One of Canberra’s most respected traditional owners and Ngunnawal elders, Aunty Agnes Shea, died on Saturday at the age of 91. Her family has given explicit permission for her name and image to be used.
“I want future generations to be doing assignments on my Nan and their Google searches being flooded,” granddaughter Selina Walker told Region.
“How do you sum up someone like my grandmother? She was the epitome of a Canberran. She was a grandmother to everyone because she embraced everyone she met.
“I often wonder how someone who lived through what she went through in her early years could not be bitter or angry, but Nan was the complete opposite.”
Selina said that Aunty Agnes fought for equality and recognition until the end of her life.
“On 26 January this year, she made the Prime Minister get down on his knees and told him that he needed to get the Aboriginal flag on Parliament House.
“She always had a direct line to those in power but she never used her access for personal gain. She was always in service to our mob and the community”.
Aunty Agnes grew up in Yass at a time when discrimination was entrenched in many rural communities. Her first home was at Oak Hill, where Aboriginal people were permitted to build gunjes – shelters with dirt floors, stringybark walls and iron roofs.
There was no electricity or running water and when Agnes began attending school at the age of 7, she walked 10 km each way from Oak Hill to the Hollywood Aboriginal Reserve school.
Aboriginal children at the time were limited to certain parts of Yass township and were forbidden to speak their Ngunnawal language in public under threat of removal by authorities. Aboriginal children were prohibited from using the school bus service and had to leave school at 14.
In 1947, Aunty Agnes married Ron Walker, a professional boxer who also worked on the Burrinjuck Dam. She worked in domestic service in Yass.
When her first baby, Mary, was born in 1949, Aunty Agnes was one of the first three Aboriginal women allowed to have babies in Yass Hospital. A yellow line painted across the corridor marked the boundary of where the Aboriginal women were permitted to walk.
Following her first husband’s death, Aunty Agnes married Yass contractor Charles Shea.
She became a fierce advocate for the Ngunnawal people and an important advocate for traditional owners within the ACT.
Among many other roles., Aunty Agnes was a member of the Advisory Board to ACT Health and a foundation member of the United Ngunnawal Elders Council (UNEC). She was a member of Journey of Healing ACT, an organisation that supports local Indigenous communities who live with the effects of the Stolen Generation and a frequent presence at formal events in Canberra, giving the Welcome to Country.
Aunty Agnes was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2004 for service to Ngunnawal people by contributing to the improvement and development of services for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the ACT and region. She was also honoured with a Centenary Medal, the ACT Senior Citizen of the Year and a place on the ACT Honour Walk in 2010.
Tributes have been paid to Aunty Agnes from across government and the community.
A statement from Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith described Aunty Agnes as a tireless advocate for reconciliation, equality and the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“She was well known and respected across the ACT and beyond for her warmth, positive attitude and decades of hard work in the community. Aunty Agnes was loved across the community for her generosity, compassion, integrity and humility, embodying the strength of an elder in the community”, the statement said.
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said Aunty Agnes had been instrumental in building the community’s understanding of First Nations culture and was always generous in sharing her knowledge of Ngunnawal traditions and culture. She shared her elders’ knowledge and nurtured future Ngunnawal leaders and elders.
“She was our nan, mum and aunty, but she was owned by everyone because she meant so much,” her granddaughter Selina said.
There will be an open funeral for Aunty Agnes, with details to be announced shortly.