Desert Games Australian Aborigines revel in traditional and nontraditional sports at an annual carnival

November 15, 1999

Deep in Australia's Outback, in the red dirt of the Tanami Desert
and north of the Macdonnell Ranges, lies an Aboriginal community
called Yuendumu, where the lack of shade rivals the lack of
activity. Yet every August more than 1,000 of Australia's 375,000
Aborigines trek from as far as 750 miles to the Yuendumu Sports
Carnival, one of the largest tribal-based sports competitions in
the country. Since its beginning 30 years ago, the carnival has
spawned similar gatherings in other parts of Australia, all of
which celebrate tribal togetherness as much as competition.

Teams from different communities, most of them in the Warlpiri
tribe, compete in sports events. There is the traditional
Aboriginal sport of spear throwing, and a ceremonial dance,
called purlapa, performed by the women. Nontraditional sports
include men's and women's basketball, softball and Australian
Rules football. The venues are improvised: Spear throwing takes
place in a church parking lot, and football matches are played
not on grass but in the dirt. The winners--such as, this year, the
Yuendumu Magpies in football and the Lajmanu Wampana in men's
basketball--receive trophies that they take back to their native
communities but must return to the carnival the following year.
After dusk there is musical entertainment in the form of bands
that play rock, blues, and country and western music, mainly with
electric guitars. "The occasion is a combination of a social
gathering and a sports event with cultural overtones," says Frank
Baarda, manager of the Yuendumu general store.

The carnival usually lasts four days but sometimes is longer as a
result of the Aborigines' tendency to stray from fixed schedules.
Visitors to Yuendumu sleep out in the open, many of them under
trees beside which their vehicles are parked. That is not unusual
for these seminomadic people, who often travel to hunt game such
as goanna, kangaroos and wallabies.

For the Aborigines, "Sport has paved the way for respect from
white Australia," writes David Horton in The Encyclopedia of
Aboriginal Australia. "It has given Aboriginal people a sense of
work and pride. It has shown Aboriginal people that competing
with their bodies is one way of competing on equal terms with an
often hostile and certainly indifferent mainstream society."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID CALLOW Dust bowl In the absence of grass, youngsters play basketball and Australian Rules football on the red dirt of the desert. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID CALLOW Ancient art Spear throwing draws older contestants than Aussie Rules football; all winners must return trophies the next year.

"The occasion is a combination of a social gathering and sports
event with cultural overtones."

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