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Undelya (Minnie) Apma (c. 1909–1990)

by Kath Apma Travis Penangke

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Undelya Apma, by Herbert Basedow, n.d.

Undelya Apma, by Herbert Basedow, n.d.

photo provided by her family

Undelya Apma (c. 1909–1990), Arrernte woman and domestic servant, also known as Minnie, was born around 1909 at Horseshoe Bend, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, fourth child of Joulta (Ruulta, Yoolda, Jolta, Arulda), a traditional owner for Imarnte, and her husband Charley Apma (Apmwe) Peltharre. Joulta’s mother was Palpaltjura and her father, Malbunga, was an important Imarnte boss. Charley Apma was from the Jay Creek area, Standley Chasm, and the Hugh River. A ceremonial leader for the Central Arrernte people, he was the recognised elder of the Akaperte Urrperle (Black Headed) snake story. Apma is the Arrernte word for snake. The story of the Akaperte Urrperle Apma runs from Jay Creek, joining the Hugh River, then goes to 30 Mile on Owen Springs, to the side of the hill where it crosses over to Dingo Bore, past Rainbow Valley and Walkabout Bore, then to Mount Bowen and Imarnte. Charley Apma’s mother was Intenjarinja. She was the second wife of Ulburarinja and had three sons: Jatjkuja from the Rubuntjanga Kwaninja conception site, Apma from the Nkaritjoa conception site, and Ntjala from the Ntjalintjala conception site.

Charley Apma and Joulta married in their mid-teens and lived a traditional way of life. They knew all the water sources and would walk with their people from water to water, hunting for meat and gathering fruits and seeds. Their youngest child, Undelya, moved around the western and central deserts of the Northern Territory with them and her older siblings Dick Taylor, Sandy White, and Jack Kenny. In May 1920 they arrived at Crown Point station, named for the pyramid-shaped hill with a flattened apex on the property, seventy-one miles (115 km) east of Kulgera. In June the anthropologist, geologist, and medical practitioner Herbert Basedow arrived with his wife Nell to document the medical condition of Aboriginal people in the area. He examined eleven-year-old Undelya and her father, and afterwards, when Charley was out bush, abducted Undelya, taking her away from her people and country.

On the way to Alice Springs the front springs of Basedow’s camel-drawn buggy were damaged and the party was compelled to stop at Ntaria (Hermannsburg mission) to make repairs. Over the next few days the people at Ntaria agreed that Undelya, who was very sad, needed an age friend for company and Tjikana (Tjikarna) Cooper was chosen. At Alice Springs the group stayed with the local policeman and protector of Aboriginal people, Sergeant Robert Stott. An agreement was reached between Stott and Basedow whereby Basedow undertook to ‘adopt’ the two girls and to train them in domestic duties. Later, in response to suggestions that the girls had been ‘“adopted” … for scientific study,’ Nell Basedow implied that they had been motivated by ‘friendship … [as] they had no children of their own’ (Mail 1933, 2). Yet they were not adopted as daughters, but enslaved as domestic servants in training. A photograph of Undelya and Tjikana in white pinafores serving tea to Basedow at his Kent Town residence was printed in an Adelaide newspaper in 1929 under the heading ‘Aboriginal Maids.’

Several investigations into the circumstances of Undelya and Tjikana’s removal were held between 1922 and 1932, prompted by Undelya’s father. In 1922, Frederic Urquhart, administrator of the Northern Territory, had contacted the police commissioner in Adelaide, noting that while the girls’ ‘removals were sanctioned officially at the time … a doubt seems now to have arisen as to whether they went voluntarily with Dr Basedow and whether they are now well and happy’ (SRSA GRG 52/1). A police constable subsequently visited the girls at Basedow’s sisters’ Kent Town residence (Basedow was away at the time) and reported that they were ‘quite happy and contented’ (SRSA GRG 52/1). In 1928 Basedow received a telegram from Charley Apma demanding that his daughter be returned: ‘I am … proper Father Alonga Minnie—my girl you been taken from New Crown … you send em back quick—please’ (SLSA SRG 139). Further inquiries were made in 1929, but no action was taken. In 1930 Secretary of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association Rev. John Henry Sexton reported that a deputation ‘consisting of the father and relatives of the two native girls’ had complained ‘about their detention’ in Adelaide and had requested that the girls ‘be permitted to return to their people in Central Australia’ (SLSA SRG 139). Another government inspection was carried out the following year and it was reported that Undelya and Tjikana looked ‘well cared for and happy’ (SRSA GRG 52/8).

In 1933 it was reported that Undelya, who was ‘round and dimpled and jolly’ (Mail 1933, 2), designed and made all her own clothes and that she delighted in making baby clothes for friends of the Basedow family. Following Basedow’s death that year, she and Tjikana were given—like chattels or family heirlooms—to Basedow’s unmarried sisters, Blanca (d. 1936), Elsa (d. 1946), and Hedwig (d. 1963). The young women, now aged in their early twenties, worked as domestic servants for the sisters, their freedoms severely constrained. Little is known of their lives during this period; however, both became pregnant. Undelya’s first child, Charlie, was kept by the sisters to raise as their own. Her second child, Margaret, was sent to the United Aborigines’ Mission’s Colebrook Home: later, when Margaret became a mother, her three daughters were also institutionalised. Tjikana’s only child, Elsa, was also sent to Colebrook.

Tjikana died on 20 August 1971 at Kent Town and is buried in West Terrace cemetery. Undelya had returned to Central Australia in the late 1950s and was reunited with Margaret and other family members. Survived by Charlie and Margaret, Undelya died on 14 August 1990 at the Old Timers Aged Care Village, Alice Springs, and was buried in the Alice Springs cemetery. Despite her many years away from her country and family, her sense of identity and belonging as an Arrernte woman was strong; she is remembered as funny, kind, and jovial. In 2014 Undelya’s granddaughter discovered sacred objects at the Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, that Charley Apma had entrusted to the anthropologist Theodor (Ted) Strehlow for Undelya’s male descendants.


Kath Apma Travis Penangke is Imarnte of the Arrente people. She is Undelya Ampa’s granddaughter and she collaborated with other family members in writing this article.

Select Bibliography

  • Basedow, Bernhard. The Basedow Story: A German South Australian Heritage. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, c. 1990
  • Mail (Adelaide). ‘Black Girls Mourn Benefactor.’ 10 June 1933, 2
  • Register News-Pictorial (Adelaide). ‘Aboriginal Maids.’ 8 January 1929, 10
  • State Library of South Australia. SRG 139, Records of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 52/1/1922/905
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 52/8
  • Travis, Kath Apma Penangke. Minnie, Mum and Me. The Black Headed Snake. [Adelaide: K. Travis, 2019]
  • Travis, Kath. ‘Child Stealing, Family, Intergenerational Trauma & the Black Headed Snake.’ BA Hons thesis, Victoria University, 2019
  • Zogbaum, Heidi. Changing Skin Colour in Australia: Herbert Basedow and the Black Caucasian. North Melbourne, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010

Citation details

Kath Apma Travis Penangke, 'Apma, Undelya (Minnie) (c. 1909–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Undelya Apma, by Herbert Basedow, n.d.

Undelya Apma, by Herbert Basedow, n.d.

photo provided by her family

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Apma, Unndelawugga
  • Apma, Unndela

c. 1909
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia


14 August, 1990 (aged ~ 81)
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Social Issues