Old Mintulee (Joe the Rainmaker) of Thurrabarree became a Birdsville resident in 1899 when he and the remnants of his horde emerged for the last time from their home patch and made camp by the Diamantina River within sight of the township of Birdsville.  They were attracted by the large numbers of white settlers arriving and the promise of keep in return for work.

Joe the Rainmaker's small group joined a larger party of Wangkamadla, Karangurru, Mithaka and other native refugees from the surrounding desert districts in seeking handouts of rations offered by the cattle station managers.



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Joe the Rainmaker

Last of the Wangkangurru

Birdsville's Australian Inland Mission Hospital

At the time the survivors left the desert, Wangkangurru territory took up the southern half of the Simpson Desert.  The NASA map of the Simpson shows the astronauts' view from space.  Bottom left is Lake Eyre and bottom right, the end of the Northern Flinders Ranges is shown.  The dominant diagonal scar of rouge running from Lake Eyre is the Kallakoopah floodplain which ends at Birdsville, positioned under the clouds in the top right sector.

Joe came out of the Simpson to live in Birdsville, south west Queensland.   The esteemed anthropologist Norman Tindale described the hordal territory of the Wangkangurru as being bounded :

"On Stevenson Creek north to Mount Dare; at Blood Creek; east on Macumba Creek; on lower Finke River; in southern portion of Arunta (Simpson Desert); southeast to Kallakoopah Creek and the Warburton; at Atna Hill. "
Tindale commented further that traditionally the Wangkangurru were displaced south by the Wangkamadla and themselves forced the Dieri to shift southward.  Birdsville resident Fiona Booth has corrected the information passed on to me in the sixties by the nursing sisters that Joe was a Wangkangurru man;  instead, he was Mithaka, she claims.  Adding to my confusion, Fiona wrote in her emails of 2005 that Joe hailed from Thandapurty, a waterhole on Durrie Station, known as a rainmakers' place.  Mithaka influence included Glengyle, Lake Machattie, Monkira and Kaliduwarry as well as Durrie.  When I coupled this knowledge with the suggestion of a 'Warrthampa' ceremony being a Mithaka tradition regularly performed at Kaliduwarry, I was ready to come around to Fiona's view.  Any further insight from other sources into Joe the Rainmaker's background is welcomed.

AIM Sisters at the Madigan Monument Dedication

"The nursing outpost is staffed by two registered nurses who provide the only community-based health services, covering an area of 1000sq kms from Birdsville.   They are responsible for acute first response emergency care, general outpatients, home and community nursing services, health education and promotion, advising on public health matters as well as pharmaceutical supplies, basic radiography, administration, etc."
"Occasionally the sisters are also called upon to provide basic veterinarian and dental assistance," continued Ken Leckenby in the Queensland Flying Doctor magazine.   Brenda Preston and Barbara Struck, nursing sisters in charge of Birdsville's Australian Inland Mission (AIM) Hospital, were my first port of call for backup medical support when the Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) seismic survey party first emerged from the Simpson Desert following the construction of the French Line in 1963.

The sisters told me an intriguing tale of the life of Joe the Rainmaker, who as a young man had been among a handful of survivors of a brutal massacre by the Queensland Native Police (QNP) at Kaliduwarry waterhole about 1888.  Joe lived to be ninety five as it turned out.  They showed me his well-tended grave in the Birdsville Cemetery and I saw the rough cross marking the resting place at Joe's feet of his nemesis and perpetrator of the massacre, QNP sub-inspector Robert Little.  More than ten years were to pass after the massacre before Joe and his people finally emerged from the desert.

Birdsville Looking West From the Old Water Tower

Birdsville owed its origins to a store built by Robert Frew in 1882.  The cemetery was in constant use soon after, although no records survive, which is the way of Queensland bureaucrats of the past.   George Farwell reported in his Land of Mirage (Rigby 1960),

"From this solitary store upon a burning gibber plain arose a lively town which, according to the census of 1895, numbered ninety whites and a hundred and eighty aborigines ..."
It was not until 1923 that the AIM Hospital was opened by sisters Grace Francis and Catherine Boyd.  I can report that at the time I first visited the hospital when sisters Preston and Struck had charge, the count had shrunk to eight whites and sixty three blacks, although the population is said to be on the rise again afforded in great part, I believe, by the accessibility of the Simpson that followed our French Line adventure and as the cynics might add, by the absence of recent massacres.

