Happy NAIDOC week! To celebrate this incredible week, we are reliving some of The Weekly's greatest stories which recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture #BecauseofHerWeCan.
The road to the red dust town of Mutitjulu winds around the base of Uluru. It's midday, 40 degrees even in the rock's waterholes and deep red crevasses. Rene Kulitja stands on the outskirts of town in the shade of a desert oak tree. She's wearing prints in every imaginable shade of blue, which make her look impossibly cool and breezy. She has been out this morning collecting the tjampi (spinifex grass) that she sculpts into fantastic forms and creatures. Rene is one of the Tjampi Desert Weavers, whose work was exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, but her accomplishments don't end there – not by a long way. Turning 60 this year, Rene is just hitting her stride.
"There's so much to do," says the softly spoken artist, environmentalist, chorister, dancer, women's rights advocate, maker of bush medicine, keeper of traditional knowledge, grandmother and renaissance woman of the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands, which sprawl across 103,000 square kilometres to the south of here.
"I feel strongly about a lot of different things," she says simply.
"I feel I can help bring people together." And she does.
Rene is driven by a desire to enrich and protect the lives of the local Anangu people, "and to manage the land in order to keep the tjukurpa [the Anangu spirit, culture, lore] alive," says Clive Scollay, General Manager of the Maruku artists' cooperative. "Without engagement with 'the West', Rene believes that the tjukurpa will die," he explains. So she has spent much of her life relentlessly engaging.
Her painting of Uluru ,Yananyi Dreaming, was the first Indigenous artwork to adorn a Qantas plane.
More recently she painted the bulk of the canvas that depicted the "Uluru Statement", which the First Nations Constitutional Convention presented to the federal government. She is a chorister with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir, which has transposed traditional German hymns to Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte, has toured Europe and will travel to the US this year. And she was involved in the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra, the result of seven years' collaborative work between curators, scholars, elders and artists across three states. For Rene, who performed at its opening, it was a critical opportunity to involve the next generation.
"So they came, these local schoolgirls, to this other world of Canberra, and they performed the dance of the Seven Sisters and saw that it was valued," she explains.
"I think a lot about the two worlds that we live in now – the non-Anangu world, whitefella world, the mainstream world, and the Anangu cultural world. I think about how to work within both worlds, how to bring them together so we're supporting each other with strong knowledge about both worlds. And I think about how to pass on my experience and knowledge to my children so that they stand strong in their culture, stand strong in the two worlds."
Rene inherited her concern for culture from her parents, Walter Pukutiwara and Topsy Tjulyata, acclaimed wood carvers and founders of Maruku Arts. "As a child, I would watch them work and it was inspiring," she says. "To carry on their work has been important to me."
She was born at Ernabella/Pukatja, then a remote Presbyterian mission, high in the Musgrave Ranges. It had been founded in 1938 by an idealistic doctor, Charles Duguid, who insisted that all his missionaries learn Pitjantjatjara, that children be taught in their own language and that Indigenous people should never be coerced to join the mission.
Rene's family travelled out from Ernabella often. "I remember, as a really little girl, we used to go travelling with our gear packed on donkeys. The more we did that, the more I began to understand the world around me. My parents would teach us about the ancestors, about sources of water and food, and the stories that were connected with the country." Rene's mother, she says, could "sing country" all the way to the South Australian coast. "Not that she was a traditional owner of all that land, but because there were family connections right through there."
Rene's parents were traditional owners of Uluru. They moved back there when they sensed increasing tourism could create a market for their art.
Rene moved away to study. She met and married the award-winning tour guide, Richard Kulitja, with whom she had five children, and spent time in his country around the Docker River. But her own country called her back and for the past 30 years Mutitjulu has been her home.
There Rene is a mainstay of community life: a member of the Community Council, on the board of the national park, a director of Maruku Arts and of the regional Women's Council, working to end family violence and empower local women and girls. One of the things she's proudest of is a mental health literacy program, called Uti Kulintjaku ("clear understanding"), that translates contemporary mental health concepts into Pitjantjatjara. Rene appears contemplative, serene, unrufflable, but she is in endless motion.
Right now, she is excited about the decision to close the Uluru climb from October 26, 2019. The climb has worried Rene and other elders, not just because travellers trample sacred ground, but because so many people have died (at least 35) and been injured there.
"I'd like us to have an amazing celebration on the day the climb closes," Rene says. "In preparation, we will strengthen our understanding of ceremony, so we can properly celebrate and feel strong in dancing for country on that day. I would also love it if everybody who has ever worked to support us here in this country would come back on that day, bring their children and grandchildren and celebrate with us."
Rene has a special request for our readers too. She is collecting an archive of historical images of her community and would love to see old, rare photographs that our readers, their parents or grandparents have taken. You can email images to her at email@example.com.
This article first appeared in the April 2018 edition of The Australian Women's Weekly.