A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Still Moving:
Bush Mechanics in the Central Desert

Georgine Clarsen

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To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts one
& two


As Bush Mechanics tells us from the start, European incursions into Warlpiri country were experienced almost simultaneously with cars and trucks. And that paradoxical juxtapositioning is never far from the surface in the series. A fused history of dispossession and technological marvel is graphically and humorously recalled by some of the old men, and their memories of early European contact are used to structure the first three episodes. The stories, which open and close each episode, frame an ongoing history of the Warlpiri within those new modes of mobility. They portray a lived connection between the past and the present, mediated by what has become a prized technology. Jack Jakamarra Ross, a father figure of the bush mechanics, recalls his experience directly to the camera, his young self played on screen by Francis Jupurrula Kelly with a lightness of touch that holds more than a hint of irony at notions of the "noble savage".8

Initially, as the old man tells it, trucks were encountered as a mysterious presence – monsters perhaps – creatures whose tracks were unfamiliar and threatening, all the more so because they did not appear to shit. But they were soon understood to be instruments of European power – power to take over their country, power to remove the Warlpiri by trucking them to prison at Jay Creek for spearing cattle, and eventually to the settlement of Yuendumu, where their mobility was to be restrained (a never-realised intention). A derelict truck, now almost hidden in grass and scrub, remains alive to these storytellers as a witness to that past. Its rusting skeleton has become a container for memories of the "killing times" – the Coniston massacres of 1928, when scores of Warlpiri – men, women and children – were killed in reprisal raids, leading to their avoidance of further contact with Europeans for the next decade and more (Cribbin 1984). That Coniston station truck, we are told with chilling understatement, was one Aboriginal people were definitely not permitted to ride in. Recollections of violent dispossession, as well as subsequent pleasurable memories of the cars Yapa themselves have owned and loved, inhere in the wrecked cars and trucks scattered throughout the bush. They have become personal, biographical markers, as other features of the landscape, such as trees and waterholes, may also have their stories.

While the humour, indignity and anguish of first encountering a technology that came with invasion remains the informing backdrop to Bush Mechanics, it is soon superseded by stories of the ways that Warlpiri men themselves have taken to automobiles. For if cars were first brought in by Europeans, now these Warlpiri men go out of the community to bring in cars for themselves – for their own purposes, and according to their own understandings of their value. In Andrew Ross's terms the men have socialised the technological objects of automobiles according to "a fully cultural process, soaked through with social meaning that only makes sense in the context of familiar kinds of behaviors" (Ross 1991: 3). Most obviously, their own distinct "car culture" rests upon sidestepping the cash economy as much as they possibly can.

Just as Crocodile, the dapper advocate of humpy living in the fourth episode, explains the importance of bush tucker in contemporary Warlpiri life, so too have automobiles been located by choice and by necessity within a local subsistence economy that has continued, in conjunction with the wider cash economy. As Crocodile proudly demonstrates, digging kangaroos out of the ashes, he is able to offer his family a big feed without the supermarket. By incorporating cars within that partial subsistence economy, the bush mechanics have similarly found ways around the material deprivations that characterise much of Yuendumu life. They have devised their own ways of being men with wheels, based on an impressive disregard for the orthodoxies of individual car ownership, the economics of the car market, and the professionalisation of automobile repair. In so presenting the bush mechanics as moving targets – foragers of mechanical parts and disseminators of alternative solutions the series offers upbeat parables of their self-determined survival within colonialism.

But what is framed on-screen presupposes and points to what is off. As Tim Rowse has reminded us, it is important to remember that "the" community of Yuendumu is a complex entity, with a long history of talented individuals who have forged productive alliances with outsiders (Rowse 1990). There is, then, no one Yuendumu, and the series inevitably represents particular, rather than general, versions of Yuendumu life. These are stories of young men's adventures. Men who are always and already on the edge of trouble. Their stories are immediately cinematic – part road-movie, part buddy-movie – and resonant with a wider working-class men's tradition of backyard do-it-yourself repairs, now fading as legislative provisions exert greater control. Precisely because they are so vivid and so evocative, these stories prompt questions about other possible versions of Warlpiri car culture – versions that cannot easily find a place within the narratives of masculine bravado so familiar in cinematic traditions.

