16 Sep 2017 at 12:00AM
The Passing of a National Hero
Ampetyane (M. Hayes)
Last week, our nation lost a great fighter, an iconic Elder
of the Arrernte Nation and a senior Traditional
Owner of Mparntwe (Alice Springs).
As a nation, our wisdom, our knowledge base and our
cultural fabric is diminished. You may not have known her, or even been aware of
her. But she was a hero. A senior Traditional Owner in Central Australia. Under
her name, the successful Alice Springs Native Title Claim was fought and won. But
despite being recognized in both black and white legal systems as a rightful
custodian of her land, she was still fighting to have basic rights and
dignities afforded to her family.
Reflecting on this woman’s life opens a small window
into this contemporary war still being waged against First Nations peoples
across Australia. Even this account has been sanitized from the graphic
This old woman was a silenced warrior; a fierce advocate.
All her life, she wanted nothing more than to build a house on her traditional
lands. She died in hospital, after too many years in a nursing home, still
My privilege was to know her, be mentored by her, to be
in her presence, to feel her rage of injustice and know her simplest of
demands. Her life was lived against a tide of racism and dispossession,
ignorance and oppression. But she did not lower her head. Instead she was a smart,
sharp witted woman in her day who was fearless and forthright, funny and proud.
In Alice Springs, all of us who are not from the
Arrernte Nation, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, stand on her lands, work on her
lands, play on her lands. As a nation, we all benefit from the theft of her
land. What we enjoy as our privilege was her dispossession.
And for our privilege she was forced to live a life of
endless ignominy. Our wellbeing and opportunity ushered in economic poverty and
cultural violence against her and her families. The Arrernte Nation was ripped
apart by colonization and the creation of Alice Springs. She and her families were forcibly removed
from their lands. Her country in “Alice Springs”, was a prohibited area for
Aboriginal people from 1928 to 1964. After
being ‘allowed’ to return to her country her families fought for their right to
live in Alice Springs against a tide of protests and Government resistance.
She and her family lived at Irrkerlantye, an area in
Alice Springs known for its cultural significance.
There were many dispossessed First Nations peoples
looking for a new home after the referendum and the equal wages case. Many
ended up on her country. She supported the creation and legal recognition of areas
in Alice Springs to cater for a range of Aboriginal Nations. Despite being the
Arrernte Traditional Owner she and her family were never able to get legal
recognition over their parcel of land, where she lived and where they wanted to
build a house.
Native Title was presented as the answer to endemic
economic poverty and long awaited rights and recognition. Along
with key law men and women she made an application for Native Title in 1994 for
Mparntwe, Irlpme and Untulye Arrernte lands
in and around “Alice Springs.” The action was titled, M. Hayes and others vs
the Northern Territory Government.
Native Title was another demeaning process that required her
to prove their rights to her own lands. The expense and indignity were equally
appalling. Senior, dignified and respected Arrernte Law Men and Women, represented
by non-Aboriginal lawyers and awaiting judgment by a non-Aboriginal judge. They
had to prove their connection to a land that they spiritually and by Aboriginal
law had never left but were forced to vacate by non-Aboriginal law. People had
lived through being taken from their their lands and controlled by the State.
They had suffered the disappearance of children, the denial of wages,
poisoning, rape and beatings. Aboriginal massacres were known and all lived with
the brutal memories of the treatment of women, children and men in their
families. They had to prove themselves in a court of law that had
perpetuated these violations.
In 2000, after six years, the Australian Courts
recognized the Arrernte Nation’s coexisting Native Title rights and interests on most reserve,
park and vacant Crown land and waters within Alice Springs (while extinguishing rights
over other parts). It was the first
determination in Australia over a town region. What
did this Native Title recognition delivery for her? An action in her name? Nothing.
She continued to live her life on the edge of town. Neglected,
denied and ignored by Government. It is a place of deep ceremony, amongst
sacred acacia-covered hills. She lived her life in tin sheds, enduring the
interminable heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter nights. No infrastructure.
No power, no running water, no sewerage. Her singular ambition was for a house to
be built on her land, for her. An unfulfilled dream. Just
a few hundred meters away is the Alice Springs Pistol Club, with all of the town’s
amenities and infrastructure.
The political circus travelled to her, year after year.
Ministers and politicians, all making their mandatory visit to the “Aboriginal
problem.” She would graciously welcome them. They would sit on makeshift
chairs, in the dust and smoke, with the wind rattling the tin sheds. Babies and
kids, the old people and the young people. Each politician would make empty
promises to fix the horrific living conditions. Some have gone on to be Prime
Ministers. Meanwhile generations have passed and passed on, and nothing has
The Northern Territory Intervention swept through and
Not only was her simple and humble request for a house
denied, in 2014 the Northern Territory Government forced the removal of her families
from Irrkerlantye (Whitegate) by turning off the ‘unofficial’ water
supply. By then, she was in a nursing home. Her niece,
Felicity Hayes, resisted in the way her Aunty would have, and continues to
demand their basic rights on their lands. She and her sister remain at
Irrkerlantye and continue to seek support from the Northern Territory Government,
to extend the the official water supply and resolve the tenure for houses to be
built. A philanthropist has offered to build the first house.
