Essay

The power of the First Nations Matriarchy

Warrior Women reckoning with the colony

I WAS BORN from the world’s most ancient womb: the sacred womb of a First Nations woman. The blood pumping through my veins is the life force of a long line of First Nations Warrior Women whose spirits run deep into this ancient soil. It is a privilege to be raised in a culture that understands the power of the First Nations Matriarchy: a kinship that values the role of women as equal to men and all other living things, a matriarchy whose power comes from an enduring love for Blackfullas, and one that is not afraid to speak truth to power and punch up to the white patriarchy.

There is no force equal to the power of the First Nations Matriarchy.

First Nations Matriarchs are healers, storytellers, keepers of our kids and truth-seekers. I am not referring to this matriarchy as a hierarchy of power like the white patriarchy; rather I recognise the moral force of authority instilled in kinships governed by the First Nations Matriarchy that binds our communities, countries and culture together.

Make no mistake about it: like the privilege of Eldership in Indigenous communities, not every First Nations woman is bestowed the honour of being a Matriarch. This honour is a sign of respect bestowed on First Nations women who graciously and unapologetically live their lives knowing that Blackfulla love and joy is what fuels the fire lit by our ancestors. Just as no one is born a First Nations Matriarch, no one can claim to be one. I know this because I was raised in a Matriarchal kinship system that has existed since time immemorial, and this upbringing and worldview has held me in good stead as I navigate my own life through a Western world designed around the erasure of First Nations women.

 

MY NAME IS Teela May, my grandmother is Stella May and my great-grandmother is Elsie May. I am the eldest granddaughter on my maternal side, and the stories and actions of the Matriarchs in my life have defined my place in the world, including my sense of obligation to the generations before and after me. Many stories of First Nations Matriarchs have been proudly passed on to me by men, in particular my late grandfather.

It was my grandfather who told me so many stories of my great-grandmother, Elsie May. A fierce intellectual who freed herself and her family from a mission in western New South Wales and found liberation by knowing her rights. A dignified woman who demanded accountability by removing a police officer from her front yard when he had no right to be there in the first place. Eventually, she went on to argue her case against his racism and mistreatment of Aboriginal people so successfully that that same police officer was fired. A triumph for those times. Like my mother, it is whispered among my kinship that I am the physical embodiment of the spirit of my great-grandmother.

I never met Elsie May.

It has been the life of my grandmother, Stella May – whose elevation to Matriarchal status I have witnessed – that has galvanised my understanding of the power of the First Nations Matriarchy. As a Koori kid, I saw my grandmother’s role to collect bush medicine as natural. If anyone fell ill, the first response to treating a wound, tummy ache or rash was for my grandmother to collect the bush medicine from our Country, not the chemist. She would boil her haul for several hours in the biggest pot I had ever seen, and the aroma would waft around the house, filling every room. The smell even escaped up the street and into my house – I had the privilege of living across the road from my grandparents. There was no written recipe, but she knew precisely how to make anything perfectly into three different forms: a serum we could bathe in if our symptoms were surface level, like body aches; a tea to be drunk, hot or cold, that would detoxify and flush out any potential bugs in our system; and a pill to swallow – but for adults only. As a bush medicine woman, her knowledge is power. And through her practices, the next generation in our kinship lives on, knowing that the cure to heal ailments has always been within our Country.

Like other First Nations Matriarchs, my grandmother’s power derives not only from her traditional bush medicine practices but from her graciousness in holding space for others. Her value has never been steeped in domesticated roles that serve men; it is concerned with the collective care of the kinship. In our community, many other mobs rely on her presence in times of need, especially when it comes to Sorry Business or Ceremony where an Elder is required. It is her spirit that binds kinships, through artistic work such as storytelling or through the power of silence when it is necessary to hold space, or – a family favourite – through her musical talent, and her ultimate love, her gift of playing the accordion. A true prodigy, she started playing by listening to melodies; she still cannot read music.

As I grow older, I have begun to recognise the enormous power that comes with the confidence to remain silent in the right moments. That is not to say that speaking out isn’t critical in the pursuit of justice, but I have observed the presence of my grandmother as she shows up for others – not to dictate to them what they need but in response to different clans’ calls that require her to hold space and to provide the love and energy that gives strength in challenging times or connects us in times of celebration.

