By KIERAN FINNANE
In 1957, when he was just four and a half, the government, in removing him from his mother and sending him to faraway Croker Island, tried to sever his connection with his Aboriginal families, with his Country.
They did damage but they didn’t manage to destroy either. From his late teens into his adult years H. J. Furber dedicated himself to re-establishing both. He was laid to rest in Arrernte Country last Friday, with his Aboriginal families there to speak for him and to cry for him. Inseparable from its people, this was his home and much of the object of his life’s work.
It would be easy to understand bitterness arising from his early wounding experience. But even if bitterness was something felt and expressed from time to time – as his son Declan Furber-Gillick acknowledged in his eulogy – Mr Furber refused to dwell in it, to let the removal define him.
His commitment was rather to work towards making a better future together, Aboriginal Australians and Other Australians.
“The way I see it,” he told his son, “we’ve all got to live here together and share this place, one way or another, black, white or brindle, that’s what it’s all about.”
That this was his message was underlined, in various terms, by other speakers at his funeral service, held at the Desert Knowledge Precinct for which Mr Furber was a longtime advocate and Intercultural Elder-in-Residence.
Given the layers of pain he must have moved through to come to such a forgiving and forward-looking position – shared by many other local Aboriginal people, all of whom would have grievances, personal and systemic, that they could dwell in – it is worth reflecting on how this aspiration has been taken up in ‘the mainstream’.
There were no doubt some wins and satisfactions for Mr Furber as he fought on many fronts for justice and recognition for his people, but a glaring example of rebuff remains, highlighted at the service by his friend and colleague Owen Cole.
It is unfinished business for our town.
Mr Cole recalled their long association, going right back to “the Gap Cottages” before “Furbs” and his sister Trish were “grabbed by Welfare” and taken away.
“The crying of the mothers and grandmothers and siblings lives in you forever,” he said.
Against the background of this early trauma, Mr Cole hailed Mr Furber’s achievements as “unbelievable”: “He was an extraordinary Arrernte leader.”
Much of the rest of his speech was about the two men’s joint efforts to establish a national Indigenous art and culture centre, inspired by the outstanding success of the Yeperenye Federation Festival: the biggest Indigenous cultural festival ever held in Australia, with 30,000 attending over the two days, 1500 performers from outside Alice Springs, 8000 from Central Australia.
Mr Furber announcing plans for the centre at NAIDOC 2017.
Mr Cole was the festival’s project manager for CAAMA, while Mr Furber, working at the time for the Central Land Council, negotiated the complex cultural protocols involved in four different tribal groups telling the Yeperenye caterpillar story. (An image of the sacred caterpillar adorned his coffin; it was designed by the late Rosie Furber and painted by Natassia Gorey-Furber.)
A few years later, they started formulating a proposal for a national art and culture centre for Alice Springs, “the spiritual heart of Australia”.
About six years ago, with help of Scott McConnell and Amy McArdle, they prepared a funding proposal for the NT Government, and Mr Furber followed up, in “typical Furber persuasive style”, by convincing 40 representatives from Indigenous cultural centres in every state in Australia to support the centre being based in Alice Springs.
(As far as I’m aware, this wealth of cultural support – arguably more critical than the dollars and cents budget – has not been sought nor been forthcoming for the government’s proposed national Aboriginal art gallery.)
A huge in kind investment was also delivered by Mr Furber when he won support from the Desert Knowledge Precinct management committee as well as from the art and culture centre’s own committee (initially called the Nganampa Anwernekenhe Working Group, later re-baptised as the steering committee for the National Indigenous Culture Centre, NICC) to build the centre on 75,000 sqm of land at the precinct, “for a peppercorn rental”.
This land was allocated back in 2006, as part of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement governing the precinct’s operations. It was described then as a “Living Desert Cultural Centre”, though the concept has since evolved to embrace a national Indigenous perspective.
Mr Cole in the crowd at NAIDOC 2017, during Mr Furber’s announcement
After all this grass roots work, it’s not surprising that Mr Furber, Mr Cole and their supporters were “disgusted” when Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the art gallery would be built on Anzac Oval, overriding his own expert panel (the Perkins-Watkins led steering committee) “who opposed that site”*, and “the opposition of custodians who told Minister Moss it had to be located south of the Gap”.
“Minister Moss at least showed respect in formally acknowledging the custodians’ opposition,” said Mr Cole, although the government and its officers continue to bypass the custodian group.
“It’s pretty simple,” explained Mr Cole. “The Central Land Council can’t approve a mine on Warlpiri land without the approval of TOs; Lhere Artepe or anyone else cannot approve the Anzac Oval without the approval of custodians.”
Then came his bombshell: He said that at the start of 2020 election campaign Chansey Paech (now Arts Minister) “pledged” to him and Sheralee Taylor (the Labor candidate for Namatjira) that once the election was over, the government would “toss … in the bin” the Anzac Oval acquisition and relocate the proposed gallery project to the Desert Knowledge Precinct.
According the Mr Cole, Mr Paech then “felt the pressure of the Labor Party apparatus” and “backtracked” to pledge support for the gallery on Anzac Oval.**
“Furbs always said Minister Paech should respect the clear decision of the custodians to locate the gallery south of the Gap. He wanted Chansey to lead the charge,” said Mr Cole.
In an interview given to The Australian a few weeks before his death, Mr Cole said Mr Furber accused the government of stealing the gallery project from its Indigenous steering committee, and in doing so, had “mortally wounded” it.
In the interview Mr Furber apparently described the government decision to compulsorily acquire Anzac Oval (involving the necessary relocation of the rugby codes) and demolish the high school infrastructure as “financially irresponsible”, and called for an immediate inquiry by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) into the government’s alleged “corrupt” behaviour.
“Furbs was always a straight shooter, no half measures there,” said Mr Cole.
A couple of days before his death, at Mr Furber’s bedside in the ICU, Mr Cole and Scott McConnell jointly pledged to “keep up our attempts to stop the NT Government’s theft of Anzac Oval and to seek alternative funding sources to build a combined art and culture centre on Desert Knowledge land in accordance with Furbs’s wishes”.
Concept plan showing the art and culture centre (at top of the image) as part of the DK Precinct . Image supplied.
“We will honour that pledge and hopefully the ICAC anti corruption investigation will help us achieve that goal,” said Mr Cole.
He then called upon Minister Paech, using his first name: “You’re the link person who can make this change, you’re the person in charge of that project to deliver it, we want you to convince the NT Government that they’re wasting their time forcing the Anzac Oval art gallery project and to do your utmost to deliver what Furbs always wanted and bring the art and culture centre onto the Desert Knowledge Precinct.”
When that’s done “we’d like to ensure … that Furbs is recognised as the founding father of that centre.”
Right of reply
The Alice Springs News has naturally put to Minister Paech the matter of his “pledge” to Mr Cole and Ms Taylor.
Mr Paech leading marchers at NAIDOC 2017
Does he confirm that he made this pledge?
If so, what has he subsequently done about it?
And what are his intentions in responding to Mr Cole’s appeal to deliver the project at the DK Precinct?
Unfortunately, Minister Paech is on leave. We will report his reply when it comes to hand after his return.
PHOTO at top from the cover of Mr Furber’s funeral booklet. Photos at NAIDOC 2017, from our archive.
* The original Perkins-Watkins art gallery steering committee did not consider the DK Precinct location suitable for the project, saying the current use of space was “not conducive to a large scale tourism experience”.
** The government’s proposal is to use Anzac Oval for the gallery’s green space, accessible to the community, while the gallery building(s) would be located on the site of the former Anzac Hill High, now demolished.