From a perspective of general Australian prosperity, it is clear that life at Yuendumu is far from easy. It is difficult not to notice that the bodies of the bush mechanics, or at least some of them, have hard living and risk-taking written on them. They are bodies that speak of the "Fourth World" conditions found within many Indigenous communities, with their adverse impact on general health, and particularly mens health.9 Brief glimpses of AvGas fuel pumps, which have been introduced into Yuendumu and other communities in an attempt to mitigate some of the devastating effects of petrol sniffing in the generation a little younger than the bush mechanics, serve as a reminder that cars have more than one flip side.10 They alert us to another, serious companion to car pleasures: the instantaneous pain of death and injuries from accidents all too frequently experienced by Indigenous people in the Central Desert, and most especially by young men. In the Northern Territory motor vehicle accidents are the second highest cause of death for Indigenous men in the 15-24 year age group (suicide being the highest), and Indigenous men in the Territory of that age group are 1300% more likely to be killed in such an accident than Indigenous women of the same age.11 These appalling statistics reflect the long distances travelled, often in unroadworthy cars, over corrugated roads and rough tracks, and in areas where emergency help is never just a mobile phone call away. As Jack Jakamarra Ross, the man who recalled encountering those strange track-making creatures so long ago tells us, he knew then that the Warlpiri would need to be really careful of them, though perhaps not for the reasons that he imagined at the time.

There are other stories that Bush Mechanics can make us wonder about, too, though this is not for a moment to imply that the series should have tried to tell them. The point is, rather, that the images leave us thinking about life in Yuendumu long after the series has ended. It invites questions about the "also" and the "beside" that the series suggests – the "constitutive outside" to these narratives. What might be the stories of other people with quite different relations to automobiles, and more circumscribed access to them? We know, for example, that women play an important part in Warlpiri life. Especially notable is their increasing role in public ceremony and art (Dussart 2000: 14), in the ways they have worked to hold the community together, and in their efforts to provide protection from some of the worst of men's excesses. The outstation movement, which has often been instigated by women, depends on reliable transport. Women widows and grandmothers have displayed tremendous courage in the face of male retribution, to establish and maintain the night patrols that aim to bring security to their communities.12 Like men, women frequently travel on official and personal business. Might not these women, with their specific experience of cars have quite different stories to tell about what cars mean in Warlpiri life? Perhaps the masculine love of automobiles, so celebrated in Bush Mechanics, plays a part in the problems of alcohol, fear and violence that the night patrols are a response to? How do Yapa women gain access to cars and to the knowledge needed to keep them moving? How do they raise money for their patrol cars? How do they learn to drive them? Who keeps them moving? Are there any women bush mechanics, or aspiring bush mechanics, and are their approaches to cars different from the men's?

There are many more stories that Bush Mechanics might also elicit, and not only from a Warlpiri standpoint. The series – for all its celebration of Warlpiri creativity, and for all its testimony to the power to survive – inevitably delivers challenges to non-Aboriginal Australia. To the extent that it so effectively personalises another, hidden, Australian reality it surely must raise questions about how structural inequalities along raced lines can appear so natural within mainstream public life. How does it happen that a "Fourth World" remains so entrenched within "First World" Australia? If we are committed to Australia as a broadly egalitarian society, how can we observe with equanimity the enormous disparities in wealth the series incidentally, but so powerfully, points to? My own response remains contradictory. I have been immediately drawn into the anarchistic spirit of the series, and then in the same moment become tremendously scared of the casual disregard of risk that gives the series much of its edge. I am, after all, the kind of person who habitually tells my friends to "take care" when I say goodbye. But here were five men, who I came to like so much, packed into a car that was racing through the desert with bald tyres, no seat belts, missing doors and too much band equipment tied on the roof with a couple of bits of string. Yet Bush Mechanics compels me, by the sheer power of these Warlpiri mens choices to celebrate paths I consider unwise, into an acknowledgement of creative plurality, and the actuality of radical difference.13 It is a familiar impasse, and all-too often we have remained paralysed by its complexities, bogged within its terms. Clearly, positing simple oppositions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, between risk and safety, or between equality and difference, will not go very far towards hauling us out of that impasse, but stretching the car metaphor in another direction may perhaps move us along, if only just a little.

Cars, for most of "First World" Australia are increasingly presented as sealed objects where users are discouraged, even penalised, for interfering with them. Tinkering of any kind, let alone the radical surgery performed by the bush mechanics, is discouraged by the complexity of the objects, the cost of specialist tools, and the risk of having a warranty voided. Cars are increasingly objects given by experts, and designed with no room to move except for the kind of authorised movement already built into them. That flattening of possibility, no matter how apparently rational, no matter how much it seems to inhere in the natural evolution of generations of constantly improving cars, and no matter how much it might be welcomed as progress, also embodies political choices about how lives should be lived, how we may act, and who can take responsibility for what. It is precisely on these issues that the series provides a timely reminder of the contingent nature of the technological worlds we inhabit.

