Celebrating our Aboriginal staff
09 Aug 2012
Today marks the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous People. To commemorate this day, Ambulance has spoken to two of our Aboriginal staff about what this day means to them.
Paramedic Intern and Peer Support Officer, Coonabarabran, artist and musician
Community of origin: Gamilaroi people of NSW
My mother is one of the stolen generations. My Nana lost seven children overnight, the youngest being three month old twins. Mum was removed from Coonamble when she was five-years-old and raised in Newcastle. I grew up in Newcastle, but have always called the Gamilaroi my home as it's the land of my ancestors. I nominated to come to Coonabarabran so I could return to Gamilaroi country.
This is a day for our nation to celebrate its Indigenous people, to share in their culture, art, stories, music and dance. I like to experience this through both traditional and contemporary perspectives, and that's as easy as listening to some Archie Roach songs on YouTube. This is a day when all Australians can be proud of our country's rich heritage and embrace it.
Tell us about your journey in Ambulance?
I came to Ambulance after 10 years with the Department of Education. Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between Ambulance and my former life, which has made adjustment pretty easy - although I'll never get used to call-outs or night shift.
My work as a peer support officer acknowledges that what we see and do on a daily basis can take its toll. Obviously, paramedics are over exposed to trauma, but out in the west trauma can be compounded by lengthy rescue procedures, long distance treatments or a lack of available resources. On a personal level, new officers may also be facing issues such as isolation from family, disturbance to family routines/kid's schooling, loss of social and sporting avenues, etc. These all form another level of stress that rural paramedics often encounter. I have dealt with both work and personal issues as a rural PSO. The greatest challenge is the expansive size of our region often limiting our contact to phone, whereas I prefer to speak in person. When I travel on my days off, I like to drop into other stations to touch base, but it's very difficult to be highly visible in the west.
Why are the cultural needs of Indigenous employees unique?
It can be incredibly difficult working in a government organisation when you have ties to a community and cultural obligations to the people within that community. Often, the community can look at you as a representative for the health system, while colleagues may look at you as a representative of the community.
Situations can arise where our duty as a paramedic conflicts with our cultural obligations. For me, childbirth provides the ultimate example. Traditionally, this is strictly ‘women's business' and men are not allowed. My mother was born into the earth in the traditional manner and I still respect this practice and lore. I would have great difficulty delivering a baby, especially in my community. But as long as there's another officer in the truck, I'm staying clean and behind the wheel.
How does your Indigenous culture inspire you?
That's difficult to answer. It's just who I am. I practise aspects of my culture, but in a modern setting. I'm a contemporary sort of fella, so the art and music I create is with modern techniques. Like my Elders, I'm always telling stories for entertainment or to pass on knowledge. And I like hunting in the Gamilaroi, that's an experience - you're never alone when you're out in the Pilliga*.
In my workplace, my identity provides me with a cultural rapport when I work with Aboriginal clients. They always want to know who you are and where your mob come from. We always seem to know some of each other's relatives, and instantly, a connection is made. Next time I see that client, they'll have a message from my Uncle.
* The Pilliga Forest is some 3000 square kilometres of semi-arid woodland in temperate north-central NSW.
What story can you share from your cultural journey?
Aboriginal people have a deep spiritual connection to the land. It's difficult to explain this in words, so we try to demonstrate it through artistic expression. Here's a personal example:
Recently, my three-year-old son discovered a sugar ant's nest. He was fascinated by their activity, so we watched and talked about them together. It was a father and son moment. To commemorate, I painted sugar ants moving their eggs into the nest before the rain (at far left). Most people just see a dot painting. When they get closer they discover the dots are detailed ants. But when I look at this painting I see a father teaching his son by passing on knowledge in the tradition of our ancestors. Now you know the story behind the painting, you understand that this painting is not about the ants.
Below are two of Tim's artworks:
Paramedic Intern, Blacktown and artist
Community of origin: Kamilaroi, Moree NSW
This day signifies that reconciliation has given Aboriginal people the strength and freedom to be heard once again. The ability to forgive any past grievances is important, so as a nation we can move forward together as one.
What attracted you to Ambulance?
I wanted to lead by example for my children and show them first-hand that you are never too old to re-educate yourself in life. Any goal is achievable with determination and the will power to follow through.
How does your Indigenous culture motivate you?
Coming from a grass roots background, Aboriginal culture flows freely through my blood. Raised with a strong sense of pride from my Elders, Aboriginal tradition has been kept alive through us. This has given me the ability to step outside of my community and become myself. Working as a paramedic in Western Sydney has reinforced my belief that it's the simple things in life that matter the most.
Tell us about your paintings...
Some people say they love to paint, I personally live to paint. It's where I have freedom of expression, where no boundaries are off limits. My creations don't always come with a story, but are stirred from a feeling to capture that moment. They are inspired from dark humour, a simple laugh at myself, to more traditional pieces which recapture the Kamilaroi Dreamtime. I donate a lot of pieces to organisations such as Father Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets, the Women's Catholic League who help educate young women in unfortunate circumstances, and the Australian Plan - Sponsors of Aboriginal Children*. These are among the many things that inspire me to paint as charity begins at home.
Where have you exhibited your work?
I have exhibited in most regional galleries throughout Australia in our capital cities, Parliament House, France, Singapore, India, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, Tokyo, Dubai, Denmark and Germany.
I have been very fortunate to see some beautiful places outside Australia, but there's nothing like an exhibition in your own hometown, to share with your own people the journey you are on.
How important is it to preserve and revitalise Indigenous culture in the arts?
As each year passes by a little more is lost, so it's essential to preserve culture through the arts. Traditions change through modern times, but the roots of the culture remain the same. The Dreamtime remains to influence the arts whether it's through dance, storytelling or paintings, and for some who still live in more traditional areas, preserving and revitalising is a way of life for them.
What lesson can you share from your cultural journey?
Don't be too hard on yourself, as there's no such thing as a mistake - just the scenic view you took the long way round.
BELOW: Kelly Girard with one of her paintings.