A recent smoking ceremony held at the base of the Stuart statue by people from Akeyulerre Inc, an Arrernte healing centre on the opposite side of Stuart Terrace. This photo and below courtesy Blake Paul Kendall.
By KIERAN FINNANE
In amongst the Town Council’s Technical Services updates last week was some brief information about the controversial statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart, installed in Stuart Park in July after a delay of four years.
The information included reference to the statue having been graffitied on “numerous occasions” – “refer attached open letter forwarded to the Mayor and Councillors”.
The open letter (full text below) is from Arrernte people – penned at Akeyulerre Inc, an Arrernte healing centre on Stuart Terrace on the occasion of a recent smoking ceremony people from the centre held at the site.
It is addressed to “Mr John McDouall Stuart”. It asserts, among its many points, acts of aggression by the explorer which it terms “murder” – an issue of contention as to the historical evidence. (See local historian Dick Kimber’s discussion of this issue – scroll down to find the article.)
More importantly, surely – from council’s point of view as a body supposedly representative of the whole community – is the expression of how these Arrernte people feel today about living in close proximity with the statue:
“Mr Stuart, we do not want to continue to live under the shadow of your statue and your gun. To white people you may be a heroic explorer who crossed the country from south to north.
“But we watch our children play around the base of your big statue with deep sadness.
“Your statue has been erected in a place where many Aboriginal families gather. Your statue is a bad influence on our children, on the next generation of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
“We do not want our children to play around guns at all. And we certainly do not want them to play under the shadow of your big gun – a gun that reminds us every single day of the killing and dispossession of our people.
“We respectfully ask that your statue be removed.
“We cannot change the past. But we can try to build a more peaceful, respectful, fair and truthful future. A future for all of us, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living together in this country.”
It was not surprising therefore to hear at last week’s meeting at least one question from a councillor – Jade Kudrenko – on whether council had replied to the letter.
No, said CEO Rex Mooney, officers were awaiting direction from the chamber.
Cr Kudrenko then said she would follow up in private conversation.
That was that. No-one else said anything.
A representative of Akeyulerre Inc, its current acting manager Penny Drysdale, was in the public gallery. Ms Drysdale later told the Alice Springs News Online that Akeyulerre Inc does indeed hope for a response from council: “We want to have a very respectful discussion.”
Why, the News asked Cr Kudrenko, did she not pursue the issue in the meeting, open to the public?
She says she spoke briefly about the matter with the CEO after the open meeting. They agreed to meet after the Masters Games (which ended last Saturday) to discuss it further, but haven’t yet.
Does she think council should respond to this letter? If so, shouldn’t it be discussed by councillors?
She says: “The letter was not addressed to council so I don’t think it is critical that we directly reply. Although I’ve been approached by a number of people who are distressed by the statue, and this letter is one example.
“I am conscious that ultimately it was a council decision to erect it in a public place. I feel a sense of responsibility to address the disharmony within the community, which the statue has brought to the surface.
“My intent in meeting with [the CEO] is to gain a deeper understanding of all the recent issues from a strictly council point of view. I am hopeful that we can look at constructive ways in which council can move forward on this issue. I am cautious not to contribute to further division in the community by jumping to loud opposition and only creating a further divide.
“I’ve participated in open discussions about the Freemasons’ JMS statute over the last few years. I opposed the installation of the statue although the democratic process lead to a decision contrary to my position. I’m now trying to find constructive ways forward.
“Some interesting ideas have been broached at the recent ASTC LAAC Partnership Committee meetings. I also am very keen to seek out any other opportunities for Alice Springs to acknowledge and respect the history of our first peoples and their ongoing contributions to our community.”
Could this letter really be considered “graffiti” as seemed to be suggested in the papers? The News put this question to council’s Director of Technical Services Greg Buxton.
“I personally wouldn’t call it graffiti,” he said.
On the question of a response to the letter he said, similarly to the CEO, that officers were awaiting direction from council as the letter was “addressed to the Mayor and elected members” – in that it had been forwarded to them in the mail.
He said the statue has been graffitied “four times so far”, twice with the word “sorry” and twice with “‘murderer’ and those sort of silly names”. The graffiti obviously expresses a negative view of the statue but he doesn’t think that “reflects the majority view”.
On what does he base that opinion?
On the many positive views expressed directly to council, he said, adding that “even” on the Alice News site “people have defended the statue”.
He said he doesn’t know why there’s a problem with the gun (even though a reason is clearly stated in the open letter).
“Everyone in those days had a spear or a gun for food,” said Mr Buxton, adding that there is “no evidence” that John McDouall Stuart “killed anyone”. There may be clear evidence throughout Australia of other murderous acts, he said, but in the case of Stuart it is only “hearsay”.
FULL TEXT of the “Open letter to Mr John McDouall Stuart from Arrernte people”:
Dear Mr Stuart,
We are writing to you on behalf of the Arrernte people of Central Australia.
You came to our country. You did not have our permission.
Your people were thirsty here in the desert and we showed you where there was water.
Your people were hungry and we brought you meat. We bought you big meat – kangaroo meat.
In return, you, Mr Stuart, brought cattle to ruin our water supply and our land. It has been destroyed where the animals have trampled it. There are no springs we can drink from anymore.
You came into our home. We have been living on this country for thousands and thousands of years. We have a strong culture but you never learnt about our culture. You never met and talked with the elders. You never took time to learn about our law, our culture, our society. You never showed us any respect in our own country.
Now we are writing you this letter with respect. We are not angry people. But we want to tell you how much your actions have harmed our country and our people, our people whose spirits are deeply connected to this country.
You came to Mount Hay and you killed our mob. You went to Attack Creek and you killed more of our mob. This is murder and we can’t forget it.
We heard you went back to England a sick man. Perhaps that is because you didn’t talk to our people in the proper way. You didn’t respect us on our country. Even though some of our people helped you survive along the way.
Mr Stuart, we do not want to continue to live under the shadow of your statue and your gun. To white people you may be a heroic explorer who crossed the country from south to north.
But we watch our children play around the base of your big statue with deep sadness.
Your statue has been erected in a place where many Aboriginal families gather. Your statue is a bad influence on our children, on the next generation of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
We do not want our children to play around guns at all. And we certainly do not want them to play under the shadow of your big gun – a gun that reminds us every single day of the killing and dispossession of our people.
We respectfully ask that your statue be removed.
We cannot change the past. But we can try to build a more peaceful, respectful, fair and truthful future. A future for all of us, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living together in this country.
In this future we hope that public monuments will reflect Aboriginal perspectives on history and not just one side of the story.
Think about how you would feel if you were in our position …. if you were here first …. if your people had been here for 40,000 or 50,000 years? How would you feel if it was us who came from another country and killed your people? How would you feel if this murder of your relatives happened only 150 years ago? How would you feel if we erected a big statue right where your families gather to glorify this act?
Perhaps you would feel like society didn’t really respect you at all. Perhaps you would feel deeply sad and deeply offended.