2016 / Saturday

Behind Every Big Man

Oliver Jacques

Academic and historian Dr Heidi Norman

Academic and historian Dr Heidi Norman

Aboriginal elder, Aunty Lesley Williams; picture by Ranald Simmonds

Aboriginal elder, Aunty Lesley Williams; picture by Ranald Simmonds

How often do you turn on the TV and see a black woman in a plain dress speaking in a soft voice?

Chances are you’d have to flick through most of your 100 or so Pay TV channels. And if you do find her, she’d probably be murmuring in the background behind some big men hogging the centre stage.

Marcia Langton, one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal scholars, says that softly-spoken plain-dressed black women make the world go round. The more time we take to listen to them; the more likely we are to achieve positive change.

Dr Heidi Norman is an Aboriginal historian with a gentle voice. Her dress may be stylish and patterned with colourful flowers, but she is very much influenced by the work of Ms Langton. Having spent more than a decade writing about the struggle for land rights, she is fed up with what Ms Langton calls Big Man Politics.

“Too often, the political stage is dominated by these big men. But in actual fact it’s mothers, grandmothers and aunties that hold Aboriginal society together,” she says.

Dr Norman would not look out of place alongside Beyoncé at the Billboard Music Awards. But she has chosen to base herself at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), where she teaches students about the “resilient and resourceful” women who usually fly under the radar. For much of recent Aboriginal history, it’s been the male leaders who have appeared on TV, handshaking politicians and signing agreements. The tireless women’s work that happens behind the scenes generally goes unnoticed.

This theme was one of many explored in Dr Norman’s first book, What do we want? A political history of land rights in New South Wales, published last year. The meticulously researched paperback chronicles the 30 year struggle to achieve land rights in the state; and the challenges this now presents in terms of managing more than a billion dollars in land assets.

The young academic argues that a key ingredient for achieving success in Aboriginal movements is allowing power to flow down to the local level, away from the big men in state bureaucracies. It is those with the “local knowledge” who know how to get things done. More often than not the most valuable insights come from the women.

Dr Norman was therefore thrilled to share the stage at the Sydney Writers Festival with Ms Lesley Williams, an Aboriginal Elder who told her extraordinary life story at the event Not Just Black and White: Aboriginal Histories Revealed in Katoomba on Monday.

Ms Williams was forced to leave her family at a young age to work as a domestic servant. For years, she slaved away tirelessly without payment. As an adult, she realised the injustice that had befallen her and so many others, and started a campaign to lobby the Queensland government to compensate former child servants for the money they should have earned. After a nine-year battle, the state government in 2002 provided an historic reparation package of $55.4 million to all Indigenous workers who had their wages and savings controlled by past governments.

“It’s a real gift for us to hear from Lesley – the sadness, the injustice but also the resilience,” says Dr Norman, “it’s very revealing to put yourself out there like that”.

Dr Norman, a descendent of the Gomeroi people of north-western NSW, says she’s lucky to have been born in the generation after Ms Williams, which enabled her to control her own destiny. She marvels at how “dramatically” things have changed since her mother was a child.

Having said that, Dr Norman is very much like her maternal rolemodels in the way she works hard behind the scenes to make the world a better place for everyone else.

She will be part of an all-women management team propping up the big men by organising the 2016 NSW Aboriginal Rugby League (Koori) Knockout, an annual event that is one of the biggest Indigenous gatherings in Australia. The tournament, first held in 1971, brings together Aboriginal communities from across the state to watch their teams compete in a men’s, women’s and teenage competitions.

This year’s carnival will be held in Leichhardt on the October National Rugby League (NRL) grand final weekend. The event will be hosted by the Redfern All Blacks, Australia’s oldest Indigenous rugby league club, who are currently run by a female president and female secretary.

With the women in change, the Koori Knockout has put in place the sort of behavioural standards that would make NRL players wince. The event is to be not only alcohol free and tobacco free, but also sugar free. They’ll be no Coke, no Fanta, not even Gatorade for exhausted players. NSW Health, a sponsor of the event, has come up with the less-than-catchy slogan “make water your drink”.

“There will be zero tolerance when it comes to off field discretions too,” Dr Norman says. Each Redfern All Black is obliged to sign a “let’s tackle domestic violence” pledge, which appears on their jersey.  Any whiff of any sort of off-field indiscretion results in a player missing out on game time. The likes of NRL players Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney would never make it on the field.

Dr Norman loves her rugby league, and thinks it’s wonderful that the sport’s best player, Jonathan Thurston, is an Indigenous role model. She would like it, however, if the players could be a little more politically outspoken.

She says that in rugby league “there are few players who take an overtly political stance,” in the way say Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman has done. One exception was Timana Tahu, a NSW representative player “who called out racism and walked away” (when he took offense at the assistant coach Andrew Johns describing some opposition players as ‘niggers’). “I don’t think Timana fully recovered, he was never rehabilitated in the public mind.” Dr Norman thinks there may be “careful messaging” in rugby league, aimed at discouraging players from speaking out against discrimination. For the most part, the players oblige by keeping their mouths shut.

So who can we rely on to call out racism? To fight for justice and fairness? Perhaps we can leave it to the black women in the plain dresses with the soft voices.