Remembering an elder and a warrior

Photo by Jane Vadiveloo.

Obituary contributed by Jane Vadiveloo*

Last month, our nation lost a great fighter in M Hayes Ampetyane, 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 recognised 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 sanitised from the graphic realities.

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 waiting.

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 colonisation 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 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 recognised 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 went on to be Prime Ministers. Meanwhile generations have passed and passed on, and nothing has changed.

The Northern Territory Intervention swept through and delivered nothing.

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 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.

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 is CEO of Children’s Ground. This is an extract of an article originally published on the Children’s Ground website at www.childrensground.org.au

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