Flynns Grave and the return to KarluKarlu

Some 46 years ago a rock was removed from the Devils Marbles (Karlukarlu which is the Aboriginal name), south of Tennant Creek and transported 400 km to Alice Springs where it was placed above the grave of Dr John Flynn to safeguard his ashes and serve as an enduring marker of his grave.

In 1949, aged 70, Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctors service climbed Mt Gillen and declared this was the place he would like to be buried. Following his death in May 1951 Flynn's family and friends located a burial site at the foot of Mt Gillen, 15km west of the township of Alice Springs in accordance with his wishes.

Mrs Jean Flynn was motivated by the biblical story of the crucifixion in which a large rock was rolled across the entrance to the grave of Christ. At a meeting of community and church groups it was agreed that a similar action be taken to protect the ashes of the late reverend John Flynn.

Following an unsuccessful search for an appropriate rock in the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, a suitable rock was located in the Devils Marbles and transported to the site of Flynn's Grave by the Northern Territory Public Works Department without the consultation of traditional owners of that area. The rock was removed from Karlukarlu, which holds deep spiritual and cultural meaning for both Aboriginal men and women. The eight-tonne rock above the grave was finally placed in August 1953, more than two years after his death.

The stones of the Devils Marbles are regarded by traditional owners to have extraordinary powers with life threatening consequences for themselves should they be damaged. In 1998 these concerns warranted the re-routing of the proposed Alice Springs to Darwin railway alignment 8km to the west to remove the risk of such events.

However a similar incident happened in the 1980's when a rock was removed from an important sacred site to the north of Tennant Creek called Kunjarra, or Devil's Pebbles.

The stone was removed without any consultation and placed in a recreational park in the town's centre to enhance its tourist appeal. This caused such distress to the local Warumungu people that the rock was eventually taken back in July 1981 but only after 15 months of extensive controversy and also the tragic loss of a senior Aboriginal elder involved in its return.

This event added strength to the concerns of the traditional owners of Karlukarlu and the Arrernte people about the presence of the Karlukarlu stone on Flynn's grave.

Meetings were held in 1980 and 1981 between the Uniting church and Aboriginal representatives and the search for an alternative stone was commenced. However controversy surrounding the removal of the rock from Flynn's grave arose and circumstances at that time did not see negotiations over the rock finish.

It wasn't until 1996 when renewed negotiations once again commenced involving the CLC, Uniting Church, Rev. Fred McKay, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT which resulted in an agreement being reached in October of that year for the marble to be returned to Karlukarlu.

In early 1997 the Arrernte traditional owners of the site of the grave itself again began the search for an alternative rock. After considerable effort and input by all the parties concerned a suitable rock was identified in late 1998.

The stone was selected from a registered sacred site in Alice Springs associated with the Yeperenye (caterpillar) dreaming. The stone come from an area of vacant crown land subject to the Alice Springs Native Title Claim and was removed in accordance with a certificate issued by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

The Arrernte people have expressed that they would have been happy to find a suitable rock from the Alice Springs region as a sincere sign of reconciliation.

The exchange of rocks was financed by Community Aid Abroad.

The Central Land Council's involvement

For 20 years the CLC worked in the interest of the Aboriginal people involved and acted on behalf of the Warumungu, Keytete and Arrernte people in accordance with their decisions to get the marble returned to its rightful home.

Many meetings were held which proved fruitless and public opinion concerning the rock's replacement didn't acknowledge the custodians' concerns until the mid 90s. The CLC liaised with all parties concerned: the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, Community Aid Abroad, the Uniting Church, the Royal Flying Doctor, traditional owners and contractors to ensure the exchange of rocks was done in a culturally appropriate manner and the wishes of the traditional owners were respected.

This included persuading Community Aid Abroad to finance the exchange of rocks from replacing the rock to its rightful place to placing another rock above Flynn's grave.

The CLC liaised with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority for approval to gain certificates for the movement of both rocks involved. The replacement of the marble at Karlukarlu had to be approved due to the whole area of KarluKarlu being a registered sacred site.

The CLC organised a contractor to undertake the removal and transportation in the guidance of traditional owners, the Central Land Council, and Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. The traditional owners also requested a special ceremony be performed during the replacement of the marble at Karlukarlu.

The CLC engaged in endless consultations on behalf of the Kaytetye, Warumungu and Arrernte people with the RFDS, Uniting Church and Parks and Wildlife Commission, which proved to be a long, and at times, hard battle, but ended positively with all parties involved being satisfied and happy with the outcome.

The distress caused to Aboriginal people by the desecration of sacred sites is something that continues to happen today and is often something that very few people in Australian society see or understand. But it is spiritually devastating to Aboriginal people to have vital and spiritual links to country severed. The pride and goodwill of all parties involved was a true act of reconciliation