Aboriginal elder, educator and artist Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann has received a Doctor of the University (Honoris Causa) from Australian Catholic University.
The honorary doctorate recognises Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann’s authentic servant-leadership and her contributions to new understandings of Indigenous Art and Spirituality, and their importance to the Catholic tradition.
ACU awarded Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann the honorary degree at a ceremony on Wednesday 5 October in Sydney, following the respected Aboriginal activist’s first trip to Europe to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
“It feels very humbling to be acknowledged for my lifetime achievements,” Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann said.
A Catholic Aboriginal woman from Nauiyu near the Daly River community of the Northern Territory, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann spent the majority of her life “walking between two worlds”.
“Growing up, the nuns had taught me to learn about how Westerners lived so I could learn to walk in two worlds,” Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann said.
“It is important for the people of Australia to know it is the right time now to walk with us. To walk alongside us, it is important that it begins as simply as sitting down, particularly on country, and listening to each other.”
Baptised as a teenager and given a Catholic education, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann’s career as a teacher started in the classroom, when her teacher discovered she could read and offered her a job as an assistant teacher. That same teacher encouraged her to take up university training in education. In 1975, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann became the first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in the Northern Territory.
While training to become an educator, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann also developed a love of painting, and encouraged the local Nauiyu children to explore their connection to the land through art.
In 1986, she and other members of the Nauiyu community established the Merrepen Arts Centre to foster spiritual growth and education through visual arts. This led Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann to complete a Bachelor of Arts through Deakin University.
In 1993, she was appointed Principal of St Francis Xavier School in Daly River, a role she held for 13 years.
“Teaching about culture, art and spirituality has led me to have some incredible experiences and opened up opportunities I would never have dreamt of as a young teaching assistant,” Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann said.
“Education can take you places far beyond what you can imagine.”
More than a decade ago, Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann launched the Miriam Rose Foundation, which she established in honour of seven young children from her Aboriginal community who died of suicide, including her own nephew, who was famously photographed as a baby with Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Alice Springs in November 1986.
Among Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann’s treasured gifts to the Australian nation is the practice of Dadiri, a form of contemplation that she describes as “the deep inner spring inside us”.
ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Zlatko Skrbis said ACU was proud to honour one of Australia’s most respected leaders in society and the Church.
“Throughout her life and her work, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann has earned the respect of the three most important circles in her life – her Aboriginal people, the multicultural citizens of her beloved Australia, and those who share in her Christian faith,” Professor Skrbis said.
“Australia as a whole nation has come to a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture through Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann’s gentle advocacy of reconciliation.
“She is a worthy recipient of ACU’s highest honour, and an inspiration to all Australians.”
Dr Ungunmerr-Baumann will headline the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Education NSW State Conference, co-hosted by Catholic Schools NSW and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, from 11 to 13 October in Leura.
With thanks to ACU.