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A tale of two sacred stones

By James Ensor - posted Friday, 15 October 1999

In the heart of Central Australia, courage and the wisdom to say "sorry" recently came together in a remarkable act of reconciliation.

The year is 1994. We stand at the foot of the Macdonnell Ranges, west of Alice Springs, before the grave of Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It's an incongruous sight to the passing tourist parade: a young whitefella and an old Aboriginal man poring over the immense boulder marking Flynn's grave.

Running his toughened hands delicately over the sacred stone, old Jampijinpa tells me that its features have changed little since it was taken from his land nearly half a century ago. Pointing to a fissure here, a marking there, he begins the long story of how the stone came to rest nearly 400 kilometres from where it belongs.


Following Flynn's death in May 1951, his wife - at a suggestion from a friend inspired by the story of the boulder sealing Christ's tomb - agreed to adorn her late husband's grave with a distinctive boulder.

No suitable rock could be found in the nearby Macdonell Ranges, and the search moved further afield. Eventually a rock was found at Karlu Karlu - known to Europeans as the Devil's Marbles. Karlu Karlu is an Aboriginal sacred site 400 kilometres north of Alice Springs, near Tennant Creek. The "marble", as it is known, was transported to Flynn's grave in November 1952. The Kaytetye and Warumungu people - custodians of Karlu Karlu since time immemorial - were never consulted.

To traditional owners like Jampijinpa, the stolen "marble" is an integral part of their sacred site; of their very spirituality. They have struggled to have the rock returned to its proper place since it was first taken in the early 1950s.

The intervening years have seen endless meetings, talking, negotiation. Many, many people have become involved: the marble's traditional owners, the Arrente people of Alice Springs, the Uniting Church, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Central Land Council and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. All that talk sewed the seeds for an historic act of reconciliation.

The year is now 1996. At Jampijinpa's remote outstation on the edge of the Tanami desert, Uniting Church leaders apologise unreservedly to the Warumungu and Kaytetye people for the distress caused by the removal of the marble, and agree to its return. Later - in a generous gesture of respect for John Flynn - the Arrernte people of Alice Springs offer a sacred stone from Arrernte land to replace the Karlu Karlu marble atop Flynn's grave.

Early in September, the seeds of reconciliation planted by both black and white Australians bore fruit in Alice Springs, with a celebration of the marble's return to its rightful place at Karlu Karlu, funded by Community Aid Abroad. And because of the goodwill of the Arrernte, traditional owners of Alice Springs, Flynn's grave is still covered by a sacred stone, in keeping with his wife's wishes all those years ago. The grave of the Reverend John Flynn, famous founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, is at last protected by a stone that is spiritually connected by Aboriginal law to the Arrernte land upon which he lies buried.


This emotional and historic event is in stark contrast to the politics of compromise now dominating reconciliation debates in Canberra's corridors of power. There, the truth of our shared past has become a casualty to party politicking. Statements of "sincere regret" replace an official apology to the stolen generation, while doubletalk of Aboriginal "kinship" with the land obscures the fact of prior Indigenous ownership of Australia. Our own leaders could learn well from the wisdom of the ordinary Australians involved in this story: that we must address our past with honesty and courage in order to go forward together in the true spirit of reconciliation.

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About the Author

James Ensor is Director of Public Policy at Oxfam Australia.

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