On 5 April, Pantjiti Unkari McKenzie from Docker River was presented with the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) by the Administrator of the Northern Territory, Her Honour the Honourable Vicki O’Halloran AM.
Pantjiti’s OAM recognises her achievements to the Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory, in particular, her decades of service on the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council. Her award also acknowledges her contributions to the arts and media, which include being custodian manager and producer for Ernabella Video and Television, and film and documentary making.
Pantjiti was born around 1942 at Kultunankunytja, near Blackstone, Western Australia (about 80 kilometres from the South Australian border). Both her parents died by the time Pantjiti turned 10. Her aunties took her to Areyonga, where she lived until she went to Ernabella at about the age of 18. She became an active member of the church there and sang in the choir. She travelled all over Australia and to the Solomon Islands with the choir.
She was tribally married to Simon Tjiyangu McKenzie, and they had five children. In 2011, Simon died from renal failure. Soon after, Pantjiti moved to Kaltukatjara (Docker River) and married Pastor Roy Yaltjanki. She has been a great support to Pastor Roy, the congregation and the community.
Pantjiti has passed on her choral skills to the community at Docker River and also through her work with the Central Australian Women’s Choir. She toured Germany with the choir in 2015 on the now famous Boomerang Tour, which has been beautifully documented in the movie The Song Keepers. Pantjiti plays a significant role in this movie, explaining how she, and many other Western Desert people, balance their Anangu (Western Desert) culture with their Christian faith.
Pantjiti enjoys acting. She has appeared in many films about bush tucker, bush medicine and the traditional story of the Seven Sisters (The Pleiades). She also performed in the stage play Ngapartji Ngapartji which explores the Pitjantjatjara concept of exchange and reciprocity. Her work in archiving and sharing knowledge around cultural heritage is also renowned.
She is a skilled artist in painting, batik and weaving tjanpi (grass) baskets and is a teacher of the Pitjantjatjara language. A respected Ngangkari (traditional healer), she combines her firm faith in prayer and God’s healing power with her knowledge of traditional bush medicines.
Recently Pantjiti worked on the Smiling Mind Meditation phone app. These meditations have been created and recorded by Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra speakers and piloted through schools in the APY Lands. Its aim is to help young people develop healthy relationships with self, friends, family and others.
We thank God for Pantjiti and congratulate her on being awarded the OAM in recognition of her tireless service to Indigenous communities.
Malcolm Willcocks is the Pitjantjatjara Support Worker in the Western Arrarnta language area.