The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women influencing Sydney staff

9 July 2018
From storytellers and activists to mothers and leaders, the active participation and strength of Indigenous women has enabled generations who have followed.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme – ‘Because of her, we can!’ – celebrates the roles Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played for the last 65,000 years, and continue to play in society now.

With this theme in mind, we asked some of our staff:

How have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women shaped your research or life?

Dr Katrina Thorpe
Worimi woman
Lecturer in Indigenous education
Sydney School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

My early life was one led on the move from town to town. During this transient journey there were friends made and lost in short spaces of time and new uniforms to be whipped up by mum on the sewing machine just before starting another new school.

I’ve always felt supported by my mother – and it is because of her that I came to understand that education can change one’s life trajectory. I work in Aboriginal education, not just because of her life experiences but also because she is good at keeping me focused on the bigger social justice goals. My mum completed a Bachelor of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle in her 50s – the graduation was such a great day.

I have two sisters and one daughter who have all experienced her strong and enabling love. I asked my daughter what I should write for the theme 'Because of her, we can!' and as is usual these days, she was a step ahead of me, having already written a poem as part of a school excursion to the Story Factory titled 'My Nan', which I have permission to share:

It’s because of her I know my history,
because of her I am proud.
When I don’t know what to do,
my Nan reassures me ‘you will be ok’.
Sitting down on her bed,
she tells me a story,
‘always stand strong,
for the problems will be solved’.
My Nan is a role model,
And because of her I can be too.

By Leila

Tracey Cameron
Gamilaroi woman
Tutor and lecturer in Education, Indigenous Studies Gamilaraay language
Sydney School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

My great, great grandmother Mary Jane Cain has been an inspiration to me, and her community, for more than 100 years. Her lifelong political activism championing issues important to her and the Gamilaraay community and her ability to develop supportive relationships have been an important influence on my work life, encouraging me in the study of the Gamilaraay language and in my close partnerships.

Mary Jane Griffin/Cain was born in 1844 on Toorawandi Station on the Black Soils of the Liverpool Palins - Gamilaraay Country in North-West NSW. Her convict father, Eugene Griffin, taught her to read and as a young girl she practiced reading when working as a shepherd with her mother Jinnie. She used her reading skills and her ability to write to educate and advocate for her family and community.

After marrying George Cain and bringing up a family she started raising goats and this led her to a series of political actions. Mary Jane Cain wrote a letter to Queen Victoria’s representative in Australia making a claim for land at Forky Mountain on behalf of her family and for Gamilaraay people to take refuge. She was granted 400 acres of land in 1893. Once the land was granted to Mary Jane Cain Gamilaraay people came from all over the district to Forky Mountain. Gamilaraay people came as Forky Mountain was not a place where people were forced to go, like the missions, and there was no government control exercised there. As more people came to live at Forky Mountain Mary Jane Cain then started to agitate for Forky Mountain (Burra Bee Dee) to be reclassified as a reserve, which meant more services, such as a school and houses would be built and a teacher assigned to the school. To do this she went to Sydney on a coach to The Aboriginal Protection Board in Bridge St where she successfully argued for the reclassification.

She was also a historian and language teacher, as she wrote a brief history of the Coonabarabran area in 1920 called Recollections of Coonabarabran, which included lists of Gamilaraay words and place names and their English meanings.

Through her activism she gained rights to land and services for her community and established herself as an authority at the centre of her family, her community of Gamilaraay people and in the public domain. She became known as a Queen of her place, Burra Bee Dee and of her people.

Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes
Kamilaroi woman
Lecturer and researcher in Aboriginal and Indigenous Education
School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

At the age of almost four I lost my mum, Emily Jane Orchard.

Almost 20 years later I learned I’d lost more than my mum – I’d lost my connection to my Kamilaroi culture. For three decades now I have sought to learn about my mum, which has in turn taught me about my own Aboriginality.

