Identification. The Ngatatjara speak the Warburton Ranges dialect of the Western Desert Language Group (Pitjantjatjara) in Western Australia and adjacent southwestern Northern Territory and northwestern South Australia. Their name for themselves, which means "those who have the word ngaata," which in turn means "middle distance," identifies the Warburton Ranges group in contrast with other, similarly identified dialect groups around them and does not imply any kind of tribal identity.
Location. The Warburton Ranges region is located at approximately 26° S and 127° E. The Warburton region includes rocky hills rising to an elevation of 700 meters above sea level and 300 meters above the surrounding terrain. Most of the region around these ranges consists of sandhills, sand-plains, and low knolls of laterite. There is no permanent surface water, although some relatively dependable water can be obtained by digging into dry creek beds and at other special localities. Weather records indicate that drought or semidrought conditions prevail throughout this region about 50 percent of the time, making it unsuitable for sustained, European-introduced agriculture or pastoralism.
Demography. In 1981 the Aboriginal population of Western Australia was estimated at 31,351, but no accurate count is available for the Ngatatjara as a separate group within this total. Even if one includes people who are only part Aborigine, the total for the Warburton Ranges people and related groups nearby stands at less than 2,000, with high mobility as a further complicating factor in achieving an accurate enumeration. Before resettlement by the government in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of these people followed a traditional, nomadic hunting-and-gathering way of life that dispersed them widely over the landscape. By 1970, the resident population at the Warburton Ranges Mission stood at around 400, and many Warburton people had already moved to other locations.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Ngatatjara dialect belongs to the Pitjantjatjara language, which is spoken over a wide area ranging from Kalgoorlie and Cundeelee, Western Australia, to the south and west; Ernabella and Musgrave Park, South Australia, to the east; and Papunya and Areyonga, Northern Territory, to the north. Currently accepted linguistic classifications place Pitjantjatjara within the Wati Subgroup of the South-West Group in the Pama-Nyungan (also called the Western Desert) Family. Most Ngatatjara are multilingual, at least at the dialect level, and they often switch dialects when residing in new areas. The Western Desert linguistic family shares many features in common with other native Australian languages, which, with the sole exception of a group in northern Australia, are believed by linguists to be closely cognate and to have diverged from a single, ancestral language within the last 10,000 years. The separation of these languages from their Asian antecedents occurred so long ago, however, that no clear genetic connections have been detected with languages in Asia today.