A woman of culture, a leader who saw and honoured everyone, warmed hearts, lifted spirits

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Dr M K Turner OAM, a woman with profound influence in the complex society of Central Australia, and respected and loved by it, was laid to rest in a state funeral this week.

More than 1000 mourners were at the Old Telegraph Station, Atherreyurre by its Arrernte name, to hear the eulogy presented by family members Jenny Kroker and Janet Turner. 

It was once site of the Bungalow, where many Aboriginal children grew up away from their families. 

Others who spoke in her honour were Children’s Ground chair William Tilmouth, film-maker Rachel Perkins, linguist Jenny Green, Bishop Charles Gauci, Josie Douglas for the Central Land Council, Eva Lawler for the Territory Government, and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

The following is the full text of the family’s eulogy.

“Language comes from the land, I am from the land, and I am part of the land, Kemarre Country.”

MK. She was our Akngerrepate – our Elder. She was an Elder for us all. An Elder for Arrernte people, First Nations people across Australia and, for non-First Nations people.

She was our Queen – the Queen of the desert.

Dr MK Turner OAM held a power that came from her deep cultural knowledge and connection that was felt by all who knew her – a power of Country, culture and language. She was an Arrernte professor, artist, author, linguist, teacher, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and friend, loved and known by all in Central Australia.

She walked across worlds, through cultures and languages, bringing people together through the force of love. MK was an Akarre woman, born in the Atyelpe region of Harts Range, at Spotted Tiger Bore (Pwetyalaneme), Mt Riddock Station.

Her father, Sambo Akerte-arenye and her mother Jesse Penangke had 11 children. MK said her parents grew them all up in “a very strong and true way”. She was also Akerte-arenye, connected to her father’s country.

She grew up on her traditional lands with her parents and brothers and sisters. She said her knowledge came through Country and her sacred Akarre language.

Ayengearle akaltyele-antheke, ane akaltye-irrintyeke, ane anintyeke.

“That is how I learned throughout life, how I have always seen the world, how I understood it and how and what life has always been.”

She learnt from the land – the laws, Country, the songs, the language. She listened to the old people singing – singing Country, anthepe, healing songs. They ate from the land and as a child she said, no one used to pass away young, people were healthy and strong. She talked about how strict her old people’s law was – that she was raised with the strict rules of respect.

She remembered the happiness of her childhood with her cousin, Nyetye They would help their grandparents and parents hunt – they would tell them: “You two run up the hill and chuck apurte at the kangaroo, chase them down.”

Her parents and Elders made sure she knew who she was, her responsibility, her people, her law and her land – Altyerre.

When she was about 12 or 13 her parents sent her to school at Arltunga Mission and here, she learnt to speak Arrernte.

She remembered when the children were stolen from Arltunga. They were told that they were going for shopping, they washed them and cleaned them – she said the children were happy. But they did not come back.

She and her brother wanted to see their parents. They walked from Arltunga back to Mt Riddock Station

“We headed off on foot … We travelled on and on and on by foot … Mum and Dad had heard that we were coming. The two of them, poor things, came to meet us. We were all really happy to be together … all crying with joy. Then we went back to Mt Riddock to live.”

MK worked at the station as a domestic and a nanny, washing, ironing, cleaning. “I never used to get any money, you know.“

She moved to Little Flower Mission – Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) Mission School. She remembered being punished if they spoke language in class, and how they would wait until after school, when the kids could speak language together. The Church did not want them to follow culture, but the families kept their culture, language and anthepe strong away from the Mission and at holiday times.

She grew up strongly, as a Catholic person and a cultural law person.

She met her husband and got married and in 1957, Amelia was born. They lived at old village in the stone house that her husband had built. She had nine children; Amelia, Raphael (deceased), Gabriel, Veronica, Mary Jane (dec), Bernadette (dec), Cathy, Douglas (dec), Shirley; and she also grew up Maureen and Loretta, Kumalie, Charlie, Sabella and Maureen J, Dominic, Michael, and L. Gorey, and many nieces and nephews.

There could be up to 60 people in her house, and she fed and loved them all. Her husband worked at Allambi Station and other stations in Central Australia as a stockman with MK doing gardening and domestic work.

They lived and worked at Allambi Station in the 60s and raised their family there before moving back to the Mission. The kids went to school, and she worked at the hospital laundry washing clothes and looking after the kids and later, at the store. She was the manager for the store. She was the coordinator for the sewing mob and a board member on the community council. She worked across the community in many roles.

Her mum’s two mums came back from Atitjere – Harts Range and stayed at Santa Teresa. Every Sunday was picnic day, and all families would go out bush.

