A NAIDOC week morning tea at the RFBI Masonic Village Ken Thompson Lodge on Thursday celebrated three remarkable Aboriginal women.
This year’s theme was Because of her, we can! – and their relatives said they had been an inspiration.
“Aboriginal women have long been the backbone of Aboriginal communities,” Anaiwan man Greg Strong said. “Their primary focus is family; they live and breathe family.”
His own mother, Jessie (Marie) Strong, is the oldest Aboriginal living around this region, having turned 94 on Tuesday.
The matriarch of her family, she raised 11 of her own children and seven grandchildren in a three-bedroom welfare home outside Guyra.
“She had a great sense of caring, and looking after families and community,” Greg said.
She supported them in a difficult time by picking peas and digging spuds.
“Mum taught me that when there’s a job to be done, get up and do it!” Greg said.
From her, Greg also learnt the importance of holding the family together, no matter what, and building good homes.
“Many of the kids have gone on to be successful, have gone on and done great things, and aspired to greater things,” Greg said. “We learnt a lot of those work ethics from our mum.
“Because of her, I feel that I can get up and change the world. I can do anything; I can be a great father, I can be a great husband, I can look after my own, I can make an influence in my community, because of what my mother has instilled into my life.”
Grace Gordon, an 81-year-old Gumbaynggirr woman, was the youngest of 12 children, the daughter of Frank Archibald, a champion of education for Aboriginal people. The annual lectures at UNE’s Oorala Centre commemorate his legacy.
Grace grew up as one of 24 children. Frank and his wife Sarah had four boys and eight girls, and raised a dozen more when their parents died.
Grace herself has 20 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. Her husband used to work out on properties, while Grace did a bit of domestic work. Her family was very important to her.
“It was good to have them all together,” she remembered.
“She’s done a lot for me, as a single parent,” her daughter Helen said. “I had to go back to uni, and she helped me rear my two children. She taught me a lot of good things, otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Helen has carried on her mother’s care for young people. She is a family support worker at the Pat Dixon Medical Centre’s Armidale Aboriginal Medical Service, in an early intervention program for children between the ages of 10 and 17.
Both Grace and Helen are excited that the younger generation is learning their people’s language – and said their ancestor Frank, who recorded Aboriginal languages for UNE academics, would be delighted.
Pat Hunter, a Gumbaynggirr woman who turns 67 on Monday, was one of eight children. From boarding school at NEGS, she went to Sydney, where she worked for the police traffic penalty department in the 1960s and ‘70s, then for IBM.
“She’s been a worker all her life,” her brother Cecil Briggs said.
She has no children of her own, but adopted a couple in Sydney. She came back to Armidale about a decade ago.
Growing up, the siblings weren’t allowed to use two words: “hate”, because hatred, domination, and greed were strong enough forces to bring down nations, and “can’t”. Their parents, uncles, and aunts told them: “If you’re unable to do something, do the best you can.”
That positive, can-do attitude, hard work ethic, and dedication to family is shared by all three of the women.
“They may not have been involved in big political movements, but they laid really good foundations in our lives,” Greg Strong said. “From there, I think we should be able to do anything.
“We should be inspired to get up and go to university, to get good educations, to get good housing. We shouldn't be wasting our lives in addictions to drugs and alcohol and crime and a lot of those issues we have to deal with.
“Our old women - and men - did the hard yards, and I think we it owe to them to progress our lives. We owe it to them to succeed.”