For NAIDOC Week, it is a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples come together to connect and celebrate our identity, culture and country.
Dating back to the 1920’s, NAIDOC has its roots in protest by Aboriginal rights groups marching against the discriminatory status and treatment of Indigenous Australians. Today, NAIDOC Week celebrates and recognises the rich cultural history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect important issues for NAIDOC Week. This year is “Because of Her, we can”, recognising the important role of Indigenous women.
From a social point of view, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women play an enormous role in preserving song, dance, ceremonial practice and language, and are responsible for teaching the stories, ceremonies and traditional knowledge held in the songs to our children and grandchildren.
It is through women’s knowledge that we maintain our cultural and familial identity, and connection to the land, sea and water, and this in turn, creates strength and pride that underpins our social, mental and physical health and wellbeing. Women keep the ancestral lines, knowledge of family histories and the traditional moiety systems for marriage operating.
Indigenous women’s leadership skills are likewise shaped by family and community, culture and history, and the responsibilities that are passed down to us, or that come with age, as well as our personal experiences and the example of our Elders and other leaders.
Many of these personal experiences have forged some significantly strong women, with a resilience and determination that is quite remarkable.
Whilst Non-Aboriginal women were idealised as mothers in colonial society and received benefits to have children, Aboriginal women were devalued as mothers. Their children were taken to be raised by the State, and the State also intervened to prevent them from having children by controlling their sexual and marriage partners.
Despite all the barriers before them, many Indigenous women courageously challenged their discriminatory treatment, and they did so at considerable risk to themselves and their families. They were the originators and champions of many women’s and human rights in Australia.
There was Tarenorerer, the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman who was sold as a slave to seal fur traders in Bass Strait. She learnt English, learned how to use a gun and escaped to return to mainland Tasmania, and led her people for many years in resistance to the British.
In Sydney, Barangaroo refused to give up her dignity, leadership and cultural practices in the face of enormous pressure to change.
Women on missions, like Louisa Briggs at Coranderrk during the 1800’s, led in political actions such as protests, strikes and appeals in letters to try to improve conditions for Aboriginal people on the missions, and they expected to be listened to as Aboriginal women had been prior to colonisation.
In 1958, Faith Thomas became the first Indigenous Australian to play test cricket and the first Aboriginal woman to represent Australia in any sport, as well as being one of the first Aboriginal nurses in Adelaide.
During the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, Indigenous women played increasingly active and public roles as leaders in issues of national importance.
They achieved changes nationally in Aboriginal child and family welfare, founding organisations such as the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Children’s Service, and the Aboriginal Medical Service. They organised the Committee to Defend Black Rights, and successfully lobbied for the appointment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. They called for justice for the Stolen Generations, and are still fighting to stop a new generation of children being taken from families and sent into detention.
They are also renowned for their contributions to the arts such as poet Oodgeroo Noonucal (formerly Kath Walker) and writer, Ruby Langford Ginibi.
They led environment protection campaigns such as against the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory.
Indigenous women increasingly took up major leadership roles, for example Lowitja O'Donaghue who was the first chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990-96; and Megan Davis in 2011 who was elected to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, becoming the first Aboriginal Australian woman to achieve this honour.
Today, prominent Aboriginal scholars, including Professors Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Larissa Behrendt, Marcia Langton and Megan Davis, work for greater rights and representation
for all women in the mainstream.
Thank goodness NAIDOC Week provides us with the focus and opportunity to remember these strong, fearless and clever women, without whom women’s and Indigenous peoples’
rights and cultural survival may not have been the same.
These are our sisters, daughters, aunties, mums, Elders and ancestors, and we follow in some very big footsteps.
Cath Brokenborough is a proud Wiradjuri woman and Executive Lead of Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation at Lendlease, where she has led the development of two Reconciliation Action Plans, including our current Elevate-level RAP.