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A Bonza June Oscar AO
22 / 07 / 2016
This month for Sheilas, we had the privilege of interviewing June Oscar AO, a Bunuba Woman from the Central Kimberley Region and one of Australia’s great Indigenous leaders. She is joint CEO of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy River Women’s Centre where she has played a key role in uncovering and addressing the extraordinarily high number of children afflicted by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Earlier this year, the Victorian Women’s Trust was honoured to play a role in hosting an event at the Trust office – with June Oscar AO present on the eve of her being awarded the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Fellowship for 2016, an award celebrating individuals doing extraordinary work in reconciliation.
Beth Nokes (BN): You have been named as one of the 50 most influential women in the world for your work in improving the lives of those living in remote Aboriginal communities. You have deep, deep wisdom here – where have we been getting it so wrong – and what is it going to take to dramatically improve the lives and well-being of Australians in remote Aboriginal communities?
June Oscar (JO): Whomever we are, if we are making decisions around services and policies that impact people living in regional and remote Australia, we need to be very informed and aware of what are the unique challenges for people living in regional and remote areas to be able to better engage with them.
We need to use the input of those choosing to live and operate in rural and regional Australia, and only then can we have better policies and services that are going to be effective and make a difference.
Sometimes, we have people think they understand, but really, they have no idea. We end up having policies that treat everyone with a ‘one size fits all’ solution and ill-informed policy drafted. We can’t afford to continue to see this perpetuate because it disadvantages people, and creates systems that disadvantage people.
BN: Amongst many other involvements, you are the CEO of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre – tell us more about the Centre – what it does, and it’s achievements.
JO: The centre operates here in the Fitzroy Valley. We have a number of areas that we focus on as an organisation, in responding to the needs of our region. We as an organisation look to inspire each other for positive change, and we respect and care for each other, and learn deeply from each other. We communicate and we plan, and we value and respect every person that operates within the organisation. We operate with feeling and sensitivity, and embrace cultural diversity.
We are very cognisant of the achievements and the awards that we see in the growth and development, through the support we advocate for, and the women who come and participate in the programs. We are an organisation that is very responsive to the big challenges in our community and have the attitude that nothing is impossible. We try and work in partnership with every person we come into contact with and to secure external partners who can contribute to our vision.
Our partnership with the VWT is something that we value because it’s important as an organisation based in rural and regional Australia that we continue to inform and educate our sisters in the city and support and strengthen each other through education, awareness and communication which has a direct impact on positive change on a community, family and individual level.
BN: In your moving acceptance speech after receiving the 2016 Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Fellowship Award, you spoke about some core values taught by your mother – to love, not hate, to not react to emotions of grief and anger with violence – this must be hard. The continual impacts of dispossession are massive – where do you find the patience and the strength to keep on course?
JO: The lessons taught to me by my mother have shaped the person I have become. Everyone that I have encountered through life’s journey has contributed to my understanding and awareness, and impacted me in some way.
I think my absolute belief is that we can achieve much, and learn from each other, and find the good in each other and inspire – all of those lessons have been grounded into me through the way that my grandmother and mother have parented me. I have asked this question of my mother – why am I not angry? And she said “that isn’t the way that I was taught, and that isn’t the way I taught you.”
I think we can be strong, gentle and considered through deep thinking and learning. This speaks more and has a greater impact that being angry – and I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to be angry – I think that, how we articulate those issues that cause us to be angry or passionate – how we communicate those issues clearly – is what we need to see change. And if I expect that of others, I need to walk the talk. That’s the rule that I want to live by.
I didn’t realise it at the time, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ – I didn’t realise that it was Ghandi that said that. I think to have self-confidence and to see people are human beings, and not by the colour of their skin – when you do that, you see what we are all the same and we have things in common. If we treat people as human beings, and find the commonality within people, we can connect. If we approach it by seeing colour and creed, we will struggle to find commonality at all.
BN: There has been an increased focus on the impact and prevalence of domestic violence over the last few years, but we have been relatively silent on how this effects Indigenous Australians. Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts. What do you see as the essence to tackling the problem of violence across our communities, Indigenous and non-indigenous?
JO: Violence against women, children and the vulnerable by society is something that we have zero tolerance for. All of us have a sense of obligation and responsibility to defend and advocate for the vulnerable. We have to create communities with people that have a mindset around zero tolerance against violence.
I know of a time and history that violence against women has been framed in different ways to try and understand, and articulate, where this comes from. I am annoyed when there are references made to violence against Aboriginal women as a cultural thing. Our culture and traditions are based around nurturing and protecting women and the vulnerable in society. People in our traditional societies had roles to be conciliators and mediators when issues arose that could become potentially violent. I think of a time when a lot of those understandings, and what those protocols where, have been undermined. As time evolves, I think people following an understanding and belief of those biding principles, and living by them, are challenged. Individuals own trauma has taken over and people have reacted in such a way where they have become angry and violent towards others in society. The lack of acknowledgement of trauma and pain inflected on others, and a violation of people’s safety and security has been exploited and therefore society has created this falseness around men having some kind of right to be authoritative and violent partners. I think society has created attitudes around acceptability on certain things and I think we have a responsibility in what we have become.
We have become very obsessed with our own individuality and overlooked our obligation to the collective, and our responsibility as protectors. That has been very challenging for generations growing up in this country, when it has been about individualism. I think for male authority and male dominance, it’s such a mess when it comes to authority and control, I think we’ve become so confused with that role that we believe we have a right to be dominant in relationships.
