In a creaking corrugated iron shed at the Jawoyn homeland of Banatjarl south-east of Katherine, 280 women, many of them Indigenous rangers, healers, and elders from remote communities across the Northern Territory, have gathered as a part of a push to develop a women-only network fighting to protect country.
No men were allowed to attend.
Participants travelled from coastal communities in Arnhem Land, desert communities in the Red Centre and over the border in Western Australia to support each other and make plans for the future.
Here to ‘talk about the issues we face’
The NT Strong Women for Healthy Country Network started as a way to connect female rangers living in remote areas of the Northern Territory, but elder Annette Miller, who has been a driving force behind it, said it was already about much more than that.
She described herself as a “strong woman”, a teacher and a grandmother.
She said the first forum was held in 2019, with mainly ranger groups involved.
This year, the numbers have nearly doubled as membership expanded to include those working as healers, in the arts and in domestic violence.
Ms Miller said in order to protect country, women needed to be able to help themselves and each other.
“There are problems with health, problems with violence, problems with young kids growing up, and we saw those problems,” she said.
“I’m overwhelmed to see all the women coming here, to share and have understanding, talk about the issues that we face.”
Ms Miller said that in remote communities women were often “afraid to go outside of the communities to express their feelings”.
“I want to get all of our young women to come up, sprout and become strong and show the men that we can do it as one voice, one people,” she said.
“This is what it’s all about, getting together, sharing our knowledge.”
Future leaders learning from elders
Kaitlyn John, 19, is the youngest ranger in her community but said age did not matter in her job.
“It’s fine [being young],” she said with a smile.
“We’ve got good leadership and elders and it’s great.”
She was working at the local shop in her home community of Bulman, about 625 kilometres south-east of Darwin, but started working with the Mimal Rangers earlier this year.
As a ranger, she works on traditional burning, weed-spraying and wildlife surveys, as well as cultural education for school students.
“Our elders teach us our cultural work as women, and then we teach the younger generations in the school,” she said.
She said being a female ranger was not a problem, though they were outnumbered by men.
“There’s a lot more men than women, so [we are] really trying to encourage the younger women in the Bulman community to come and work for us as well,” she said.
‘We are able to tackle problems together’
Miliwanga Wurrben, from the Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Group, remembers the days where traditional healing was linked to ‘the devil’ and family members were forced to practice bush medicine in secret.
She is a Rembarrnga woman from Central Arnhem land, but now lives in Katherine. She describes herself as a traditional healer, weaver and midwife.
She said the forum was a chance to share lessons with others who would otherwise be geographically isolated.
“Even though we have our own community, we have our own region, we are far away from each other, so we can only do as much in our communities,” she said.
“But coming together like this as one, we are able to tackle all those problems together and come up with the solutions.
The great grandmother wants other women to learn how traditional culture can help with healing — for individuals and for their community.
“Weaving, dying the pandanus, while you are sitting there and stripping the pandanus, it’s like meditating, so it keeps your mind focused on what you are doing,” she said.
“Weaving, that’s a healing therapy … for people, this can help them mentally, physically and spiritually.
“Now that we women have come together we are able to share that.”