr Wangin (deceased) of Tjala Arts were so excited about the Ngintaka project initially that they collaborated on a large Ngintaka story painting for the exhibition.

They changed their minds after a visit by Rothwell who wrote an article claiming the men at Tjala Arts had drawn a ‘line in the sand’ against the Songlines Project.

Rothwell’s claim that Mick Wikilyiri is against the Ngintaka exhibition is particularly mystifying as Wikliyiri insisted on being recorded on film telling the Ngintaka story for the exhibition when the Songlines team travelled through Amata in July 2013.

Wikilyiri’s wife Paniny is a senior traditional owner born at Arannga where Ngintaka dies.  Her painting is in the exhibition and she supports the Ngintaka project.

In response to Yami Lester’s complaints referred to in Stuart Rintoul’s article in The Australian in May 2012 the Songlines project coordinator Dr Diana James and members of Ananguku Arts Board with interpreter Josephine Mick held meetings with all communities across APY Lands.

People were asked openly and freely if they wished to stop the Ngintaka songline project. All communities except Wallatinna (Walatina), Mr Lester’s community, strongly supported the project and exhibition.

Directors of the Songlines partner Aboriginal organisations Ananguku Arts and NPY Women’s Council together with the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University have offered to meet with both Nicolas Rothwell and Yami Lester on several occasions to discuss their concerns regarding the project and both men have declined.


In so doing, it appears that they would rather talk with those not involved directly in the Project and draw conclusions based on rumour rather than fact.


Image above: Tjala Arts Collaborative – Paniny Mick, Tingila (Yaritji) Young, Tjungkara Ken, Freda Ken, Marinka Tunkin and Sandra Ken, Ngintaka Tjukurpa – Perentie Man Story, 2012. Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 197 × 198 cm. Courtesy Ananguku Arts Community Collection. Photo Iain Morton.

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