'When Nicole Kidman visited Uluru she was invited to participate in a sacred women's ceremony where the movie star was welcomed into the traditions of the Aboriginal women in the heart of Australia.
It is an extraordinary moment of cross-cultural female unity: three generations of Kidman women - Nicole and her daughters are accompanied by her mother, Janelle, who is perched on a log nearby, transfixed on the ceremony - meeting several generations of Anangu women from Mutitjulu, the community at the base of Uluru.
The Anangu women have come here to meet Kidman, who has been an UN Women goodwill ambassador since 2006 and is passionate about advancing women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment. They invited her to take part in an Inma, to share their living heritage, and to highlight the work they do in looking after each other through the NPY Women’s Council (known as the NPYWC), and Maruku Arts, a community group based out of Mutitjulu, which provides Indigenous arts and culture tours.
Kidman described the ceremony as an “intoxicating” experience, one that she was honoured to be able to share with her daughters to further their cultural education.
“I’m really trying to give my girls a sense of purpose in the world, because they are very privileged little girls, and so part of their job is finding how they can be philanthropic, even at this age, and how they can be involved and have compassion and be colour blind and all of those things,” Kidman says. “So that’s why it was so important for me to bring them to Uluru, and for Sunny to get up and dance with those little girls … I mean, there was no fear, it was just pure joy; it was beautiful to watch.”
After the ceremony had finished, Kidman shared with the Anangu women the story of how Sunny was conceived after she swam in an Aboriginal waterhole in the Kimberley while she filmed the movie Australia several years ago.
“For 40 years I couldn’t get pregnant, and then I went swimming in the waterhole, and it was a very special place to go … and then she came,” Kidman told the women as she patted Sunny’s head. “So that’s why I brought my babies with me … I’m very grateful and feel very connected (to the land). That’s why it’s very beautiful for me and for us to be invited here and for her to dance with your children, we feel very connected, so thank you.”
The women nodded in acknowledgement, and laughed, knowingly: Aboriginal women know about such things. “It was interesting for me to see the way Sunday reacted and the way in which she just so willingly and openly, which is not usual for her when she has all those eyes on her,” Kidman says later. “And that’s why I wanted to explain to them that some of their culture really has penetrated my family to that degree.”
Kidman said she was particularly touched by the strength and tenacity of the Aboriginal women. “Their strength, when you’re around them, is incredibly apparent,” she says. It is a trait they are immensely proud of, says Kulitja, the group’s spokeswoman: “It’s really important for us to be able to show the strength of our culture, this is our country that we are on and we are dancing for our country and that’s a really important thing.”
Kulitja is one of the most prominent women in the area. Her parents were instrumental in forming Maruku Arts in 1984 “to keep culture strong”. She is a director of Maruku Arts and an accomplished artist, whose most famous work, Yananyi Dreaming - based on traditional stories of Uluru - covered the fuselage of a Qantas Boeing 737.
She is also a director of the NPY Women’s Council, which was formed in 1980 with the objective to support women and families suffering poverty, sickness, destitution, distress, violence, misfortune or helplessness from communities in a vast, tri-state area of Central Australia.
The organisation’s membership is made up of women from 25 communities and homelands located across a 350,000 square kilometre area of desert around the intersection where the borders of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet.
Members of the NPYWC, says its website, share “language, historical, cultural and familial connections and concerns for themselves and their families that take precedence over state and territory borders”.
“The women want what mothers all over the world want for their families: for their children to retain their distinct culture, heritage, and languages, to access education, for families to have opportunities to work and for be engaged and for everyone to live in respectful, safe and healthy communities,” says Kulitja.
She adds: “It’s our work to take care and protect all of the women in our area. There are a lot of women who gain strength and are able to carry on strongly in their lives through the Women’s Council work. We have a lot of different programs, including ones that particularly take care of the really senior ladies in the community; we have programs for young girls.”
“One of the really good programs is to take the young girls, from really small children to young adolescents and young women, to take them out to bush sites, sometimes for day trips and sometimes overnight as well to get them out on country.”
These camps, which are known as nintintjaku kungkawara tjuta culture kunpu kanyintjaku - or young women’s teaching camps - are aimed at promoting inter-generational cultural learning between senior Anangu women and girls. The women attend a two-night camp at sites that are part of the tjukurpa of families from the area, and participate in painting, telling stories, weaving tjanpi baskets and doing Inma. By running the camps, the senior women also teach the young women first-hand an Anangu style of leadership. “After each camp everyone heads home feeling happy, strong and proud to be Anangu”, says Kulitja.
The NPYWC is a non-government, not-for-profit organisation that receives funding from grants and fundraising.
Says Kulitja: “These services continue today with the support of the women because they and governments see these concerns still needing direct action and support: traditional healers (ngangkari) who offer healing and emotional wellbeing services, domestic and family violence crisis case management and outreach for women, aged, frail and disability case management, disability advocacy and carer respite, a child and family service for children where neglect or growth faltering is present and where families have involvement with the child protection system, programs for young people, emergency hardship assistance and a social enterprise that provides income for women - the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.”
She called for more governmental assistance: “The hardest challenge today is financial in that we are penalised for working in a remote desert region. If governments did contribute fairly to our true cost of service delivery our members would respond accordingly: we would do more good.”
Many of the women who participated in the Inma with Kidman come from Mutitjulu, the Indigenous community located at the base of the Uluru, which is home to many of the sacred site’s traditional owners.
While Mutitjulu has a troubled past, the community is now determined to pave a positive future, both through their management of Uluru (the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management has an Anangu majority) and how they look after their own - especially the women. At the back of the community is a special clearing called the Women’s Keeping Place. It is a fenced area for women only where, as the sun sets over the rock, the girls are brought straight from school to be taught their traditional education through dance and song.
Kidman, who has worked with women in Haiti through her humanitarian work with UN Women, says she wants to help the Anangu women educate the rest of the world about the work they are doing on their homelands in central Australia.
“The constant need is to keep educating - and keep educating our young, as the NPY Women’s Council says,” Kidman says. “So that we all stay in a place of compassion and giving, otherwise nothing is going to change. And I want to believe that things can change and I want to believe that we can do it.
“I’ve travelled to many different places, and the need to educate people and to keep people aware of what’s going on for Aboriginal women and children … is so important and when you see what they are doing,” she says.“And as they say, you’ve got to pass it on (their stories) and if you don’t then it dies with them and that’s not good - you really feel the strength of that and the desire to keep that culture alive. I really think it is so alluring.”