Because of her, we can: celebrating the Hunter’s Aboriginal women of influence

AUNTY June Rose is the epitome of the contribution Aboriginal women make to their communities.

Aunty June, 82, was one of the founders of the Awabakal Newcastle Aboriginal Co-Operative and served for over 30 years across four Aboriginal hostels; as a welfare officer; and family support worker; while leading a family that has grown to four children, 15 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren.

She is one of 18 Aboriginal women to be celebrated in an Awabakal and Newcastle City Council project that includes a photography exhibition at Wallsend Library and banners across the city, in Laman Street, Civic Park, Merewether Street, Wright Lane, Brake Block Park at Honeysuckle and Nobbys Beach roundabout. It’s been organised as part of this year’s NAIDOC Week, which has the theme Because of her, we can.

“It’s about time,” Ms Rose said. “I’m so proud to say this year it will be about women and we will get recognised for what we do behind the scenes. A lot of women do things that hold our community together.

“Men can be demanding and say ‘sit back, don’t say anything, do as I say’. But a lot of women are standing up, speaking out and fighting for what they want. There should be something like this for women every year –  and every week of the year.”

Newly-appointed director of the Awabakal Preschool at Wickham, Jade Tapper, is the youngest woman to be featured in the project. Aged 25, she said she was “listening and learning” about what role she would play in the community.

She said she was “honoured” to be included, alongside “strong and empowered women” such as her aunt Michelle Perry and cousin Marook Perry. “These women have been on a journey advocating, fighting, passing on knowledge and care taking,” she said. “They have paved a path for us and have so much to express if people are willing to listen.

“I’ve been looking up to these women – and other women – since I was a child and knew I wanted to be a voice and advocate. But I’ve never been at the forefront – a face – so this is a new experience and new path.”

Donna Meehan, who has worked with the Awabakal community for the past 30 years and “watched a generation grow up” said this year’s NAIDOC Week theme was “by far the best ever”. “This unites the community,” she said. “We have a vibrant community: so many wonderful achieving families and also supporting the vulnerable and those struggling with life everyday. We stand in awe of the women who have marched, sacrificed, advocated, defended, and sung for our people. Every woman has a story and we celebrate being strong, black, smart and deadly.”

Ashley Gordon said Awabakal recognising the “efforts and influence” of his late mother, Gamilaroi woman Diane Gordon, was “very special”. “She wasn’t the loudest woman but she was influential and a role model for all of us,” he said. “She was a house parent and manager at Aboriginal hostels [Durungaling in Lambton and Kirinari in Garden Suburb]  and was a motherly figure to so many people. She was not aggressive or over the top, but she always got her point across.”

Lisa Haymes photographed 16 of the 18 women.

Former Lord Mayor Joy Cummings, who made Newcastle the country’s first council to fly the Aboriginal flag from a civic building in 1977, also features on the street banners. Local Aboriginal artist Jasmine Craciun created four paintings to serve as the background for the banners. The blue artwork was inspired by a bird’s eye view of Newcastle, the green reflects the city’s hills and winding roads, the purple is an expression of the clouds and sunsets from the top of The Obelisk and the red is a reminder of the city’s sea life and shells.

CHERIE JOHNSON

Gamilaroi and Weilwun woman Cherie is a PhD candidate researching the revitalisation of cultural practices and the effects on first nation women in a contemporary context.

She also works casually as a lecturer in Aboriginal culture and education at the University of Newcastle.

Cherie is a qualified artist and teacher and has combined her two passions of education and the arts by developing resources for schools, universities and community organisations.

Through her business Speaking in Colour, Cherie delivers workshops and seminars about Australian Aboriginal culture.

“I am passionate about reviving and celebrating local Aboriginal cultures through initiatives such as weaving native reeds and barks, recreating traditional possum skin cloaks and mapping cultural symbols from the region.”

JADE TAPPER

Jade Tapper was born in Karuah and works in early education at the Awabakal Ltd Preschool.

Through her recent role as environment and cultural leader, Jade embedded a strong sense of community, culture and acknowledgment of the local Aboriginal peoples into the preschool.

She said her passion for early childhood environments was driven by her connection to Mother Earth, land and culture.

She aims to encourage curiosity, research and experimentation and hopes to empower. Jade is inspired by her ancestors, who she said have laid the foundation for future leaders. 

COLLEEN PERRY

Colleen was born in 1932 on the Sunrise Mission at Purfleet, Taree, and grew up in a small hut that had dirt floors, a bark roof and sewn bags for walls. When she was seven, her family moved back to her father’s country Karuah, where she hunted for kangaroo and echidna and spent a lot of time fishing. She has maintained a strong connection to nature.

