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Kimberley Women Rangers Camp keynote speech

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Jalangurru maningarri, ngarragi yani. Wadi jalangurru yathanggirragi. – larger Bunuba.


Good morning everyone. Welcome to the opening of the Kimberley women ranger’s forum! Welcome to all those who have come from all our countries across this expansive region. From the Valley the Gooniyandi, Walmajarri, Wangkajunka and Nyikina and others from up the peninsula, all the way to One Arm Point to Bardi country, and all those from the east Kimberley across to Kununurra and Miriwoong and Gajerrong country, and so many more.

A big thank you to the KLC for coordinating this – for all of your efforts Phoebe and to our Bunuba rangers for hosting this gathering, and many others who have been involved in putting this together.

It is wonderful to see you all here on our Bunuba country at Bandilngan in amongst these red cliffs and our limestone rangers, our running water and permanent springs, and grassy spinifex plains.

There is no better place to meet and talk about work on country than in the place our ancestors – our warriors – Jandamarra and the men and women who stood beside him resisted colonisation and  fought for our right to be all of who we are on our country. It reminds us of the importance of our actions and how the effects are far reaching.

We are still here, we speak the language of this land and we care for our country, for our society, far beyond the colonial frontier.

It’s so good to be on home ground, at an event like this – a celebration of our women’s culture and knowledge of country - a knowledge that comes from country. To be with you all, my mob, my family and have our feet in the earth and our language singing out to our old people, means everything.

I acknowledge our ancestors and our elders, our senior people, and in particular our senior women past, present and emerging. To our mums and aunties, grandmothers and sisters this acknowledgment is for you – you’ve given us all so much.

You are our knowledge keepers and our visionaries. From the beginning of time our elders have grown up on country, learning and caring for our knowledge so they could pass it on to each generation, constantly building our society and a strong future.

As women rangers you are a part of this incredible legacy and this ongoing journey. I believe, in this current moment in time, you hold one of the most important roles in learning our knowledge, practicing it and maintaining it.

This gathering is recognition of the vital work that you are all doing. I feel so proud to see you all here today, in your uniforms that represent your care and, in many ways, your custodianship for our country.

It is rare that we all get to come together like this. Gatherings like these are always an important opportunity to really sit and reflect on the work that we are doing together. We have the time now to discuss and plan how the actions we take today are determining our roles and responsibilities in laying the groundwork for the future. Just like our elders and visionaries have done for millennia.

This is a big but exciting responsibility. In doing this and considering your position as women rangers do not underestimate your work and the incredible things you are doing as ‘trail-blazers’ in this space.

You are taking some of the newest practices in western science and using technologies like movie making to combine it with our knowledge to create dynamic ways of caring and being on country.

I understand there will be much skill sharing to enhance these practices over the next few days. It is just fantastic to watch what’s happening.

But we must never forget that what makes all of this possible is our Indigenous ways of knowing, being and thinking in the world. In western science the country, the environment, habitats are separate from human society. For us caring for country, means caring for society – they only exist together and are made from each other.  

Our knowledge is not like western teaching – we can’t just read it in a book.

We have to live it. Our law that contains all our knowledge, is written in and across our land and the seas, skies and stars that surround us. We learn and practice law, our customs and obligations when we walk the land, gather together and interact with our surrounds. Just as we are doing now.

On country – on bunuba country today – these teachings come alive and we see our universal connectedness to all the birds, trees, springs, flowing and living water, the cliffs and tunnels. In law we have our guru, skin group, and we know our place in this broader society of all human and non-human things. Everything is accounted for and nothing is detached or left out.

It is through these teachings on country that we maintain our culture and we

re-make our civilization, from one generation to the next as the oldest on earth.

This is the breadth and depth of our knowledge – it is no text book. It is to live, survive and be nourished by.

It is here right now, and as rangers you are a fundamental part of keeping it all alive.

All of these lessons are a part of maintaining our existence as distinct people with unique human rights.

These rights are all contained within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It states directly that we have a right to maintain, protect and control our traditional knowledge and cultural expression through multiple forms like modern technologies, in sciences, design and many other things.

This relates to all your work as rangers. So never forget it is our human right for you all to be doing this work. And it is the obligation of states and governments to respond to and realise these rights.

Australia has accepted the Declaration but our governments have not worked to meaningfully incorporate it in full into our national policies and legislation. 

That is why your work on the ground, as rangers, is so important. When western frameworks can’t reflect and uphold our rights, we make them real every day, in our actions and work. Our rights exist in your hands when you burn country, clear and care for water sites, collect and make bush medicines, look after animal populations and make sure they are healthy – these are our rights in action.

