Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

12 March 2020

Non-Indigenous Australians and their successes often dominate International Women’s Day. For Australia to reckon with its history, it needs to hear Indigenous stories too, Virginia Marshall writes.

In the introduction of Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Senior Lawman John Watson explains why he wanted the book written – to document the voices and lived experiences of Aboriginal people. In the book, John Watson and Paul Marshall compile the stories of nine Aboriginal drovers, Eric Lawford, Jock Shandley, Jimmy Bird, Ivan Watson, Peter Clancy, John Watson, Lochy Green, Harry Watson, and Barney Barnes.

In Raparapa, John Watson notes that Australians seem to have a false impression about Aboriginal people, and that the truth is very different. Revealing that Aboriginal stockmen were the backbone of the cattle and sheep stations throughout Australian history, the book explores their lives and impact on Australia’s history. Their names are absent on the Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

Throughout that history, Australian laws regulated where and when the stockmen worked – and if they had permission to leave. Watson makes the point that Traditional Owners running the stations for ‘kardiya’ an Aboriginal word for white Australians, amounted to cheap labour, with First Nations people forced to work on their own Country for the profit of settlers. In those days, the work might be for a pair of boots, a shirt and trousers, or tobacco – and just to the lucky ones who were paid at all.

Equally, Aboriginal women and children were the flesh and blood of the stations, out mustering cattle and sheep, maintaining food gardens, washing wool by the river, cooking and cleaning six days a week in the ‘big house’ for the boss.

More on this: Indigenous justice – A long road ahead

For many Aboriginal women it meant raising the boss’s children, and their own – according to Raparapa, many became pregnant by sexual violence – without support or inheritance. Many times, the boss of the station arranged to have their ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children removed by the local police officer – to eliminate the whispering.

Ivan Watson, for one, recalls Aboriginal children sent to missions. The lived experiences of Aboriginal men, women, and children is at the heart of Raparapa. Michael Kirby’s foreword of the book sums it up, saying, “Aboriginal drovers were treated little better than horses”. On the evidence, it seems that Aboriginal women and children had it even worse than that.

Why should Indigenous peoples celebrate International Women’s Day? Over the years, I have glanced through the online messages and invitations to a range of national events, making a point of not attending events where Indigenous Australians are not included.

Instead, high flyers, academics, and corporate speakers dominate these events. Indigenous women, young and old, make formidable contributions to Australia. Yet, it is very difficult to find Indigenous voices on International Women’s Day.

More on this: A Voice to Parliament – the change we need

The Australian community must read and hear from the women who have overcome the hand that life has dealt them from an Indigenous perspective. To breathe the determination and perseverance that made them who they are, in spite of the crises, chaos, and loss, all too often experienced silently.

In recent times, fires and the intense days and months of thick smoke, embers, death, and destruction, have affected many of us. It has tested our health, both mental and physical.

Still, the media spent little time on stories about Aboriginal people’s experiences during the summer’s climate fires.

Only recently have outlets given the time to show the value of Aboriginal fire management practices to the non-Indigenous public, which are both thousands of years old and evidenced-based. Aboriginal peoples intimate knowledge of Country, its waterholes, food and medicine use, fire, water, and land management are proven sustainable practices without equal.

Aboriginal women across Australia play a significant role on Country in land and water management, and in advocating and educating the next generation.

At Winjana Gorge in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, June Oscar, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, addressed Aboriginal Women Rangers on the importance of their work on Country – including fire management, pest control, research, protecting vulnerable species, and protecting cultural sites.

Real jobs are hard to find in the Kimberley – especially for Aboriginal people who need to be on Country to meet their cultural and legal obligations. The problem is that Indigenous Ranger Teams are reliant on government funding – and after 2021, the funding will end for these amazing female Aboriginal rangers.

Aboriginal women, and all Aboriginal people, want to work, despite what some might think. The government must support them to do that. Again, what John Watson wrote in Raparapa comes to mind, that non-Indigenous Australians “seem to have a false impression about Aboriginal people”. Unna.

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