This is the unique gift of First Nations Matriarchs, called upon because of the enduring love they possess for Blackfullas. It’s a gift with inherent cultural value, not dependent on Western notions of hierarchy or colonial standards. The First Nations Matriarchs who exude love for Blackfullas can heal kinships through the sacred practices they maintain in the face of centuries of colonialism; and this is a way of reckoning with the Western world as we know it.

 

OUR FIRST NATIONS Matriarchs matter. They have left a remarkable legacy on the trajectory of our nation. Their status is not only defined by the struggle that comes with speaking truth to power, it is also shaped by their capacity to call for peace when the rest of the world reacts without reason. They spoke out when it wasn’t hip to be Black, a time when it wasn’t popular to call out the injustices against First Nations people.

It is true some First Nations communities prefer to identify as patriarchal, but that is not my lived experience.

Through this, it is now our moral obligation to remember the formidable First Nations Matriarchs who stood on the right side of history, who not only embodied Blak love and Blak joy at any cost but also harnessed that energy and belief in Blackfullas as a political force that is so pivotal in today’s movements.

First Nations Matriarchs such as Shirley Smith – better known as ‘Mum Shirl’ – who was a Wiradjuri warrior born on Erambie Mission near Cowra, an influential force who transformed Redfern and NSW in the 1970s with her powerful advocacy for prisoners. She understood the weaponisation of colonial power against First Nations and the importance of systemic change to ensure that Indigenous issues remained within Indigenous control. Mum Shirl epitomised a love for Blackfullas – so much so that she dedicated her life to creating opportunities and cultivating spaces from which we continue to reap fruits to this day. She was a formidable force behind the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Children’s Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and the Black Theatre.[i]

Mum Shirl marched at the frontline of the NSW Land Rights movement: her first trip outside of NSW was to the Northern Territory, a place she didn’t know existed until she went to meet the Gurindji people, including the great Vincent Lingiari, to learn from their fight for land rights. A Wiradjuri woman and a Gurindji man committed to the advocacy of their people; a moment of Blak politik that no doubt led to revolutionary land rights legislation in both jurisdictions. Following the defeat of the Yolngu in the Gove Land Rights case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court (1971), a deliberate decision was made not to appeal the legal case but instead to pursue a political strategy. This in turn instigated the Aboriginal Land Rights Royal Commission (1973–74), which set the foundations for the historic Mabo case in the High Court of Australia some twenty years later.

Mum Shirl is the Matriarchal match for Indigenous rights that Eddie Mabo has been for native title. So why is her story not as prominent in our national consciousness? Her advocacy across different realms – from land rights to welfare rights – revolutionised what it meant for Blackfullas to live on their land their way, particularly in the south, where we have felt the full force of colonisation sweep across our lands since invasion. The toxic narrative that ‘Indigenous communities’ do not exist in NSW was a consequence of colonial thinking – and the whitewashing mentality that ‘Indigenous communities’ no longer flourish in western NSW, my home region, is emblematic of an insidious ignorance that seeks to further diminish the First Nations Matriarchy and perpetrate a eugenic mindset. An example of this colonial attitude has been laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic: there was very little emphasis on ‘Indigenous communities’ in western NSW in mainstream media and politics, despite the serious risks posed by case numbers within this jurisdiction. This wilful ignorance and failure to adequately plan and prioritise western NSW ‘Indigenous communities’ for the vaccination rollout led to the first First Nations coronavirus death in Dubbo.

Wherever you walk in Australia, you are walking on Aboriginal land. From every river, rock and mountain top to the sun-kissed beaches and on as far as the dusty western plains – even to the stars above – Aboriginal people have intricately mapped the land, sky and waterways. This continuing connection is told in art, song, dance and story. Despite attempts to displace us from our traditional lands by the imposition of cities, towns and artificial state borders, ‘Indigenous communities’ exist. No matter where you stand, you are standing on Aboriginal land.

