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Quenten Agius: Holder of histories, teller of stories

Quenten Agius: Holder of histories, teller of stories

Words and Photographs: Brooke DuBois

Content warnings: 

This article contains information about Australia’s First Nations Peoples who have passed, reference to racist behaviour and shocking historical violence inflicted on Aboriginal people and language that may cause offence.

All quoted language is in Aboriginal voice as expressed by Quenten and as told to the writer.

“This is a story about humanity,” Quenten Agius says intently.

Quenten is a descendant of the Adjahdura (Narungga) and Ngadjuri people whose ancestral lands run across South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula and Mid North regions.

We catch up at a coffee shop in Yartapuulti / Port Adelaide after he drops his grandson at a leadership course for Aboriginal students nearby. Quenten knows better than most how long road trips can result in meaningful conversations and sharing of advice, but Quenten jokes it is more ‘device’ than ‘advice’ that gets a look in with the teen. But he is proud, and glad the lad is moving in a positive direction.

If storytelling was an Olympic sport, Quenten would be a gold medallist from wayback. And with his long, curly silver hair and beard from behind which his big smile shines, he certainly wouldn’t look out of place in some sort of Ancient Greek-style situation.

But of course, it’s an ancient culture closer to home he belongs to; one he continues to share and highlight through his role as an award-winning tourism operator and tour guide for Aboriginal Cultural Tours South Australia, and as an Aboriginal Elder in the community.

Quenten’s yarns have me in stitches, receiving more than a few odd looks from the other coffee shop patrons who are wondering what could possibly be so funny to someone drinking just coffee, before he expertly switches gear, and snaps my heart with some of the raw truths of the racism and discrimination he and his family and his people have had to endure, past and present.

He makes a living from sharing stories and histories from his culture with people from all over the world, and Lutheran Care’s staff and clients have also benefited from Quenten’s expertise and guidance, with him having participated in various events for Lutheran Care in the Barossa.

However, the story Quenten wants to tell me today, and why we have gathered, is something “no one ever talks about”.

“It needs to be told!” he says.

Quenten sets the scene, and we’re on another car trip back a few decades. He is driving his mother, Irene Agius, near Bethany, just outside Tanunda in the Barossa Valley. Irene is sharing a story passed down to her by her own mother.

The story dates back to around the 1830s, when South Australia was being colonised. “You had bad times, evil times, when people just wanted land,” Quenten says.

“Through that land grabbing, there were a lot of disappearances of family members and disappearance of full groups,” he adds. “They were clearing this land of these old people, my ancestors.”

As part of a policy of violence and dispossession inflicted upon Aboriginal people by the colonial powers, bounty hunters would profit from taking Aboriginal lives.

“In certain times of that era it was OK to go around and shoot Aboriginal people and as you’re shooting them you’re also earning a wage from them,” Quenten shares.

“They really had nowhere to run.”

He remembers how he felt when he first heard his mother tell this history about his family being killed.

“I’m originally upset, I’m a young man.

“You learn your history, you don’t believe how us humans can do that sort of thing. But you can’t deny it.”

The Barossa Valley area was largely settled by German Lutherans who had fled persecution in Europe. In Bethany, they set up their homes on small neighbouring parcels of land, backing onto the creek.

Irene shared to Quenten how their people were on the run from the bounty hunters and had taken to the creekbed to hide.

“Like any human, you follow your watercourse,” Quenten says.

As he speaks, I can imagine the sorry group; staying together, watching out, mothers trying to hush the babies, listening for the crack of a stick and wondering what would happen next.

When some of the Lutheran settlers discovered this group of people, they intervened on their behalf and very likely saved lives of a number of families.

“I’ve got to give it to the early Lutheran/German settlers, they stood up to say, ‘you leave those bl**ks alone,” Quenten says.

“That even though they were fighting a losing battle, when they saw our people walking through the creekbed, and mercenaries looking to make money off of death, humanity arose from that.

“It was humanity to stand up and say, ‘Those bl**ks are my bl**ks’, back then”, Quenten said.

“Some words of humanity saved a race of people. You know what I mean? That’s what my mother’s mother would say.

“If it wasn’t for the church, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Christian church are not blameless by any means, with many children who were ripped apart from their families, forcibly disconnected from culture and suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of missionaries have experienced untold hurt and pain impacting generations of Aboriginal people. Still, Quenten feels this is about truth telling and a story people need to know.

“Look, there’s two sides to every story; two sides of a knife, you know?” he says.

Quenten is also vocal in his respect for Reverend W. Julius Kuhn, a Moravian missionary and educator who was instrumental in setting up the Point Pearce Aboriginal Mission in Yorke Peninsula. Reverend Kuhn petitioned the government for the land so Aboriginal people and families could be safe and together. The land was suitable for cropping, and the Point Pearce community soon become independent and self sufficient through their mastery of farming methods, which soon became famous across the Peninsula and beyond. Point Pearce is where Quenten’s mother Irene was born and where, with his mother’s family, he spent much of his upbringing when not at his family home in Hamley Bridge. Another notable Lutheran was Christian Gottlieb Teichelmann, who played a part in the preservation of the Kaurna language as part of a group of early missionaries who helped record and translate the language.

The theme of NAIDOC Week 2024 is Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud. Quenten Agius certainly carries the torch of knowledge and is happy to bring to life our shared histories with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

He has won numerous awards for his tourism business, which he has run for close to 21 years.

“I use my history, my past,” he shares.

“You grow up, there were histories about how this country come to what it is today. Our parents all have different stories and told us different things.

“It doesn’t mean one’s right and one’s wrong – it means they’ve got different stories, they’ve been told differently.”

In this vein, Quentin is exploring developing a new project which brings together Aboriginal history with early Lutheran history, and their shared stories. He would love to learn from descendants of the early Lutherans, to hear the stories in their family histories that have been handed down. Potentially involving local artists, the idea, in its early stages, could include an on country retelling of how their cultures and their interactions have shaped their families, their communities.

Quenten gets excited when he talks about it: “Moving together, sharing history, sharing culture, moving forward as one nation.”

“Writing songs and painting stories.”

The spark in his eye and his knowing grin tells me it might just happen. If you have information that can assist Quenten with this project please reach out to communications@lutherancare.org.au

And – Watch this space!

The article has been approved for public release by Quenten acknowledging First Nations peoples’ rights to self-determination, equality and connection to Country, community and culture.