The Tears of Tjilbruke – Part 2


A young Norman B. Tindale on field expedition
A young Norman B. Tindale on field expedition


On the day in 1928 that he photographed Ivaritji at the South Australian Museum, Tindale – or ‘Tinny’ as he was known (show me a name the Aussies won’t shorten) – was a man with a mission.

He was trying to collect enough evidence to compile a ‘tribal map of pre-white Australia’ together with an accompanying catalogue listing in alphabetical order the names of the tribes and details about their beliefs, rituals and way of life. He was regularly undertaking field trips to every corner of Australia, interviewing aborigines and recording their stories, collecting artefacts, making films, and recording hundreds of different aboriginal vocabularies and ‘grammatical sketches’. Many of the tribes he met and spoke to had had little contact with whites. Travelling around Australia in the 1920’s and ‘30’s would have been very hard work indeed; there were no sealed roads and the motor car was in its infancy. Most people travelled by train.

Tindale’s idea for the map began in the course of the very first field trip he undertook which was to ‘Groot Eylandt’, an island in the gulf of Carpentaria on the north coast of Australia. He spent a year there – the longest period to date spent by a scientist in the company of Aboriginal people – during which he gathered a collection of ethnographic data and more than 500 artefacts. It was during his stay on Groot Eylandt that he reached two conclusions which put him on a collision course with his fellow scientists: firstly, that the aborigines had been in Australia a lot longer than was believed and secondly, that whilst they had been nomads, their wanderings had occurred within definite tribal areas which could mapped.

On his return to Adelaide, Tindale was charged with preparing a report of his time in Groot Eylandt for the museum’s official records. When he attached to this report a map of Groot Eylandt and the adjacent mainland indicating tribal boundaries, he was forced to remove the boundaries because according to the museum authorities and in line with existing knowledge: ‘aborigines could not occupy defined territories’.

The reigning ideas about the aborigines were influenced by the ideology of Terra Nullis – of Australia being ‘empty land’ before white occupation. Terra Nullis was a convenient way for the white British settlers to avoid any kind of moral responsibility for the injustice of aboriginal dispossession and at the same time, it distorted how Australia gathered and interpreted knowledge about pre-white Australia. Racist attitudes went together with the fabrication of the past, one which permeated Australia’s highest institutions. At the universities, supposed to be the repositories of research and learning, there was little interest in studying the aborigines. There was no such thing as Australian anthropology or indigenous studies. The Australian aborigines were subsumed under a far wider category of ‘primitive peoples’; they were considered to be unworthy of any particular scientific interest.


After his stay on Groot Eylandt, the young Norman B. Tindale was seized by an extraordinary ambition: if a map of Australia showing tribal boundaries could be compiled, then the idea that Australia had been ‘empty land’ at the time of white settlement would be discredited. Such a map would not only refute the fiction of Terra Nullis; it would also present white Australia with the reality of aboriginal dispossession, a reality which white Australia had done its best to ignore. Tindale was determined to put the aborigines ‘on the map’ in more ways than one. In doing so however, he had to assemble an enormous quantity of data about the life and above all, the beliefs of different tribes of aborigines from all over Australia. He had to follow the trails of the mind by which the aborigines had understood their world and to show that these trails were defined by boundaries, beyond which it was dangerous for a member of a tribe to go without explicit permission from the other tribes. He wanted to prove the existence of a complex pattern of possession and identity – of tribal homelands – which had existed for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the white British. A map of tribal boundaries would explode the myth of Terra Nullis and confront white Australia with the reality of conquest and theft.

Little wonder that Tindale was the first to understand the significance of the tale of Tjilbruke.

All over Australia there were many different versions of Tjilbruke.

To construct his map, Tindale needed to document those ‘Tjilbrukes’.

But there were many different Tjilbrukes, depending on the physical circumstances of a tribe’s existence. To prove the existence of these ‘trails of the mind’ and the spirits which created them, Tindale needed to assemble an enormous amount of data encompassing every aspect of the life and social organisation of virtually every tribe which had lived in pre-white Australia. He had to document a whole series of complex relationships between the physical and the metaphysical. And he had to also show, in a time when there was no such thing as Carbon dating, that the aborigines had occupied the land for a very long time; that they were an ancient people. The sheer scale of Tindale’s endeavour was not considered a possibility by his contemporaries. He was regarded as a brilliant, but misguided man. Many fellow anthropologists openly ridiculed him.

So this is the man who met Ivaritji in late 1927.

‘Tinny’ was a great man.

And a great Australian.

