The Impact of a Life (and a Death): Colonial Encounters and Aboriginal Desert Practices




In 2017, Michelle Bui, Dean Chan, Suvendrini Perera, Joseph Pugliese, and Charandev Singh released a thorough and respectful investigation on Deathscapes about the death while in detention of an Aboriginal desert artist and leader named Mr. Ward nine years earlier. In this moving conversation with Jan Turner, we talk about the Ward family’s “encounter” with Australian colonialism, Mr. Ward’s life and relationship with the desert, as well as the collective repercussions of his premature death.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are kindly advised that this conversation contains multiple references to a deceased Aboriginal person.

Turner Funambulist 3
Mr Ward’s cousin-sisters Valerie Naputja Ward and Daisy Tjuparntarri Ward dig for goannas in the Gibson Desert.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: As a very brief first question, may I ask you to tell us about your relationship with the Ward family? 

JAN TURNER: I came to the desert from the coast as a young anthropologist, and I was welcomed to the desert by the Ward family. For thirty years, this Aboriginal family has become part of my own family and my children’s family. So my relationship to this case is an extremely personal relationship. I realized how personal it was, when, shortly after his death at the coroner’s inquiry, an investigative journalist kept pushing me to look at questions of systemic racism, and I was so in sorrow, that I could recognize what she was doing. But I couldn’t respond. My relationship to the deceased is an extremely close one. And it means that I’m still in an ongoing network of relationships with his family, in particular, his widow, and his children, but also, his extended family. And I think as this interview continues, you probably get to know the reasons for that.

LL: And can I also ask about your relationship with the desert?

JT: I’m absolutely attracted to the desert. I love the sense of spaciousness, and the fact that you can look low over vast distances to the horizon. I’ve also been lucky that my only times being in the desert have been with desert people. And so I’ve seen the richness of the desert, the wonder of the desert, the vastness of the skies… I think we can enter into the cosmology of desert people. So for me, the desert hasn’t been a place of low rain or scarce resources; it’s been a place of wonder. So I’ve been extremely fortunate to see deserts as places of life.