Red tape means the story I have acquired is sketchy. I have learned that mum was probably excluded from education because of being Aboriginal, married aged 15, with five children by the age of 25, and that she lived with chronic illness.

Because of her, I work in education believing that access to quality and culturally responsive education has the power to transform lives and create life opportunities. Every day my mum focuses my mind, assists me in my life choices and pushes me to know more. Without her, my life wouldn’t be the joy and success it has become.

Because of her, my mum, I have become a proud Kamilaroi woman.

Nyssa Lee Murray
Dunghutti woman
Project manager, Lead My Learning
Sydney School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

I’ll begin from when I was a little girl because I remember my grandmother and mother always telling me ‘education is important’. I remember them saying this statement multiple times when I was young, but at that time I did not understand the complexities surrounding their general statement or what it truly meant.

I did not complete high school but I engaged in educational courses to provide me skills to be employed. I later became a mature age student at the University of Wollongong when I was 24, and I went to university because my mother's statement always remained with me. Having given more thought to my mother telling me ‘education is important’, I have started to understand that is it about the value of knowledge, caring about other people, and looking out for each other.

My mother always wanted me to be educated to get ahead in life. It is this value my mother has passed on to me, which I will pass on to my child, that has shaped my life to constantly share my knowledge with family, friends and community. 

My research has been influenced my mother especially. I started working in research in 2015 and only recently commenced my PhD. It is this value of passing on knowledge that is the foundation of my work. Both the research project and my PhD look at ways to improve culturally understanding, to work and learn together. Because of her (my mother) I can, inspiring others to be educated.

Dr Lynette Riley
Wiradjuri/Gamilaroi woman
Senior Lecturer in Aboriginal Education & Studies, Race, Racism & Indigenous Australia
School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Member of National NAIDOC Committee

The question is a little moot, perhaps it should be how haven’t they shaped my life and research?

I grew up in two very strong Aboriginal family and community groups – Wiradjuri, Dubbo and Gamilaroi, Moree – where all my major key influences were Aboriginal people: grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and now my children and grandchildren. In recognition of the NAIDOC theme this year ‘Because of her, I can!’ I particularly recognise my mother, aunties, grandmothers and sisters who have all influenced my growth as an Aboriginal woman; my career choices, to fight through Aboriginal education for recognition of Aboriginal people historically and culturally and for equality of educational outcomes – as a teacher, policy director, manager and academic; and my cultural presence.

I have the desire to create change in education with and for Aboriginal people, because my family were not able to access education, because policy at the time – supported by scientific research (!!!) – said ‘Aboriginal people were incapable of higher forms of education’. As such, they were only able to get education to third grade. I believe this was done to ensure Aboriginal people were kept in their place as second-class citizens and servants for ‘white’ Australia.

The policies started to change the year I started high school, 1969, following the Referendum of 1967. I was very lucky to access education in a way denied the people who provided my stability and life foundations. My parents always stated that my and my siblings’ successes were proof that they could have done whatever they wished, given the same opportunities.

My children are now the first generation to have open access to education. Without the support of the women in my family I would not be here today; and as such, neither would my children and grandchildren be gaining their achievements. Wonderful love and support from amazing women. Because of them, I can!

Professor Juanita Sherwood
Wiradjuri woman
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) (Acting) and Academic Director of the National Centre for Cultural Competence

Linda Burney, Aunty Beryl Carmichael and Aunty Rose Fernando have been leading women in my life. All shared their love and wisdom with me, challenging me to grow and extend my cultural knowledge.

Growing my health and education knowledge to make a difference for our Aboriginal children and Aboriginal women. All backed me in my research agendas and supported me developing Indigenous research methodologies. IRMs have made a difference in our approach to achieving research outcomes that Aboriginal communities are seeking, and not those of experts who believed they knew what was best for us.

I now consider I am a warrior researcher and have the backing and love of those who have held me to make a difference for our mob.