 

MUM SHIRL WAS undoubtedly inspired by the courage of the Gurindji, and her meeting with Vincent Lingiari, the greatest land rights advocate in our history, left a lasting legacy on how we exercise land rights and what it means to get land back. These moments of solidarity mobilised the land rights movement, which led in turn to the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – the world’s longest site of protest.

‘Land Back’ is not slogan, a metaphor or a hashtag for Instagram posts or tote bags. It will take more than metaphorically burning down Australia on social media and hoping that some fist-pumping to a following persuades the colony to properly return land to Blackfullas.

In this space, and even to do this day, it is rare for any First Nations Matriarch to advocate on social media: they are usually holding the frontline at the community level, where accountability is key. In fact, social media has distorted our own traditional notions of community accountability – particularly in the absence of our Matriarchs online – in terms of actual cultural authorities. This disassociated notion of community accountability online, calling out other Blackfullas on alleged cultural issues, is often disconnected from community experiences in real life.

You can be connected online at the push of a button, but it takes cultural responsibility to be connected in First Nations communities. When utilised for the greater good, social media has sent powerful ripples around the world. However, the danger now is that social media allows voices which would have no authority in First Nations communities to be amplified online, inevitably doing a disservice to the legacy of hard work cultivated by Matriarchs who hold the frontline without a Twitter handle. We need our movements for change to get back to basics if we are serious about getting our land back.

What we can learn from grassroots land rights advocates is that ‘Land Back’ means serious diplomatic action – action that requires not only the courage to speak out against the colony online but also demands the discipline and strategic thinking that will outmanoeuvre the glacial pace at which Australian parliaments are prepared to action change. Virtue signalling from those who cleave to social media handles – particularly those without the integrity to follow through with action that might include sitting at the colonisers’ tables and negotiating ways through the unfinished business of our stolen lands – only disenfranchises Blackfullas more.

As a senior Aboriginal land rights lawyer raised by my grassroots activist grandfather, I have never witnessed a single retweet, Instagram post or story that’s provided evidence of land returned. And the movement for Blackfullas to buy land back further risks reinforcing colonial process, given that property law has been the primary dispossessor of First Nations people from their lands. I am not saying these actions are wrong; I am not saying they’re not worthy. Advocates for decolonisation cannot boast about getting ‘land back’ without undertaking the diplomatic action required to dismantle the colony in real life. Decolonisation is not simply saying our First Nations sovereignty was never ceded; it requires strategies, solutions and systemic change to dismantle colonial power and enforce our own cultural authorities within the frameworks of society.

The First Nations Matriarchs who held the frontline of social justice movements – and disrupted the colonial process – certainly did not do this for ‘likes’, ‘retweets or any other influence but in a quest for truth to be told about the rightful place of the First Nations. Fearless Matriarchs such as Louisa Ingram AOM, Doris Williams and Olive Ingram – who stood on the steps of Australia Hall on Elizabeth Street in Sydney in 1938 to peacefully protest against thousands who marched the streets in celebration of sesquicentennial Australia. This image is immortalised in a black-and-white photograph emblazoned with a ‘Day of Mourning’ tag that has become the face of Aboriginal resistance against Australia Day celebrations today.[ii]

Other Matriarchs – including Faith Bandler, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Pearl Gibbs and Aunty Rosie Richards – demonstrated sheer stamina in the decade-long battle that led to the landmark 1967 referendum. This was the most successful referendum in Australian history, with 90.77 per cent of Australians voting ‘yes’ to empower the federal government to make special laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Until that moment, only the states had control of Indigenous affairs and were lawfully implementing cruel policies that perpetrated the stolen generations, massacres and murders of the Blacks.

In this context, it makes sense that the current movement for a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution seeks to guarantee First Nations input into those laws and policies that affect our lives. This thinking was the catalyst behind the sequence of reforms proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the culmination of this agenda is to seek Makarrata or peace, ‘the coming together after a struggle’, and to establish a process for treaties and truth-telling. The first stop on the road to reckoning must be a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, a structural change that would enable the voices of all the First Nations to be heard every day and one that has stability beyond political cycles.

