Custodians’ faith in sacred sites authority destroyed



Above: Doris Stuart wears black: “I’m in mourning for my country.” She is standing on the ‘bridge to nowhere’ crossing the subdivisional drain. Tharrarltneme rises on the left. 


“I accept that the custodians need to have faith in the legislation and the way that the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority certificate system operates. And if they don’t have faith in the way the system works, they can hardly be blamed for not participating in the consultations and in the approval processes in the future.”

So said Magistrate Melanie Little in October 2006 when the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority took the Arrernte Council to court for damage done to the sacred site Tharrarltneme, known in English as Annie Meyer Hill.

At the time there had been an AAPA clearance certificate issued for a cycling and walking path to skirt the hill where it plunges into the river, connecting to the path that had been laid along the eastern river bank. Those works came to a halt when conditions of the certificate were breached and AAPA launched its prosecution, which was ultimately successful.

In that prosecution, by AAPA’s own processes Doris Stuart and her family were the custodians identified as the primary victims of the damage. Their powerful victim impact statements were read onto the court record.

In the recent process conducted by AAPA concerning the same site and similar proposed works the Stuarts have been sidelined.

Announcing on 4 March the construction of a boardwalk skirting the hill, Chief Minister Adam Giles said his government is “working very closely with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and the Traditional Owners to ensure sacred sites are preserved”.

The Stuart family do not believe that the site can be preserved from damage by these works.

p2515-BoardwalkThey cannot see how rocks won’t be drilled into, rocks that are integral to the site which extends into the river and are part of one and the same storyline, Ntyarlke Tyaneme, embodied in the small hill on the opposite bank (Magistrate’s or Judge’s Hill, so called after the home of a magistrate was constructed on top of the hill; it has since been removed) and in the Caterpillar ridge on Barrett Drive (the end of which was dynamited by a government contractor in 1983).

They cannot see how sacred trees on the site will be protected. Designs (see above right) released by Mr Giles show the boardwalk passing between trees close on either side. How will the works not impinge on the root areas of these trees? they ask. For the works underway in 2005 (subject of the 2006 court case) the exclusion zone for mature trees specified by the certificate was four metres for any works at all, and hand tools only between four and six metres.

The Stuarts say they have not been allowed to see the conditions of the new clearance certificate, issued without their support.

They further question the need for the boardwalk at all. It is hard to see how it compares as a “drawcard for visitors and locals” – Mr Giles’s words – with the natural beauty and deep cultural significance of the unimpeded site.

At present, visitors and locals using the path along the eastern river bank can cross the river at Tunks Road causeway, adjacent to the hill, and continue on the other side all the way to the Telegraph Station. With the boardwalk, they would be able to continue on the eastern side only as far as the Schwarz Crescent causeway where they would have to cross the river anyway and continue on the other side.

Is that really worth the distress they are suffering, the risk of damage to the site, the certain impingement on the site of the structure, and the expenditure of $825,000 of public funds?

p2315-Boardwalk-mapOr is this simply a bloody-minded attempt to impose the will of the powers that be, retrospectively justifying the existence of the ‘bridge to nowhere’, installed across the drain on the northern side of the hill and left without a purpose for this last decade. As the boardwalk design shows, it would be joined to the new works (see structure at end of the green line in the aerial view at left).

The Stuarts ask why the bridge cannot be moved from its present useless location to one where it would serve the community without jeopardising Arrernte cultural heritage, which has already come under such great pressure and suffered so many losses.

Doris Stuart is a senior custodian of the site, as was her late brother. The term in Arrernte is apmereke-artweye. Her nephew and son are kwertengerle, the site’s managers. Their role and responsibility under Arrernte law is “to play a shielding or protecting role for owners and for country”.

So, how has AAPA “directly consulted” with them, which CEO Dr Ben Scambary says has been the case?

Mrs Stuart says that when an AAPA staffer came to collect her for an onsite consultation, he told her she had to “learn to compromise”. Apparently “no” was not an answer AAPA were prepared to hear. Mrs Stuart declined to attend the meeting.

