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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Perkins, Hetty (1895–1979)

by Peter Read

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Hetty Perkins (c.1895-1979), Arrernte matriarch, was born about 1895 at Arltunga, Northern Territory, daughter of Harry Perkins, a White miner from Broken Hill, New South Wales, and his wife Nellie Errerreke, an Aborigine from the Arrernte people of Central Australia. She spent her early years in the Arltunga gold-mining region, east of Alice Springs, a violent frontier which produced people who were resourceful and tough. Hetty's character and intelligence thrived on the hard conditions. Like many other Aboriginal women, she learned to raise a large family unaided, ride horses and camels, skin a bullock, lay a fuse, and dig and assay gold-bearing ore.

At the age of 14 Perkins had been employed at the Crossroads hotel. She then moved to The Garden station, north-west of Arltunga. For a number of years she worked on the property and helped to manage it. She later refused a gift of part of The Garden from Jim Turner, the father of several of her eleven children, because he had abandoned her for a White woman. In 1928 she went to the Jay Creek institution for 'half-castes' where she worked as 'senior dormitory girl'. The institution was moved in 1932 to the Alice Springs telegraph-station buildings and was thereafter known as The Bungalow. Hetty had charge of the infants' dormitory and supervised the cooking. In the mid-1930s she met the man who was to be the father of her younger children, Martin Connelly, a Kalkadoon from Mount Isa, Queensland.

Dignified in manner and a disciplinarian in attitude, Perkins insisted on clean clothes for herself and her children, whatever the circumstances. She left coins on a table as a test of temptation for her children. The coins gathered dust. 'If you're not doing the right thing you're doing the wrong thing', was her constant refrain. She was one of the few Aborigines not evacuated from Alice Springs during World War II, probably because her organizational and cooking skills were too valuable for the military to lose. By 1950 she was living at Sanitary Camp with one of her sons.

Perkins was born at a time when, according to the anthropologist Sir Baldwin Spencer, the old ways of the Arrernte people seemed almost finished. Her attitude to traditional Arrernte life was ambivalent. She spoke Eastern Arrernte fluently, and passed to her male children the sub-section (skin-name) perrurle, the yam and caterpillar dreaming. Yet, four of her children were raised in White institutions, and she explained to her family, 'We were going White way. We bin working'. Late in life she witnessed the revival of Aboriginal self-confidence and pride, and willingly took on the roles of grandmother, nanna and auntie.

Survived by four of her sons and two of her daughters, Perkins died on 8 December 1979 at Alice Springs and was buried locally with Anglican rites. At Alice Springs a nursing home for elderly Aborigines was named after her. Her son Charles was the first Aboriginal secretary (1984-88) of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs; her grand-daughter Patricia Turner was the first Aboriginal chief executive officer (1994-98) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; and her grandson Neville Perkins was secretary (1987-88) of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Larkins and B. Howard, Sheilas (Adel, 1976)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • P. Read, Charles Perkins, a Biography (Melb, 1990)
  • Half Caste Home, Alice Springs, series A659/1, 1939/1/996 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Peter Read, 'Perkins, Hetty (1895–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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