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A night with the ladies of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council
08 May 2013
It’s a clear warm Melbourne evening and I am at dinner, a guest of the directors and staff of the NPY Women’s Council (Aboriginal Corporation).
I’m not alone. Other guests include representatives from corporate and philanthropic organisations, Federal Government ministers, including Jenny Macklin Federal Member for Jagajaga, her opposition counterpart and Deputy Leader of the National Party, Nigel Scullion, NPY Women’s Council Patron Professor Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Christine Nixon.
The directors from the NPY Women’s Council, some of who travelled to Melbourne for the event, live ‘on country’. It’s a term that has so much meaning: living life in harmony with the land and sea, with community and family, culture and language… and probably a whole lot more about which I have to admit being ignorant.
The ladies had with with them pieces of Tjanpi traditional weaving and were also launching a book about Ngangkari traditional healing techniques. They also brought with them their stories and a very important message about the need for education and employment opportunities especially for the young in their communities. These ladies understand that if the next generations are to have a future, a future that includes the right to choose to live securely and safely on country – or not – then they have to stand up now and demand the tools and knowledge to support that future.
That sort of courage – to stand up and speak when many would prefer they would go away – is not easy to muster and I came away from the night in wonder at the strength, persistence and spirit of these women.
Westpac, through the Foundation, has been heavily involved with the NPY Women’s Council for the past three years, and especially the Tjanpi Desert Weavers to which the Foundation has provided $480K over three years in grant development money.
Tjanpi (the word sounds a bit like ‘jumpy’) means ‘dry grass’. Many of the women at the dinner and who are NPY council members created Tjanpi to enable women on the lands to earn a regular income from selling their fibre art, improving the lives of NPY women and their families. Tjanpi supports cultural activity and generates income and employment for more than 400 artists from 28 remote communities across two states (Western Australia and South Australia) and the Northern Territory.
That’s a lot of land to cover and some very remote communities.
The Women’s Council’s Deputy Coordinator and MC for the night, Liza Balmer, was quick to point out in her opening remarks that being 42 storeys up above the Melbourne skyline watching the winking traffic creep along the city’s arteries like a moving dot painting was a very different experience. Alice Springs’ tallest building, she told us, has three storeys.
Having worked in the council for 17 years, Liza has a lot of history. She spoke about having heard the mothers of the ladies we were now listening to speak, and that they had spoken about many of the same issues with the same courage and conviction.
It gave me goose bumps when she went on to say how she could hear the voices of their mothers in them, and got me thinking about how all of us as women pass on things to the next generation and the importance of that to culture and authority and to our wellbeing.
Sitting listening to these women, and knowing the enormity of the problems many indigenous people face, made their urgent requests for education and employment opportunities feel so real and important.
How do we as a community of women help and support them to be heard and to achieve what any of us would want for our children – education, employment and a safe, secure, happy place to live and grow and thrive in?
The answer is not to throw money at it, and hope it will go away, but to listen and work with them and use their own cultural authority to find self-determined answers.
I’m a north Queenslander and where I grew up there were many indigenous people in the community. In fact, when I was captain of the girl’s netball, the boy’s captain of sport was Raymond Asky – an indigenous boy – I remember he was gorgeous looking and an amazing athlete.
Living in Melbourne now, a city girl, urban lifestyle, it’s really easy to forget, bury your head in the sand and pretend it’s all, okay. So, to be in that room with women of such a different culture, speaking such a different language was a privilege and a valuable experience because it made me think and it made me remember, and it made me see that beneath what we believe are our differences beats the same universal concern for safety, well being, health, education, employment. The opportunities every one of us as human beings deserve.
I’ll also let you in on a little secret: for our competition prize this month we purchased one of the Tjampi Desert Weavers sculptures, an emu by the artist Tjunkaya Tapaya. I named the sculpture, Ruby, based on the topknot of red raffia on her head, and I have to say, she was the hot item of the night. Securing her meant seeing off everyone in the room.
On my way home I sat her beside me in the car and it wasn’t long before I found myself chatting to her, putting my hand out when I had to brake suddenly to stop her flying off the passenger seat as if she was human.
Spooky, I know, but somehow her creator has invested her with so much more than just a wonderfully quizzical, humorous look. I swear she has soul just as my night with the NPY Women’s Council did.