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From Stockman to Statesman: Honouring the Life and Legacy of Kunmanara Lester Print E-mail


on the Recent Passing of Kunmanara Lester OAM, 1949-2017 

From Stockman to Statesman: Honouring the Life and Legacy of Kunmanara Lester

As family gather at sorry camp fires, we pause today to remember a great Yankunytjatjara man. Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara honours Kunmanara Lester, the man who put the “Y” in APY, who spoke up for his people, his language, and his law. He was a legend in his own lifetime. Lester will soon be laid to rest at his place, Walatina, where in life he was always a watchful presence, a custodian of the Anangu self-determination, of those precious rights he fought for and won, and then kept on fighting for, right to the end.

At this time, APY acknowledge the tireless lifelong work of Kunmanara Lester for Anangu tjuta (Aboriginal people of the APY Lands). With his family at his side, his commitment to Anangu and Aboriginal rights took many forms: as a pioneer of court interpreting, as an advocate with Reverend Jim Downing, and later a leader of the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) and Nganampa Health. In his work as a station manager at Mimili, and as chairman of Uluru Kata Tjuta, he forged connections between old and new ways of looking after Anangu land. With his insistence that Yankunytjatjara is the language of Yankunytjatjara country, he worked to keep his language alive for his grandchildren. No man or woman who follows the news, as Kunmanara did so avidly, could miss the outpouring of grief at the loss of this Aangu man, nor still the enduring gifts his work has bestowed on Anangu tjuta.


Kunmanara took his own natural gifts—honed in stock camps, in the saddle, and on the road—and turned them to a new purpose in his life as an Anangu statesman. With his boundless energy, taste for adventure, and a wicked sense of humour, Kunmanara had a unique capacity to tell a yarn—In person and across vast distances over HF radio—to inspire Anangu and piranpa tjuta (non–Indigenous people) alike, to show them that truly anything is possible with the grit and determination of the stockman or stockwoman. As a great leader, he had no time for talk without action, and he acted on causes as diverse as land rights, health, language vitality, and nuclear disarmament. What is more, he connected the dots between them all. Kunmanara Lester became a global icon for telling the truth about the dangers of nuclear weapons and all other sources of radioactive pollution, reaping their bitter human toll from Japan to New Mexico to Maralinga. He paid with his sight for the madness of British nuclear ambitions, and, together with his family, spent his life highlighting the brutal intergenerational cost of radiation, of poisoned bodies and poisoned lands.

As family gather, Anangu tjuta from Adelaide to Amata, from Yalata to Dunjiba mourn the passing of a great among Anangu men. No words can express the sorrow that his family must now feel. APY Executive Board of Management, Chairman, Director, General Manager, and all staff extend our condolences at this time of deep sorrow. Ngaltutjara. APY grieves with you.

Says Mr Frank Young, APY Chairman:

“Ngayulu tjituru tjituru tjituru ngayuku kulypalpaku, palaru warka pulka palyaningi Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara panangka. Nganana wangkanyangka panaku, Land Rights Act panya, palaru kuṉpu waakarinyi panya Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjaraku.”

“I am really sad about my uncle. He was a good man and great leader of APY and of Yankunytjatjara people. I really respect my uncle in every way and I am sad to see him go.”

Never one to shy away from a fight worth fighting, Kunmanara Lester has set the highest of bars for Anangu leaders in land rights struggles. In recognizing this, we honour his legacy and defend the fruits of his work for Anangu tjuta, for Australia, and for all peoples struggling to find their way. Ride well, tjilpi.


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