Once again Matriarchs – such as Aunty Pat Anderson AO, an Alyawarre woman – are the driving force behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Among other things, Aunty Pat is known nationally and internationally for her human rights advocacy, particularly in the spaces of Aboriginal health and union organising, and she continues to power the peoples’ movement and to lead from the frontline. Aunty Pat has not a single social media handle to her name, and her soul and spirit energise those around her. Her impact is palpable, and as someone who has had the privilege to have been in her presence, I am forever motivated by her mindset to focus and follow through with action – not only on the Uluru Statement from the Heart but in continuing the fight of our ancestors.

First Nations Matriarchs may not be written into the history books that are taught at school; they may not be remembered with statues erected in their honour. But they are all Warrior Women reckoning with this colony. We have an obligation to remember the First Nations Matriarchy and the special place they hold for us, as they offer a way of living that is not about upholding the white patriarchy.

 

LET’S BE CLEAR: the First Nations Matriarchy prospered long before the Western world violently invaded Indigenous lands and waters, and it continues to endure the test of time. The existence of First Nations Matriarchs on this ancient sovereign soil is the resistance that threatens the legitimacy of the white patriarchy.

It is no coincidence that the enslavement, rape, murder and incarceration of First Nations women has underpinned the colony. Stop and listen to any First Nations woman speaking truth to power: they will tell you – in no uncertain terms – about the violent reality of living in a white supremacist society that’s hinged on patriarchal values at the expense of the First Nations Matriarchy. This is a hard truth to swallow, but one that must be discussed…whether colonisers admit it or not is another thing.

And as uncomfortable as it is, we also need to talk about the ways in which the white patriarchy is inevitably tied to the role white women play in colonisation. As Murri historian and activist Jackie Huggins exclaimed in Sister Girl, ‘white women are colonisers too, they are part of the dominant culture that continually oppresses us in this country’. This reality is particularly reinforced by white women who only see the world through a white lens and who reinforce colonial systems that operate to oppress Blackfullas: even the most influential progressives are guilty of giving lip service to Blak issues to reinforce their own power and privilege in systems built on the oppression of Blackness.

There is no longer a place for oppression in our society; the notion that every society has poor and oppressed people is not the equivalent of permission to perpetuate these processes. Rethinking how society functions requires both white men and white women to reconsider the role of the First Nations Matriarchy as an opportunity to learn – and not as a threat to their pay packets or property.

The First Nations Matriarchy is not about upholding the white patriarchy. Nor is it a response to it. It is not concerned with validating it and, more critically, matriarchal kinships are not concerned with seeking to climb the colonial hierarchy. The First Nations Matriarchy flourished long before colonisation violently insisted on the dominance of the white patriarchy in society. When we say Black Lives Matter, it is the power and love of the Blak Matriarchy that matters most of all.

And for the love of the First Nations Matriarchy, don’t call me a feminist. I wasn’t raised with the word feminist in my vocabulary. It’s not that I don’t see the value in what feminism has achieved, it’s simply that I prefer to see the world from the standpoint of our First Nations Matriarchs, staunch sovereign Warrior Women who are a force to be reckoned with.

Feminism often actively reinforces patriarchal systems in ways that inevitably lead to punching down women of colour rather than punching up against white patriarchy. Despite the progress of intersectionality frameworks that focus on race, class and gender, we are a long way from normalising discussions about First Nations sovereignty through the enduring love and self-determination of Matriarchal kinship systems.

According to Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a Goenpul woman from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), the oblivion of white women to their own race privilege and their indifference to Indigenous women often remains uninterrogated. It is no surprise that as white feminists made waves in Australia, Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman – originally published in 2000 – virtually got no traction on home soil until it was republished twenty years later. As beneficiaries of colonisation, white women have been able to challenge systems and remake themselves within institutions because of the power whiteness confers. Similarly, since publishing my first essay more than two years ago now – ‘2020, The year of reckoning, not reconciliation’ – I’ve observed a few white women reframe this ‘reckoning’, essentially hijacking and whitewashing the term to ignore its original conception as a response to Australia’s woeful record at reconciling the relationship between First Nations peoples and the Australian state.

