By KIERAN FINNANE
UPDATED: See at bottom.
Last updated 18 April 2019, 9.18am: caption for video.
The Territory Government, its Tourism and Culture Minister Lauren Moss and local MLA Dale Wakefield have a credibility problem on their hands: They are seeking to create an Aboriginal cultural institution while local Aboriginal discontent with their plans and process seems only to be building.
Left: Minister Moss at the recent opening of Desert Mob.
The government claims majority support from “Aboriginal stakeholders” for the proposed national Aboriginal art gallery on the preferred site of Anzac Precinct or on any site.
In the recently released consultation report these stakeholders are defined as “in particular Traditional Owners and Custodians, Native Title holders, respected Elders, leaders, heads and staff of key Aboriginal organisations”. They also include “individuals across the Aboriginal community”.
In the report and other public documents these stakeholders are anonymous, with two exceptions: Philip Watkins representing, as its CEO, Desart, the peak body for Aboriginal art centres; and Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens, apmereke artweye for Mparntwe.
Mr Watkins and Mr Stevens have accepted positions on the gallery’s National Reference Group. Mr Watkins co-chaired with Hetti Perkins the Initial Scoping Steering Committee, so rudely and inexplicably rebuffed by the government. That committee recommended against the Anzac site. Mr Watkins has representative obligations to Aboriginal art centres, but as far as I know, he has not renounced the views on the gallery project he expressed here in March. They included this:
“How we get there, the manner in which we get there” is critical to the success of the project. The process is part of building the institution’s reputation as a “centre of international excellence – this is how we will get the buy-in needed.” That buy-in needs to come first and foremost from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the country, and will not be forth-coming if “fissures” are seen.
“It’s something we shouldn’t be complacent about,” said Mr Watkins, “we need to have a consensus.”
Above: This video, featuring Mr Stevens, was removed from the NT Government’s site following Mr Stevens’ withdrawal of support for the Anzac Hill precinct location of the project. It has been replaced by a video promoting the location, apparently irrespective of the wishes of senior custodians.
Mr Stevens, who last year was also frontman for Parrtjima Festival in Light, has made a video, welcoming people to Mparntwe, “the home of the National Aboriginal Art Gallery” (even though it does not yet exist).
Readers should understand that apmereke artweye is not a position held by a sole individual, like a “chief”. In the determination of native title over Alice Springs the term is defined in this way: “Apmereke-artweye are holders of an estate and have particular responsibilities for looking after it and authorising what goes on there, although this is always done in terms of ancestral precedent.
“This implies a relationship between current apmereke-artweye, the ancestors themselves and the landscape in which they have come to be embodied … Apmereke-artweye have most often inherited their estate from their father and father’s father.”
There are other apmereke artweye for Mparntwe and traditionally they work in partnership with kwertengerle, whose role is “to check that apmereke-artweye look after an estate according to the dictates of the [Arrernte] law”.
Without questioning the support these men and other unidentified Aboriginal stakeholders have given the project, it is troubling that numerous identified local Aboriginal people continue to voice their objections to both the government’s preferred site and its process in developing the project.
I have given an account of everyone who spoke at the recent Town Council meeting; the contributors were overwhelmingly Aboriginal. All were closely connected to Alice Springs, and the majority were prominent senior Arrernte people.
They included Doris Kngwarraye Stuart, also apmereke artweye for Mparntwe, certainly senior. She has a long and proud history of speaking out to protect this country, in particular its sacred sites.
Left: Doris Stuart (middle) talking with former MLA Loraine Braham (left) and Veronica Hagan.
She can’t have made any more explicit her opposition to the gallery on the Anzac site and indeed anywhere north of the Gap.
A number of other women at the rally outside, ahead of the council meeting, spoke of the Anzac precinct as a “culturally inappropriate” location for the gallery. (Some of them also spoke inside. I am reporting here their additional comments.)
Barbara Liddle Satour said her whole family are against having a gallery on that site, for a range of reasons but including that the “whole area is a sacred site traditionally”.
She is not against a gallery built somewhere else, but not enthusiastic either: “I’d like to see them spend the money to make something good for the kids!”
