Vignette (6): Jesus Dreaming
Davenport Ranges National Park Late 2003
The Davenport-Murchison Ranges are about 350 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, and about 160 kilometres south-east of Tennant Creek. The Davenport Ranges are a series of low ridges rarely over 300 metres in height, dominated by spinifex, bloodwood and snappy gum, dotted with gorges and waterholes that are permanent in all but the driest of times. Crouching at the southern extremity of the Barkly Tablelands, the Davenports experience a higher rainfall than much of Central Australia and are home to an extraordinary number of birds, fish, plants and small mammals. The Davenports are also important country to Aboriginal people: linguistically, they are an area where three language groups intersect; culturally, they are crossed by several important dreaming tracks.
Within the Davenport-Murchison Ranges lies the Davenport Range National Park, an area of 1120 square kilometres managed by rangers based at Tennant Creek. Surrounding the park are the pastoral leases of Kurundi, Murray Downs, Elkedra, Singleton and the Annurrete Aboriginal Land Trust. Most of the work that rangers do at the Davenports is concerned with managing ‘threats’: an intensive controlled burning program in the cooler months, weed monitoring and spraying during growing times, and feral animal control when resources permit. For rangers, donkeys constitute the main feral animal threat in the Davenports. Donkeys cause erosion, foul waterholes, spread weeds and compete with indigenous fauna for food, water and shelter. As rangers see it, donkeys don’t belong in the Davenport Ranges, but in another sense, they do.
Donkeys were first brought to the Davenport Ranges in the years between the First and Second World Wars by pastoralists and miners. They were used as quiet, reliable pack animals; an alternative to camels. Aboriginal people living on cattle stations in the area worked closely with donkeys and developed a great affection for them. Over time, donkeys escaped or were let roam the Davenport Ranges. To the Alyawarr people who speak for the area, the donkeys have been born in the country and belong to it in the same way they do. Furthermore, donkeys are an animal sacred to Jesus, and carry Jesus’ Dreaming story. In the Bible story, a donkey carried Jesus to Jerusalem. People laid palm fronds on the road to make the journey smoother for him and to show their respect. As Alyawarr people see it, Jesus left his mark on the donkey’s withers in the form of a black cross, which every donkey now carries; in other words, Jesus marked the donkey with his sign (the cross) and left something of his essence in the animal, so that every donkey now ‘carries Jesus’ Dreaming’.
In 1993, the Northern Territory Government purchased land from Kurundi Station that became the Davenport Range National Park. In 2000, a feral animal control program to cull feral donkey and horse numbers in the Davenport Range National Park commenced. Animals were shot by PWS staff and the carcasses left to rot. Aboriginal people living on the Anurrete Land Trust were understandably shocked driving along the road and seeing this for the first time: when we saw them (dead animals) we felt bad, very bad. We were driving out from one meeting, first time, and all these people were real sad. All on the road – horses and donkeys. We coming along the road, ‘Oh look at the donkeys, horse lying there’ …killed on the road (PWS & CLC, 2005:15).
Relationships between Traditional Owners of the Davenport Ranges and PWS staff had always been reasonably good, with informal consultations regarding land management decisions and paid work on park projects being the norm. The shooting program, however, visibly upset people. At a ranger training camp held in the Davenports during 2003, senior rangers were able to speak to Traditional Owners for the area about the shooting, trying to explain that the donkeys did not belong there and were harming the environment. Some Traditional Owners were so upset they turned their backs on the ranger who spoke on the microphone at the camp. Traditional Owners said that they had not been asked about the donkey shoot and that the ranger who spoke to them did not understand their point of view: the donkeys carried Jesus Dreaming and belonged to the country.
How then to deal with the issue? Should donkeys be allowed on a national park, an area set aside for conservation? Should the donkeys be protected because they are considered sacred according to Aboriginal tradition? If park managers are to ‘manage’ parks, how then do they deal reconcile their own understandings of what can and cannot be done on a park with contradictory or alternative conceptions? How then to manage disparate values, attitudes and beliefs applied to the same area of land by two apparently equal partners?