For the Anangu people, knowledge is the basis of society. It is given by the Elders when you reach a milestone in your life, when you are worthy of it.
But when your land has attracted 250,000 tourists a year since the 1950’s, how do you strike the balance between educating about the importance of your culture, and giving away too much? This was the challenge faced when the Northern Territory Government approached Google about doing something special with its Street View technology at Uluru.
“Look at the landscape as we do and know these ancestors are still here. This is the right place to learn this story because it happened here at this place. Look, take note of what you see. Stop and read the signs, have a think and take in your surroundings. This is a place of great history, an important place.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park as a world heritage site, and not only for its incredible rock formations and desert landscape. The culture that has existed here for tens of thousands of years is protected, as well.
Elements of that culture have now been captured by Google in what it calls “Story Spheres” – interactive 360 videos featuring Creation Time stories told in Anangu language, accompanied by music from local Elders. Jason Pellegrino, Google’s Managing Director of Google Australia and New Zealand told us that it is the unique format of Story Spheres which allows the rich cultural heritage that embodies this site to be captured.
That Google can now “expose it to the world,” Pellegrino says.
These are the Story Spheres, created by strapping the camera-covered “Google Tracker” to a hiker from Parks Australia.
With Maps and Street View, and now Story Spheres, Google is mapping the world. We all know this. Uluru traditional custodian Tjama (Sammy) Wilson knows this.
“This way,” he told us, “we can have a say in how it’s done and help protect our knowledge.”
Comparatively, white people (or parantha) are very new to the region. And while Europeans settled in the area back in 1873, tourists didn’t begin arriving until the 1950’s. To say the tourism industry made Anangu feel unwelcome in the early days is an understatement – many people left their ancestral lands due to poor treatment.
After 35 years of hard-fought campaigning, on October 26 1985 the Federal Government handed the legal title deeds for the land back to the Anangu people. On the same day, the Anangu signed a lease with the Federal Government for 99 years to operate the National Park. Today, the park is jointly managed by the Anangu people and Parks Australia, using both traditional and western methods of land management.
But managing cultural knowledge, in a world where technology is a part of every aspect of our lives, is another matter entirely.
A bus full of media arrive at the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area, all there to find out about the launch of Google Street View and Story Spheres at Uluru.
We are greeted by Anangu women performing a Welcome to Country and Inma (traditional dance) ceremony. You might have seen Inma performed at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, or during a Royal visit, or for the Dalai Lama.
Roughly 100 chairs are set up, separated by an aisle down the middle. To one side sits children and teachers from the local Mutujulu school, on the other, media.
The community of Mutujulu is no stranger to media attention.
Ten years ago, the ABC’s Lateline program alleged “rampant child sex abuse” in the community, with an anonymous youth worker claiming young girls were being held against their will, and traded as sex slaves for petrol.
The claims were later shown to be false – despite a lengthy police investigation, no prosecutions came from them. And the “youth worker”? He turned out to be Gregory Andrews – senior official for the Indigenous Affairs Minister at the time, Mal Brough.
Regardless, it was this media attention that sparked “The Intervention”, suspending the Racial Discrimination Act and giving the Federal Government power to take possession of Aboriginal land and property. “The Intervention” is still happening, now under the name “Stronger Futures”.
Tjama says the whole operation was designed to shut down and drive out the community – to make more money from tourism. That Uluru is a commodity more important than its people.
The Anangu people, and the Mutujulu community, have been fighting to protect their “protected” culture for all of living memory.
30 to 40 per cent of Uluru is comprised of sacred sites. When it comes to protecting the cultural lore of these sites, visitors are advised to only capture these in certain ways (without detail, obscured, from a huge distance) or not at all. Anangu people don’t want visitors to take pretty pictures without understanding what makes this area so special, and some things are not for parantha (non-Anangu, or white people) to know.
But understanding the importance of Tjukurpa – the living keeper of the Anangu culture, lore, knowledge and history – is something that can be taught. Even at it’s most basic level, at a level equivalent to the knowledge a Kindergarten child would comprehend, it can be taught.
“Sometimes visitors come here and they see a beautiful place, but they don’t understand the Tjukurpa,” says Tjama, “We want to teach those visitors about the Anangu understanding of this place.”
One way to foster that understanding is through visiting the land itself and taking a guided tour through the park. For those further away, technology has given direct access to the knowledge of the world’s oldest continuing culture.
But it wouldn’t work without collaboration. Proper representation and understanding of the Anangu land couldn’t happen without the people telling their own stories, in their own voice.
It’s taken two years of collaboration between Google, the Anangu Traditional Owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Parks Australia and Northern Territory Government to capture the park for Street View – all according to Tjukurpa law, keeping the sacred sites out of it.
From the other side of the world, virtual visitors can visit the same Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing site we witnessed Inma ceremony from, or take the Kuniya Walk guided by Tjama telling the story of Minyma Kuniya (woma python woman) and Wati Liru (poisonous snake man) all the way to the Kapi Mutitjulu waterhole – and all in Anangu language.
Google is no stranger to mapping “unique locations”, capturing monuments, major tourist sites, museums and national parks in 83 countries since 2007.
“In the case of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park,” Google says, “the fundamental role of Tjukurpa warranted a more nuanced approach.”
Google had to bring the cultural and spiritual dimensions to the Street View experience for it to be appropriate.
“Together with our partners, we’re privileged to help celebrate and preserve Anangu culture through technology,” Pellegrino says, sharing his hopes that the Story Spheres collaboration will lead to stronger partnerships with Indigenous communities across Australia.
Google wants to “share more sacred sites, and instil greater value and respect for the land.”
Tjukurpa teachings are traditionally handed down through spoken word, song, dance or art. They aren’t recorded, or written down, in the parantha way. Mothers hand stories down to daughters, fathers down to sons.
Later that night we were treated to a dinner under the stars. Black cloths covered a dozen lamp-lit tables under the desert sky, place name cards featuring commissioned local traditional art marking our designated seats, complete with a blanket to keep out the chill. A stream of politicians and officials and tourism board representatives take the stage, acknowledging the Traditional Custodians, Elders past and present, before thanking Google for exposing Anangu culture to the world. Dinner is served, and we are told an Anangu creation time story about the stars we can see so bright.
Sitting to one side, on rocks around a fire, are the Traditional Custodians. Elders, present and future. One stands up.
“You’re telling my story!” she shouts in a mix of Anangu and English. “You’re telling my story and you’re telling it wrong!”
A woman from Parks Australia rushes to quiet her.
Gizmodo Australia travelled to Uluru as a guest of Google. Thank you to the Anangu people for allowing us on your land, and allowing us to hear your stories.