This old lady was far from poor, but she lived in dire
economic poverty, among overcrowded tin sheds and endured unimaginable
hardship. Despite this, she was a leader. She represented and fought for the
Arrernte Nation, for her family, for her people. She raised her voice against a wall of
resistance and never tired despite being denied over and over again. She persisted. She
was a woman with an infectious grin and laugh, relentless strength and a deep
pride in her culture and the rights of Arrernte people. She was an Arrernte
National hero and an Australian National hero.
MK Turner OAM, another of our Nations heroes and
Arrernte Elder said of her…
“She loved all her family -
nephews, nieces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, always sharing
everything. Everyone was welcome in her home.
She stood strong as a Traditional Owner for
Mparntwe / Alice Springs, fighting for native title at White Gate. She worked
with many different organisations including Tangentyere Council Inc and Central Australian Aboriginal
Congress - anything related to Aboriginal children and
families. Working closely with schools in Alice Springs including Yipirinya School, she stood strongly and wisely for the benefit of everyone to
preserve language and culture. She was one of the elders who started Akeyulerre Healing Centre so Arrernte people could have their own place.
Her name will never be
As MK stated, this woman was generous, “Everyone
was welcome in her home”. Non-Aboriginal people have lived on her lands, become
wealthy on her lands, raised their families and enjoyed economic opportunity
from her lands. We have benefitted from her spirit of inclusion, while she was
Her life embodies the brutality of invasion and
colonization, the living reality of the injustice that continues today. This
injustice kills people - make no mistake. Her life
emerged out of violent legislation. We enshrined genocide in various forms of legislation
Frontier wars occurred, and included officially
approved massacres of Aboriginal peoples across the country. The last known
legally sanctioned massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory 1928.
The state was put in charge of Aboriginal people across
the country. The Queensland Aboriginal Act was studied and informed South
African apartheid policies. Those with power were very clear
about the future and worth of First Nations people.
W. Baldwin Spencer, a professor of biology and the Chief
Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory in 1911-12 stated: “The
aboriginal is, indeed, a very curious mixture: mentally about the level of a
child who has little control over his feelings and is liable to give way to
violent fits of temper... He has no sense of responsibility and, except in rare
cases, no initiative.” Spencer added that, “their customs are revolting to us”
and they were “far lower than the Papuan, the New Zealander or the usual
A.O. Neville the Commissioner for Native Affairs had a
three-point plan to rid Australia of Aboriginal people. The Stolen Generation
was a central part of this plan. The forced removal of children was only
officially this ceased as a practice in 1969.
I have seen two generation of Elders pass away. I have
been witness to the most disturbing and sickening injustice that continues to
define and defy our ‘Lucky Country’. This injustice is of our making, non-Indigenous
Australia - and its perpetuity is held in place by us. Non-Aboriginal people continue
to define the relationship with First Australians as we have since invasion and
There is a tendency to lay the blame and place responsibility
at the feet of First Nations people with the mantra, ‘if you try hard enough
you can make it’. The diversity of leadership in the First Nations politic means
that some First Nations people also hold this belief. This is at time used to
excuse the inaction of the privileged. All groups have great leaders on the one
hand and players on the other, willing to abrogate their responsibilities to
culture and basic humanity to secure their own power. The potential for blindness
and self-interest of privilege does not discriminate.
We are watching the Old People pass, the Professors,
Doctors and the knowledge holders, the Law Men and Women, the Elders. There is
a law that exists in these lands. The
senior people are grieving for their old people and their young people, for their
culture and language. Prisons, hospitals, centrelink, cemetaries are all too
familiar. We continue to perpetuate an
unwitting systemic genocide, powered by ignorance, racism and denial. The
problem lies not with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but with
our systems of laws, policy and practice. We believe that the solution is
complicated. But it is not. Listen, respect, respond.
Australia has the privilege of being the home to longest
living cultures and knowledge systems in the world. We could be a country whose
identity prides itself on this history. We could have institutions and laws
that honour and uplift, protect and promote these knowledge systems, not only
as a human right but for their value. Instead, a war continues against
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on their lands. In our inaction, we are all responsible. We
all stand witness.
As we go about our business today, tomorrow and
in the future, let us not forget the lands we walk on, the ancestors and the
families and children today who continue to fight for their voice, culture and
rights to be heard, embraced and honoured.
Please, remember this wonderful woman, her
struggle, her generosity, her culture and lore. It is with her spirit and
legacy that we may redeem ourselves and deliver basic rights to those who never
gave up their land and who simply want to protect their culture and identity and
determine a better future for their children and grandchildren.
Jane Vadiveloo, CEO, Children’s Ground.