There is an equal responsibility in relationships but somehow society has contributed to male dominance and then as the dominating partner, we then assume that we have a right and a way of asserting that dominance and then we are protecting egos – it’s all a mess. It’s a bloody mess.
We have to look at how we grow the younger generation to become the caring, supportive, protective males of the future. We need to review the attitudes that are currently upheld by some men and reinstate some of the thinking back into society that no one has the right to oppress and crush another human being. We need to continue to remind ourselves that if there are personal issues and trauma, we can get help for that.
We must expose those that are perpetrating the vulnerable – it’s an issue for humanity. We need to stand against this as a collective – we need to create communities where every human being can grow and flourish into contributing members of society. We need more men speaking out against the unacceptability of harm.
BN: Part of our dilemma is that few non-Indigenous Australian’s have any real feel for life and the issues faced by people in remote communities – on a happier note, tell us about Fitzroy Crossing – it’s beauties, it’s soul and not just it’s obstacles and issues.
JO: It’s the heartland of the Kimberlies. There are five tribes that occupy this area so we have a very strong cultural community, language, ceremony and strong and hearts. We have young people who are living their lives with a foot in two worlds and understanding tradition from our ancient heritage, and as the world’s oldest continuous living civilisation. Our young people are very proud of that. We must protect and preserve that, and as a community we are trying very hard to do this.
We have a community that can readily come together on issues that affect us – we’re capable of feeling in a such as strong and positive way. Fitzroy Crossing has produced strong leadership in the Kimberlies that has bought benefit across the Kimberly and across the state. We have the capacity to embrace change but we are also able to do that from a position of strength and the confidence of our culture and tradition. It’s a very unique place to live and there is potential here for many things. Everyone that lies here has a strong sense of Fitzroy Crossing being a very strong cultural community.
From the history of violence from first contact from the Europeans, we have been able to move forward and acknowledge and embrace our history and still find the ability to work together and move forward and tell the truth of our history here. We also have a very strong tradition in the pastoral (cattle) industry. Aboriginal people were the stable workforce and built many of the cattle stations and the empires up here and aboriginal people still have a very strong stake in this. Many of the properties that Aboriginal people worked on, have come back to their ownership, but we need to also be looking for opportunities and creating opportunities for ourselves within all industries for the growth of North Australia and the Kimberlies, but we must also protect our human services and the social impact on any environment and the people.
BN: As part of NAIDOC week in Sydney, Dharawal woman and local elder Deborah Lennis led a workshop for young children to master the children’s song, ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in the Aboriginal language of the Eora people. You are a strong advocate for the preservation and promotion of Indigenous Australian languages, should we incorporate activities like this that promote the learning of Indigenous languages into the school curriculum?
JO: Absolutely. I believe that acknowledging the languages of this land is the right thing to do. These languages do not occur any where else in the world but here. They are the original languages of this landscape and to be able to learn a different language enables you to understand a different world view. I think we should be able to challenge ourselves, but also give ourselves the opportunity to learn another language. It would be such a wonderful thing if we could learn the languages of this country, of our country. It would add to a beautiful narrative of our own story and our connection and the first peoples.
BN: How can we, in our urban east coast locations, work together with you and help make a difference?
JO: Learn to understand the space that you are in. Connect with the First Peoples within your own place. Be actively engaging, participating and building your relationships with the people who hold the knowledge of where you live and where your home is. Then, you can extend beyond that and connect with regional and remote areas across the country.
I think that this is about us all being connected – what is it we share in common? I think we can begin to tell of our shared history and our shared stories and that can become the story of this country. We need to be able to understand each other and build the relationships with each other, so we can stand in front of the world and say this is who we are.
Grow your own awareness and understand and learn of relationships that can be grown further afield. I think that we should be able to do ourselves the justice of informing and educating ourselves about our own country and our own people, shaping with such determination who we are and what we want others to know about us. It thinks up to now, we have relied on others to tell our story and that story is not a true reflection of who we are. I think we have to stop people who portray us as being in denial and continuing to be racist and perpetuate ignorance.
We as Australians, have a responsibility to stop that and to tell the real story. It’s all of our responsibilities. If we don’t speak up we shouldn’t be surprised when we are portrayed the way we are – if it’s not true, then what we have done to correct it. Learn from people, not just history books. Get out and connect with the landscapes and the people and issues. Be informed.
BN: Final question – if you could invite three people – in this lifetime, or from another – to dinner, who would it be?
JO: Oh, that’s not something I can think of on the spot. But off the top of my head, I’d love to have Michelle and Barack Obama. One of the great thinkers, and my grandmother.
June Oscar AO is a Bunuba Woman from the Central Kimberley region. She became a Women’s Resource Officer with the Junjuwa community early in her career and chaired the Marra Worra Worra Resource Agency until 1991, when she was appointed to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for a two-year term as a commissioner. June is a strong advocate and activist for the recognition, rights, preservation and promotion of Indigenous Australian languages. She was chair of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, an Aboriginal community organisation directed by senior speakers of the 28 surviving languages of the Kimberley region, and a former co-chair of the Kimberley Interpreting Service. In addition, June is a member of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, comprising senior men and women who are the custodians and teachers of Aboriginal law, ceremonies, dance and songs.