Shirley, her youngest was born at Santa Teresa in 1971.

Soon after, Amelia, Veronica, Raphael, and Gabriel went to school interstate. MK moved to Alice Springs and lived at the mission house, Ngkarte Mikwekenhe down at The Gap, and Gillen. She looked after so many children – her house was a home for all the kids in town. It was always full, from the days in The Gap to Poeppel Gardens and Nicker Crescent in Gillen.

She started working at Warburton Street in the Homemakers program – supporting young mothers dealing with family violence and working in the Safe House. She also worked in Aged Care looking after the Elders.

Her first grandson, Nookie, was born in 1979 and he was followed by many, many more. She loved them all. Amelia moved to Maningrida and her siblings followed. Soon MK had grannies from the desert to the salt water. Her family was everything. Throughout her life she loved and worried for all of her children and grandchildren.

Life could be very hard at times, but what she loved more than anything was being around family.

She said everything changed after alcohol came. People started dying and fighting. She hated alcohol and was deeply saddened by violence. Over the years MK experienced many hardships. During her lifetime she lost four children and a grandchild. Through ill-health, suicide, and violence. She felt these losses very deeply.

MK was a strong Catholic woman. She was integral to Ngkarte Mikwekenhe, the Arrernte Catholic community in Central Australia working closely with the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish. She was a woman of deep faith. She lived through her faith and her deep cultural law and both gave her strength.

She was a human rights champion. She experienced and fought racism and discrimination her whole life. She spoke out against laws and legislation that unfairly targeted Aboriginal people. She watched her family being locked up, dying, and living with serious health issues. She felt the pain and sorry deeply. But she always found an inner strength and carried the pain for others so they could stay strong. She used her songs and the teachings of her old people to heal.

She fought hard against domestic violence. She helped people get out of jail and get bail, she helped people get jobs, back in a Ɵme when it was hard to get any support. She would go down to the police station any Ɵme of the day or night if her grannies needed her. If there was someone in trouble, they knew Nanna would speak for them.

She worried always for young people. She saw they were lost. She wanted them to know their language and to feel the land and to know their culture would hold their spirit and identity and would look after them. She wanted them to know how loved they are.

During the 1980’s and early 90’s MK stood with other women to fight for, and protect, women’s sacred site Werlatye Atherre north of Mparntwe (Alice Springs). The government wanted to dam this site. Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara women fought together. They put their bodies on the line to make sure it was not destroyed. Members of Parliament used terrible language to insult our Elders and it brought great shame and pain. MK lost her daughter during this time.

In May 1992, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, stopped the Northern Territory government from building the dam under the federal Heritage Protection Act. It was the first time the Federal Government had used the powers under this Act. And still today, this important site is protected.

JANET

Altyerre anwernekenhe atnyenetyeke (keeping culture alive).

MK never stopped working.

She worked with everyone and anyone. If somebody wanted to do something, she would always say yes. That was her culture. To give. To be responsible to, and for, others.

She worked for them, and she made them work for her!! She asked for help with food, transport, banking, bedding, housing. She loved people. She had so many non-Aboriginal friends, she knew everyone in town.

We will always remember the cars that would line up to pick her up in the morning and it was first in best dressed – she would get in the first car and off she would go…

MK spoke four languages fluently and understood many more. Her first language was Akarre, from her father’s country. She also spoke Alyawarr (her mother’s language), Central/Eastern Arrernte and English.

“Anwerne-kenhe angkentye lyete atyeperre anthurre aneme. Angkentye tyerrtye arrpenhe mape-kenhe atyeperre aneme. Angkentye anwerne-kenhe anwerne apmere-le anyernetyeke re aneme atyeperre. Our language is sacred to us. Every Aboriginal language is sacred for those who speak it. Words are given to us by the land and these words are sacred.”

Her greatest worry was the loss of language and culture. She knew that it was her responsibility to pass this on. She dedicated her life’s work to making sure that it would survive for future generations. She was a visionary and she knew what it would take to protect her language, her culture, and her people.

She was revered as one of the leading linguists and interpreters in the region. Over many years she worked with many Elders and Arrernte language and cultural specialists including Veronica Perrurle Dobson, Therese Ryder, Rosie Ferber, Mrs Wallace, Mrs Palmer, Basil Stevens, Rosalie Riley, Carmel Ryan, Mrs. Heffernan, Lena Turner, Minnie Madrill, and many others to protect Arrernte language and knowledge.

