Aboriginal people across Australia celebrate NAIDOC Week which starts today, Sunday 8th July, and goes to 15 July. Since since I was a very young woman, the paths of some Aboriginal women have crossed mine and enriched it it many different ways.
There’s a different theme for NAIDOC week each year. This year it is
BECAUSE OF HER, WE CAN
The official NAIDOC website says that the theme
celebrates the essential role that women have played – and continue to play – as active and significant role models at the community, local, state and national levels.
My first job twas as a junior typist in the Perth district office of the Western Australian Department of Native Welfare. I was fifteen years old, naïve, vulnerable and too young to begin training as a nurse
The District Officer, Bruce McLarty, and the patrol officers who worked in the Department taught me much about the painful situation of Aboriginal people in Western Australia. It was 1953.
Since then I have been lucky to know a number of Aboriginal women and men.
As my personal celebration of NAIDOC week 2008 and its theme,this is myt tribute to the Aboriginal women who most influenced me. As a white woman (wadjela woman) I have been blessed with their friendship.
I don’t have permission to write about them so will use only their first names.
Aboriginal women in Perth
Shirley, a Noongar woman and the telephonist at the Department of Native Welfare in 1953, taught me to use her daunting equipment. Not sure how to describe it, but it involved plugging leads with incoming calls into sockets that led to phones on desks. The process terrified me, a girl of fifteen, but soon Shirley trusted me with this cumbersome machine while she had her lunch break.
My friend Lorraine, also a Noongar woman, insisted we would sew her ball-gown together for the first NAIDOC ball held in Perth in 1971. As part of a playgroup, I offered to show some Aboriginal playgroup mothers to sew kids’ clothes.
At first I wasn’t sure we could do such an ambitious project. But, in her elegant shot-green taffeta dress created from a Vogue pattern, Lorraine was a sensation at the ball. She and I grinned for weeks. She was the first ever person to call me a wadjela when we were talking.
As some of my readers know, one of the most exciting times in my life was my short stint as the community nurse at Jigalong Aboriginal Community in 1991. I lived and worked among the Martu people. I met many women while I worked there – enough to write a book which will soon be reprinted.
What a life-changer!
The Martu are the traditional owners of a large part of central Western Australia in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia.
Aboriginal women in the Pilbara
Joannie, an Aboriginal Health Worker, taught me much about the culture of her country and people. She taught me how to be a community nurse in the outback because I had no clue. She demonstrated the skills of working with those who were ill or injured in the community. I am thankful to Joannie for the personal care and support she provided while I found my feet. I enjoyed her friendship as I grew more confident in my role.
Joannie bestowed on me my Martu ‘skin-name’ and I for that I am especially grateful. I felt honoured and delighted to be told where I fitted into the community and how I should relate to others. I wrote about Joannie here
Dora moved her camp into an unused shed next to the health centre and my tiny flat. Our friendship began when she asked to borrow a broom from the clinic to sweep the filthy shed. I soon realised that we would share many resources, in the manner of true Aboriginal sisters.
We got to know each other. Became friends. You would not believe how wonderful it was to share damper by her fire under the stars. We laughed together as the golden syrup ran down our arms and I felt at home.
Another woman, necessarily anonymous, younger than Joannie or Dora, shared time with me told me about her childhood. She was visiting Jigalong, but came from another community and region. She had been sexually abused and sold by her father to other men from her early teens. Her story moved me deeply, and I grew in knowledge and respect of her and other women with similar stories.
I used to chat with the many women who sat waiting their turn to be seen in a clinic which was frequently chaotic. This happened especially when the community was inundated with visitors from out-stations. These lovely women taught me about kairos (God’s time) and chronos (clock time) and the role of patience in their lives and mine. From them I learned much I try to put into practice about valuing country and family.
Midwives Gail Yarran and Jane Jones are two of mine colleagues on the Women and Newborns Health Service Community Advisory Council. Gail has recently been acclaimed as the Hestia Australian Nurse and Midwife for 2018. What an amazing woman!
Jane’s and Gail’s pain is palpable when they speak about the removal of babies from their mothers which they see all too often it in their work. I understand some of their pain because one of my great-grandchildren and his mother fell victim to the system four years ago. The pain reverberates through our family, but this horrific event happens far more frequently for Aboriginal families than for others. The midwives who look after them tell us that Aboriginal women are afraid of the system, afraid of losing their babies at birth.
Many other Aboriginal women’s lives have crossed mine and enriched it. Thank you.
NAIDOC Week celebrates Aboriginal heritage in many ways. You can check out some of the events here.