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Canning Stock Route

“When they were laying out the Canning Stock Route, whitefellas used to get Martu people to show them where the permanent water was. The whitefellas was asking Martu people to show them permanent water, like soaks and rockholes, for a shortcut from Wiluna to Billiluna. When the whitefellas found out where the permanent water was, they made wells in every place and they called it the Canning Stock Route. That was how they went cut-across.”

– Yanjimi Peter Rowlands


Western Australia’s gold rush, beginning in 1885, created a huge demand for beef from mines located between Halls Creek and Wiluna. At that time, most of Western Australia’s cattle came from the Kimberley, though an infestation of tropical ticks among the East Kimberley herds gave the West Kimberley pastoralists a monopoly on the beef trade — causing prices to soar. A Royal Commission in 1904 proposed the construction of a stock route through Western Australia’s desert country to eliminate the ticks through exposure to its hot, dry conditions, resulting in the near 2000 kilometre Canning Stock Route. The proposal was successful insofar as the eradication of ticks was concerned; however, the establishment of the Canning Stock Route was to have far reaching repercussions for Western Australia’s Aboriginal population. 

The construction of the route by Alfred Canning and his team in 1910 resulted in first contact with Europeans for many Martu then living a pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) life in the desert. This contact began with Canning’s use of Aboriginal guides to lead him to the sources of water that would be transformed into 48 stock route wells. Acts of cruelty toward these guides included, amongst other things, chaining them at night to prevent their escape and giving them salt water to drink, thereby ensuring their thirst and subsequent necessity to lead the party to water sources.

Following the construction of the Canning Stock Route, Martu encountered Europeans and other Martu working as cattle drovers as they would travel up and down the Stock Route from water source to water source. Increasingly, pujiman followed the route to newly established ration depots, mission and pastoral stations. They were drawn to the route in search of food, by a sense of curiosity, or by loneliness. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the desert family groups had left the desert. Eventually, these factors combined with an extreme and prolonged drought in the 1960s to prompt the few remaining pujiman to move in from the desert. One of the last major migrations of Martu people occurred in 1963, when many of the pujiman born Martumili Artists moved to Jigalong.

Patterns of movement which had defined Aboriginal people’s relationships to Country were forever changed by the Canning Stock Route, but the Martu relationship with Country remains strong through the maintenance of physical and cultural ties to desert life and knowledge.

Name: Clifton Girgiba

Language: Manyjilyjarra

Community: Parnngurr


“I am Clifton Girgirba my nickmane is Gibon, I was born in Port headland, I grew up in Jigalong Community in the 80’s then I moved  to camp 61, the first shelter school there, then I went back to Jigalong did school and language there, In ’87 [during the ‘Return to Country’ movement] we moved to Parnngurr with my foster mother Thelma (Judson). We all lived in the humpy’s first before the houses, no airport, no clinic, no shop.  We just had a generator, we camped next to the hill side. We moved west before the houses came.  The school opened in the 90’s it was the first building. I went to school doing art, sewing and carving that’s when I learned about art.

I moved around a bit to Wiluna, Woodstock, Punmu, Hedland and Newman throughout the 90’s. It was In 1993 I settled in Parnngurr, till today that’s my home. In those days I learnt how to go hunting, burn country learn about plants and animals, cultural things. All them old people were teaching us. Seed collecting and hunting you learn young, I learned a lot, all the waterholes and dreaming stories, like seven sisters. In 2002 when we got native title I was a young chairman for the school and the community, been on that board of directors for 10 years. Then came KJ (Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, ranger organisation) and Martumili (Artists), I meet Gabrielle (Martumili Manager) and Peter Jonhston (KJ Dirctor), Muuki (Taylor) wanted to start up the KJ rangers, I got involved with Martumili doing interpreting first years before I started painting.

With the rangers I discovered some waterholes and soaks with my grandmother, studying language, clans, kinship, tribes we talk about those invisible boarders, areas, like rocky area, sand dune area, I started to learn about knowledge, then I knew who I was, I was just a person before but now because of my grandmother I know who I am.

I do mapping, leadership, and governance. When I got all this knowledge from the Country from my Elders: mother Thelma (Judson) Yimiri area and my grandmother Kumpaya (Girgirba) Kunawarritiji side , Muuki and Wokka Kiriwirri area and Ngamaru (Bidu) Pitu side.  Then I really loved it, I have all the knowledge from them that I’m passing, now I’m doing my own program wama wangka (talking about alcohol).

I got nyniti (knowledge) from my grandmother for painting. I realised it’s better for my mind that I do painting, clear my mind and relax and keeps my mind focused, learn about country same time.

I’m a music man, started music with Wild Dingo Band and Parnngurr band, it’s about getting that band together, it feels good coz Martu people they like music in language, music is art, in the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) days they used to sing walking country. Wild Dingo Band do songs about wama (alcohol), kids, family, language, country and community we supporting and encouraging people to come back to community away from town and wama, same time its learning kids for their language.

Now I’m doing language in the schools too. My aim is two way learning teaching kids identity and to be proud of who they are. Kids are asking questions where am I from? Martu wangka sounds are different to English they got to know both to survive.

I’m also working in the justice system bringing government people to Martu people, to have a voice and partnership, a better future.  

I love what I do.”

© the artist / art centre