Vale Alice Eather: Aboriginal poet, teacher and warrior

June 24, 2017
Alice Eather and some of her friends.

Alice Pearl Daiguma Eather, a young Aboriginal community leader, activist and teacher, died aged 28 in the Aboriginal township of Maningrida, Northern Territory on June 4. Speakers at her funeral and wake summed up Alice as having “a beautiful spirit, a remarkable life”.

Alice was a bilingual primary school teacher and slam poet as well as an activist against coal seam gas (CSG) mining. More than 500 family, friends, supporters and members of the Maningrida community attended Alice’s funeral at Mount Gravatt in Brisbane and more attended her wake in West End.

Alice was born, brought up and educated in Brisbane, but returned to Maningrida to live and work as the very first Ndjebbana-speaking Aboriginal teacher.

Her mother, Aboriginal Traditional Owner Helen Djimbarrwala Willams and father, artist and gallery-owner Michael Eather, spoke movingly of their beloved daughter’s passionate life and important contribution to both Aboriginal and white society.

Following the service, a procession of mourners to her gravesite was accompanied by music and dance from Maningrida Indigenous performers who had flown in.

Katrina Channells, filmmaker and life-long friend from primary school, spoke of Alice’s energy and commitment to everything she tackled. Channells directed The Stingray Sisters, a film about Alice and her two sisters, Noni and Grace in leading the Maningrida community’s struggle against petroleum and gas exploration in the sea offshore from their homeland.

Alice “was deeply affected by the threat of fracking on our country because her biggest passions were caring for our country and education”, her sister Grace told the ABC on June 10. Alice had discovered Paltar Petroleum had lodged a fracking application for the seas off Maningrida when she saw it in the local newspaper in 2013.

She mobilised the community and together they formed the Protect Arnhem Land campaign group. They gained national media coverage while holding demonstrations outside the company’s Sydney office in 2013.

In 2014, Alice was presented with the NT's Young Achiever’s Environment Award. And in 2016, Paltar Petroleum withdrew its fracking application.

Alice “created this wonderful, beautiful campaign, and inspired so many other people to get on board; other Indigenous people across the whole country from other communities who are having the same struggle,” Grace told the ABC.

Stuart Blanch, former director of the Environment Centre NT, who worked closely with Alice in the anti-CSG campaign, wrote insightfully in a tribute to Alice on June 17: “I remember Alice, young and strong, wild of heart, a fierce Kunibidji woman, Aboriginal leader, successful activist, passionate and principled, fighting for the Country of her Wurnal clan, for Arnhem Land, speaking up for Aboriginal way, caring deeply for her Country, loving her Kabalko and Ngarraku Islands and Ndjudda Point, investing her life in education and in Country and in children.

“I remember Alice, living in two worlds, living between her two worlds, caught in the collision of two cultures, with split skin, split tongue, split kin, speaking with both worlds, speaking to both worlds, Aboriginal and Balanda, retreating from each at times, but again returning to fight, to speak, to inspire.

“I remember Alice, asking for help, demanding we help, desperate for help, to protect Country, her saltwater estate in the estuary of the Liverpool River, from Paltar Petroleum, from oil and gas, from fracking, from acoustic underwater exploration, from pollution, from governments, from disinterested politicians, from the poison of royalties, from the Northern Land Council.

“I will remember Alice, as a leader, unbowed yet oft breaking, the best of two worlds, a strong clear voice, speaking with that wide smile and intense gaze, dreadlocks wrapped high in a bright scarf, skirt swirling, a poet, willing her community at Maningrida to fight, lighting a fire that would help them fight for Country and a future lived their way, speaking Ndjebbana and English with her beloved mum Helen and sisters Noni and Grace, speaking to the elders of Maningrida, to Indigenous communities everywhere, to Darwin, to Sydney, to the world.

“I remember Alice, learning to campaign, building her strategy, seeking help from black and white, determined to win, looking to a future clean and healthy, wanting jobs and development and hope for Indigenous people, but not at the risk of pollution, and dead sealife, of mangroves covered in oil, and destruction of Country, and fracturing of her community...

“And so that is how I will remember Alice, a leader, blue paint on brown hand outstretched in a defiant ‘NO’, smiling, and through the years and our tears, amidst the pain, questioning why, I choose to remember that she fought to protect Arnhem Land and that she won.”

As a rising star of the slam poetry world, Alice performed works protesting against the fracking plan for online productions, including the ABC iview series The Word: Rise of the Slam Poets.

In her poem My Story Is Your Story, she said: “When I see a map of country, I see land, sea and family. When they see map of country, they see mining fantasies.

“When I see the seabed, I see sacred sites. When they see the seabed, they see dollar signs.”

In her poem Fire Is Burning, she wrote: “I’m living and breathing this story of black and white. Sitting in the middle of this collision, my mission is to bring two worlds to sit beside this fire.”

We both knew and loved Alice Eather, who lived in our house in New Farm, Brisbane, for several years in the mid-2000s. Alice was one of the most beautiful, talented and uplifting persons we have ever had the privilege to meet. We came to consider her another daughter.

We must never forget her, and we take inspiration and determination from her bright, and too short life in this world.

As her sister Grace declared: “Her legacy will never be forgotten. I will continue to fight for what Alice always fought for: country, children and education.”

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