Palngun Wurnangat Aboriginal Corporation History
Our History – Women have always played a vital role in Wadeye community life. In the years immediately following 1935 and the establishment of Wadeye as a trade centre for the many family groups of the Thamarrurr region, women worked to grow the community.
Whether it was tending the 1930s food gardens, sewing clothing with the nuns, running family programs or setting up a bakery and takeaway for the town, women have always been integral to Wadeye’s growth as an economic centre for the region.
The Palngun Wurnangat story is an extraordinary one and one the women of Wadeye are justifiably proud of.
Many of the older women in Wadeye learnt to sew clothing with the nuns; a tradition that started with Sister Emmanuel and the women sewing skirts out of flour and sugar sacks in the late 1940s. Earliest photographic records of women’s enterprise in Wadeye date back to the 1970s when the women operated a sewing centre under the old convent using peddle machines. Clothing production became quite sophisticated before replacing the complicated waistbands, pleats and buttonholes of skirts for easier to sew wrap arounds and the more comfortable elasticised-waist style that is still preferred by local women today.
Throughout the 50s and 60s women took up many important jobs within the growing mission township – gardeners, bakers, nurses and sewers to name a few.
A diary entry by Father Leary in March 1972 details the plan for Wadeye’s first large scale bakery to meet the town’s growing needs. A commercial oven was purchased from Maningrida Community (as they had outgrown it) and this second, larger bakery was in production by the early 70’s, making and selling bread within the community. Wadeye residents today, still talk fondly about the smell of bread floating down the main street when the women and men were baking! The uncle of PWAC Chairperson, Margaret Perdjert, was the first baker – learning his trade in the Airforce during the war years.
Agatha Tharwul with a fresh batch of bread from oven number three, purchased from the Darwin Bakery in the mid 1980s and set up in what later became the print room of the Women’s Art Centre.
With the limitless energy of Sister Fred in the 80s, the women continued the bakery and ran Wadeye’s first Takeaway building – a demountable donga in the main street that was formerly the missionaries’ dining room
In response to social issues, they established a women and babies shelter in the long shed. This shed also served as a laundromat and the first art centre
Over the road, Sister Magdalen and the sewers grew business at the sewing centre, a building that was built as an aircraft hanger but never used for that purpose. They started taking on larger commissions from the school and community for sewn items.
Throughout the 80s and 90s the women were very active in creating other enterprises out of essential services and occupying unused buildings all over Wadeye to do so; formalising their activities as Wadeye Mi-Patha Association in August 1990. In 1996, the association changed its name to Wadeye Palngun Wurnangat Association.
During the 90’s the women ran a Family Program and a TAFE business course out of the sewing centre office. Employment during this era was mostly via the CDEP and a Committee of twelve women managed the decision-making. In response to social issues, they established a women and babies shelter in the long shed. This shed also served as a laundromat and the first art centre, run by Anna Coneybeer and was the place where the current tradition of stencilling white funeral t-shirts with names and totems, began.
Women would weave, cook, and do batik, lino printing, tye dying and painting directly onto fabric. Just as importantly, this was also a building where women and their children could come and stay when they needed to, giving a sense of connection to each other, solidarity and access to women’s health education with clinic staff.
In 2001, Palngun Wurnangat contributed $200,000 of its own money and took out a further $1 million ATSIC loan to fund the major portion of Wadeye’s new Rural Transaction Centre – of which it occupied half the space to run a commercial takeaway, butchery and bakery for the growing community. The planning of this major facility for the community was driven by WPWAs first Chairperson Theodora Narndu and the loan was paid out in full with a perfect record, in 2013.
Around this time, Sister Magdalen and Sister Fred retired from Wadeye life and the Women’s (sewing) Centre closed down for a couple of years. Showing the characteristic grit of Wadeye women, Theodora Narndu and Noelene Parry called in Sister Lucia from the Convent to reopen and run the building as a sewing centre with them – this time with the first electric sewing machines.
In 2002, the Committee engaged a community development facilitator to help establish a Stronger Families and Communities program for young mothers under the Palngun Wurnangat banner and run out of the vacated Takeaway donga. The Centre was managed by local women to address important local issues such as developing a stronger community and increasing women’s financial prospects.
In 2004 women attended leadership training in Canberra and flew to Nguiu (Bathurst Island) to see how to run a childcare centre.
One was established in the school soon after. A school attendance program started in the same year. The women were drivers of this project and attendance figures exploded as a result.