Associate Professor Annie Clarke
Associate Professor in Archaeology and Heritage Studies
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

I’ve just spent the last four months working with two sets of sisters who live at Angurugu, or ‘the Mission’ as everyone calls it, on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. Shirley and Gloria and Amy and Faith Yantarrnga are the daughters of two brothers – Nebi and Wanella Yantarrnga who married two sisters – Polly and Tali Mamarika. In the 1990s when I did community-based archaeological research on Groote Eylandt, I spent months in the bush, living on Yantarrnga country at Salt Lake with Shirley and Gloria’s parents, Nebi and Polly.

In March this year, after an absence of 20 or so years I returned to Groote Eylandt at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, who generously funded the Groote Eylandt Archaeological Repatriation Project. All the archaeological collections, including excavated materials, photos and archives, were packed up and shipped back to Groote.

There were several excavations from 1995/96 that I had not sorted, so Shirley, Gloria, Amy and Faith became community co-researchers and worked with me in the temporary archaeology laboratory, sorting all the excavated materials from the old camping places on Yantarrnga country. In many ways, it was as though I’d never left, and now that I’m working with the next generation of women, new connections and relationships have been created. The sisters are already planning for next year when we will go back onto country to continue with the research started with their parents all those years ago.

Associate Professor Catriona Elder
Associate Dean (Indigenous Strategy and Services)
Scholar in race relations in 20th Century (and beyond) Australia
School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

I entered academia via Women’s Studies. It was through this focus on gender equity that I met the dozens and dozens of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have shaped my life.

A long, long time ago – it was the 1990s – when I had just enrolled in my PhD, down in Melbourne, I was asked by a pair of Koori women postgrads to help them organise an Indigenous women’s conference. I had just organised a successful two-day workshop and so seemed to be an expert in their eyes. 

Their conference changed my world. I still have the poster! It was the beginning of decades of meeting and working with generous, intellectual, creative, thoughtful, go-getting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. From that period I remember Lisa Bellear, a poet and photographer, whose works on urban Aboriginal cultures were beautiful and eye-opening for me. A decade later Aunty Barbara Nicholson, a Wadi Wadi elder, I met during my time at University of Wollongong, was the second Koori poet who changed my life. It was through Aunty Barbara that my ‘oh-so-Western’ approach to scholarship was transformed by her poetry, a poetry that centralised Indigenous Knowledges as a way of being.

Here at Sydney I am still surrounded by and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women all the time: Kaiya Aboagye, Jakelin Troy, Nicole Watson, Victoria Grieves, Katrina Thorpe, Rebecca O’Brien, Mariko Smith, Juanita Sherwood and more. I bet at least one of them is a poet. All of them are fab.

Professor Valerie Harwood
Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Education
Sydney School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

How have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women shaped my life and my research? Well, in a word, tremendously. Because of her, we can. Here I would like to share how, because of her, I can supervise the PhD of an Elder and Custodian.

I was born on Kaurna Country. My parents travelled to Australia in the 1960s and our family heritage is English, Welsh, Scottish and German. I now live on the South Coast of New South Wales. It is here that I have been fortunate to meet and learn from South Coast Custodian Aunty Carol Speechley. Aunty Carol is researching her PhD and, together with Dr Anthony McKnight (an Awabakal, Gumaroi and Yuin Man), I am one of her PhD supervisors. How as a non-Aboriginal professor, do I supervise an Elder and Custodian who is researching her Country?

This supervisory relationship challenges me to continually think through my positionality. Although one way of describing me is a ‘professor and PhD supervisor’, another is as someone who, to be generous, is in ‘kindergarten’. This might sound unusual; yet I hope it conveys some sense of the extent and depth of Aboriginal knowledges, of the demands of the learning processes, of the importance of not knowing, of listening, and of how the journey shapes us (and how this shaping is a necessity).

Because of Aunty Carol, I can learn how to be a PhD supervisor with a respected Aboriginal Elder and Custodian.

Related articles