Tribute to leader, teacher, wise man and Warlpiri warrior, Mr Tjakamarra Nelson and Ms Nipper AO

23 February 2021


 I rise to pay tribute to leader, teacher, wise man and Warlpiri warrior, Mr Tjakamarra Nelson. A gentleman who led the way walking in two worlds, Tjakamarra was a land rights champion from the early days. Born on Mount Doreen Station, Mr Nelson was six years old when his family was moved to Yuendumu, a welfare ration depot, around 1946. He was the fifth of nine siblings and his father had four wives. Even though he only attended the community's school until grade 5, he benefitted from additional tuition by Baptist missionary Tom Fleming. 'I was lucky', he recalled in the Central Land Council's oral history collection Every hill got a story:

The whitefella missionary used to teach me after hours … to give me extra education. That's where I managed to pick up my command of English.

Tjakamarra considered himself blessed to have received a two-way education, with regular breaks from settlement life. He'd go to church every Sunday and, 'practice our culture every night if possible'.

After a mechanics apprenticeship, Tjakamarra attended teachers' college in Darwin and returned to the Yuendumu school to teach, becoming one of the first Aboriginal teachers in Central Australia. After five years teaching, he joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to support the outstation movement as an assistant community adviser. During early Central Land Council meetings, he worked as a Warlpiri interpreter and went on to represent the Central Land Council as an active member, nationally and also internationally.

He was a champion of Aboriginal-led economic development, serving on the advisory committee of the Aboriginal Benefit Account and as a director of Yuendumu's Yapa-Kurlangu Ngurrara Aboriginal Corporation. Tjakamarra was a passionate supporter of the Yuendumu football club, the Mighty Magpies, serving as president for many years. He was a strong advocate against the Northern Territory intervention and he spoke publicly many times about the impacts of this destructive legislation on his community and his family. I'd like to share some of his words that were reported in the media in 2016:

The Intervention came in when we were getting into self-government—I'm talking about Yuendumu. We were controlled, the workforce here, it all worked out. Then new laws came in. Me, personally, that broke my heart. It chopped the wings off the dreams I had of improving the living conditions of the people here. Ten years later, (it's) still hurting. I am anyway, definitely. We could have been miles in front by now. (Intervention money should have spent on) roads going out the to the homelands, drilling rigs, good supplies of water.

Tjakamarra left us still advocating for better roads, better housing and better education in the bush.

He was a lifelong advocate for truth-telling, with one of his last public appearances as MC at the 90th anniversary of the Coniston Massacre commemoration in 2018. He was still working for his people and his community despite ill health until his passing. I had the personal pleasure of working beside him for many, many years in my time as member for Arnhem and as the Minister for Statehood in the Northern Territory, where Mr Nelson would advise me quietly and confidently—ground me at times—about the direction to empower First Nations people and to empower the Northern Territory people to become the seventh state in the Australian Federation.

Following the last CLC elections in 2019, he told the many new, young delegates why he was not yet ready to retire then. He said:

We are still very strong and still battling with the government and others who are damaging our country. I'm talking about the mining companies. That's why I joined the land council.

To the senators here, to his family and to all the families in Central Australia, I wish to express that my thoughts are with Mr Nelson's wife, Lynette, his children and families, and my sincere condolences to all of you on this sadness, but also to remember the incredible legacy he leaves not only to you, his family, but indeed to all the people of the Northern Territory.

I would like to pay tribute to Kunmanara Nipper, a Anangu elder who recently left us and one of the principal figures in the history and development of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Mrs Nipper was born in the Western Desert. It's estimated that she was born in the late 1920s, making her well into her 90s when she passed away. A senior Anangu woman, Mrs Nipper played a key role in the campaign for land rights and the handing back of Uluru to traditional owners in the 1980s. She helped establish the joint management arrangements for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and was a tireless board member for many years. Mrs Nipper was involved in almost every aspect of park work at Uluru, from manual labour to establishing three park businesses and the cultural centre, through to negotiations with federal and Northern Territory ministers.

Mrs Nipper was a formidable tracker. Her skills were particularly highlighted with her tracking of the infamous dingo in the Azaria Chamberlain case in the 1980s. Her contribution to her people and the development of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was recognised in 2006 with an Order of Australia medal.

My sincere condolences go out to Mrs Nipper's family and many friends, supporters and admirers, not just in Central Australia, but right across the Northern Territory and, indeed, Australia. I say thank you for the legacy and work of Mrs Nipper and all she did for her people.