The lot of Australia's indigineous people was terrible thanks to Terra Nullis
The lot of Australia’s indigenous people was terrible thanks to Terra Nullis


It’s an arresting image: Tindale and Ivaritji; a tall, square-jawed white man immaculate in suit and tie, a man on a mission, and a little old Kaurna lady, 5 foot 3 inches tall, a survivor who has witnessed profound changes, many of them far from pleasant.

Tindale questions Ivaritji her about Kaurna tribal boundaries and Tjilbruke.

In those days, no one has ever heard of the ‘Kaurna’ let alone ‘tribal boundaries’ or ‘Tjilbruke’.

Why would anyone want to be interested in ‘primitives’?

Tindale takes the photograph of Ivartiji wearing an animal skin cloak.

The shutter falls and a moment is frozen in time.


In her conversation with Tindale, Ivaritji told him about the death of her father.

She was proud of the fact that his body was treated in accordance with the traditional rites. It was covered in ochre, bound up, and smoke dried over a fire- as happened to the cousin of Tjilbruke in the Dreamtime myth. It is probable that ‘Rodney’ was the last Kaurna to die whose body underwent the traditional rites.

When Ivaritji confided in Tindale about her father’s funeral rites, she knew that she didn’t have long to go herself. Against enormous odds, Ivaritji had survived all the white man’s introduced diseases – unlike the other full blood Kaurna survivors – until she was the last member of her people still alive.

Tindale recorded that Ivaritji was ‘surprisingly vigorous with a good sense of humour’.

Her ability to adjust and make the best of the situation and find a reason to laugh was her strength. And what a strength that was.

She endured a life of hardship, poverty, humiliation, racism and loneliness, and she did so with dignity and most extraordinary of all: a sense of humour.

How many human beings could have done what she did?

I found it dizzying to think of the changes which took place in the course of her life.

When she was born, the white colonists had arrived in wooden ships and rode horses. In the following decades came electricity, lights, tall buildings, radios, photo cameras, gramophones, trains, trams, trucks and cars; came a devastating war in which millions of people were butchered.


On the second floor of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum is a copy of Tindale’s map.

The first time I saw it, I had to do a double take.  The outline of the continent, its coastline, was familiar enough. The rest of it certainly wasn’t. Imprinted on my mind was another, very different kind of Australia. It was the country I had been raised with, taught to memorize by rote at school: to be able to draw on a blank piece of paper without the slightest hesitation, correctly placing the borders, major cities and towns, highways and ranges. It was my parents’ Australia, the country which was ‘discovered’ and explored and settled and ‘civilized’ by the white British.

On the map I was looking at, there were no dots, big ones and small ones, to show the major cities and towns; no network of lines, like arteries and veins, to show the highways and roads; no state borders, those long straight lines which looked as if the continent had been divided up by someone with a pencil and a ruler.

This was a very different version of the country which had been stamped on to my brain at school. There was a mass of small areas (at least small in comparison with one of today’s states), each one a different size and shape. Each area had a name. Australia looked more like a map of Europe with its many countries, regions and provinces, than the Australia I was familiar with. I was forced to take a good, long hard look at my country; which was the idea of course.

Next to Tindale’s map was a block of explanatory text:

“This is Norman B Tindale’s map of Australian aboriginal tribal territories depicted at the time of European conquest. With the accompanying catalogue describing each group, the map was published in 1974. It represents more than fifty years of research. This is a political map in the broadest sense. Its publication was a radical challenge to the popular notion that Australia was Terra Nullis, empty land. On a detailed level it shows the tremendous complexities of aboriginal social, religious and cultural relationships, which existed and still exist, in this country. Few other documents have had such an influence on the way we think about this country and its people.”

Tindale’s map was a picture of a country which had vanished long ago. If every map encapsulated a picture then this was a picture of the past – but one which was still relevant to today. This map was an accusation at the address of a nation, one involving racism, ignorance and smallness of spirit. It was a cry for justice and redemption; for change. It was a Nelson Mandela moment in the history of a country submerged in a great darkness.

There had been something cathartic, something healing, in the process of tracking down the story of Ivaritji and Tindale….I left Adelaide conscious of having found a country the likes of which I had never seen before.

I left my country as a simple-minded hero worshipper.

I guess heroes are important, though for most of my life, I’ve pretty cynical on that score.

Now I had two; a white man and black woman.


The white man’s Australia


The white man's Australia


Indigenous Australia


Indigineous Australia




In 1974, Tindale’s indigenous map of Australia was published and 50 years of work recognised. At the same time, a new method of dating called carbon dating proved beyond all doubt what he had argued for decades; that the Aborigines had inhabited the Australian continent for tens of  thousands of years – today, it is known that they arrived on the continent over 50, 000 years ago.




One thought on “The Tears of Tjilbruke – Part 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s