Napanangka Nelly Patterson was born in 1938 on her father's country at Pipalyatjara. Recognised as ‘special’ by her ancestors, she was taught about Tjukurpa—the sacred Aboriginal Lore and spiritual business—by her Uncles and Aunties as they 'grew her up'— walking from Pipalyatjara to Docker River (Kaltukatjara), to Umatju and Kata Tjuta, Uluru, Atila (Mt Conner) and Amata and Ernabella (Pukatja). She grew up as a traditional Anangu (Central Desert area) girl near Pipalyatjara in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara Lands, with no white people or roads. The first white men she saw were the camel workers passing through. When Nelly was a little older, the missionaries came. She remembers coming into Ernabella and seeing people wearing clothes, and she was scared. Nelly moved to Areonga, near Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, and lived there for nearly 18 years, practicing pottery. Nelly then lived in Jay Creek, where her grandfather is from. She travelled all over the country and went back and forth to Adelaide to bring up her grandchildren. As a senior traditional woman, Nellie is a custodian of the stories and lore of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Mt. Conner which have sustained her people throughout many generations. She resides in the Mutitjulu Community at the base of Uluru, where she paints and teaches her grandchildren Original Culture. Nelly has been an active advocate of Aboriginal affairs, politically and socially, since the 1950s. Now into her eighties and confined to a wheelchair, she still courageously travels, out from Uluru to various places, in order to connect with people, and share her presence and wisdom.
‘Tjukurpa’ defines the relationship between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land. It also includes travelling around country, learning about traditions, such as bush medicines and foods, and passing traditional, cultural knowledge onto young men and women. Nelly promised her Uncles and Aunties that she would continue to hold onto the string of Tjukurpa stories to teach all the young ones following in her footsteps—that she would hold onto Strong Lore and Culture in her dreaming, visioning, and service to the community. She has been fulfilling that promise ever since.
The paintings Nelly makes carry some of the stories that she is passing on to her great-granddaughter Wanatjura (Rosemary Patterson) and other apprentice Anangu people in the Northern Rivers and Central Desert areas. Through her works, Nelly teaches the Tjukurpa, the ancient lore of the desert which has been told through songs, stories, ceremony and dancing and passed down from Elders to youth, since time began.
“This is my dreaming, really strong. I talk to that really strong, strong way, new way. And you mob gotta think 'em bout, then turn around and come back to good way, new way. Everybody join to me for the dreaming. I'm dreaming for the Tjukurrpa Pulka (sacred strong Lore) for the spirit strong… strong spirit. Everybody gotta look and come and join with me,” welcomes Nelly.
Nelly is a co-founder of the Maraku Arts Centre and Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (Aboriginal Corporation)—an organisation driven by women’s lore and authority, guided by Original Culture—devoted to helping Anangu women to have a good life. Currently Nelly is inspired to start a community and workshop space, with a café, community vegetable garden and kitchen, to enrich the physical and spiritual lives of Anangu kids living in the Mutitjulu Community.
Nelly is also planning Tjutaku Camps on her mother’s Umatja country, for both Aboriginal and non-Aborginal people to come together and to learn about the Sacred Lore and the Land.