I sit there in the tiny office, and she stares at me with her pretty, wizened brown eyes. “I’m just going to use this to make sure that I understand and quote you correctly” I say, as I put my Iphone on the table. She nods. She knows what researchers do — she’s Aboriginal. If any population can be accurately described as “over-researched”, the indigenous peoples of Australia can.
She smiles softly at me, a “rookie” research student, as I ask her how she “self-identifies ethnically”. She patiently explains her links to the Australian land through the mixed heritage of her parents. She has many things to tell me about life in a predominantly Aboriginal suburb on the outskirts of an ordinary town in New South Wales.
She wants me to learn her language, so she teaches me her word for children, and for water. I repeat them to her, and she nods approvingly. I ask her about her Christianity, as an Indigenous woman of faith. I have questions I’ve designed to investigate her perception of the connection between worship and empowerment. But she wants to tell me something else entirely, and I’ve learned to listen.
It’s this portion of Josie’s* tale that sticks with me. She tells me how she was “fully educated” as a nurse, and took the role very seriously. Josie took great pride in keeping her house clean, with extra food in the fridge for the neighbourhood kids, so they could make their way there when things were rough at home. She made sandwiches and bandaged knees, she tells me, and she loved every minute of it. That was, until her life changed forever.
The first event, she tells me, was when the government removed two of her nieces’ daughters. Josie was deemed the nearest relative, and asked to take them. (That’s not at all unusual, as many families I work with suddenly have unexpected additions to their homes. There are, in fact, more children in state care now than any year during the entire period known as “The Stolen Generation”). In Josie’s case, this began the big unraveling of her life as she knew it.
A number of weeks later, one of the girls crawled up on her lap, and begged her Aunt to believe her. When Josie agreed, she confessed a man was molesting her. It turned out the man was Josie’s husband. This began a totally new chapter in Josie’s life-story. She took the girls straight to the police, and they made a statement.
It was surreal, she said. It was like talking about a man she had lived with, but never known. And then again, things also made sense. He had been raping her too, in ways similar to the girls description. She felt betrayed, and disgusted.
The police offers took it seriously, and the case was transferred to a family violence officer. When this officer turned up and threateningly asked her why she’d reported his friend, Josie explains that she gained a sudden realization that she was one of those women, the string of ladies that usually left town after reporting sexual violence.
She tried to stick it out. But one morning before work, she found her car tyres were flat. People started to cross the road when she came into town, to avoid her. Eventually, some men cornered her outside a bar and threatened her to stop telling lies. She was terrified. Not only that, but her daughters stopped talking to her.
She emphasized this last event — so strange that she pursued more conversations. She felt she needed to remind them that she “was not just anyone”, she was their mother. After a terrifying interchange, she realized that every single woman in her family had been raped by her husband.
With this, she says, her own story fell apart. Her identity had been built around her role as a nurse – a role of caring. Instead, she had been inadvertently exposing children to this man. She packed her things, drove to another town, and started preparing for court.
She told me it broke her heart when he committed suicide, because she wanted to show the entire town that justice was possible, despite all. I guess it would have, understandably, also been a redemption of her own role.
She looks at me, shaking her head. In the space of five minutes, her account is told. And it was over, because he was “gone”, as she describes it. Not ‘dealt with’, just gone.
I gulp. I know she has told me all this for a reason. I ask her whether there are other women with stories like hers. She nods emphatically. Oh yes.
And, of course. I know there are. I think of the well-dressed Noongar lady I spoke to with a perfectly round black eye. I think of many stories of rape and abuse I’ve heard in the middle of what seemed to be quite ordinary interchanges.
In fact, according to Indigenous website Creative Spirits, Indigenous women are up to forty five times more likely to experience violence than a white Australian woman. I’ll be honest, even two times more likely is horrifying. In some places in Australia, Indigenous women are eighty times more likely to be hospitalized for assault.
It’s because of these types of statistics that during a Mothers Day service at Mount Zion Aussie Indigenous Church, women were handed a single carnation flower and a keyring with a light and a whistle. Their pastor, Stephanie Truscott, an animated African American lady, ordered the ushers to pass them to ladies sitting in the pews. She stared over her glasses and down the pulpit yelling, “I don’t want any more calls! Do you get me? You use these! I don’t want any more hospital visits! I can’t bear it any longer!”
I compare this to other “gift moments” I’ve seen in churches. Teacups. Miniature shoes. Journals.
Yeah, handing out a pretty little silver key-ring and hoping it might save a woman’s life is pretty sobering.
Since the missions closed, the statistics on Indigenous Christianity has not fallen, as some suspected it would. The ABS reports that 73% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as Christians, compared with 61% of the wider Australian population. But when it comes to the black end of town, Indigenous pastors have been pretty much left on their own over the past few years. Denominational support was redirected with white missionaries who often chose to relocate to Africa, or Papua New Guinea.
So, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders took over many of the churches and organizations. Often working additional jobs and dealing with high trauma populations, there’s no doubt they get overwhelmed. Sometimes I want to blow a whistle on the lack of support and silence they face.
But then I sit with them and realize, they don’t need my pity, because they are exemplary. Some elders have begun to term their resilience “The Indigenous Advantage”, a humorous reversal of what researchers call “the Indigenous Disadvantage of Social Exclusion”, or, “The Gap”. In the midst of a family crisis, these men and women have built extraordinary leadership skills.
Josie is now studying to be a pastor too. “I think I did lose my spirit from some of the trauma from which I experienced” she announces, matter-of-factly. She tells me that she hasn’t yet recovered it, entirely. But she’s sure of one thing – she wants to make a difference in the lives of the women who appear on government reports.
I ask her whether worship has improved her wellbeing. “Of course” she says. She tells me how fervently she prays for her family, and for her community.
As she stands up, and after the iPhone is turned off, she tells me which NSW country towns have “legit” domestic violence officers, and which don’t. I realize how significant this information is. This asset alone could change the fact that one woman a week is killed by her partner in Australia. Given that under the new IAS scheme the government has cut support to many Indigenous services including the Aboriginal Legal Service, the future for rural Aboriginal women is chilling.
After she leaves, I sit in the office for a little while. I think about the word ‘reconciliation’ and how little it means most of the time. But then I realize Josie is modelling a new type of leadership that recognizes that brokenness is inside us as much as it is in our social structures and organizations. And for that, and for Josie sharing her life with me, I’m grateful.
When I was little, teachers would say to abuse victims, tell as many people as you can until someone believes you. Well, I can’t help thinking Josie needs to keep telling her story until the day we can do more than hand out whistles with the carnations.
*This name has been changed intentionally to protect the interviewee, and identifying details of nation and language are not included for this reason.