Indigenous Law Bulletin
By Cyndia Henty-Roberts.
Charles Nelson Perrurle Perkins was born on an Aboriginal reserve at the old Telegraph Station, also known as the ‘Bungalow’, in Alice Springs in 1936, son of Arrernte woman Hetti Perkins and Kalkadoon man Martin Connelly. In an era when government policies supported and legally sanctioned the removal of Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal people from their country and their confinement within a reserve or specified institution, Charles was fortunate because he lived on the reserve with his mother.
Charles did not meet his father, whom he once described as ‘a father I loved but never knew’, until he was thirty-three years old, and met his grandmother once, for a few minutes through the fence of the reserve. She died shortly afterwards. It was his grandmother, his mother and his people that motivated him later in life to strive for change.
When he was about ten years old, his mother Hetti gave an Anglican Priest, Father Percy Smith, her permission to take Charles with other young boys to the St Francis Boys Home in Adelaide to further his education. It was ‘an offer his mother could not refuse’ yet both Charles and his mother suffered loss of separation.
At St Francis’ discipline was harsh and at school racist taunts a daily burden. Charles hated school and failed miserably. His only happiness in these years was sport, especially soccer, which eventually helped finance his way through university.
Between 1963 and 1966, Charles studied for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. During this time he also became seriously focused on campaigning against racism and for the rights of Aboriginal people. In 1965 he organized a group of university students to travel by bus to the small country towns of Walgett, Moree and Kempsey in New South Wales to protest against the apartheid being practiced there. In his autobiography, he described the Freedom Ride as ‘the greatest and most exciting event that I have ever been involved in with Aboriginal Affairs’.
The first Indigenous Australian man to graduate from a university in 1966, in 1968 Charles became the first Aboriginal person to head a government department when he was appointed Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra. At different times, he was Chairman of both the Aboriginal Development Commission and Aboriginal Hostels Ltd. Charles was the first elected ATSIC Commissioner to have served in both the Alice Springs and Sydney Regions, reflecting his importance not only in his community. In 1993 he was named Aboriginal of the Year and in 1997 he was awarded the Order of Australia.
In public, Charles never failed to speak the truths that many did not want to hear. But there was another Charles the public seldom saw. ATSIC Commissioner Brian Butler encapsulated my feelings entirely when he said of him at his state funeral in Sydney Town Hall on 25 October, 2000,
any people will only remember Charles as an angry man, a radical and an activist who had a natural instinct for making challenging statements which grabbed headlines across the country and even the world. He was certainly all of those things but to remember him only in this way would be a tragedy for all Australians. Charles was my brother, my friend. He was a tremendously caring man with a great sense of humour, equally at ease talking to someone on the banks of the Todd River as he was to Heads of State. He was a husband, grandfather and father who was immensely proud of the achievements of his children – few people saw this side of his life.
He was also my brother, and my friend too.
A man of courage with a burning conviction that injustice must be tackled head on, Charles committed his life and considerable energy to fighting racism, ignorance and paternalism. All Australians can draw strength from his legacy.
Charles Nelson Perrurle Perkins died amongst family and friends from complications associated with renal failure. He was 64. He is survived by his wife Eileen, his children Hetti, Adam and Rachel and four grandchildren Tyson, Thea, Lille and Madeleine.
‘We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives with us’