Dr Scambary says Mrs Stuart “was represented by family members”. “Representation” is not the right way to put it, says Mrs Stuart, and he should know that. As kwertengerle it is her son and nephew’s right and responsibility to speak for that country; they do not need to be nominated by her.

The kwertengerle certainly did attend an onsite consultation for the proposed boardwalk, but this was an information session only, they say. It was not a meeting where a decision was made. They say AAPA will not disclose to them the names of the people who have apparently given the go-ahead for the boardwalk.

p2315-AAPA-Scamary-CreightoFurther, kwertengerle John Newchurch, Mrs Stuart’s nephew, says he has been asked by an AAPA compliance officer to “resign” as a custodian. He says this is because of his “overall stance” in relation to a few projects, not only the boardwalk, but he laughs in disbelief. His role is his “birthright”: impossible to resign from it. (Mr Newchurch is pictured at right during happier days in 2014 with Dr Scambary and Dr Sophie Creighton of AAPA’s Alice Springs office.)

And if he is being asked to resign, are other people being asked to sign up, and on what basis?

In his written statement issued to Alice Springs News Online, Dr Scambary refers to the successful AAPA prosecution in 2006. It is true that for a while that action went some way towards restoring the Stuarts’ faith in the system, but it has now been destroyed.

Aboriginal law governing the way sites are protected and spoken for has not changed. So what has?

The change has come from the way consultations are conducted, they say. They were once large family affairs: the Stuarts, the Stevens, the Rices would sit down together, at the AAPA offices, or out on their country; they would talk at length about what the development proposal was asking for and discuss all its implications for sites. Between them it would be understood who were the right people to speak for particular areas and sites, in accordance with their Aboriginal law. Those people would be supported by the rest of the group.

These days, it seems to the Stuarts, the “right person” is the one who ticks the box.

The structures created by the Native Title Act have provided the way around traditional laws and custodians’ rights and responsibilities, they say. Native title, instead of the laws of kin and skin, is being used to provide a pool of people to talk to and to get government the outcome it wants.

To the Stuart family’s great distress, other Aboriginal people are allowing themselves to be part of the divide and rule strategy.

p2315-Doris-Stuart-treeThe kin and skin process served the “bigger picture” of sites. Different people would bring to the process their knowledge, cultural and historical, of the things that had happened in the past, of things that may happen in the future by consequence of present decisions and actions – because sites are all inter-connected, links in a chain, they don’t begin and end at the cyclone mesh or at a line on a map. (At left Mrs Stuart stands on Tharrarltneme; the cyclone mesh marks the boundary of the Olive Pink Botanical Garden.)

Over the years many links in the chain have been weakened or irreparably damaged. Among them, key sites of the Caterpillar Dreaming – Tharrarltneme (Annie Meyer Hill) and Ntyarlke Tyaneme (both Magistrate’s Hill and the Caterpillar ridge on Barrett Drive) – have all been damaged.

The risk of further damage has increased now that consulting on the protection of sites has become a matter of who is available on the day – “it’s hit and miss”, say the Stuarts. There is no integrity in the process.

If damage occurs, there may be a prosecution, there may be a fine, but prosecutions and fines don’t bring sites back. AAPA staff, the government, the developers “don’t feel the pain of the damage done”, says Doris Stuart.

“We are the ones who get left with the heartache and have to face the consequences. We lose lives over it. If I do the wrong thing, I’m finished, because I’ve sold out.”

In 2006 Mrs Stuart told the court:

“Long before the Sacred Sites Act, my father protected his country before my family today. He worked as a yardman at the railways and he protected sites like that Dog Rock that lies near the old yards. He protected it long before any white man’s legislation and white people respected him as a custodian of Mparntwe and they respected his right to do that.

“You may think that what I’m saying means I’m against development or change, but I’m not. As a custodian of Mparntwe, along with my family, I have consulted with AAPA for many years to help manage the development of Alice Springs in the right way. That’s my responsibility to the present, to everyone and everything in Mparntwe today.

