Speakers and Artists

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Margaret Heffernan (Alice Springs, NT)

Black and white photo of a woman sitting in a share. She wears a dress and a knitted cap

Credit: NT Writers Centre

Gathering Sticks

Margaret Heffernan is an Anmatjere Arrernte woman, born in 1943 in Mbantua country on the banks of the Todd River.

Margaret started working as a storyteller and interpreter at the Santa Teresa Mission School in the late 1960s. With the establishment of land rights legislation, her family moved into Alice Springs.

As an interpreter, Margaret wanted to ensure that Aboriginal people participated fairly in the courts and could understand their treatment in hospitals. She trained police, teachers, nurses, lawyers and doctors in how to engage equitably with Aboriginal people.

Through that experience, Margaret recognised the necessity for Aboriginal people to establish schools: to control their children’s education; to exercise the right for children to be taught in their own language; and to use culturally appropriate learning materials. To achieve that goal, Margaret become one of the first group of bilingual educators to complete a degree in linguistics at Batchelor Institute in Darwin.

Margaret had the central role in developing an accurate Eastern and Central Arrernte orthography (IAD Press), which is used in the current Arrernte dictionary and guides the writing of new Arrernte and bilingual texts. Since her stroke in 1991, Margaret continues in her roles as a senior educator and linguist, as well as talking to local and national audiences about best practices for working with Aboriginal people on stroke prevention and recovery.

Margaret’s autobiography, ‘Gathering Sticks: Lighting Up Small Fires’, written in collaboration with Gerard Waterford and Francis Couglan, was published by IAD Press in 2018. ‘Gathering Sticks’ is a social history of Aboriginal life over seventy years, told through Margaret’s eyes. It speaks to the choices people make to survive and thrive, and to Margaret’s own resilience. She arranged dialysis in Darwin in order to launch her book at the 2018 NT Writers’ Festival because “Aboriginal stories are important.”

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Meeting Place 2018

24 - 26 September

Araluen Arts Centre, 61 Larapinta Drive
Alice Springs, NT 0870