The reckoning many white women have begun to discuss stems from the #MeToo movement, which highlighted sexual assault and domestic violence issues. It grew in Australia when Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame bravely shone a light on their personal experiences of sexual abuse within two distinct institutions: the federal Parliament House, and a school. Shocked and outraged, many white women mobilised, and the movement culminated in the #March4Justice campaign in early 2021.

While the anger and frustration behind this movement is real, as are the events that sparked it, it’s important to acknowledge that Australia has been built on and profited from the violence towards and the sexualisation of Aboriginal women, who have consistently spoken out about these critical issues. We need white women to be angry and stay angry long enough to create the systemic changes required to bring about true accountability. The white patriarchy has never bowed down or accepted accountability because women decided to play nice.

Anger is power when it is harnessed into action for the greater good. And apologies are no longer a substitute for anti-racism action.

 

THE REAL RECKONING with the colony will come when we value and centre the power of the First Nations Matriarchy. First Nations women have significantly impacted the trajectory of our nation’s narrative and the voices and actions of these Warrior Women are not only the backbone of First Nations communities but are also powering the frontline of movements for change. We owe so much to First Nations women who not only continue to speak truth to power but are also not afraid to punch up to the white patriarchy.

The reckoning of these Warrior Women is not only about challenging the status quo; it’s also about their preparedness to confront and dismantle the colonial process. Someone who typifies this tenacity and sheer sacredness is Gladys Tybingoompa, a Wik woman who illuminated the steps of the High Court of Australia in 1996 when her people took on the Queensland Government in the landmark Wik case – ruling that pastoral leases did not extinguish Native Title rights – and won. Following the decision, Gladys danced and declared to the media and the world:

My name is Gladys. I’m the hot one. The fire, bushfire is my totem. And I’m a proud woman of Cape York today. It is for me, here today, a historic moment as a Wik woman. I am not afraid of anything.[iii]

These words are a force to be reckoned with. The Matriarchs’ ability to advocate from a sovereign standpoint and to share their spirit in sacred moments is what shakes Western systems to the very core. Not being afraid – despite the brutality inflicted on First Nations Matriarchs by modern history – is a legacy that enables more Warrior Women to fearlessly tackle and disrupt white patriarchy.

Following the passing of Tybingoompa in 2006, her sister Maree Kalkeeyorta remembered her fierce and fearless legacy:

She moved in both worlds. She knew about the white man society, and also the Aboriginal ways from the five clans. She said to me, Sis I’m not confused. I’ll follow the line with them no matter how long it takes, no matter how tough it gets. I’ll follow it through to the end. We need our land. There is a future for our young ones.

In my work as a lawyer and advocate for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the fire and fearlessness of Gladys Tybingoompa has continued to spark within me the courage required to campaign for a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution. This is the reckoning, the words meeting action, that our nation so desperately needs – a Voice that has always centred a balance between men and women; a Voice that values Blak women.

And our belief that the Australian people can change systems must be stronger than our lack of faith in politicians.

Despite the growing distance between the nation’s people and the powerful few, we must not lose sight of our own capacity to see change through, as fearlessly as Gladys lived her life. We must be willing to argue our case with graciousness – as my great-grandmother Elsie May would have done. We must collectively care for our kinships circles as my nan Stella May does. And we sure as hell ought to remember that all those of the First Nations Matriarchy stood staunch, like the Warrior Women before them, knowing that all they did always was – and always will be – for the love of Blackfullas.

As we move our nation closer to this crucial referendum process, we cannot be distracted by political rhetoric or empty promises. The mandate embodied by the Uluru Statement from the Heart is clear: it carves out a consensus position that articulates the way through the reckoning – as bumpy as that road may seem.

In the spirit of our First Nations Matriarchs, I will continue honouring the reckoning that my ancestors started. As Aunty Pat Anderson AO once said to me on the campaign trail: ‘We fight on!’

 

REFERENCES

[i] https://wisewomen.com.au/mum-shirl/

[ii] https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/07/12/women-and-children-were-heart-protest-birthed-naidoc-0

[iii] https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2018/06/12/warrior-spirits-wik-women-who-stood-their-land-and-communities

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