The theme for NAIDOC Week this year is ‘Because of Her, We Can’ which is all about honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and the active and significant roles they play at the community, local, state and national levels.
As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art. Sadly, Indigenous women’s roles have often been invisible, unsung or diminished.
We want to honour Aunty Joan Tranter who has been with UTS since 1997.
She was UTS’s longest serving Indigenous staff member and was considered by many as our resident Elder. So it was a natural progression for her to be appointed as UTS’ inaugural Elder in Residence in early 2012.
Elders play a significant cultural, knowledge sharing, mentoring and social role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; respect for Elders is engrained. As the Elder in Residence Aunty Joan provides cultural support aimed at enhancing Indigenous student retention and success. She contributes to Indigenous cultural awareness across UTS, sharing knowledge of Indigenous people, culture and issues. She represents UTS through community engagement initiatives and contributes to the wellbeing of Indigenous staff and students by being available to meet with them and provide cultural support.
Her longstanding commitment to education saw Aunty Joan recently awarded a UTS Distinguished Service Award for her contribution to university life.
In her own words, Aunty Joan tells us about her journey:
I’m a Murri woman from Wakka Wakka country in Queensland. In explaining ‘country’ I let people know that “belonging to country” gives us our identity. I also add that we are not homogenous but are as diverse as the peoples of Europe and Asia in languages and cultures.
Before colonisation, at least 70 Aboriginal languages and dialects were spoken in NSW and over 100 in Queensland. But many have been lost or eroded because of past policies – my people were discouraged, shamed and forbidden to speak or teach their traditional languages.
To us, language is much more than just words. It is a direct link to land and country. It holds traditional songs and stories. It is about spirituality, and reflects our unique ways of looking at the world. It is vital in sustaining a person’s sense of self and cultural identity.
For me, my “Country” relates to my mother’s or my father’s place, where generations of my people lived and looked after country, a place where they had a total sense of belonging. If one was removed from Country, the ‘belonging to that country” remained embedded. Many of our languages were lost or went underground because we were forbidden to speak them. Elders who are fluent speakers of their language now feel that they can share it thus giving the wider community a greater appreciation of this rich heritage.
I grew up on Cherbourg mission under the Policies of the Queensland Aboriginal Protection Act 1897. I had to have permission on where to live, to marry or to leave the mission. Cherbourg was an institution where we were referred to as “inmates” and the manager was officially the “superintendent”. About 49 different Aboriginal language groups lived on the mission. However we weren’t allowed to speak any one our traditional languages. English was enforced and our old people were forbidden to teach their languages.
I was one of four students from the mission to be the first to attend high school in Murgon, most kids only went up to primary school years at the mission school.
I was one of the senior Cherbourg “Marching Girls” . Special permission to leave and travel outside the mission for competitions and performances had to be secured before we were allowed off Cherbourg.
Many had never before been allowed outside the government-controlled mission. It was an adventure, but racism was still rife in those days. We travelled on the back of a truck, and people would make animal noises as we drove past — like 'moo' and 'oink'.
I guess that gave me a taste for what was out there. In the early 1960s, I absconded from Cherbourg and came alone to Sydney where I eventually married my husband who was originally from South Australia.
Over the last 50 years I worked in all kinds of jobs to help support my husband and family – factory work, cleaning offices, laundering business men shirts and working night shift at a large public hospital.
In the mid 1970s, all my children were in school, I decided to go to a Business College to upgrade my typing and shorthand skills to enable me to get a job. After a couple of years of working I was invited by the Principal of the Business College to come back as a teacher. To this effect, I got my first teaching degrees from Pitman's in London.
I began teaching office administration at a TAFE college, where I was the only Aboriginal teacher and all my students were non-Indigenous. It was through this work that I became involved with teachers’ unions. In the mid-1980s I set up and chaired the national TAFE Indigenous Advisory group to the Australian Teachers’ Union.
While I was teaching at TAFE I completed a Diploma of Teaching, a Graduate Diploma in Educational Studies and a Graduate Diploma in Computing at the College of Advanced Education, Ultimo (which later became amalgamated with the New South Wales Institute of Technology and it became UTS). This was the beginning of a lifelong passion for adult education. It’s not about age, it’s what you contribute.
I have over 40 years teaching experience in adult education and 25 years specifically in Indigenous education, employment and training.
Passing on my knowledge and experiences have always been important, especially for Indigenous people who didn't have the opportunity to get an education. At TAFE, I was a senior manager in the Indigenous Unit where my role was looking at innovative programs for Indigenous people this included the first Indigenous police program in NSW. I also looked at ways to change the curriculum of different courses to suit Indigenous ways of learning.
In 1997 was when I joined UTS as a permanent staff member. I was the Equity and Diversity Coordinator and was central to furthering the university’s commitment to reconciliation. My passion has been in developing and promoting Indigenous employment programs at UTS, through the Wingara Employment Strategies and staff development and support activities such as UTS Indigenous Staff Network, the Indigenous Women’s Network and Women’s Business at UTS. This has assisted UTS to further demonstrate its pledge to increase representation of Indigenous staff and students.
My mum was very keen on me getting an education, so I always had a drive in me; from an early age I saw education as a way forward. Now I am passing on my knowledge. Education has been the doorway for me. I see my role as working within education systems to make changes and create space for my people. I’m people oriented and I often take the emotional perspective – looking at what it’s like to be in their shoes because I’ve been there.
I have five children and 10 grandchildren. I sometimes think that my family forget how old I am. I’m in my 70s now and still working at the university in a reduced capacity and actively involved in my local community. What keeps me going is working with people and the intellectual stimulus and the contributions I can still make.
They say I’m a living library – so now I’m being asked to talk at schools and tell stories to children.
This NAIDOC Week I’ll be honouring my Mum, aunties, sisters, grannies and women in the community that hold our families together and do things the best they can, unacknowledged. They’ve taught me the community aspects of caring for each other, and they keep our communities together.
Aunty Joan Tranter has made an invaluable contribution to UTS and continues to inspire the students and staff with her knowledge and passion. Find out more inspiring stories at #BecauseOfHerWeCan