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Celebrating Warrior Women

The inside of me is my home. It will follow me wherever I go Nils Aslak (Sami poet)

I have lived my life in inner Melbourne, mostly around Fitzroy, Carlton, Richmond and Collingwood. I live on the land of the Wurundjeri nation, a proud and fiercely independent community who have confronted the adversity of colonial greed and violence for over 200 years. I’m a lifelong walker and runner, and my daily journeys are most often divided between the majestic Birrarung River and the inner-city’s labyrinth of bluestone laneways. I know most of those lanes and never find myself lost, even though the majority of them are unnamed, unmarked and unsighted on Google Maps. I also enjoy the privilege of living close by a laneway that does carry a name, in honour of a remarkable woman who was a close friend and creative/political mentor.

Warrior Woman Lane is located in Carlton. It was named to commemorate the life of Lisa Bellear, a Minjungbul, Goempil, Noonuccal and South Sea Islander, writer, poet and activist. Throughout her life, before she passed in 2006, Lisa’s prodigious output as a creator and intellectual was equally matched by her advocacy on the behalf of others. She was a published poet, photographer, journalist and academic. She was also a media producer, a city councillor and a key member of several advisory committees, including the Victorian Stolen Generations Taskforce. Her poetry most often expressed care for others, bearing witness to the injustices of inequality and racism. In one of her most influential works, ‘To no one: And Mary did time’, Lisa turns to us, her readers, and asks that we not look away from injustice:

Dear anyone to anyone

who just might care

I didn’t know

I just didn’t know

I’m still not

Sure

The campaign to name Warrior Woman Lane was led by Kim Kruger, an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander woman, who is also Lisa’s cousin. Kim engaged the Wiradjuri and Ngiyampaa artist, Charlotte Allingham, and Ballardong Noongar writer, Timmah Ball, to produce a series of artworks and texts for the lane. The project initiated, produced and created by women for a woman who impacted on our lives with heart and energy. Theirs has been an act not only of creativity, but of generosity, providing residents and visitors to Naarm (Melbourne) with the opportunity to engage with Lisa’s life and her story. 

Central to Lisa’s story was her compassion to listen to and support others. As a member of the Stolen Generations, Lisa lived with suffering. And yet, she was always present for others. In my own case, she was the first Aboriginal woman I spoke with, outside my family, about the history of domestic violence that plagued our lives. After she passed, Lisa remained, as she was in life, my emotional and ethical mentor. Whenever I have to deal with an issue that requires me to be the best I can, or to lift myself out of a depressive hole, I ask myself, ‘what would Lisa do?’

Violence against women is, or must be, at the forefront of our minds at present. As I write, global marches, organised by women for women, are being mobilised to protest and campaign against the psychological and physical violence women deal with every day at the hands of men and patriarchal society. Historically, Indigenous women have been subjected to horrendous levels of violence in defence of country and culture. They are not the passive ‘mothers of the Earth’ (in a western sense of such an image), but the fierce protectors of Country. If we are genuine in our attempts to openly confront violence against women, we must do far more than shatter so-called glass ceilings. (Indigenous people rarely get in the building!!) Women cannot simply be granted ‘equal footing’ in society. (And they never are). The authority of women must be fully recognised. To put it simply, they must in charge. 

People who know me understand my childhood story of growing up in a house were violence against women and children was a daily reality. Fortunately, guided by the courage of my grandmother and mother, we carry no secrets of domestic violence. We have refused to remain silent, and we have told the stories that need to be told. The kids I grew up around, who also suffered violence in the home, including having to witness terrible harm done to their mothers, brothers and sisters live with the trauma of this experience. When we are subjected to childhood violence, we suffer more than a collapse of self-esteem. While some reproduce the same violence against their own loved ones as adults, it is too often forgotten that many do not. Instead, we turn against ourselves. We live (and die) with substance abuse. Or, as I did, develop a pathological sense of self-destructiveness, physically and psychologically beating our bodies into self-hatred and submission. It was the support of women, particularly my mother and sisters, that cured me of my death wish.

I have also been fortunate to work for the last five years (until June 2020), in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University. My academic research was primarily concerned with climate justice and the protection of Country. Although there were a few fellas around, the centre is dominated by women, both in number and stature. Our conversations were intellectual and political. They were also deeply cultural. Our yarning took place in a ‘culturally safe space, designated not by a bureaucrat, but the presence of Aboriginal people. We often sat together and spoke about the trauma we live with. As a man, I am indebted to these women, all my close friends, for allowing and trusting my presence. The only way I can repay their trust is not to lean on them, not to expect them to do the heavy lifting, not to expect them to ‘mother’ me, but demand that I act for change. Like Lisa Bellear, each of them are Warrior Women, and it is important to me that I name them. So, please let me pay deep respect to Karen Jackson, Kim Kruger, Paola Balla, Jacqui Katona, Tanaya Lyons, Rebecca Lyons, the late (and so mighty) Auntie Gwen Brooke, the many other visiting Indigenous women who sat at our communal table and shared food with us, and Indigenous women everywhere. As Lisa Bellear asked of us, ‘dear someone out there who may or may not give a damn’, we must learn to care for each other.

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