They refer to themselves as Anangu (people). Pitjantjatjara country is mostly in the north-west of South Australia, extending across the border into the Northern Territory to just south of Lake Amadeus, and west a short distance into Western Australia. The land is an inseparable and important part of their identity, and every part of it is rich with stories and meaning to Anangu.
They have, for the most part, now given up their nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle but have managed to retain their languages and much of their culture in spite of increasing influences from the broader Australian community.
Today there are still about 4,000 Anangu living scattered in small communities and outstations across their traditional lands, forming one of the most successful joint land arrangements in Australia with Aboriginal Traditional Owners.
Extended droughts in the 1920s and between 1956 to 1965 in their homelands in the Great Victoria and Gibson Deserts led many Pitjantjatjara, and their traditionally more westerly relations, the Ngaanyatjarra, to move east towards the railway between Adelaide and Alice Springs in search of food and water, thus mixing with the most easterly of the three, the Yankunytjatjara. They refer to themselves as Anangu, which originally just meant people in general, but has now come to imply an Aboriginal person or, more specifically, a member of one of the groups that speaks a variety of the Western Desert Language.
However, European depredations continued and Dr. Charles Duguid tirelessly fought for their protection, wellbeing and a chance to gradually accustom themselves to their rapidly-changing circumstances. In response, the South Australian Government finally supported a plan by the then Presbyterian Church to set up the Ernabella Mission in the Musgrave Ranges as a safe haven. This mission, largely due to the insistence of Dr. Duguid himself, was ahead of the times in that there was no systematic attempt to destroy Aboriginal culture, as was common on many other missions.
Beginning in 1950, many Anangu were forced to leave their homelands due to British nuclear tests at Maralinga. A large number of Anangu were subsequently contaminated by the nuclear fallout from the atomic tests, and many have died as a consequence.
Their experience of issues of land rights and native title in South Australia have been unique. After four years of campaigning and negotiations with government and mining groups, the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act was passed on 19 March 1981, granting freehold title over 103,000 square kilometres of land in the far northwestern corner of South Australia.
The Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act, 1984 (SA) (the Act) granted freehold title of an area of 80,764 square kilometres to Maralinga Tjarutja. The Unnamed Conservation Park (now Mamungari Conservation Park) was transferred to the Maralinga Tjarutja in 2004.
The sacred sites of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) were extremely important spiritually and cermonially to the Anangu with more than forty named sacred sites and eleven separate Tjurkurpa (or 'Dreaming') tracks in the area. Some of these dreaming tracks led as far as the sea in all directions. Unfortunately, Uluru and Kata Tjuta were just over the border in the Northern Territory and separated from the Pitjantjatjara Lands in South Australia and had become a major tourist attraction and, ultimately, a National Park. The Central Land Council laid claim to the Ayers-Rock-Mt. Olga National Park and some adjoining vacant Crown land in 1979, but this claim was fiercely resisted by the Northern Territory government.
After eight years of intensive lobbying by the Traditional Owners, on 11 November 1983, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that the Federal Government intended to transfer inalienable freehold title to them. He also agreed to ten main points they had demanded in exchange for a lease-back arrangement to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for a "joint-management" régime where Anangu would have a majority on the Board of Management. This was finally granted in 1985, but with the government reneging on two of the most important points the Anangu had requested: they were forced to agree to lease the Park for 99 years, instead of the fifty years originally agreed on, perhaps more importantly, they had to allow tourists to climb Uluru, thus continuing the desecration of one of their main dreaming tracks.
Park Management has erected signs asking visitors not to climb the "Rock," but have no authority to enforce it. Thousands of visitors climb the rock every year. This is said to offend and sadden the Traditional Owners.
However, joint management of the 13.25 square kilometre World Heritage listed National Park has certainly been of benefit to Anangu, the Government and the millions of visitors who continue to be awed by the unique beauty and interest of the Park.