In the 1980s and 90s, MK worked with the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD). It was here she trained and worked as an interpreter and a cross-cultural educator. She was a pioneer at Australia’s first Aboriginal Interpreter Service established in 1983. She learnt to read and write in Arrernte. She interpreted for the government, the police, the hospital, and the Centre Land Council working on the Anmatyerr and Arrernte land claims.

She was a strict law woman and carefully upheld the cultural ethics of her role as an interpreter. She was proud of her work.

‘It felt good helping my people understand what lawyers, doctors and police were saying and giving my old people a voice to tell their story back to the professionals. I worked with the Central Land Council and interpreted for Anmatyerr people for their land claim. I learned a lot through their stories. These things that I learned while interpreting, I did not take them, I did not keep them or use them. That is their knowledge.”

MK was one of the main Arrernte contributors to the Eastern and Central Arrernte Dictionary first published in 1994 and updated in 2020. It was during this time, that MK, Veronica Perrurle Dobson and others, became trail blazers in cross-cultural work and developing ways of teaching Arrernte.

She was a lifelong teacher and professor. MK taught language and cross-cultural courses at IAD over many years. She taught many people coming to live and work in Alice Springs as well as Arrernte people who wanted to strengthen their knowledge or who had lost their language.

She was instrumental in the development of key learning institutions including the Ntyalke Unit at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Yipirinya School, Ltyentye Apurte School, Batchelor Institute, and the establishment of Irrkerlantye Learning Centre. She worked with Arrernte educators to create the first written Arrernte curriculum called the Intelyape-lyape Akaltye Project. She continued to contribute to Arrernte curriculum throughout her life.

MK worked closely and built deep friendships with many people over the years including linguists, researchers and educators, John Henderson and Gavan Breen, Jenny Green, Barry McDonald Perrurle, Myf Turpin, Mary Flynn, Fiona Walsh, Margaret Carew, Beth Sometimes and film makers, Maya Newell and Rachel Perkins and many others.

MK was involved in many research projects and publications. Over the years she supported many people across many professional fields, enabling them to reach their goals in research, doctorates, film, curriculum, and organisational development.

Around 1990, MK started recording short descriptions of bush foods with her late daughter. In 1994, ‘Arrernte Foods Foods from Central Australia: Nhenhe-areye anwerne-arle arlkweme’ was published by IAD.

MK collaborated on many other publications including posters, books, language and cultural resources and websites. Her research work on songs with Myf Turpin resulted in 60 hours of recordings which have been transcribed and archived at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). She worked with the Batchelor Institute, she contributed to Aboriginal sign languages, the Sand Stories Project, the beautiful Central Land Council publication, ‘Every Hill Got A Story,’ the Arrernte Angkentye Online and the 50 Words Project.

The publication that MK was most proud of was ‘Iwenhe Tyerrtye, What it Means to Be an Aboriginal person’. She worked on this with book with Barry Purrule Mc Donald. She spoke of writing this book for future generations, for those who had been stolen, for Arrernte and other Aboriginal people to be able to turn to, to know who they are, to know their lore and their identity and their strength as Aboriginal people.

MK translated for many organisations. She worked closely with the Alice Springs Desert Park – as she said: “Bringing back all of our plants and animals and giving them back their Arrernte names through stories and signage.” She taught staff about the plants, animals, and habitats through the Arrernte language so that they could share these stories with tourists and locals.

She worked with Akeyulerre – the Arrernte Healing Centre, over many years to share and record knowledge, songs and healing and traditional medicine practices and to teach on Country.

She worked to keep anthepe and traditional singing and dance alive and worked with projects through the Central Land Council and Rachel Perkins to record ceremony and with festivals such as Parrtjima.

MK supported, and was part of, the leadership of many organisations to protect her culture and her people also working with: Ngkarte Mikwekenhe, Tangentyere Council, Sacred Sites, CAAAPU (Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Program Unit), Legal Aid, Alukura Women’s Health Service, ASYASS – Alice Springs Youth Accommodation and Support Services, Congress, AMSANT – Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory and more. She was a key advisor on the film, In My Blood it Runs.

She was also a talented artist.

MK worked against the force of genocide to prevent the loss of her culture and language. Every single day of her life. She would teach people about the culture of Arrernte people, about kinship and the land through language.

She shared the respect and responsibility of Arrernte law and life. She upheld the strict rules and explained the importance of law in the preservation of language and culture.

In 1997, she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to the First Nations community of Central Australia; particularly in relation to preserving language and culture and her work as an interpreter.

Her many years of work culminated in her great passion, Ampe kenhe Ahelhe – Children’s Ground. Here she brought her vision to life – to stop the slow death that she was witnessing and to revitalise and strengthen her language, law and culture.

