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On a hillside in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the wheels of Vince Coulthard’s Land Cruiser were spinning on the dirt road. On a steep incline, hauling a heavy cement tank behind him, Vince knew he could neither turn his vehicle around nor reverse down the hill, and would instead need to persevere onwards and upwards. But that has been a recurrent theme for the inspirational Adnyamathanha elder who has dedicated his life to protecting and promoting the rights, culture and aspirations of his people.
Stuck on that hillside, Vince could have expended energy feeling cranky or impatient, but instead he listened. ’My father helped build those roads and drove the vehicles on them afterwards… He became a tour guide interpreting the environment…’ said Vince. ‘I turned the vehicle off, got out and asked out loud, ‘What do I do?’ And dad spoke to me, like, ‘What are you doing son?’ And it just hit me; I got back in the vehicle, did exactly what he told me to do and I got up the hill. So the old people come back and speak to me…and that’s what gets me through. It’s that spiritual connection, and they’re still around – my grandfathers and father – I can see them when I close my eyes. And when I need help and ask the questions they’re there to help me’.
It is the strength and inspiration he draws from those men that has enabled Vince to spend his adult life asserting the rights, and protecting the culture and traditions of his people. And it’s their counsel he drew on as one of eight claimants who fought a 16-year battle to win South Australia’s largest Native Title claim (41,000 square kilometres) for the Adnyamathanha people.
That Native Title determination in 2009 has paved the way for the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) to negotiate and sign a joint venture agreement with IBA to acquire the Wilpena Pound Resort, which sits within a culturally and spiritually significant site on Adnyamathanha traditional land.
As the peak body for all matters relating to land, culture, heritage, language and native title, ATLA has a governing committee of more than 25 members, each representing a local group. As ATLA Chair for the past 15 years, Vince wants to ensure his people now maximise the social, employment, economic and cultural benefits that ownership of the 60-room, four-star resort will provide.
Vince Coulthard was born in Leigh Creek in Adnyamathanha country and grew up on the Nepabunna Mission in South Australia. Discouraged from using his language or practising his culture by missionaries, Vince was secretly taken aside by his grandfathers who shared traditional stories, knowledge and language with him. ‘The missionaries kept saying we couldn’t use language…’ said Vince, ‘but my grandfathers were saying you need to know this, you need to know it… So it became embedded in my veins, that hunger for knowledge’.
As a youngster watching his mother refused service in a shop for using her traditional language with his aunties, Vince became determined to take a stand against the oppression of his own people, and Aboriginal people in general. In his two grandfathers – one a politician, the other a successful businessman and both leaders in the Aboriginal land rights movement – he had two strong role models from whom to draw inspiration.
Recognising the potential leadership qualities of his 17-year-old grandson, Vince’s maternal grandfather invited him to attend Adnyamathanha community meetings. It was there Vince learned from his elders about standing up for his people, while remaining connected to country and ensuring that culture was both protected and shared to promote understanding and reconciliation.
Gayle Mather has known Vince since she was a child and has worked as his personal assistant for more than a decade. She has said: ‘Those two men were very influential in Vince’s early years, and I believe he has [inherited] the best of both… He has a good head for business and is a politician but, as with his two grandfathers, culture underlies everything he does: every decision, every task, every day he works to ensure that his culture and his country is cared for, preserved and protected’.
As an adult, caring for country was central to Vince’s decision to seek employment through South Australia’s National Parks. One of the first Aboriginal rangers to be appointed, he was soon promoted to the role of manager of the Wilpena area of the Flinders Ranges National Park. ‘That was the first time in history that there was an Adnyamathanha person in charge of that park’, said Vince. ‘But also all my staff were all non-Aboriginal…that’s quite a story within itself!
Eventually Vince moved to Port Augusta where he became active in implementing walking trails that would protect many of the culturally and spiritually significant sites within the park. Of the importance of protecting those trails, Vince said: ‘The different walls and peaks of the Wilpena Pound have great meaning; they are very symbolic to our laws, and remind us every day about the laws of this land’.
That passion for his traditional lands, and understanding of their cultural and spiritual significance to the Adnyamathanha people, made the formal signing of the joint venture agreement with IBA on country a deeply emotional experience for Vince. He said: ‘Over the years our people have tried and tried to be involved with the management of Wilpena… When that [agreement] was signed in June, I think it was probably the proudest day of my life… It is so important, because it’s about the presence of our people here’.
Ensuring Wilpena Pound Resort promotes an environment of respect and reconciliation is a central focus of the joint venture going forward. ‘It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, my vision, that when people visit Wilpena I’d like to have an Aboriginal person to welcome them from their first stop at the information centre’, said Vince. ’When they walk into the shop I’d like to have a couple of Aboriginal people there; when they sit down in the restaurant I’d like young Aboriginal people to serve them at the table. I‘d like them [visitors] to have personal contact with Aboriginal people throughout the whole experience… And it’s important both for our people to have a very strong presence there, but also to give visitors the experience that we know they want…so they feel welcome to come on country. And by being welcomed to come on country I believe they will appreciate the country more and show respect’.
As one of South Australia’s top tourist attractions, Wilpena attracts around 160,000 visitors each year. In addition to providing an asset that will create wealth and an ongoing income stream for the ATLA, the joint venture is expected to generate significant employment and training opportunities for local Indigenous people, cultural tourism operators and service providers.
Key to IBA’s investment strategy is the selling down of its equity in its investments over time to its Indigenous partners. Having spent his life fighting for these kinds of opportunities – with the social and economic benefits they can bring – Vince is understandably impatient to make everything happen ‘yesterday’. He said: ‘As an Aboriginal man, our life expectancy is…well, I’m already past that now! I want to be able to see this happen in my lifetime’.
Vince is therefore directing his energy into empowering his people to seize the opportunities before them. ‘One of the main challenges I see is changing the mentality of the Adnyamathanha people’, he said. ‘Getting them trained, getting them to understand that they have ownership, that they’re working for themselves now… It’s about empowering people to take this on… While it’s going to be a challenge for management [at Wilpena], it will be a challenge for the [local] people too, to step up to the plate… But I’ve already had some discussions with TAFEs and universities… apprenticeship mobs who are keen to be involved. There are people coming from outside the area saying we can assist. TAFE are running a really good hospitality course here in Port Augusta so we can encourage young people to do that’.
After working for so long to create such economic and social opportunities, Vince is feeling re-energised by the joint venture with IBA and the possibilities it represents for his people. ‘I’ve had ideas and seen the potential of Wilpena for years, because I grew up with it, and with dad being in the tourism industry that’s what we talked about together…’
No stranger to the potentially long haul ahead, Vince said: ‘There have been difficulties forever; there have been obstacles for us since the coming of white man to this country. And you learn to deal with it, and find ways to jump over those hurdles or get around them… Having my grandfathers’ photos up there the whole time, you don’t give up when you have those people looking over you… Sometimes you get to take the soft approach…and sometimes you have to take the hard road’.
Find out more about Wilpena Pound Resort and IBA's Investments program.