Proudly hosted by Catholic Schools NSW together with Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, 550 educators from across Australia recently gathered in Leura for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Education NSW State Conference. With a strong focus on Closing the Gap in educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, a highlight of the program was an engaging conversation between MC Professor Anita Heiss, a proud Wiradjuri woman and noted Australian author, and 2021 Senior Australian of the Year Aunty Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann.
An iconic figure in Catholic Education, Aunty Miriam Rose was the first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in the Northern Territory. A member of the Ngangiwumirr language group, she was baptised at the age of 14 during her time at the Francis Xavier mission school at Daly River. She later had the chance to do a domestic work placement for a teacher which led to an opportunity as an assistant teacher. The same mentor helped guide her toward a teaching qualification. Her reflections reinforced the importance of education, which she said is essential if you want to get somewhere in your life journey.
Aunty Miriam Rose was asked to give other teachers some advice. She said that teachers are the next best people to families, “they’ve got to always be there for them and understanding…sometimes it’s hard”. Drawing on her experiences in education in the Top End, she advised that having a local person as an assistant teacher is valuable.
Aunty Miriam Rose spoke about the need for Dadirri, deep listening. With humour and warmth, she said that her love of teaching came from being with the kids and sharing of knowledge that comes from Elders in community. She spoke powerfully about the potential of schools to share culture with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.
As many Conference participants were non-Indigenous people, Anita Heiss invited Aunty Miriam Rose to share her thoughts about the impact of allies. Aunty Miriam spoke positively about having people “come and live amongst us and teach in the schools” with a strong focus on mutual learning including cultural ways being shared. “Everyone has a story,” Anita responded.
When prompted to speak about her strong Catholic faith, Aunty Miriam Rose quipped: “I won’t say anything silly, there’s a Bishop here”. She said that she is often asked the question: “how did your people accept Christianity?” She simply replies “we found Him in nature”. She explains that the Brown Joeys (Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) have had a presence in her community in the Top End since the 1800s. Together with the Jesuits, these Religious Orders “left a legacy”, leading locals to ask the Bishop to send more missionaries to the Daly River.
Always keen to remind those present that she is from the Bush, Aunty Miriam Rose praised the name of the conference, Transforming with the Spirit. Drawing on the beautiful Conference artwork by Darug Elder Uncle Chris Tobin, Aunty Miriam Rose spoke lyrically about the dragonfly imagery. “That’s part of nature and our spirit, our being…nature talks to us, it brings good news, sad news, tells us the weather is going to change”. As she explained that the arrival of the dragonflies means “ok, I think the dry season’s around the corner”, listeners had a keen sense of her faith-filled love of nature. The Conference also responded enthusiastically when Aunty Miriam Rose asked whether everyone would like to hear a story from the Dreaming.
Reflecting on progress on Reconciliation, there was a sense that this speaks to where we are as a nation. Aunty Miriam Rose explains that the religious sisters who educated her told her “we had to walk in two worlds…that was very strong in the community”. Anita Heiss observed that there is a real need for an exchange of knowledge and listening to support our Reconciliation journey.
Aunty Miriam Rose also leads the Miriam Rose Foundation, speaks five local languages along with English and is responsible for establishing the highly successful Merrepen Arts centre in Nauiyu. She was recently one of just 10 Australians invited to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1998, Miriam Rose was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, for her services to Aboriginal education and art, and her services to the Nauiyu community.
With thanks to Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta.