Canberra Citizen of the Year
Matilda House (born 1945)
Matilda House (left), with John Williams-Mozley and Daphne Wallace, 20 December 1991
SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 000805, Canberra Times Collection, photographer Andrew Campbell
Matilda’s parents were Harry Douglas ‘Doug’ Williams and Pearly nee Simpson. Matilda was her mother’s first-born child; in accordance with custom Pearly, a Wiradjuri woman, returned to her own country Wirrajah near Cowra for the birth. They then returned to Hollywood, the Aboriginal reserve outside Yass, where Matilda lived until she was about 12, attending school at Mount Carmel in Yass.
During the Depression rural properties reduced their workforce and many Aboriginal people were put out of work. To cope with the increased demand for housing and support the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board reopened older reserves or set up new ones. Men were employed to build the accommodation in exchange for rations, and gradually families were moved out of the general community and on to the reserves. Yass Aboriginal Reserve, later known as Hollywood, was opened in 1932 and the Williams family was moved in. Other families went to the Erambie Reserve at Cowra, where Matilda was born, or the Brungle Reserve west of Canberra, between Tumut and Gundagai.
By 1940 the Aborigines Welfare Board was the governing body, and policy was reversed. Selected families were moved off the reserves into the general community. The Williams family was selected for to move to Yass but Matilda’s parents chose instead to move to Erambie. Her grandfather Lightning Williams, however, flatly refused to move. Matilda and her two brothers lived with Lightning until, after his death in 1959, Doug and Pearly briefly reoccupied his ‘cottage’ with Cissy, Doug’s mother. Hollywood was closed and Doug and Pearly took the family back to Erambie Reserve.
Girls, especially Aboriginal girls, were supposed to “know their place”. If they lived on an Aboriginal reserve their behaviour was constantly monitored. Matilda hated Erambie and refused to conform; after being reported to the manager many times she was sent to the infamous Parramatta Girls’ Home, aged 12, as an uncontrollable child. After a year of “domestication” she was sent to work on a farm. Matilda had buried the experience until she saw an ABC Stateline program on the Home, and in 2003 told her own story to Stateline and attended the reunion of “graduates”.
Doug’s father Harry ‘Lightning’ Williams and his grandfather Ngoobra, also known as Black Harry Williams, identified as Ngambri, one of the indigenous peoples from land now included in the ACT, particularly around Namadgi National Park. As Ngambri descendants Matilda’s family group has been formally acknowledged by the ACT government as traditional custodians of the Canberra region and surrounds. While living at Hollywood Matilda often visited the Canberra ancestral lands with her grandfather, absorbing the stories that she later passed on to her own children and grandchildren.
In 1963, aged 17, Matilda married Michael House and settled in Canberra. Michael had come from England to work on a farm or rural property under the Big Brother Movement, a youth migration scheme founded in 1924 by businessman Sir Richard Linton in co-operation with the Australian Immigration Department. Their standard suburban home in O’Connor was so different from her grandfather’s “kerosene-tin and corrugated iron shanty” that at first Matilda was overwhelmed by the space and just camped in the living room. Four children soon filled the space, and after the fourth child started school in 1972 Matilda went back to work. By this time the family was living in Pearce.
She became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Liaison Officer for the Canberra and district Aboriginal people. As more Aboriginal people moved to Canberra looking for work, so her workload increased: health, education, welfare and assistance in finding employment were the primary duties. In the 1980s Matilda helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, and later was appointed to the Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee.
Matilda has been involved in local indigenous affairs since 1967; it is difficult to name an organisation or cause related to indigenous people that she has not at some time been part of. She was one of the original protestors who established the Tent Embassy in 1972, and defended its listing on the national estate in 1995 not just for its recent significance but because of the stone tools and artefacts known to be on the site.
In 1988, as Chair of the Ngunnawal Land Council, she officially opened the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre (ATSIC) at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now University of Canberra), that had been quietly operating for two years in a basement at the College, supporting 33 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students undertaking museum studies at the College.
The new Parliament House opened in the same year, and Matilda wrote the address describing the Aboriginal significance of Capital Hill.
As a Ngambri elder Matilda takes her responsibilities seriously. She not only speaks on local Aboriginal affairs but regularly performs welcoming ceremonies, notably at the Sea of Hands in 1997, and at Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. In that year she also performed the first welcome to country at the opening of the 42nd Federal Parliament in Canberra and has continued to perform this role at other official functions.
Matilda advocates education and unity, reconciliation rather than alienation. In 1992 she was appointed to the first ACT Heritage Council, to advise on Aboriginal heritage in the Territory. She contributed to Bringing Them Home, the report into the Stolen Generations. In 2002 she stated her position: 'I believe it is possible to work together to respect this land of ours and to achieve justice, equity and unity for all Australians, and that's a journey I'd like to tell my great-grandchildren about in the years to come.'
The great-grandchildren are here, and the grandchildren are now contributing to the story-telling. Five picture books in the series 'Tales of Ngambri History' have been written and illustrated by five local Indigenous families, including Matilda, her son Paul and her grandchildren Leah, Ruby and Reuben, and distributed through ACT government primary schools. Matilda firmly believes that “you must have stories of your country. If you don't, you don't belong, no matter where you come from.”
Matilda is also a painter. Some of her works have appeared in exhibitions and one hangs in the ACT Legislative Assembly. Dogs and cooking are other interests. She began showing and breeding bull terriers in the early 1970s, and has shown at Crufts in London and Madison Square Garden in New York, with numerous winners.
When Matilda accepted her award as Canberra Citizen of the Year in 2006 she did so in traditional possum skins to a standing ovation from over 400 people. The mix of old and new represented a cultural acceptance that would have been unthinkable in Matilda’s childhood.
Awards and Distinctions
2006 Canberra Citizen of the Year for her contribution to the ACT community, especially indigenous affairs
1996 House, Matilda Williams and others, Strong lines new directions: an exhibition of prints by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists living and working in Canberra, 1 March – 8 April 1996, Canberra, Museums and Galleries Section
2003 House, Matilda, Leah and Ruby, Kymin and Kangaroo: a Ngambri love story, Tuggeranong, ACT Department of Education, Youth and Family Services
1988 ‘Aboriginal liaison officer and welfare worker: Matilda House’, in Rudduck, Loma, A celebration of women in the growth of Canberra, Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women ACT Division
1993 'Dawson warned against trying to right old wrongs on Mabo', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 13 June, p. 4, viewed 22 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127232465
2001 Jackson-Nakano, Ann, The Kamberri, a history from the records of Aboriginl families in the Canberra-Queanbeyan district and surrounds 1820-1927, and historical overview 1928-2001, Canberra, Aboriginal History
2003 Transcript of interview of Matilda House by Kathleen Hyland, broadcast 31 October, viewed 22 February 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/act/content/2003/s980784.htm