“But it’s unfortunate that the town of Alice Springs sits right in the middle of Mparntwe. It makes it so difficult because we don’t have anywhere else to go. This is it for us. All that makes us who we are in this country right here, not any other country. And so I have to take that responsibility very seriously, to make sure I’ve done the right thing by those people before me and by those people who come after me.”

Something else has also been lost in this sorry tale, lost for the Stuarts and for the whole community, and that is the sense of being able to work constructively together, protecting sites and undertaking development works.

In the early 2000s Mrs Stuart’s son was a member of the Todd River and Charles Creek Management Committee, established by the Alice in Ten Project. In this role he was representing Lhere Artepe, the native title body. He was involved in each stage of works undertaken in the river: couch grass control, sand removal, and the construction of walking and cycling tracks along the banks. He was a custodian, of course, but made it clear that his work on this project was as a native title holder, leaving the representation of custodians’ wishes to his uncle and to AAPA.

“We all took so much time and effort and care to get it right,” he told the court in 2006, “to do the work properly, and from the beginning I felt that all the other parties were finally demonstrating a respect and understanding for the needs of custodians and the native title holders.”

When he learned about the damage to Tharrarltneme in a distressed phone call from his mother, he felt “absolutely shattered”.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It made no sense to me. The two ends of the path were being constructed. I’d seen that work being undertaken the way it was planned … I felt that all that good work, all those good feelings, all that confidence and trust that I’d developed, that the custodians’ needs about looking after country were finally being listened to, all that was gone in an instant from one phone call.”

He couldn’t go back to the management committee meetings: he felt that all the good work had been undone, that he’d let down the native title holders, and that he and his family, the custodians, were “right back where we were before, with all the other desecrations and damage, and the feelings of distress and anxiety that had been there when sacred sites [were] damaged.”

He tried to explain why damage causes such distress:

“This is my home in the truest sense. The relationship I have with this country is an intimate relationship … The country owns me and I have a role to play to take care of my home for my family. Everyone feels that way about their home, but when something terrible has happened it leaves me feeling hollow because I feel I haven’t protected my family and my home the way I should.”

The Alice Springs News Online put a detailed series of questions to AAPA CEO Dr Scambary. He answered none of them, providing us only with a general statement. It included this:

“The current proposal differs from the earlier proposal in that it avoids the key features of the sacred site by utilising a boardwalk. Custodians were instrumental in changing the design of the project to avoid the key features of the sacred site through detailed consultation with the Department of Infrastructure.”

Below: Mrs Stuart looks into the river sands where Tharrarltneme continues.



  1. Thank you for pulling this story together, Kieran. Apmereke artweye and kwertengerle are so sorry for this relentless distress. We are so fortunate to live in this ancient sacred place.

  2. Many people including our mayor, elected council and government members, the chief minister and others stand up at the start of all their events and acknowledge the Arrernte people and the custodians of this country. Do they mean it or is it just an empty gesture? Standing against this waste of money, this damage to a sacred site and our unique cultural heritage is a fine opportunity to really acknowledge the Arrernte people custodians and country. Where are you Damien etc?

  3. I can just see Damien acknowledging the custodians at the official opening of this fiasco. Or will he keep his mouth shut and just cut a ribbon around his integrity.

  4. I question the professionalism of the AAPA on whether they have adhered to the Australian Anthropological Society’s code of ethics?
    These types of people at AAPA (with PHDs) are changing NT Aboriginal history forever. Thats not their birthright.

  5. So are you saying Elvis that we shouldn’t listen to our grannies, respect the position of those senior people with cultural knowledge? Forget what the grandfathers said and listen to the grandsons?

  6. Good on you Doris, I support you in your fight to protect sites from the people who are supposed to be doing that but instead are bending over backwards to satisfy contractors.
    It’s a pity we also have to read the ignorant and uneducated crap from so called men like Elvis. Instead of posting your rubbish why not speak to Doris and her family or are you not man enough … shhh now!


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