In the third episode Jack Jakamarra Ross, speaking from a radically different technical context, lovingly touches what to me appears to be a defunct engine block inappropriately dumped in the bush. Translated into subtitles, the words he uses to declare its value are, "This motor grew us up. Now it is lying here like a witness looking after us." It is a startling statement, a key to the way I have come to understand my responses to the series. His is a declaration that points to the heart of how technologies are taken up into social life – changing people, but also being shaped by people into something new, something quite different from what was first encountered. Jakamarra Ross's articulation of a Warlpiri view invites us to suspend our automobile habits, and challenges us to ask fresh questions. Questions of how cars and the power of First World privilege more generally have differently grown us up. What kinds of knowledges and distribution of powers have they made seem natural, and what desires or fears do they bear witness to? Might those privileges also be our loss? Are there more inclusive or democratic terms available in which to re-draft the power to move, in ways that will not close down the possibilities of cross-identifications – and of justice – across difference? The fact that our current government has re-framed debates and turned political processes away from issues of native title and reconciliation, does not absolve our responsibility to reject the terms so given, and to find other ways to move. Clearly there is much to learn, and much to be done.

Georgine Clarsen is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the History and Sociology Programs at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

Thanks to the many friends and strangers who discussed this series with me. In particular, I acknowledge the help of Melinda Hinkson, Yasmine Musharbash and Tim Rowse, who directed me to numerous sources during the early stages of writing. Staff at Screensound, the AIATSIS library and video archive, and Film Australia were most helpful. Thanks also to Viktoria Lopatkiewicz for reading and commenting on the draft.


Cribbin, John. The Killing Times: the Coniston Massacre 1928. Sydney: Fontana Collins 1984.

Cunningham, J and Y Paradies. "Mortality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians". Australian Bureau of Statistics,

Canberra, Occasional Paper Cat. No. 33150 2000.

dAbbs, Peter and Sarah MacLean. Petrol Sniffing in Aboriginal Communities: A Review of Interventions. Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health: Casuarina, N.T. 2000. http://www.ath.crc.org.au

Dussart, Francoise. The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement: Kinship, Gender, and the Currency of Knowledge. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press 2000.

Hinkson, Melinda. "New Media Projects at Yuendumu: Toward a History and Analysis of Inter-Cultural Engagement". Conference paper: The Power of Knowledge, the Resonance of Tradition. The Australian National University 18-20 September 2001.

Langton, Marcia. 'Well I heard it on the Radio and I saw it on the Television...' An essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things. Sydney: Australian Film Commission 1993.

Michaels, Eric. For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu. Melbourne: Artspace 1987.

Murray, Neil. Sing for Me, Countryman. Rydalmere, N.S.W.: Sceptre 1993.

Riley, Sally. "Making Bigger Stories: The Development of Indigenous Filmmaking in Australia". Australias Indigenous Arts. Sydney: The Australia Council May 2000.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits. London and New York: Verso 1991.

Rowse, Tim. "Enlisting the Warlpiri." Continuum 3(2) 1990, pp.174-200.

Rowse, Tim. White Flour White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press 1998.

Taylor, Penny ed., After 200 Years: Photographic Essays of Aboriginal and Islander Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press 1988.

Young, Elspeth and Kim Doohan. Mobility for Survival: A Process Analysis of Aboriginal Population Movement in Central Australia.

Darwin: Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit 1989.

Williams, Fiona. "Bush Mechanics hit the road again with the aid of desktop software" in Encore, 19:3, 2001, p.24.


8 This is a story that Jack Jakamarra Ross has also told in other contexts, see Taylor (1988 pp.288-289).

9 "Fourth World communities are characterised by their experience of being colonised or of being a minority in relation to the dominant encompassing state. Many have been forced to assimilate, losing most of their land and their economic base, and therefore their autonomy." J Reid and P Trompf (eds) The Health of Aboriginal Australia, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991. Quoted by Lowitja ODonoghue, "Indigenous Health: Hopes for a New Century," John Chalmers Oration, Flinders University, 6 July 2000.

10 AvGas is an aviation fuel that causes severe head- and stomach-aches, and inhalation offers a less euphoric effect than petrol. (dAbbs and MacLean 2000, pp.42-44).

11 This is in an environment where Indigenous life expectancy Australia wide is still some 18 years less than for the general population, and where motor vehicle deaths are around four times more common amongst Indigenous than other Australians (Cunningham and Paradies 2000). Compare this to the figure of 129% more male deaths for all men compared to all women in the Northern Territory. Figures released for the NT Indigenous Male Health Conference, held at the Tennant Creek Showgrounds 29-31 August 2000. http://www.nt.gov.au/nths/comm_health/mens_health/conference/appendixc.shtml. See also Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health, http://www.ath.crc.org.au/crc

12 "Yuendumu Womens Night Patrol" in Aboriginal and Islander Health Workers Journal 16:2, April/March 1992, pp.14-15.

13 Rowse presents the challenge in his study of the move from a rations to a cash economy in the Central Desert since the 1970s as: "'Assimilation postulated a single set of Australian norms, while 'self-determination' opens up the troubling possibility of normative plurality within the one nation." (Rowse 1998. p.213).

Return to Part One of this essay.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also