Deep in Australia's Outback, in the red dirt of the Tanami Desert and north of the Macdonnell Ranges, lies an Aboriginal community called Yuendumu, where the lack of shade rivals the lack of activity. Yet every August more than 1,000 of Australia's 375,000 Aborigines trek from as far as 750 miles to the Yuendumu Sports Carnival, one of the largest tribal-based sports competitions in the country. Since its beginning 30 years ago, the carnival has spawned similar gatherings in other parts of Australia, all of which celebrate tribal togetherness as much as competition.
Teams from different communities, most of them in the Warlpiri tribe, compete in sports events. There is the traditional Aboriginal sport of spear throwing, and a ceremonial dance, called purlapa, performed by the women. Nontraditional sports include men's and women's basketball, softball and Australian Rules football. The venues are improvised: Spear throwing takes place in a church parking lot, and football matches are played not on grass but in the dirt. The winners—such as, this year, the Yuendumu Magpies in football and the Lajmanu Wampana in men's basketball—receive trophies that they take back to their native communities but must return to the carnival the following year. After dusk there is musical entertainment in the form of bands that play rock, blues, and country and western music, mainly with electric guitars. "The occasion is a combination of a social gathering and a sports event with cultural overtones," says Frank Baarda, manager of the Yuendumu general store.
The carnival usually lasts four days but sometimes is longer as a result of the Aborigines' tendency to stray from fixed schedules. Visitors to Yuendumu sleep out in the open, many of them under trees beside which their vehicles are parked. That is not unusual for these seminomadic people, who often travel to hunt game such as goanna, kangaroos and wallabies.
For the Aborigines, "Sport has paved the way for respect from white Australia," writes David Horton in The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia. "It has given Aboriginal people a sense of work and pride. It has shown Aboriginal people that competing with their bodies is one way of competing on equal terms with an often hostile and certainly indifferent mainstream society."