Lois Peeler comes from a long line of strong Indigenous women. Daughter of Geraldine Briggs, a renowned Aboriginal activist and Yorta Yorta Elder, Peeler was surrounded from a young age by empowering women. Yet in a country where being a powerful woman continues to be problematic for many – women still receive lower salaries than men and are underrepresented in board rooms – the glass ceiling is not Peeler’s only concern. As an Indigenous woman and Elder she plays a crucial leadership and developmental role in her community, and is also a proud activist for Indigenous rights.
We meet Lois Peeler in the administration building of Worowa College in Healesville, of which she is the Principal. Indigenous artworks adorn the walls and the building exudes a sense of welcoming. Worowa was founded by Peeler’s sister, Hyllus Maris, 29 years ago. The school is unique in Australia; it provides educational opportunities exclusively for young Indigenous women from across the country, and focuses on the cultural, spiritual and physical needs of all students as well as the academic. Peeler says that her family has always been involved in Worowa, and that her sister’s thirty year old vision of an Indigenous school, and the reasons for it, are still pertinent today.
The boarding school is located on a culturally significant site where the Coranderrk Mission once stood. The mission holds a special place in Australia’s history as it the site from which William Barak fought a campaign for equal rights for Indigenous peoples. An underrepresented hero of Australian history, Barak fought for his people to hold onto the land that the mission occupied and would walk from Healesville into Melbourne to protest at Parliament House for fair wages and the right to practice Indigenous ceremonies. The school sits about one hundred metres from Barak’s grave.
Years on from Barak’s passing in 1903, Indigenous peoples are still severely disadvantaged in Australia. The life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people is 11.5 years for males and 9.7 years for females, according to 2005-2007 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Indigenous peoples are also under-represented in the work force, with unemployment rates more than three times that of non-Indigenous Australians. For those who live in remote communities, access to basic services is limited at best; health problems are endemic, housing is insufficient and educational opportunities are severely lacking.
Peeler attributes this contemporary disadvantage to the historical oppression of Indigenous people by British colonisers and Australian state officials. “I believe that many of our families are affected by intergenerational trauma that has been passed on from perhaps the time of dispossession of our lands and dislocation from our traditional lands… and then there’s no economic base, so things sort of are in cycles. Sometimes a cycle of despair.”
Education, Peeler believes, is a unique mechanism for improving the quality of life of Indigenous peoples. She is confident that educating girls is a way to create lasting changes in the communities they come from. “Women are very much involved in Aboriginal community… and decision making. They have responsibility for family matters… if we do want to make changes in our society I firmly believe that it will be through women.” She sees her role as “empowering young girls to make the right choices, make healthy transitions from adolescence to adulthood.” This transition is much easier in the boarding school environment, she claims, as it removes children from situations in which they may have few opportunities to further their education and provides them with a stable, nurturing environment. “There are communities in which people have to leave home to have a secondary education, because otherwise they don’t have one – so they don’t have a choice.”
Whilst Worowa was originally a co-educational school, it was changed to cater exclusively for girls because of an imbalance in the number of opportunities available for Indigenous boys and girls. Peeler explains that there are more educational opportunities for boys in the form of sporting scholarships, with many achieving notable success in AFL. No such equivalent exists for girls, demonstrating the huge gender imbalance that exists in Australian sporting culture.
When we ask Peeler how she understands her role as a prominent Indigenous woman she is pragmatic; “You do what you do. My family were always involved in community development and creating change; it was just a normal thing for me to follow that.” She lists her primary role models as her mother, sisters and grandmother, adding that her family has always been particularly strong, “We know where we come from; we are a very strong unit.”
Peeler’s mother, Geraldine Briggs, was involved in the establishment of the Aborigines Advancement League and heavily involved in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which bolstered the civil rights movement. Briggs was also central to, amongst other things, the establishment of the Victorian Aboriginal Islander and Women’s Council, which led to the formation of a National Aboriginal and Islander Women’s Council. Briggs Hall at Monash Clayton Campus is named in her honour.
The importance which Peeler dedicates to family ties is significantly impacted by the devastation which many Indigenous families experienced during the Federal Government’s ongoing policy of child removal during the 20th century – what has come to be known as the “Stolen Generations”. Like most Australian Indigenous peoples, Peeler’s family was directly traumatised by these policies. Relatives were forcibly taken away from their families and placed in Cootamundra Girls Home, where they were “taught to be domestics or nannies and sent to work on stations for white land owners.” The deep seeded racism this policy represented was also reflected by the establishment of reserves where many other Indigenous people lived under the supervision of white, government appointed managers. “On those missions and reserves every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal people was ruled by policy.”
In 1939, almost 200 people walked off a Christian Mission station for Indigenous peoples on the banks of the Yarra River. The Cummeragunja Walk Off marked a new phase of Indigenous protest against their treatment at the hands of white missionaries and government officials. “People got tired of the treatment – or mistreatment – and also the fact that children were being removed from families.” Peeler counts the protest as a key moment in her family’s past.
Despite the shameful legacy of Federal and State Government treatment of Indigenous peoples in Australia, Peeler is optimistic about the future. She believes that there are currently a lot of positive developments occurring, including the presence of more Indigenous people in professional roles. On the other hand, she says, there is still a long way to go.
The special nature of Indigenous culture, Peeler believes, is still insufficiently recognised in Australian society. “There’s a high level of ignorance out there. And it is ignorance. So there’s no knowledge of culture, of cultural differences and sometimes, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of respect.”
We ask Peeler if this is something that she finds personally upsetting, and her response is circumspect. “Look, it is what it is. My thing is to create understanding and awareness. There’s no use getting upset; I’d be upset every day of my life if that was the case!”
It is clear that Peeler’s focus is very much on positive development rather than harbouring on the many negatives usually evident in discourse on Indigenous issues. She regularly conducts cultural awareness programs, to which she frequently receives astonished responses – participants fail to understand why they haven’t previously been educated about Indigenous cultures and traditions. For Indigenous peoples, culture is a significant part of life and a connection to their history. Difficulties emerge when it becomes apparent that this culture is not synonymous with a modern Australian way of life and there is a great need to educate Indigenous youth to be able to walk within the two worlds.
“Families want their children to be educated, to be able to walk in both worlds; to hold on to their culture and be proud of their identity, but still be able to function in the mainstream… that’s what you need to be able to do now.”
She suggests that change needs to come through the Government listening to the wants and needs of Indigenous communities, and working collaboratively with them. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is an example of a body which currently gives Indigenous peoples a voice in the political sphere and identifies Indigenous priorities from an Indigenous perspective. This, Peeler stresses, is a priority.
Peeler describes her own educational experience as “more or less self-educated.” Her family moved around a lot, and when she was 17 she began a career as a model, one of the first Indigenous women to do so. Following on in a remarkable list of firsts, Peeler was part of the Indigenous girl band The Sapphires which toured Vietnam during the war. Peeler’s unfulfilled desire for a tertiary education perhaps partially fuels her energy for Worowa, in addition to a deep seated belief that, despite the ongoing problems Indigenous people are faced with, change is possible.
She says that positive results are already emerging from the school; “Most of the young people that have come through the school have had a strong desire to go back and work in their communities.” As an Elder, she states that she has a unique ability to connect with families, and understands the importance which is placed on the development of young people. For many Indigenous people western education is a rare opportunity to learn how to interact with the Australian sectors of government that control multiple aspects of Indigenous community life.
The central message at the school, as in Peeler’s family and broader community life, is one of empowerment. “What we do is talk about the possibilities. Because if they’re not empowered to say ‘Yes, I can make change,’ they won’t feel they can.”