Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta elder Aunty Fay Carter has worked for the good of Aboriginal people for almost her entire life.
Now, her contribution to Aboriginal people, the community at large and the environment has been recognised with inclusion in the Women of the Land exhibition at Melbourne Museum, a celebration of rural women who work on, protect and heal the land.
Aunty Fay said the exhibition gave her the opportunity to highlight the contribution of Aboriginal women and ensure that recognition continued into the future.
“I feel privileged to be able to do that, because Aboriginal women have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for our people from the beginning,” she said.
Aunty Fay played an integral role in 18 months of negotiations with the state government to establish the Recognition and Settlement Agreement.
The agreement, signed in November 2013, officially recognises the Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of the land across central Victoria.
Aunty Fay said the negotiation process was an emotional one, as there had to be a lot of compromise; many things the Dja Dja Wurrung people had hoped for could not be done because of various pieces of legislation.
“The saving grace, for me, in the end was that the state government agreed to a recognition statement,” she said.
The Recognition and Settlement Agreement has not only acknowledged the Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of the land, but it has also paved the way for the community to take a greater role in land management and opened opportunities for greater practise of culture.
Under the agreement, the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation has joint management responsibilities for six national parks and reserves across the region.
“One of the good things is we’re able to care for country, we’re able to put things in place to heal country,” Aunty Fay said.
One such example is the reintroduction of traditional burning practices to the landscape.
The ability to work with the land is of utmost importance to the Dja Dja Wurrung people.
“To take up our role as traditional owners; to not have it just as a statement, but to go on country and care for country… It’s sort of walking the talk, I guess,” Aunty Fay said.
Going forward, she said, the Dja Dja Wurrung were looking to becoming entirely financial independent, and improving employment, training and education opportunities.
I feel privileged to be able to do that [be involved in the Women of the Land exhibition], because Aboriginal women have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for our people from the beginning.Aunty Fay Carter, Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta elder
“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re getting there,” Aunty Fay said.
Aunty Fay has spent most of her 82 years working for the good of Aboriginal people.
She was a driving force behind Aboriginal Elders Community Services in Brunswick, which was established due to concern about the wellbeing of elders.
She has also worked as a field officer for the Aborigines Advancement League and as Aboriginal liaison officer for the Department of Social Security (now Centrelink).
Aunty Fay has been a member of countless committees and organisations, including the Victorian branch of NAIDOC.
But one of the achievements of which she is most proud is her work with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, which she chaired for 10 years.
Aunty Fay said she was involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, the regulation governing child protection practices for Aboriginal children.
The principle aims to ensure the removal of children from families is a last result and they maintain strong connections to family, community and culture.
More recently, she has joined a community forum to work with the government on establishing a treaty.
Aunty Fay believes her tireless commitment to Aboriginal people stems from her upbringing.
At the time of her birth, her parents lived on the Cummeragunja Mission just over the Murray River in New South Wales; she was born on the verandah of Echuca hospital, because Aboriginal women were not allowed to give birth inside.
When she was four years old, her family joined the Cummeragunja Mission walk-off, a protest against the terrible conditions and restricted freedoms endured by those living there: residents were even punished for speaking their own language or engaging in their own culture.
Many families involved in the walk-off were went to live on ‘The Flats’ along the Goulburn River, where people made homes from virtually nothing.
Aunty Fay said it was this kind of hardship and injustice she witnessed from an early age that sparked her drive.
She also credits her grandmother, in particular, and aunties with giving her a wisdom she has maintained throughout life.
Her passion has rubbed off on her family, with son Rodney the chief executive officer of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, based in Bendigo.
Aunty Fay is one of nine woman featured in the Women of the Land exhibition, a collaboration between Museums Victoria’s Invisible Farmer Project and Her Place Women’s Museum Australia. It will run until November 26.