A Woman who has inspired me

submitted by Gerry Polovich

As a social worker, people ask me where I got my social justice and human rights beliefs from. I automatically go to answer this question with “my mother” which does not surprise them. However, although this is true, it’s not entirely true. The deeper I reflect on this, I realise I got such beliefs from someone I have never met in person, only in spirit: my grandmother/my Nana.

My Nana, Elsie Lewis (Aboriginal name Elsie Willieboy) was from the Wakka Wakka and the Kabbi Kabbi clans. Nana was a victim of the Stolen Generation. She was removed from her homeland and taken to the Cherbourg mission with my eldest Aunty and other family members.

My Nana was a ‘rebel’ and wanted more for her life and her children’s lives. She would run from the mission and try and start a new life for her family. Records from this day, “white man’s records”, spoke about my Nana like she was a troublesome piece of cattle (fauna), not as a human. As time went on in the mission my Nana met an affluent white man that resulted in her gaining permission to leave the mission and not return.

Once leaving the mission my Nana’s need for change for her people took over. She became a revolutionist, helping her people leave the mission by finding them jobs. Alongside her, was her good friend, political activist, artist and educator Kath Walker (Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal).

My Nana had a good reputation as a cook throughout the cattle stations of Queensland.  She was a hard worker who wanted to provide the best for her children and create a future for them that did not hold them back in a “white man’s” world. This though made her conflicted between both worlds: mainstream white people’s ways which were full of restrictions and oppression to her people, and Indigenous ways which put expectations on her that she follow the customs and accept her responsibilities.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal wrote a poem regarding this conflict my Nana was experiencing. The poem was called Cookalingee. In memory of the woman who helped shape me and my values.

I painted a portrait of my Nana and put the poem Cookalingee behind her.

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