Vandals Effect Outback Cemeteries, Too

Sub-Inspector Little fell off his horse in Birdsville and died of a broken neck in 1889, a year after leading the murderous hunt at Kaliduwarry.  I didn't get to see the two graves again until 1994 and by then, Little's had disintegrated.  The cross was gone and there was no sign of Joe's grave ever having been placed so pointedly on the slope with his feet to Little's head in silent retribution, as I had seen it thirty years before.  Perched on a sand dune, Birdsville's cemetery can scarcely be described as easy-care but surprisingly, it has also suffered from senseless vandalism like the city ones do, despite its remoteness.

It was the killing of a station cook near Durrie on the Diamantina that led to the savage attack by the vengeance party of the QNP.  It was timed to wreak the maximum effect on the innocent young blacks known to be assembling around the permanent waters of Kaliduwarry.   Great gatherings of aboriginal youth were held at Kaliduwarry on the Eyre Creek on a regular basis and attracted juveniles from as far away as the Gulf of Carpentaria to below the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.

The occasions were known widely as "Warrthampa" ceremonies and celebrated sexual maturity for the young delegates sent to represent their hordes.   Participants used the opportunity to trade exotic merchandise from distant places and the change in terrain as they travelled, summoned by message-stick to the appointed meeting spot, brought welcome dietary choices in game, fish, birds and grains.  On this occasion practically all those involved, some two hundred souls, were murdered by the QNP, led by Little.

Joe the Rainmaker's Headstone

Of all the Lake Eyre hordes, the Wangkangurru of the southern Simpson were the last to have direct contact with Europeans and the last to relax their own ways in favour of the white mans' culture.  It must have been a shock, for no sooner was Joe out of the desert than he was put in the care of the local 'Protector of Aborigines,' and given a number.  The proud Mintulee of Thurrabarree was henceforth known by his white protectors simply as J11, but by all other interested parties deferentially as Joe the Rainmaker until his death in September 1955.

George Farwell declared Joe solemnly told him how he made the Diamantina come down in flood, a perilous adventure since his blind, decrepit sister had almost been drowned in her wurlie on the bank.   Some years before Joe's death George wrote of meeting with him in Birdsville, reported in Walkabout (March 1948):

"... the gnarled and aged rainmaker, carefully wrapping up his rain-stones beside the Diamantina.   Last survivor of his tribe ..."

Old Joe With Friend Ruby Harris, 1951

Birdsville's rainfall hovered about five inches annually if the district was lucky and Joe earned a few shillings from the townsfolk for his successes in breaking a drought.   He felt duty-bound to relieve all droughts with well-prepared rainmaking rituals.  Joe began with a ration of emu fat if he could come by it, else fat from bullock or goat kidneys.  He would mix the fat with powdered kopi (rainstone - a form of gypsum) and blood.  In her book 'From City to the Sandhills of Birdsville' (Copyright Publishing 1994) Mona Henry, herself a Birdsville AIM sister circa 1950, writes of Joe's requirements:

"In bygone days it was human blood, but in these civilised times, he had to be content with animal blood.  Emu feathers if available, built into a mound over the rainstone, helped bring success to the ceremony.  When he was ready he would sing the tribal rainsong and like Ghandi, fast to bring results.  Rainmakers must be good weather prophets, as I have yet to hear of one dying of starvation.   When sufficient rain had fallen, Joe would visit the settlers to collect his fees."

Modern-day Birdsville Sisters Filmed for TV Doco

Sisters Preston and Struck recounted for me the last days of 'white fella' treatment for Joe the Rainmaker in the AIM Hospital.  He was dying and even though strapped to the bed for three days, he persuaded the good nurses to let him return to the riverbank to be with his fellows and wait for his end as naturally as could be.  They told me that Joe survived under a tree for six months, craving no food, asking only for water, yet kept happy and was fulfilled every day, being in the midst of his adopted horde and seeing them go about their lives, being visited constantly by anyone coming and going about the camp.

It leads us to revile the Australian 'close family' approach to aged care and how we bundle our old folk into nursing homes rather than look after them in their own precinct, as is the European way.   Even that falls short of the total care practiced so efficiently and economically by the aboriginals.  The tragedy for them has been the misery we have laid upon them in their generous, childly-compliant moments with us, these last two hundred-odd years of their history.   The mystery for us is how, in the face of the suffering we have inflicted upon their race, can they so readily overcome problems with their own elderly and in so doing, surpass the degree of care we can muster for our people.   And why do we continue to distance ourselves from them and their customs, begging to be different?


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