Late CLC chair’s land rights fight as urgent now as during his lifetime
“Land rights are the most important thing to us. Land is our life and without it we have nothing.” - Mr Kwementyaye Stuart
The Central Land Council mourns true land rights champion and former CLC chair Kwementyaye Stuart who passed away on Friday, 14 November, in Alice Springs.
A senior Arrernte law man born in 1932 at Jay Creek, west of Alice Springs, Kwementyaye Stuart worked as a stockman and drover from his early teens and also excelled as a boxer before Pat Dodson appointed him as a CLC field officer.
Mr Stuart represented the Alice Springs region as a CLC delegate for 20 years and chaired the land council between 1997 and 2001.
“Kwementyaye was a strong and astute leader who saw education as the key to a better future for his people and never let his own lack of schooling stand in his way,” said CLC director David Ross.
“He led the CLC during a time when hard won Aboriginal land rights were under attack from governments like never before, just like they are again today”, Mr Ross said.
He said Mr Stuart’s words from 16 years ago, when the federal government used a review to weaken the land rights act and the NT government was pushing for control of the legislation, could have been written today:
“Land rights are the most important thing to us. Land is our life and without it we have nothing. So it makes me really sad that over the past year, governments have again been trying to take away our rights,” Mr Stuart wrote in 1998. “We want the government in Canberra to look after the act, not the Northern Territory government”.
“Mr Stuart knew that land rights give Aboriginal people some control over their lives. He described them as giving us freedom and justice,” said Mr Ross.
Mr Stuart knew a bit about justice, having served 14 years in prison, including on death row, for a murder in South Australia over half a century ago which he always maintained he did not commit.
His court case was the subject of a book, a film, a controversial royal commission and attracted international attention.
A young Rupert Murdoch campaigned on Mr Stuart’s behalf through The Adelaide News and helped save him from the gallows.
“I married a good woman”, Mr Stuart recalled meeting his late wife after he was released on parole. “She put a ring in my nose, and pulled me around, but that was good.”
As CLC chair Mr Stuart oversaw the successful Alice Springs native title claim – the first such claim over an Australian town - and in 2000 welcomed the Queen to his home town. He praised her as being “really like a bush woman”.
“It seems the Queen has less trouble acknowledging native title holders than the Northern Territory government”, he commented at the time.
Many Alice Springs residents remember him singing the ancient Yeperenye [caterpillar] Dreaming of during the following year’s eponymous festival.
Mr Ross said he performed the song in the same generous spirit that made him a respected teacher and mentor of many Aboriginal leaders. In Kwementyaye’s own words: “We want to walk around as brothers – both black and white.”
The thoughts of CLC members and staff are with his children Carlene Cook, Peter Stuart and Patrick Stuart.
17 November 2014