The Lord put us here to look after the whole manta

‘You can look into the sky and see the Seven Sisters still today. They are in the stars reminding us to be strong. We are always looking to the future and this story is remembering.’

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta—Senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy—in the central desert region of South Australia, concerned that younger women were losing the ancient Anangu women’s culture formed themselves into this official group in the early 1990s. Individually the Kungkas, as they came to be called by the wider society, were from the related Anangu language backgrounds of Yankunyjatjara, Antikirinya and Kokatha. In early 1994 Mrs Crombie appointed me their honorary ‘paper worker.’

When at one of their meetings in April 1998 they heard of the Australian federal government’s plan to create a national nuclear waste dump in the desert country, their reaction was immediate and fierce. The Kungkas immediately dictated a long statement that became their charter. They first established their credentials:

‘We know the stories for the land. The Seven Sisters travelled right across in the Beginning. They formed the land. It’s very important Tjukur—the Law, the Dreaming that must not be disturbed. The Seven Sisters are everywhere. We can give the evidence for what we say, we can show you the dance of the Seven Sisters.’

Then came the spelling out of the danger: the risks to the groundwater and to animals like the malu—kangaroo—andkalaya—emu. Above all was their cry: ‘we’re worrying for our kids’ – all the future generations.

And why this immediate fierce reaction by the Kungkas to a proposed nuclear dump?

A simple answer: all of them—either personally as was mostly the case, or certainly through their families and communities—had suffered terribly, physically and spiritually, through the Australian government’s failure to protect them from nuclear fallout.

In the early 1950s their Australian prime minister Robert Menzies had given the British government permission, and even his blessing, to conduct a series of atomic tests on their desert country.  From 1953 to 1963 the major explosions followed by the so-called minor trials (which included plutonium) had desecrated their beloved country, the Seven Sisters’ creation. Many Anangu, including Mrs Wonga’s mother and father, had died (deaths denied by the whitefella authorities); and there were many long term injuries and sicknesses (also largely denied).

Perhaps the most valuable insight I heard articulated when studying for an Aboriginal Studies diploma in the late 1970s was that for white people the overriding worldview is the concept of either/or, - whereas for Aboriginal peoples the both/and, worldview holds. In the matter of spirituality I saw this in the Kungkas. All of them were committed Christians, living and often articulating their love for their Creator God and their definitive following of Jesus as they totally committed to respecting and preserving the legacy and commands of  the Seven Sisters. Living as we did in the town of Coober Pedy however among Aboriginal and white Christians, some of whom had a fundamentalist background, I witnessed the Kungka Tjuta suffering for their traditional beliefs.

Once out of the bush I was witness to the teaching of that cross cultural exemplar, Mrs Crombie, to the young interstate supporters she assumed had been brought up on the Judea-Christian Bible. While Mrs Brown and other Kungkas were dancing and singing the traditional Seven Sisters Inma, Mrs Crombie’s kind of exultant whoop: “This is an ‘In the Beginning’ story!”—summed up everything for those who were able to understand.

In 2003, Mrs Wingfield and Mrs Brown were selected as representatives of the KPKT being awarded the prestigious Goldman prize. As terrified she was of the long flight to San Francisco Mrs Wingfield determined to go. Not as overtly religious as some of the other Kungkas she still had a strong faith which supported her steely courage for country. She asked me for a religious symbol to be company on this extraordinary journey. On her return, she made a little thank-you speech about her gratitude to God for her protected journey as well as her grandson’s healing from a serious illness which she identified as a result of the effects of inter-generation radiation transmission.

After an utterly exhausting six-year national campaign along with their key and other supporters, in July 2004, victory became theirs and the gratitude of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta was profound. They— ‘just a few women’—had successfully fullfilled their God-given task against federal government nuclear dump plans. As they had described in a 2003 letter to government:

In the beginning Aborigines were given the land. Not white people…The Lord put us here to look after the manta—ground. We’re greenies mula—true greenies. We’re here to look after the whole Earth.

It’s my experience that the only people who ever talk out loud, including at rallies, about the Creator, God’s creation and their duty as spiritual people to protect it—whatever the cost to themselves, are Aboriginal people.  As our state of South Australia continues to be under the onslaught of the nuclear industry and government enablers with a renewed federal nuclear dump plan, the Adnyamathanha McKenzie sisters have continued to speak out of their faith connection to protect country as inextricably linked to their duty to the Tjukur- the ancient Story for the Land.

As the Kungkas explained: We are strong today because of the Tjukur - Dreaming.

We learnt it from the grandmothers, always following their footsteps. We sing their Inma, just as they sang in the beginning.

The Sisters put everything in the Manta- Earth, in the Beginning, the Kungkas women’s sacred manta….

…Yes the Lord put us here to look after the Manta – Earth.


This text is the tenth of a series of blog posts highlighting different reflections and experiences of those who are calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Learn more:

"75th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: has your country ratified the UN treaty?", by Jennifer Philpot-Nissen (15 June 2020)

"Kiritimati and the Bomb: A Tale of Two Churches", by Becky Alexis-Martin (6 July 2020)

"Recollections of an ecumenical pilgrimage to Japan, for the 70th anniversary of atomic bombing (2015)", by Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (15 July 2020)

"Japan’s churches urge nuclear-free world", by Rev. Renta Nishihara (20 July 2020)

"Nuclear weapons are no good for the Pacific—and no good for the world", by Rev. James Bhagwan (27 July 2020)

"Open wounds: French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa, Ma’ohi Nui 1966-1996", by Francois Pihaatae (3 August 2020)

"Practicing the interfaith discipline of hope", by Emily Welty (10 August 2020)

"Are we our sisters' keepers? When it comes to atom bombs the world is saying 'yes'", by Jonathan Frerichs (17 August 2020)

“Peace, the mother of love”, by Archbishop Stephen Cottrell (24 August 2020)

About the author :

Michele Madigan is a sister of St Joseph, an Australian Catholic religious congregation founded by (St) Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods in Penola, a small country town in the state of South Australia. For about 40 years she has been involved with Aboriginal peoples in South Australia, first in the capital city of Adelaide and later in the bush Aboriginal Community of Yalata.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.