Tribute to Aunty Agnes

By Rev Dr Jeanette Mathews

It is with sorrow that ANTaR ACT acknowledges the passing of respected Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes Shea on March 11, 2023. Aunty Agnes was a tireless advocate for recognition and rights in the ACT region, and a kind and generous elder who radiated warmth and affection.

I first met Aunty Agnes through my late husband David Hunter, who had been involved in community reconciliation groups (including ANTaR and the National Sorry Day Committee) in the wake of the release of the Bringing Them Home report. David and the senior minister of Canberra Baptist Church, Thorwald Lorenzen, invited Aunty Agnes to participate in an Apology ceremony at Canberra Baptist in December 1997. She graciously acknowledged and accepted the church’s public “Sorry”, in which the congregation articulated the opportunity “to approach the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and publicly express our sorrow for the hurt that has occurred; to acknowledge that by silent acquiescence, by moral insensitivity or ignorance we are partly responsible for that hurt; and to commit ourselves to do all we can to make sure that such things will not occur again.” Aunty Agnes often told me that this was her first public appearance and instilled the confidence to continue to represent her people at many events in ensuing years.

Amongst those events was the annual David Hunter Memorial Lecture instigated by ANTaR ACT following David’s passing in 2003. Aunty Agnes gave a welcome to country at each of these until relinquishing the responsibility to her granddaughter Selina Walker in 2021 – the photo above is from one of these lectures. One of the consequences of COVID-19 was the need to deliver the lecture in hybrid online and in-person and, while Aunty Agnes was able to attend the lecture in 2020, her frail health and technology challenges prevented her ongoing direct involvement.

As I write this tribute I can clearly hear Aunty Agnes’s dignified invitation: “I am proud to welcome you to my country and to protect your spirit while you are here … I will finish now in the words of the Ngunnawal people – Ngunna Yarrabayengu – which means ‘you may leave your footprints on our land’”. We were privileged to step on the same ground as this impressive elder and leader. Our thoughts and condolences are with her immediate family and all Ngunnawal people at this sad time.

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