Alison Furber said speaking “as an Indigenous person that is a very inappropriate place to place it as well”.
She strongly supports having a gallery – “as a learning curve, and education curve, teaching people about our culture, our Dreaming is alive today” – but not at Anzac.
“Stop upsetting the Arrernte nation, don’t put that there!” she said. “The gap is our front door. We need to keep it outside our front door.”
Left: Alison Furber, speaking to the ABC at the rally.
Ruth Furber and Brenda Shields together spoke to me about the Dreaming associated with the Anzac area that connects it with other sites right around Alice Springs and around Australia, but “the government are not listening”, said Ms Shields.
“They say they have,” I put to both.
“They’re not,” repeated Ms Shields.
“They haven’t listened to the traditional owners at all, no,” said Ms Furber. “They are disrespecting those people.”
“That’s right,” said Ms Shields.
“They are going to do what they want to do,” said Ms Furber. “Exactly. They are not worried about anybody else.”
Ms Shields explained what should have happened: “The traditional owners for the three groups [Mparntwe, Ilpme, Antulye] … when decisions are made, the three groups have to come together, that’s the cultural way, come together and make that decision that way.
Left: Ruth Furber with Joan Presley.
“Not for the government to go and ask one by one and to make a decision. They’ve been coerced into making the decision. It has to be the whole group, the Aboriginal communities.”
“And no such joint gathering has happened?” I asked.
“Not that we’re aware of,” said Ms Shields.
She went on to explain her strong historic attachment to the town: she is from Wangkangurru and Lower Southern Arrernte country but has lived here with her family. During the Second World War her father worked refuelling tanks and trucks for the Army when it was stationed on Anzac Oval; her aunty worked with the Stuart Arms, taking meals down to the officers. Her father played football on the oval, her mother played hockey.
“There’s a lot of history there with the Aboriginal people and everybody else who lived and worked in Alice Springs. That’s still the case today. We come together as a community to sort out this mess, that’s what it will be, a big mess!”
At this point Doris Stuart had arrived at the rally, Ruth Furber pointed out: “There’s the big boss lady there,” deferring to her cultural authority to speak for the Anzac area.
I approached Mrs Stuart as she was talking to Loraine Braham, former MLA for Braitling.
“They talk about cultural connection,” she was saying, “that’s how it used to be controlled, people south of the Gap, they had to seek permission to come through. Now it’s just open slather, anyone can come and say we’re going to put this here, we’re going to put this there.”
I have spoken previously to Mrs Stuart and her kwertengerle about consultation over sites in relation to Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) processes. They also described decision-making in collective meetings.
They said AAPA consultations 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, they said, the “right person” is the one who ticks the box.
At the rally I checked with Mrs Stuart: Has there ever been a families meeting on the gallery issues?
On the approach to engagement with Aboriginal stakeholders the report says this: “This engagement has been undertaken in a respectful and systematic way involving 146 face-to-face engagements with Aboriginal stakeholders, across 41 meetings and two engagement opportunities at NAIDOC information stalls.
“The conversations and meetings were designed to be safe and empowering to take account of people’s traditional, senior, public and private roles and positions and respecting confidentiality through individual or small meetings.” (p.23)
The intentions towards confidentiality may have been well-meant, but now a whole lot of very unhappy Aboriginal stakeholders, who feel they have not been listened to, are turning up in public meetings feeling safe and empowered enough to make their views known – and to have their names and often their pictures out in the open.
The report makes clear that “an Apmereke artweye”, who was deferred to by other “significant Elders” and had consulted “his Kwertengerle”, had expressed “strong support for the use of the preferred site for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery” and his clearance was provided to AAPA with respect to the project going ahead on the precinct “subject to protection of sacred sites”. (p.24) This is clearly Mr Stevens.
Left: Barbara Liddle Satour (left) and friend.
Readers should understand that the AAPA clearance is related exclusively to protection of sacred sites, within the framework of NT legislation. It does not amount to an endorsement of the government’s project. This was reported in the Town Council’s findings after its consultation with AAPA: “No views either way” other than to support “the views of their stakeholders”.
