Vale Eileen Wani Wingfield, 1920-2014

From Chain Reaction #122, Nov 2014,

After an amazing life fighting for country and culture Kokatha Elder Eileen Wani Wingfield passed away at her home in Port Augusta on August 8, 2014. Mrs Wingfield will be widely remembered and acknowledged for her contribution to the nuclear-free and peace movements in Australia and worldwide.

Living her life in the South Australian desert, Mrs Wingfield experienced first-hand the effects of the British military’s nuclear weapons tests at Emu Fields and Maralinga during the 1950s and 1960s. Motivated by this injustice, she dedicated her life to protecting her country and future generations from the effects of the nuclear industry. In the early 1980s Mrs Wingfield lay down in front of bulldozers at Cane Grass Swamp in opposition to the Olympic Dam uranium mine’s construction.

Joining other senior desert women in the early 1990s, Mrs Wingfield played a leading role in the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta who fought and won a fight against the federal government’s plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the SA desert. Feeling disempowered by broken promises and the general lack of respect, Mrs Wingfield co-wrote to government officials working on the government nuclear waste dump “consultation” process that “it’s just like our words went in the wind”.

Ensuring that their voices were heard, Mrs Wingfield and the Kunga Tjuta wrote to “greenies” and shortly after travelled to Melbourne to attend the Global Survival and Indigenous Rights conference hosted by Friends of the Earth Melbourne in 1998. Here a strong alliance between environmentalist, particularly non-Aboriginal women and the Kunga Tjuta was formed. What followed was years of travel and campaign commitments that raised the profile of the issue and ultimately created a political wedge between the South Australian government and its federal counterparts. Throughout the Kunga Tjuta reiterated the message that “We’ve got the story of the land.”

Not one to mince words, Mrs Wingfield was both an advocate for her desert Country, espousing the life and culture it contained and resisting the view of it as a barren and lifeless. But the changes to her Country weighed heavy. She once stated “I think everything is ruined. I think the (ground) water level would have dropped. There’s very few bush tucker now. I think it’s the bomb and dynamites going off and everything. The country’s not the same.”

The worry for country, the concern for her children and future generations and the risk that practices handed down from her ancestors could be broken, kept Mrs Wingfield active. “We learned from the bedside of our Kokatha and Arabunna Old People. This is what we want to pass on to our younger generations – to keep the culture and the land alive and to keep them alive themselves”. Her role in protecting Country was recognised in 2003 when Mrs Wingfield was co-recipient of the International Goldman Award for the ‘protection of environment’. This prestigious prize has been dubbed the “greenie Nobel Prize” and is awarded annually to “grass-roots environmental heroes” from six geographic regions. Despite ill-health and extensive cultural and family commitments, Mrs Wingfield travelled to San Francisco to attend the official award ceremony and completed a 10-day tour in the US attending news conferences, media briefings and high-level meetings.

Mrs Wingfield continued her anti-nuclear work long after the nuclear waste dump was scrapped for South Australia. She was a regular guest on Friends of the Earth’s annual Radioactive Exposure Tour and often travelled with family to sit by the campfire to retell her stories once again to aspiring greenies and long-term activist colleagues. It was here she often handed over a big bucket of prized Irmangka Irmangka − a bush medicine ointment that anti-nuclear campaigners would take back to Melbourne, divide and sell as a fundraiser. It was practical and generous donation that continued for many years.

Mrs Wingfield was a formative member of the Alliance against Uranium which later became the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA). In 2009 she became the honorary president. Mrs Wingfield stood in solidarity with communities from Northern Territory in their incredible efforts to stop nuclear waste being dumped in their lands and with many other Aboriginal people also facing the results or prospect of uranium mining. “It’s all for the wellbeing of the land; its against uranium and the radioactive dump.” Her contribution to ANFA’s meetings over many years helped grow and shape the alliance and she will be dearly missed.

Mrs Wingfield was a mother to 13 children, beloved grandmother of 51 grandchildren, great grandmother of 64 and great-great grandmother of 19. Alongside these extensive family and cultural responsibilities, Mrs Wingfield tirelessly spent her life travelling to attend forums and events; lobbying politicians and addressing students, tour groups and the general public. She worked within her local community and with numerous environmental groups from around Australia. She was cofounder of several committees and corporations, including the Kokatha Mula Aboriginal Corporation which was party to recent Native Title determinations in the Gawler Ranges and the Roxby Downs Area. Mrs Wingfield received many awards for her efforts, was featured in documentaries and was the author of three books. She was as an amazing artist who enjoyed painting and of course a committed activist. Her resilience, passion and dedication remains an inspiration to everyone that met her.

Mrs Wingfield was laid to rest in Port Augusta on August 29. Family, friends and environmentalists travelled from afar to pay respects and say goodbye. A vibrant anti-nuclear flag flew strong in the gentle wind over the hundreds of mourners gathered in the cemetery. It was a colourful reminder of her life’s work and the future we can all aspire to. Rest in Peace.