Colleen’s elders taught her about her culture and she continues to carry their stories and cultural practices with her. Her upbringing taught her the importance of community and being caring and respectful.

She was involved in the late 1970s and early 1980s with running children’s cultural camps. Many of the former attendees credit the camps with helping shape their character.

JUNE ROSE

June was born in Gloucester in 1936 and remembers visiting her aunty at Platt’s Estate, Waratah. June is a proud member of the Clarke family. Her thrice great-grandmother Maryanne was born in Newcastle around 1812 and lived with her children in Raymond Terrace.

She worked in the mid 1970s at the Durungaling, Kirinari, Frederick and Curry Street Aboriginal hostels, providing support to young people new to Newcastle.

June is a former member of the Awabakal Ltd board and has held a variety of positions including cleaner, welfare officer and family support worker, in which she advocated for better health, housing and employment opportunities for Aboriginal people. She continued this role on a voluntary basis for some time after funding ceased. She is passionate about fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people.  

GWEN WRIGHT

Gwen Wright was born in Sydney and spent her childhood in Curlewis near Gunnedah. She moved to Newcastle in 1963 and became a strong advocate for supporting Aboriginal women and families.

Gwen spent many years working with Hunter New England Health helping to raise awareness of the needs of Aboriginal people. Along with women including Shirley Smith, she helped to deliver outreach activities and opportunities for the community to come together through sewing classes, art and craft groups and fashion parades. “I’m very grateful for the time I got to spend with Aunty Shirley. She was a beautiful soul who taught me many lessons about being a strong woman. She gave so much to not only me but the whole community.”

ZELMA MORAN

Zelma is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Anaiwan Nation of the Northern Tablelands. She lived a mission/reservation life in social disadvantage, which motivated her to move to Newcastle in 1972 and settle in Toronto with her husband and her five children.

Zelma was employed as field officer with the Awabakal Co-operative where she helped to support and resolve personal and social relationship issues between individuals, families, organisations and communities.

Zelma’s role was to balance and maintain a dual focus, assisting with well-being and identifying external issues. In 1978, Zelma secured a position with the Health Commission of NSW as the Aboriginal liaison officer, working within the Karuah and Newcastle areas.

Zelma’s life has been dedicated to raising awareness of Aboriginal health across NSW, advocating for better health care and treatments. 

PAT CAPPER

Anniwan and Wanaruah woman Pat was born in 1947 and raised in Tamworth.

Through the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program, Pat has helped to deliver training and develop the skills of Aboriginal people.

She has also worked tirelessly delivering programs and services that support local women including sewing, screen printing and fashion parades. She is proud of her contribution to the Girls Talk mentoring program, which she helped deliver to local schools.

“It’s important that we teach our young women to be honest and true to themselves. We must encourage them to try everything.”  

JULIE ROSE

Julie has worked enthusiastically with local women to ensure they have access to health care, support services and community activities.

As the team leader of the Awabakal family support service she oversees a group of four to deliver culturally appropriate services and programs that uplift and inspire young mothers to gain confidence and parenting skills.

Julie worked for many years on the Awabakal Debutante Ball committee, volunteering her time and preparing young community members to participate.

Julie encourages the young women to be proud of who they are and aims to instill a strong sense of community in all participants.

Julie is the founder of the annual Awabakal new babies welcoming ceremony, which is focused on inter generational gathering and acknowledging the importance of new life.

CHERYL SUEY

Growing up in Lake Macquarie with her immediate and extended relatives helped Cheryl develop a strong sense of family and the importance of respecting her elders.  She now works with the Awabakal elders service and always has an open ear. Cheryl is a part of the NU Roads performance group and has enjoyed entertaining in Newcastle.

GLORIA SMITH

Gloria was born in Kempsey and at the age of 12, with a warrant from the Aboriginal protection board, was sent to work for a couple at Dover Heights.

She said her job caring for the couple’s two daughters and cleaning the house was a challenging time and taught her resilience, patience and how to get along with people different from her.

She moved to Teralba in 1962 and was a foundation member of the Awabakal Co-operative. She has served on the board of directors as administration officer, with elders and in disability services. She was responsible for running ladies’ basketball teams and can be heard cheering on her sons and grandsons at rugby league games.

DONNA MEEHAN

Donna’s life story is a sad yet uplifting journey of heartache, overcoming adversity and determination.

Donna is a Gamilaroi woman born in Coonamble in 1956. She was removed from her family in 1960 and sent to live with a white adoptive family in Newcastle.

She never forgot about her family and remembered life in the bush with her mother, aunties and grandparents.

She faced many challenges in her search for identity and a place within this country.

Donna worked in Indigenous broadcasting in Newcastle for six years producing Awabakal Voices. She shares her story with others and finds healing not just for herself, but for many Aboriginal people who share a similar story.    

Donna is an accomplished author and has been published five times. Her writing often reflects on her life and the obstacles she has overcome.

DIANE GORDON

Diane grew up in Walgett and saw the effects that disadvantage has on a community.

She moved to Brewarrina with her husband Ron and they welcomed three children, before deciding to move to Newcastle, where they didn’t know anyone, for more opportunities.

Donna Meehan.

Donna Meehan.

Diane believed education was the key to success and breaking the cycle, and worked for 10 years as hostel mother and manager at Kirinari Hostel for Aboriginal boys attending high school.

She was a mother figure known for her warm heart and supportive nature and as Aunty Di to footballers including Timana Tahu, Tyrone Roberts and Greg Inglis.

She worked for 24 years at Durungaling Hostel, for adults. She died aged 66 on December 4, 2014.

SANDRA GRIFFIN

Sandra was born in Taree in 1946 and has always identified as an Awabakal woman through her great great grandmother, who was born in Newcastle.

She lost both her parents at an early age and grew up with her cousins, which instilled in her a desire to help others in need.

Sandra was the first elder in residence at the University of Newcastle’s Wollotuka Institute and has been involved in a number of community organisations, including the Awabakal Co-Operative, at the elders service and medical centre.

Sandra Griffin

Sandra Griffin

She worked at Warlga Ngurra Women and Children's Refuge, as a cleaner and cook at Durungaling and occasionally at Kirinari.

She continues to be very active in the community and performs Welcome to Country ceremonies.

MAROOK PERRY

Marook was born at Waratah Hospital and raised on Karuah Mission.

She did a lot of camping across the state and relished swimming, fishing and playing in the bush.

Marook credits the women in her life with teaching her to be honest, respectful and trustworthy. Her elders taught her to always be proud of her culture and the importance of education.

Marook is Awabakal’s medical services manager and aims to provide the best possible health care for the community.

MICHELLE PERRY

Michelle’s childhood was spent alongside the Karuah River and the small community environment helped shape her outlook on life.

Michelle remembers how supportive the community was and how cooperative they had to be with limited resources. “Everybody shared with each other. If someone had caught fish, they would make sure everyone had food to eat.”

Marook Perry

Marook Perry

Michelle has been an active member of the Newcastle and Port Stephens communities with a strong focus on early education and young families.

Michelle was instrumental in the early years of the Awabakal preschool and childcare services, helping to set up and maintain a number of services that are still operating today.

RAYLENE GORDON 

Raylene is a descendant of the Kamilaroi people of Moree and since April 2015 has been chief executive of Awabakal Ltd. Raylene’s career has largely been in Aboriginal affairs and advocating for the right to equitable health and education outcomes for Aboriginal people. She started her career in teaching and then progressed to the government sector, where she experienced success in senior management roles working in program and policy development.

Raylene believes her skillset sits best within the community sector, which she said required accountability, transparency and innovation on a daily basis. “The community sector is where you see the smallest of things make the biggest difference.”

ELSIE RANDALL

Bundjalung and Yaegl woman Elsie grew up in traditional community in Yamba and Maclean.

She has dedicated more than 30 years working across human services sectors with Aboriginal children, women and families of the Lower and Upper Hunter, Port Stephens and Coalfields.

Elsie opened her own cultural consultancy company Free Spirit Aboriginal Art and Consultancy in 2013 and began to develop her modules of cultural competency training, cultural safety reviews and cultural competency benchmarking.

She uses art as a tool for healing through group and individual workshops.

SELENA ARCHIBALD

Selena is an educator who has been supporting students at Morisset High since 1999 and has been a strong advocator for the advancement of Aboriginal education.

Selena supports Indigenous adolescents grappling with 21st century issues and school demands, who are also exploring their cultural identity at the same time. She shows them options for their future and coordinates educational and cultural programs to support all students and staff. She said there were tears the day her first group received their Higher School Certificates.

Raylene Gordon, Elsie Randall and Selina Archibald

Raylene Gordon, Elsie Randall and Selina Archibald

One student credited her with helping them become one of the school’s first Aboriginal school captains, saying she helped them break through shyness to become a public speaker and leader.

The women will be included in a keepsake booklet, available at the Newcastle NAIDOC Community Day at The Foreshore on Monday.