The government’s report goes on to note that “although clear cultural authority has been gained for the site, there is a senior Mparntwe custodian and registered native title claimant [sic] who does not support a site on Mparntwe country, preferring a site south of the Gap.”
I note in turn that the report does not use the term Apmereke artweye for this “custodian and registered native title claimant”, clearly Mrs Stuart, conferring the traditional term only on the person in favour of the proposal (also additionally described as a “native title claimant”).
The use of “claimant” is erroneous, although probably not intentional. The native title claim over Mparntwe is long settled. These people are native title holders.
The report also notes views from “Elders associated with the Nganampa Development Corporation that the Gallery should be located at or close to the Desert Knowledge precinct, co-located with the proposed National Indigenous Cultural Centre.” These are clearly Harold Furber, Furber family members and Owen Cole.
Whatever might be made of these ‘exceptions’, they do not cover the growing number of local Aboriginal people publicly critical of the Territory Government and now the Town Council in relation to the project. The latest to add his voice is Michael Liddle, a member of the original (rebuffed) steering committee, as Chair of the Strehlow Research Centre Board, and Executive Member of the Central Land Council. (See his comment on this report.)
Responding to the dissent, to the extent it is acknowledged, the report says an unidentified “majority of stakeholders said that we need to follow the view of the Apmereke artweye who had given his support for the Anzac Hill Precinct site and said that the Desert Knowledge precinct is too far from the CBD and limits access for most Aboriginal people.” (p. 24)
Need to? Even at the cost of significant trouble and division within the local Aboriginal community? Is this really a consequence (damage to the social fabric) and a public image that such a project, and the government pushing it, can live with?
If so, who is the project really for?
I put this question and a number of others to Minister Moss. She has not replied.
UPDATE: 10.10am, 1 October 2018:
Minister Moss’ media adviser furnished late Friday afternoon a reply to my questions, or rather I should say to an invitation to answer my questions. Rather than answers to questions, I was provided with a digest of statements made previously, including in the consultation report, from which I have already quoted. I asked:
Does the Minister acknowledge the risk to the national Aboriginal art gallery project of the growing opposition of local Aboriginal people to the government’s plans?
If so, what does she intend to do about it?
Is it a risk that such a cultural project can afford to live with?
If so, who is the project actually for?
The opening lines of the Minister’s statement are these:
“Aboriginal culture will be front and centre of the National Aboriginal Art Gallery. It will also deliver significant employment and economic benefits to communities throughout Central Australia.
“This is foremost in our minds as we move on with building this nationally significant cultural institution; the first of its kind dedicated to acknowledging and respecting the First Nations people of Australia.”
They provide an oblique answer to my first question: no, the Minister does not recognise the risk to the project of the growing opposition to the government’s plans from local Aboriginal people.
Therefore no answer is required for the next two questions.
The answer to the last is the non-specific “communities throughout Central Australia”.
The statement also says “key feedback from Aboriginal stakeholders” has included the following points:
“The Art Gallery will be an opportunity for young people to learn more deeply about their art and culture, and the art of other Aboriginal people from around Australia
“The Art Gallery will attract more people from around the country to Mparntwe where we can share our art and culture with visitors who can respectfully learn from them
“Many Aboriginal Traditional Owners, elders, leaders and people welcome the prospect of more jobs and business opportunities for Arrernte people and other local people in Central Australia through this project.”
The statement also refers to Desart “developing an Aboriginal Workforce and Enterprise Development Plan to achieve majority Aboriginal management and workforce by the time the Gallery opens in 2022. This work will be a significant contributor to the cultural integrity, success and sustainability of the Gallery.”
Finally the statement says: “There will never be a consensus view on where the National Aboriginal Art Gallery should go – if we waited to get a consensus view, the project would never be built.”
This ignores the fact that there has been no attempt to get to consensus in “the cultural way” with a joint families meeting, as reported above. It ignores also the fact that the controversial location was and is the government’s choice. They may have won some support for it, but the initiative did not come from Aboriginal people and was specifically advised against by the Aboriginal-led initial steering committee.
By KIERAN FINNANE