“We’ve been following government nearly all our lives – this is a new beginning. We are following a new path, our own path as First Nations people for the future of our children. At Children’s Ground, the community are taking the lead. We are very proud of that. We are the government of ourselves.”

MK was a founding Elder, cultural authority, and board member of Children’s Ground. It was here she reimagined First Nations education and re-established the right for our future generaƟons to learn through our culture – to be able to live, speak and grow as Arrernte people, following First Nations languages, law and culture.

With Mrs Palmer, Therese Ryder, Mrs Abbott and other Elders she set the direction, strategy and laid the foundation. She was angry about the politics and lack of government support. But she was clear about what needed to happen and that she could not wait. She said she needed to get Children’s Ground going before she passed away and that is what she did.

She was at Children’s Ground whenever she was not at dialysis. Felicity Hayes, her daughter Veronica Turner, L. Gorey, Mel Kean, Leonie Sheedy, Jane Vadiveloo and William Tilmouth followed her direction and they brought to life the vision of the old people.

From the oldest systems of knowledge and education in the world, giving children the right to learn through their own language and culture, giving adults the right to be employed through their cultural expertise, giving hope to young people, and surrounding everyone with love.

Every day – creating books, resources, celebrating culture and language, teaching, healing, singing and being – she was at the heart of learning on country. Always with a spring in her step across Country, on the ground with the kids or in later years, pushing her walker – nothing would stop her, speaking in language and bringing the land to life.

Setting cultural standards and KPI’s for First Nations staff and guiding people in their cultural responsibilities. She was worried for her first language, Akarre, with only a few speakers left, and so she started the Akarre/Akityarre language revitalisation project in 2021. Children’s Ground created recordings and resources and worked in partnership with the Batchelor Institute, Bonya School and Jenny Green to bring Akarre to a new generation of children.

At Children’s Ground she created a place for us to come home. She was there for all of us – connecting us back to our culture, our law, our language, and our family. And now. our children have their place. Their culture and language and identity are at the heart of learning. She reminded us about the power of our culture and that we have to hold onto it and protect it – because without it, who are we as Aboriginal people?

Children’s Ground is a place for our families to heal our pain. Where we can be Aboriginal people. Where our voices are at the heart. Where our families can stand tall and feel proud and we feel hope – we can see it in our children. This is MK’s legacy, and we will continue her vision long into the future, and our children and their children will conƟnue to forge the path of our ancestors.

JENNY Closing Remarks.

We want to finish with some important moments.

Meeting the Queen and the Pope was something she spoke of throughout her life with pride. On both occasions she represented our people, officially, speaking about our culture, faith and our rights. As a Catholic woman, meeting the Pope was deeply important to her.

Later in life she shared moments that she loved with Pat Cash, Martin Luther King III and most recently, global Elder Dame Graca Machel. They revered her.

We were all so proud last year when she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Batchelor Institute for her lifelong commitment to cultural maintenance and preserving the languages of Aboriginal peoples, particularly in Central Australia. She was proud. She was also awarded Elder of the Year at the Mparntwe/Alice Springs NAIDOC celebrations in 2022.

It took a long time to recognise her amazing contribution. Like too many of our Elders her importance has been overlooked. We want to recognise all of the Elders here today for all that you give. We are nothing without you. We thank you for everything.

In closing, we want to remember MK’s spirit. She was joyous, full of life, singing unƟl the end. She could be bossy and cranky and had a great sense of humour and we loved all of this about her. She always made us smile. She was generous and gave everything she had to others.

Like no one else, she brought people together. She lived reconciliation before it was a national movement. She never placed herself above or below.

She was gracious. She was a great thinker and a great leader. She knew where she wanted to go, and she would lead you there without you even knowing. She was always 10 steps ahead, but she never showed it. She saw and honoured everyone. She was always present. She made you feel like you were the most important person in her life. She laughed and joked and lifted people’s spirit. She loved everybody. Especially her families.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Alice Springs News for publishing the M K Turner eulogies – a record of the most heartwarming integrated gathering of local people and voices that I have ever experienced during 33 years of living here – except perhaps a couple of football matches.
    Speaking of football take a look at Sunday’s ABC online (Sport) article following the final Matilda’s match against Sweden.
    Samantha Lewis writing on the endurance and inspiration of the women’s soccer team concludes her review with these lines: “These players have given everything of themselves to us over the past four weeks. Now it’s our turn to take this gift … and turn it into something that lasts.”
    The same could be said of the gifts that M K Turner and her “team” have given. Let us make it last.

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