Connecting People Back to Their Country



Connecting People Back to Their Country

Reserved-energy, is the most concise way to describe Deb. We met her at the fresh Tootgarook wetlands in December. You can immediately feel that her core essence is to elevate her Indigenous brothers and sisters, and advocates for them in every way of the meaning. 

Being, what is subjectively considered an elder (not always self-professed), the group was drawn to her, hovered around her, attracted to the warmth of her soul — after what had been an ice-y afternoon.

However uncomfortable with the idea of stepping into the spotlight, she did it selflessly and graciously, knowing that her story contributes to the greater good. And boy, is her story substantive and inspiring.

Deb's Songline explains her lifelong commitment to culture and country, and her remarkable (and historical) contributions to Indigenous development and growth, leading from the Northern Territory and settling in Victoria.

I'm Debbie Mellett and I am a Gurindji woman from Northern Territory. If you know "The Wave-Hill Walk-Off" or
 Vincent Lingiari, that's my mum’s generation. I'm very proud of the fact I am a Gurindji woman, I come from a long line of strong Aboriginal women. 

I was born in Darwin on Larrakia land. I came to Victoria 20-23 years ago and brought my children with me. The first thing I did when I got into Victoria — to Rosebud — was go to the school and ask them if they had any Aboriginal culture in the school, because my girls had come from a spot where they had lots of cousins in the same school room, or the same school.

To bring the kids down to a totally (white) isolating environment, where there was not many brown faces, was very, very, interesting. I promised the girls that I would stay in the school ground until they were comfortable. They didn't take long to asking me to leave. The school wanted me to work in the classroom, run cultural education with the children, and sometimes run the class. 
I felt very quickly that the girls were really happy.  

My past history was in Aboriginal employment, and education and training in the Northern Territory. I worked for the Federal Government for 26 years or so before I moved down to Victoria. My role was to look and analyse job outcomes for Aboriginal people.

When I came to Melbourne I started working for The Department of Health and Human Services, in Aboriginal health. So that was really important to me because when I turned 50, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was very close to stage four. They had to operate on me very quickly — they gave me a 30% survival rate. 10 years on, I'm very lucky to be around. 

That same year was very bad for me. I lost my mum and dad while I was going through chemo treatment. So I had to fly home to bury them. I was halfway through chemo, which was just the worst thing. You know when you have a bad year? — that's one of the worse years of my life.

After that, I came back to Melbourne and continued my treatment, which is when I got the job in Aboriginal health. I was really passionate about that. I became an ambassador for Breast Screening Australia, because if I hadn't got that breast screen, I could have been dead. Really. It was that serious. Originally, they thought it was just muscle, you know, some kind of fatty substance, but actually it was advanced cancer. It made me passionate about making sure women got screened. I also joined Breast Cancer Network Australia and became one of the volunteers there. So those two things I'm pretty passionate about, because Aboriginal women, generally — and in a lot of Indigenous cultures — can be a little prudish. We like to keep ourselves dressed properly and covered up. So it was really important to get that message out to my brothers and sisters.

In my new Aboriginal health position, I also had to look at Aboriginal early years and change the outcomes for Aboriginal children. They know that if you give an Indigenous child two years of kindergarten, they're more likely to go all the way to year 12 — which is quite crazy, but they've got all the evidence. The government and some of the general public know that a lot of Aboriginal families — because of the separation from their culture — have got a lot of issues from displacement. So if we focus and work in the early years of Indigenous children, to try and change the outcomes, then they're more likely to succeed in adulthood. 

Take the Bunurong people, the land on which we're sitting during this interview (the Mornington Peninsula). In the 1830s, most of the women and children were removed from Point Nepean, which is a really sacred spot. It's a birthing and ceremonial spot for Bunurong.

So can you imagine being taken from that sacred spot, moved to Tasmania or as far as with Western Australia, and those who remained were in a severely vulnerable population. It decimated to a two-figure population. Think about the destruction of the culture and language. All of a sudden, you're not roaming these beautiful lands that we can look at today, the landscape. You've been put on a mission or random housing and told to stop speaking your language and your life is now controlled by a Mission Manager or an ‘Aboriginal Protector’. The people that were taken to these places were only fed portions of flour and sugar, and tea and tobacco. Our parents now have high levels of diabetes, alcoholism and smoking issues — which is a result of being forced into missions.

So you have a 60,000 year old culture, imagine how long that might be using a ball of string, and just hold the very tip of it — that's where all the destruction for Aboriginal culture happened. In only 200 and something years. So this is why I'm so passionate about the work I do. 

What we're trying to do now is to bring culture back, revive culture, revive dance, revive language. You can see in Victoria, in particular, they're going through a treaty process. They're talking about self-determination and all the Aboriginal policies. I had the opportunity to apply for a board position at an Aboriginal gathering place in Frankston. I helped set it up and now it is very successful, but Frankston was having a really hard time getting it going. So I thought I could use the skills that I gained from developing another gathering place in Hastings and help the Frankston mob. 

When I went for the first board meeting, they said, ‘Oh, we nominated you as chair,’ I didn't realize that I'd been given the chair position there. I'm really proud to say that over the last three years we've taken it from an invisible gathering place, to being very popular. Frankston City Council are now acknowledging that we are there and can stay. Which is important, because Frankston’s Aboriginal population is one of the second fastest growing populations in the South area. No one knew that the gathering place even existed. So we've now got a range of really amazing programs offered in this spot, allowing the demographic the right to culture.

Our community has got a lot of pride. I'm really excited about our journey there. I am feeling positive about how everything is moving in Victoria. The State is really trying to help Aboriginal people find their identity, locally. We have the second highest population of children being taken away from their families, per capita, now that's incredible. Look at the destruction of culture that we had because, you know, the Eastern part of Australia was where they landed — New South Wales and Victoria populations' were wiped out in the first year of settlement. So it's really important the work that's happening in Victoria.

I am so excited about what that future holds for young people growing up in this area and watching the reinvigoration of culture across the State.

Deb Mellett is the Mother of Our Dilly Bag and Our Songlines Founder, Kayla Cartledge. Together (and separately) the duo are shaking things up through their commitment to teaching and spreading an all-inclusive culture, around Australia.