Aunty Joan Tranter is the patron of the NSW Reconciliation Council. Here, she writes about her work, her childhood, and the role of an Elder.
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 came to it after raising my family and I believed it was the way forward for my children. I’m proud of the educational choices they have made and if any one of them decides to go further, I will be there for them.
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 work with other university staff to provide training in cultural diversity and raising awareness of legislative requirements that relate to staff and students. To us, language is much more than just words. It is a direct link to land and country.
I introduce myself at formal functions by saying, “I’m a Murri woman from WakkaWakka 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. At the time of writing, I believe there is now a federal program to revive them. Elders who are fluent speakers of their language now feel that they can share it thus giving the wider community a greater appreciation ofthis rich heritage.
Under the Policies of the Queensland Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 I had to have permission 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. In the early 1960, I absconded from Cherbourg and came alone to Sydney where I married. 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 late 1960s when the children started school, I decided to go to college to further my education. I began saving for my studies and childcare fees. I enrolled in a commercial college where I gained high distinctions. It’s not about age, it’s what you contribute.
I continued with my studies, completing a teaching degree and post-graduate degree in Adult Education. I have over 40 year’ teaching experience in Adult Education and 25 years specifically in Indigenous education, employment and training.
I began teaching office administration at a TAFE college, where I was the only Aboriginal teacher and all my students were non-Indigenous. I found that I could help new non-Indigenous teachers by sharing my teaching resources I’d developed for my classes.
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.
In 1989, as a Manager in NSW TAFE Aboriginal Education Unit, I was able to give back to Indigenous communities – providing support in many programs to help them within the system. Before that, I’d always worked in mainstream roles.What keeps me going is working with people and the intellectual stimulus.
Passing on my knowledge and experiences have always been important, especially in community projects for younger people. At TAFE, I’ve taken part in many programs that give them a chance to find jobs – including the first program helping young Indigenous people to join the NSW Police Force.
In the 1990s, the Aboriginal Unit at NSW TAFE offered courses and opportunities for Indigenous people to come back into study. This was often called ‘a second chance education’, because many had had bad experiences and left school early. As a manager, I would advise non- Indigenous teachers on cultural appropriateness when teaching these mature-age students: teachers have to use a context that people understand. I’m proud to have been involved in these early programs.
The role of an Elder
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.
My local community involvement is as Chair of an Indigenous advisory group for Canterbury Council, advising on issues and programs for Indigenous people in Canterbury municipality.
They say I’m a living library – so now I’m being asked to talk at schools and tell stories to children. I am known as Aunty Joan at UTS. When you’re regarded as an Elder, it’s not about age, it’s what you contribute and the standing how others see you.
I’ve been in Sydney for more than 50 years and I keep getting asked by some Elders from Cherbourg, “When are coming back up to Queensland? Maybe I will go back when I’ve accomplished everything I want to do down here.