This years' National NAIDOC theme, ‘Because of Her, We Can’ is not only a touching sentiment, but incredibly timely —some would say long overdue— that Australia recognise the essential role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played, and continue to play, at the community, local, state and national levels.
There are organisations, communities, and government departments that are brimming with these women, and a burgeoning scholarship has begun investigating what drives Indigenous women to create change and become leaders.
Naming these women as leaders and role models is complex. From historical connections to what a ‘leader’ suggests within an Indigenous sense, to cultural distinctions on who can lead and who leads for whom abound in the current conversations around the notion of leadership. To put it simpler terms, these outstanding women simply get things done. They get on with the job in whatever form that may take; they work relentlessly in the community advocating for change, they become academic powerhouses or sit on seats in parliament with their skin in the game. They work.
Last year the University of Melbourne held their annual NARRM Oration, a special event where the public are honoured to hear the words of a notable Indigenous person speak on the topic of their choosing. The guest was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO who delivered her speech entitled ‘Resilience and Reconstruction: the agency of women in rebuilding strong families, communities and organisations’.
Oscar's oration covered a multitude of topics related to “what it means to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman in this nation, both historically and today". Resilience was a key factor in this subject, and the idea of agency was integral to understanding the determination of Indigenous women to build and make change.
Oscar spoke of rights based principles, such as the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and of constitutional reform. It is important to situate these two important topics due to the representation brought on by women in these instances. The recent example of the announcement of the Uluru Statement should stand as a testament to Indigenous women’s work, as there were two tireless advocates, intellectuals and spokeswomen at the forefront of this moment in our history —Pat Anderson AO and Megan Davis. Regardless of one’s opinion of constitutional recognition and reform, it cannot be argued that these women have fiercely campaigned in changing Indigenous Australian representation.
Anderson brings with her forty years of service to Indigenous specific rights and advocacy, and has been awarded the prestigious Human Rights Medal for her work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. Davis, a lawyer and academic, has done work for The United Nations. Both women have endured through this process the pros and cons of Indigenous women’s leadership, on the one hand being praised for their histories of strong and forthright advocacy, and on the other, being labelled as ‘sell-outs’ and attacked for the work that they have done in relation to the Referendum process.
Last years' electing of Victorian Greens member Lidia Thorpe to Parliament demonstrates shifts in the political representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The first Indigenous woman to enter the Victorian Parliament, Thorpe brings with her a new and direct message that encapsulates her electorate of Northcote and of the wider Indigenous Australian community on such issues as changing Australia Day.
In the community we have women you never hear of, and these women are just as significant in our society as those that stand in the limelight. They are the mothers, daughters, sisters and grannies; the aunties that point their fingers and growl at you in the most loving of ways, the women working in health organisations trying to set you right without any real acknowledgement.
When we consider what Aboriginal women do, it becomes far too simplistic to cast their work as informal, accidental almost in their approaches to leading and mobilising for change. Women such as Pat, Megan and June are Aboriginal women standing within the light and creating powerful, some would say, legitimate forms of change through their leadership. But to undermine the work that Aboriginal women do within more informal structures is to deny a cultural strength and currency we must shout out and champion for all the world to hear.
The word 'mentoring' may not be something heard regularly within an Indigenous community, or 'volunteering', or 'followership'. Yet these things do occur, and they occur with such frequency they go unnoticed, or unclaimed amongst our society. Perhaps it is simply an issue with words; some of our mob use words differently than more mainstream populations —and yet we are all speaking of the same thing. Aboriginal women mentor and volunteer, but its embedded in the everyday, and they are simply helping out communities and getting it done.
I see NAIDOC’s theme of ‘Because of Her, We Can’ in a variety of ways. It is an acknowledgement, a chance to honour the women throughout our history who have struggled, be it within the spotlight advocating for change or in the shadows simply getting their community through to the next day. The resilience that we all hold as Aboriginal people is something that should be heralded, and it is time we were seen and heard.
‘Because of Her, We Can’ can also be seen as a call to action in the continual fight to overcome the crisis we hear connected to Indigenous stories. Focus on Indigenous disadvantage and disparity is important, but can be seen through a different perspective of what we have done to build our own strength. Women have been both at the forefront, and in the shadows of this, from the quiet yet determined work of Mum Shirl in building an Aboriginal Health service, to the political career of someone the ilk of Linda Burney MP.
We all began with the mothers who raised us, the aunties who fought for us, the sissies who share with us. If we see them in all their forms of strength and love, in each way they attempt to influence and represent, then we are stronger as a culture.
Tess Ryan is Biripi woman and Melbourne-based writer and academic. Tess has recently completed her PhD, focusing on Indigenous women's leadership in Australia through the University of Canberra, and is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1
NAIDOC 2018 celebrates the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made —and continue to make— to our communities, our families, our history and to our nation. #BecauseOfHerWeCan #NAIDOC2018