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NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year finalists credit their predecessor matriarchs

Rachael Knowles -

A time to celebrate the power, courage and resilience that lives in our women, the finalists for the NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year have been announced.

The awards aim to recognise Aboriginal women in NSW who have excelled in their passion, who move towards positive change and who encourage opportunities for mob.

The finalists, Pauline Clague, Kirli Saunders and Ngiare Brown are three of the state's most recognised and powerful matriarchs.

Kirli Saunders

A proud Gunai woman, Saunders' family has ties to Yuin, Gundungurra and Biripi Country with links to La Perouse.

An international children's author, poet and teacher, Saunders received the WA 2019 Premiers Literary Daisy Utemmorah Award and the 2019 University of Canberra ATSI Poetry Prize, and her books have been included in the Prime Ministers Literary Award Shortlist.

Saunders manages Red Room Poetry's Poetry in First Languages Program.

"It's a project that sees First Nations students work along Elders and Custodians to create and publish poems in language on Country and with community. The poems, this year, are being written about endangered and threatened species," Saunders said.

"It's a [project] close to my heart ... it's about teaching kids about conservation of Country and language. And making them feel responsible and empowered as young and emerging custodians."

"It feels true to my Dreaming to be a storyteller, it is empowering to be able to tell stories of our people for our people."

"I'm really grateful to be raised and guided by so many powerful women, so in many ways being a finalist is an ode to them.

"I think it is very indicative to the women in our society, we are a matriarchal society. All the women in our mobs are doing such incredible things for our communities and I think this is just one day where a few of us get to be recognised.

"But we come from, I know I do, strong, powerful lineages of women like my Mum. Elders and Aunties in our communities who have allowed us to be here. We stand on the shoulders of giants, today is no exception."

Professor Ngiare Brown

Hailing from the South Coast of NSW, Brown is a Yuin woman and was the first identified Aboriginal doctor in NSW in 1992.

Graduating in medicine, she is a founding member of the Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors' Congress, sits on the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, is a Commissioner with the National Mental Health Commission and a founding member of the Close the Gap initiative.

She has been a representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for a decade and has established a not-for-profit, Ngaoara, which works with Aboriginal children affected by trauma.

"These kids come to us, if you take the time to speak to these children, hear their stories and their experiences they are deeply affected by trauma in all of its forms. They're telling us in the only way they know how," Brown said.

Brown is incredibly humbled to stand beside Saunders and Clague as a finalist.

"It is wonderful people think I have done something worthwhile and important, it also reminds me that I need to be making that effort [for] people who believe in me.

"That notion of we stand on the shoulders of giants, that is so true. They have done so much.

"My father who didn't even get to finish primary school, deeply believed in education as a pathway to better things for Aboriginal people.

"For me not to be doing those things, would fly in the face of everything he worked for. It's an honour and privilege to be doing this work."

With two daughters of her own, Brown has always guided them with love and ambition.

"We are not less because we are Aboriginal. We have so much more to offer, because of our culture, history and connection and they are things people can't take away from us.

"We're only given what the ancestors believed we can handle, for however long I have that capability I need to be doing what I am doing."

Associate Professor Pauline Clague

Clague is a powerful Yaegl woman who is a filmmaker and mentor to young filmmakers.

She is the founder and Artistic Director of Indigenous film festival, WINDA Film Festival and the manager of Cultural Resilience Hub, Jumbunna, at the University of Technology Sydney.

Clague has worked in the film industry for over 30 years with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

"I spend a lot of time mentoring younger generations in how to thrive and raise the voice of our people," she said.

"Being at the University of Technology Sydney, I'm being able to put some framework around a lot of research I've done over the years watching so much Indigenous film and trying to create a platform of dialogue around what does Indigenous cinema look like in this day and age?"

Clague feels that storytelling is deeply embedded within who she is.

"It feels like it fulfils cultural safety for me, being able to raise young people's voices up so they can be heard, along with the Elders."

Raised in culture and strength, Clague looks to the women in her family as role models.

"My mother and many Aunts gave us such a good grounding in understand who we were as young Yaegl women.

"I was born on Country, that connection to NSW is always there for me. We are the nations that have had the longest arm of colonisation and the strength of our women has kept a lot of our culture and history ... afloat ... Have kept the information alive in our community and embedded so it can re-strengthen us now.

"The trauma created from Stolen Generations, and children being taken from their mothers. All those elements that have taken a role in the resilience that our women and men in our community, particularly our women, making us strong in this generation and for those to come. I hope I can play the same part in the years to come."

The winners of the 2020 Awards, including NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year, will be announced at the ceremony in Sydney on March 5.

By Rachael Knowles


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