One of the big reasons I took on the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, was because I wanted to take the work from the ground to spaces of decision-making. So, what works on the ground is supported by policy and legislation.

As the Social Justice Commissioner, I am committed to listening and responding:

  • to what matters to you;
  • to the issues and barriers that get in the way and stop you from doing what you need to, and;
  • what can work better to support you, so together we can do even more.

By asking these questions and having the discussions we can advocate for the policy changes we want to see. On the ground we can start to determine what our work should be, how governments should support it and we can demand that policy must be co-designed to reflect our realities and not undermine us.

I also know that our women’s voices are critical to getting this right.   

That is why the first thing I did when I took on this role was to establish the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in Bunuba. Throughout 2018 my team and I spoke to over 2000 of our women and girls across this nation – we went everywhere, including Fitzroy.

Our women and girls told us everything about what life is like for them today in Australian society – the many issues and challenges, our strengths and aspirations. In amongst everything we heard, a major theme that threaded through the discussions was that our women keep our social infrastructure functioning.

Our women care for the health of our country as much as we do the healthy growth of our children. We develop cohesive families and communities. We mediate conflicts and calm disagreements, and we develop kind and loving relationships of mutual respect. We do this while dealing with huge challenges and crisis in our lives, and still I heard in our women’s voices how we are constantly bringing principles of collaboration, engagement, encouragement, deep listening, collective leadership and a drive to achieve self-determination to everything we do.

I heard women across Australia talk about these skills and practices in many different ways.

But it is here on country, in spaces like this that I can see where these common experiences and practices grounded in nurture and care come from. These principles that govern our lives and existences are the lessons our women have been passing on to us forever. Our women’s wisdom comes from country and we carry it forward in dynamic ways in our lives today.

Without doubt our women and our knowledge are powerful. And it should go without saying that the knowledge we carry is of equal worth and importance to our men. When our men and women are treated and responded to as equals, we all benefit and the health of our country and society is stronger.
Still, in Australia today our women’s voices remain some of the most marginalised and our positions, roles and responsibilities are not always valued with equal worth.

But things are changing.

When I travelled the country with Wiyi Yani U Thangani I could hear a momentum for change rising up in our women’s voices. Our women across this nation said: that the system is failing us and this does not have to be, because if you put control back in our hands, we hold the solutions and we will make change happen.

And I can see that same momentum reflected in our women rangers. A few years ago a gathering of Kimberley women rangers would not have happened, because we did not have the numbers. Most women’s rangers’ groups simply did not exist. In the last two years groups have doubled. It’s amazing and the same is happening across northern Australia from the Northern Territory to Queensland. Our women are standing strong in our knowledge on country. We are networking to unite our voices knowing how powerful we can be when we act together.

This is a critical moment in time that as the momentum builds we have to expand and grow on what’s being done. Incredible work is happening. At the same time, all around the world Indigenous languages and knowledge structures are threatened and every year more are lost. Ranger work is, as I have said, a major part of maintaining, protecting and re-awakening – bringing to life again – our cultural practices and knowledge.  We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that our work is also protecting our women’s law, knowledge and culture that contains so many of the principles and practices that keeps our country healthy and our social fabric knitted together.

To ensure that we can do this work effectively, and we have no choice but to do it, governments must invest in the women’s rangers’ program. To begin with we need equal levels of funding to the men’s program, so we have equal numbers of rangers. For governments to guarantee this would be a commitment to their belief in our equality. For both groups these investments need to be targeted over the long-term to develop and sustain all our ranger programs.

The evidence already shows the social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits and return on investments are huge and I know it will only get better as we move forward.

When you sit and talk this week I encourage you to think big about the work you do and the roles you occupy. Like I said do not underestimate the positions you are in and the responsibilities your fulfilling – as women you are caring for country as much as you are our society. 

I’m here to support and listen to your discussions and I am also here to begin a project involving our senior women, our knowledge keepers – to talk about the importance of our women’s lore language and culture, the issues they face in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities and what can be done to maintain this knowledge and pass it to the next generation.

I see these discussions as fundamentally connected to the aims of the forum. As I have talked about today I believe as women rangers you have a critical part in supporting the transference of knowledge for generations to come. I want you to tell me how you see yourself doing this work and what could be supported to enhance this work, such as taking senior women on camps.

I am excited to be a part of these conversations this week and to see what is developed as a strategy going forward and your advocacy platform.
Be bold as you plan the next steps. Be visionary as you think to the future.

Today, stand with confidence and be the powerful women you are, holding tens of thousands of years of our women’s wisdom in your hands. Think about the changes you want to see. Raise your voices. And together let’s make what you want happen.


Commission logo

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice