There is an old saying that when you know better, you do better. And the wisdom one acquires through experience is something First Nations people understand, and respect, more than most. This was one of the key messages shared during the 2023 FW NAIDOC Week breakfast and panel in Naarm/Melbourne, where four First Nations women spoke about what they have learned from their elders – and when they choose to lean on this wisdom. “I think we are all shaped by the blak women in our past and those that are still around us,” Gunditjamara woman Laura Thompson told the Witchery and BlackCard sponsored event.
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The co-founder and CEO of Clothing the Gaps explained that she looks to her elders as a source of strength, resilience and encouragement.
“They’re everything,” she said. She believes that, now more than ever, this relationship needs to be maintained.
“It’s important to keep remembering how important that connection is because it’s tough out there, being a blak person, especially in this political environment, running businesses. And what keeps you grounded is your elders.”
For fellow panellist Mundanara Bayles, who is a Wonnarua, Bunjalung, Birri-Gubba and Gungalu woman, the wisdom passed down by her elders has been central to her experience as an Indigenous business owner.
“When we operate an organisation based on Aboriginal terms with a governance, the elders are the cultural authority,” the founder and managing director of BlackCard explained.
Despite being the owner of BlackCard, she said having three elders in the organisation establishes a leadership dynamic that differs from the societal norm.
“In the Aboriginal world, I’m an apprentice serving my apprenticeship. And in the white fella world, I’m the CEO,” she said.
“The triumph and tragedy, succession and struggle… that’s what makes me strong.”
Bayles believes that the guidance of her elders has been incredibly important to her growth as a leader. There was one particular incident she recalled vividly.
“I was at a Women on Boards event in Brisbane with eight female panellists and one woman was a woman of colour,” she said. “So I tweeted to the premier that I wasn’t impressed.”
One of her aunts called her immediately.
“In our culture, you don’t publicly humiliate people,” Bayles told the audience. “And I had publicly humiliated the Premier. [My aunt] said, ‘If I were you, I would delete the tweet… You don’t know what doors are open for you, my girl.’ And that stuck with me forever.”
Woiwurrung Wurundjeri Elder Jacqui Wandin expressed that being able to connect to culture means being able to connect to history. After her dad lost his own father at a young age, Wandin’s extended family grew up without much connection to their family history.
“When we were little, just to be really clear, we didn’t have much culture really around,” she said. “It was hard enough for an Indigenous person, you know, to live then. So [many family members] sort of thought, ‘Well, we’ll just go into the mainstream and continue our life’.”
She explained that it was difficult to maintain a strong connection to culture.
“Dad always said to me [and my siblings], ‘Remember you are blak fellas, that’s who you are. Never forget it’.”
Proactively learning about her family’s history has since allowed Wandin to better undertake her work as the Director and Chairperson of the Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation.
“It took some time until I realised who my ancestors were,” she said. “There was anger. There was sadness. But there was actually huge pride. The triumph and tragedy, succession and struggle… that’s what makes me strong.”
For fellow panellist N’Arwee’t Professor Carolyn Briggs AM – who is a Boon Wurrung senior Elder and founder and chairperson of the Boon Wurrung Foundation – she looks to her great grandmother Louisa Briggs, in particular, for strength.
“Louisa was an activist at that time at Coranderrk. And she was expelled and went to Maloga, then ended up at Cummeragunja,” Briggs said. “I think she’s visited every mission in Victoria.”
She also named Hyllus Maris, founder of Worawa Aboriginal College, as someone she looks up to.
“These are the people that scaffold my learning of what it means to be a strong… woman,” she said. “They’re names that mean a lot to us because it’s about who continues in embedding good values and respect… these people have led us to where we are today.”
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EVENT ARTWORK: ALYSHA MENZEL PANEL’S CLOTHING: WITCHERY HAIR AND MAKEUP: ITHINKSHEAFREAK PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMES HENRY LOCATION: RITZ-CARLTON