Around this time the women moved the fabric printing activities from the Long Shed into the now vacant ‘bakery number three’ building – the other half of the sewing centre. They were also starting to look at how they could build a screen printing facility and an avenue to sell their artwork. A large 10m table was installed in 2004 and Palngun Wurnangat’s print room had its official open day on 17 June 2006.
The long term aim was to create a cottage industry to employ printers and sewers in paid positions rather than via employment programs but at this stage the employment basis was via a community development program. The Board started looking to the art centres of Bathurst Island for inspiration and practical ideas for growing a business out of screen printed fabrics.
The first wooden screen designs were made in 2007. Leonie Melpi, Theodora Narndu and other women’s beautiful designs from this year are still being produced today and available at our online store.
During the mid 2000’s the Association made the unusual (but popular) decision to sell AFL footy merchandise from the sewing centre. ‘AFL-Fridays’ were a one day bonanza each week and merchandise still makes up a large portion of T House shop sales today – Wadeye is very passionate about its footy!
The women at the Women’s Centre are known as a strong group of women in the community and are consulted about other community projects and activities. Their knowledge about the community is highly respected”.
Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2003
In October 2005, PWA engaged a thrid party to manage the Mi Patha Takeaway on its behalf. By 2007 it was in solid financial position to start on one of the organisation’s objectives to “support women in training, employment and business”.
The last ten years have seen PWAC grow almost as rapidly as Wadeye itself. Palngun Wurnangat first participated in the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair for the first time in 2010. DAAF is the major Australian event each year where Indigenous art, textiles and culture are celebrated and shared and in 2016 Wadeye was proud to be chosen to participate in the first DAAF Fashion Show
Back in Wadeye in 2010, the Mi Patha takeaway extended its trading hours into Sundays to help provide food to the community after midday on Saturday when the store closed.
In 2013, the art team installed a new commercial fabric oven in the print room, greatly improving the capacity of the team to produce printed textiles once they no longer had to be baked in the General Manager’s home oven! Also in 2013, the first permanent part time roles were created at the Women’s Centre, along with Cert 2 Retail training. The Board also started to discuss the idea of building a purpose-built retail space and cafe on its old takeaway site in Perdjert St.
In 2013 PWA was approached to purchase Coradji, a Sydney-based Kakadu Plum processing business to allow harvested plums to be processed, frozen and shipped from Wadeye as a wholly community-owned business, an activity that had previously been managed by the Rangers.
PWA’s first harvest took place in 2014 and the community has done three since – returning approximately $50,000 each year to families to work on their land.
In 2016 PWA moved from its status as an Incorporated Association to become Palngun Wurnangat Aboriginal Corporation under ORIC, reflecting its expanding role as an operator of several businesses within the community. The Board signed a construction contract with TDC to build a Tea House in 2014; after successfully receiving $1million in funding and adding $400,000 of its own money. In the year of discussion prior, the women put forward ideas for it to be named the ‘T House’ in honour of Theodora Narndu and to include a cafe, shop, meeting space, small gallery, laundry facility and op shop.
In October of 2015, PWAC was asked by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to facilitate the remaining years of the Stronger Communities for Children Program contract in Wadeye. By the end of 2015, PWAC had also taken over management of the butchery and there were fifteen permanent roles available to local men and women across PWAC’s worksites by the following year – the butcher, the bakery, the takeaway commercial kitchen and service counter, the T House cafe, retail shop and art positions at the Women’s Centre.
The much anticipated T-House opened in June of 2016 and is slowly growing as the ‘go to’ place for locals and visitors looking for wi-fi, good coffee (and great tea!) and a quite place to meet up.
Women’s Centre retail stock moved across the road and it was turned into a dedicated art and training space with the organisation’s first ever permanent Art Coordintor appointed in February 2017, to focus solely on growing art and enterprise activities for the wider community.
PWAC took over the head lease of the Rural Transaction Centre early 2017 and established subleases with local and govermental department tenants to renovate and improve the facility.
A PWAC ‘employment pathways’ pilot in late 2016 – early 2017, trialed a different approach to on-the-job language, literacy and numeracy training with the Art team. PWAC has been heavily involved in the development of Wadeye’s Training and Employment Strategy – an interagency approach to collaboratively grow meaningful employment opportunities for both men and women of the region that will allow them to determine the direction of their community in a rapidly changing world.
The future looks bright as local Wadeye people continue the tradition of finding their own solutions to local challenges for family and community.
Thank you to Kanamkek-Yile Ngalla Museum for the imagery used within this article.