Bundjalung Elder finds write way

Author, Indigenous Elder and chair of the Bundjalung Elders Council, Aunty Bertha Kapeen.
Author, Indigenous Elder and chair of the Bundjalung Elders Council, Aunty Bertha Kapeen.

One of Indigenous Elder Aunty Bertha Kapeen's great passions in life is to bring about greater cultural awareness and understanding of what life is like for Aboriginal people. Now 76 years old, she has been chair of the Bundjalung Elders Council for over 20 years and has written two books, as well as co-authoring a history on Aboriginal women's heritage. She has also spent her life as an advocate for Indigenous education and hopes to inspire and encourage other Aboriginal people to write their own stories and share them with others.

"I believe it's important for the rest of Australia to know what it's like to be an Aboriginal person in today's society and to understand our history. I would like Aboriginal people to grow up in a more positive way… our young people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal of today, are the ones who can bring about this change."

Aunty Bertha Kapeen (nee Bolt) first wrote her book Werlu Wana (Be Yourself) in 1989. It was the story of her life growing up in the local area, and so much changed in how she viewed life that she re-wrote it in 2009.

"I now look at life around me differently, not so angry. Although I still don't understand why we Aboriginal people were made to live the way we did," Bertha said.

Aunty Bertha was born near Ballina, on the Aboriginal Reserve at Cabbage Tree Island under the rule of a white manager. She grew up in an era of black and white segregation, prior to the 1967 referendum when Aboriginal people were finally recognised as citizens and given the right to vote..

"Until 1967, when I was 31, I was seen as nothing in Australia; no-one respected us," Bertha said. "The idea was to keep us together and not contaminate white people. We had limitations on where we could travel to. We couldn't leave the island or have visitors without asking the manager's permission. It's important for people to know how we lived on those places. What happened to us was kept secret. Writing about it is the only way for the rest of Australia to know."

Bertha married and eventually had eight children and she remembers the manager's wife visiting every Friday to check if her house was clean.

"She would run her finger over surfaces looking for dust and if we got three strikes, our children would be taken away by the Welfare Board," Bertha said. "I worked hard to make sure my house was clean and it's been instilled in me all my life… it wasn't until about six years ago that I felt I didn't have to have my house clean by 9am.

"While things changed after 1967, white people still didn't want to be too close to you. My aim is to let people know what my experiences growing up were, where we had no human rights. Today, I still talk to people who say 'I didn't know. How did you deal with it?' You just learned to live in two worlds - a white one and an Aboriginal one and I have brought my own children up to respect their own culture while living in a white culture."

After 1967, Bertha and her family moved into a house in Ballina when the Welfare Board said they should move into the white community and "learn how to live". She and her family were granted an exemption certificate (called the 'Dog Licence') which meant they were "now qualified as white people" and granted them permission "to live next to white people".

"This meant my husband could go into the pub and have a drink with white people," Bertha said. "It was a new world for the kids - it was a new world for me too, there wasn't a place in the community for us. I was a bit lonely because we were a close-knit community at Cabbage Tree Island."

It was once her own children started school in Ballina that Bertha realised how hard it was for Aboriginal children to take part in the white education system. Over the following years, Bertha was to join many committees and would talk to parents and teachers in an attempt to change the education system.

"I believe that education for Aboriginal people is vitally important," Bertha said. "The education of white society about Aboriginal history is the key to better understanding and living together as Australians."

As an advocate for Indigenous education, Bertha became the regional representative on the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) for many years and was instrumental in getting the government to recognise that involving Indigenous people in the education system was the key to bringing about positive changes for Aboriginal people. As a result of her work with the AECG, the NSW Government created Regional Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer (RACLO) positions and Bertha went on to work long hours as a RACLO, travelling and working with communities and teachers to improve school education. She also started the Ballina Homework Centre and encourages Aboriginal parents to be more actively involved with the education of their children.

"We need to get Aboriginal kids to like going to school," Bertha said. "Schools don't teach the way we learn; Aboriginal people learn by doing. Not all kids know what they want to do. Our kids often don't see the light at the end of the tunnel and they need to feel there's a future for them. In the past, Aboriginal people used to cut cane and do hard yakka because that was the only option - there was no education for them."

While Bertha herself had to leave school at the age of 13 to work, she always wanted an education and at the age of 62 went to Ballina TAFE and completed Year 10. She collected many newspaper clippings and historical documents throughout her life and had always dreamed of becoming a historian. Now, through the writing of her books, she has achieved her dream. In 2007, she co-authored a book called Aboriginal Women's Heritage: Ballina and Cabbage Tree Island and she also wrote a children's book Henry the Mullet that inspired local groups and schools in Ballina to create plays and puppet shows of the story.

"We used to go mullet fishing around the island and I wanted to write a story that was relevant to Aboriginal people," Bertha said. "My niece Emma illustrated the book and I would go into schools and read it to the children."

Aunty Bertha also developed cultural awareness programs for non-Indigenous people and spent years working with community groups and workers in the health system in an attempt to see Aboriginal people better treated in the hospital system. These programs have now been adopted in many workplaces, where staff are educated about Aboriginal people and the challenges and problems they face in growing up, the education of their children and the difficulties they face in today's society.

Part of demonstrating cultural awareness is to actively 'Acknowledge Country' at the beginning of gatherings and workplace meetings or to invite Indigenous Elders to perform a Welcome to Country.

"An Acknowledgement of Country is to acknowledge the Aboriginal people in the area," Bertha said. "It makes us feel good to be acknowledged and recognised at a local level, even if the government is not acknowledging us. When Kevin Rudd made his apology, I was quite teary. It was a good, first step, but nothing followed it and more needs to be done."

Aunty Bertha Kapeen has received many awards over the years, including Woman of the Year in Ballina and a NSW Seniors Week Community Services and Volunteering Award - but she remains humble about them, not wanting people to think of her for her awards. As a role model for other Aboriginal people, her life is lived with a desire to work hard and help others to bring about a change in society. After many years of working in voluntary and paid work within the education and health systems, she hopes she can look back on her achievements and see she has brought about a better society for Aboriginal people to live in.

"I'm still on lots of committees but I'm trying to back off," Bertha said. "I feel its time for somebody else to step into my shoes. As an Aboriginal person who has been through so much in my life, and who has learned to cope with different situations, I feel it is my duty towards young Aboriginal people to encourage them to be proud of their Aboriginality. I'm just me and I have changed, and I say to all young people, 'Be yourself!' People will like and respect you for what you are and for what you make of yourselves."

If you want to buy a copy of Aunty Bertha's books, they are at the Ballina Visitor Centre, Community Transport offices, or at GunnaWannaBe in Lismore. You can also phone her on 6681 6847.

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