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The Spinifex people, or Pila Nguru, are an Indigenous Australian people, whose traditional lands are situated in the Great Victoria Desertmarker, in the Australian state of Western Australiamarker, adjoining the border with South Australiamarker, to the north of the Nullarbor Plain. They maintain in large part their traditional hunter-gatherer existence within the territory , over which their claims to Native title and associated collective rights were recognised by a November 28 2000 Federal Court decision.

Pila Nguru translates as 'home country in the flat between sandhills'. Their 'common' name comes from the Spinifex grasses, which are prevalent in this desert region. Their lands have long been seen by European settlers of the region as remote, inhospitable and unsuited for agriculture, and even pastoralism; consequently, there has been comparatively little direct contact.


Pastoral leases were granted to settlers from around 1910, but no agriculture was ever attempted once the settlers saw the arid land. Some religious missions were attempted in the 1930s, since the new railway often attracted curious people to it out of the bush. But by the 1950s there was still so little known about these people that the British chose the Nullarbor for nuclear weapons testing, believing it to be devoid of people.

Atomic testing, 1953-1957

However, when graded roads were built for the Giles Weather Stationmarker (part of the Weapons Research Establishment) during 1952-1955, it eventually became apparent that there were people - probably then around 150 - living west of the sites. An officer, the expert bushman Walter MacDougall (1907-1976), was sent to warn them of the impending tests. A total of nine small hydrogen bombs ranging up to 25 kilotons were tested at Emu Junction (2 tests, 1953) and Maralingamarker (7 tests, 1956-1957). Given that only one officer and an assistant were entrusted to warn the Spinifex people over an enormous area far to the west of the test sites, it comes as no surprise to find out that many of these people never left the area, although officially they were forced to leave their lands and were not allowed within 200km of ground zero. The other doomed approach was a leaflet drop, but the Spinifex could not read the leaflets and they were wary and afraid of the aircraft.

It was only in the later stages of the bomb trials that Walter MacDougall discovered that up to forty Spinifex people may have been hunting over the eastern portion of the prohibited Maralinga area while the tests were being conducted, moving as far east as Vokes Hill and Waldana. One family of twelve were the nearest people, living at Nurrari Lakes less than 200km west from Maralinga - they were close enough to hear the larger bombs explode, but were otherwise healthy several years after the tests.

The Australian Royal Commission was unable to determine if Maralinga Tjarutjamarker or Pila Nguru people had been exposed to damaging levels of radiation from fallout, but this was due to lack of medical records and medical centres. Maralinga bomb plume maps show prevailing northerly winds during tests, whereas the Spinifex lands are 300km to the west of Maralinga, and the closest group was at Nurrari Lakes about 180km west. Scott Cane's otherwise definitive native title study, Pila Nguru (2000), contained almost no details of how bomb testing radiation affected the Spinifex people; which would suggest that there was little evidence to be found.

Native Title

The Spinifex were the second tribe in Western Australia to receive recognition of their Native Title land rights in 2000, in accordance with Section 87 (agreement) of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. The ruling, by the Federal Court of Australia in a case brought by a third party on behalf of the Spinifex People, found that agreement had been reached between the applicants and the two named respondents (the State Government of Western Australia and the Shire of Lavertonmarker) over a sector of land encompassing around 55,000 km2.

This territory - which was designated as either unallocated land or park reserve, and contained no pastoral leases - lies to the north of the lands of the Nullarbor People, to the east of the Pilki People and to the south of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, the eastern boundary being formed by the South Australianmarker border. Apart from the area of two Nature Reserves, the only specific "other interests" identified within the territory was for public right-of-way along an existing road which traversed some of the territory.

The Native Title claim was made by twenty-one families constituting the current Spinifex people. Some Spinifex had begun returning to their land from around 1980, but from 2001 many of those who left to live at the Christian missions have since returned to their homelands and the Unnamed Conservation Park Biosphere Reserve (now Mamungari Conservation Parkmarker), a pristine wilderness area of 21,000 sq/km handed back jointly to the Maralinga Tjarutjamarker and the Pila Nguru in 2004.


In early 2005, the Spinifex people have become famous for their solo and group artworks, due to the mass educating effect of a major art exhibition in Londonmarker, Englandmarker. However, it should be noted that their boldly-coloured 'dot paintings' are not the usual polished commodities produced by many northern tribes for sale to a non-aboriginal art market, but are authentic works that the Spinifex have made for their own purposes.

See also

Further reading

  • Kalgoorlie, W.A. Pila Nguru: art and song from the Spinifex people. Paupiyala Tjarutja, 1999.
  • Cane, Scott. Pila Nguru: an ethnography of the Spinifex People in the context of native title. 2000.


  1. Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People Anne Loxley, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2002-08-03. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  2. Mens Combined - Pila Nguru from Paupiya Neil Murphy Indigenous Art. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  3. Spinifex Government of Western Australia, Office of Native Title. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  4. Nomads' art wins praise in London Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2005-03-15. Retrieved 2007-04-21.

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