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Leader of the House

Flourish 17 Jan 2017

Aunty Matilda has spent her life working to unite all Australians

Matilda House’s mobile phone rings early most days: a relative needs advice; a community member wants information about land matters; someone needs help.

The respected Aboriginal Elder also attends weekly meetings to help others who share her goal to improve relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community.

Matilda, 71, a Ngambri-Ngunnawal Elder from Queanbeyan in the Australian Capital Territory, is widely known as Aunty Matilda, even to prime ministers.

She was the first person to lead the inaugural Welcome to Country ceremony at the opening of the 42nd Federal Parliament in 2008 and continues to lead the ceremony every four years.

Wearing a possum-skin cloak and emu-feather head dress, Matilda addressed the Parliament in both English and her ancestral language.

“That was such an honour to be asked to do that first Welcome to Country,” Matilda says. “It’s still an honour, every year.”

Matilda, the eldest of 10 children, was born near Cowra on Erambie Aboriginal Reserve. She often stayed on the Hollywood Aboriginal Reserve near Yass with her grandparents and returned to her parents at Erambie during school holidays and later when the Yass reserve closed.

The seed of her activism was sown early. As a rebellious young girl, Matilda refused to bow to authority. Aged 12, she was deemed “uncontrollable” and sent to the infamous Parramatta Girls’ Home.

“There was a lot of racism then. I got even by doing what I’m doing now – trying to improve life for Aboriginal Australians,” she says.

Matilda left school at 13 and to help her family survive, she picked cherries and fruit around Young in New South Wales.

Aged 19, she married Englishman Mick House who had come to Australia under the Big Brother movement, founded in 1925 to bring young Englishmen Down Under. Matilda and Mick met while picking fruit.

Their four children, 12 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren are the highlight of her life, she says.

Helping others is Matilda’s answer to combating racism. “Retaliation is not the way to go. To help someone is the best way,” she says.

Matilda is staunchly independent in many ways and has recently become an Australian Unity Aboriginal Home Care client.

She says the support she receives around her home allows her to continue her busy life.

Sharon Bloxsome, Senior Project Officer with Australian Unity’s Aboriginal Home Care, says Aunty Matilda is resilient, strong and has always been passionate about advocating for her people.

“To me, and many others in our community, she is a wonderful mentor, role model and inspiration to the younger Aboriginal people.

“She has a strong voice and uses it well when it is needed to gain attention,” Sharon says.

“She loves to swim, likes to yarn and have a laugh – and she has a wicked sense of humour.”

Matilda was there at the start of the Aboriginal TentEmbassy in 1971 and spoke at its 40th anniversary. In the 1980s she helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Services in New South Wales.

She was involved in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission from 1990 to 2005 and contributed to the 1997 Bringing them Home report into the Stolen Generation.

Matilda has been an Australian Capital Territory honorary ambassador and, in 2006, was named Canberra Citizen of the Year.

As an Aboriginal Elder, Matilda performs welcoming ceremonies and community rituals and belongs to many Canberra community organisations, including the Ngambri-Ngunnawal Local Aboriginal Land Council in Queanbeyan.

Matilda says she prefers education and unity to retaliation and alienation. “You can care for your country, respect what’s gone before, but don’t cross swords with government. Being negative all the time makes your people negative.”

Along the way to gaining legendary status in her community, Matilda has rubbed shoulders with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

Like all effective leaders, she has a generosity gene. She shares her knowledge freely and leads by example. Like a boss with a watering can in one hand and fertiliser in the other, she empowers those around her to flourish and never claims credit for their success.

“It can be very challenging. There could be adeath in the family or community and they get in touch with you,” she says.

“I tell them not to ignore their culture. As an Aboriginal, knowledge is very powerful; people have to learn what the culture of their tribe is. A lot of kids have grown up with no knowledge of their culture.”

Matilda believes in the power of storytelling to connect and unite families and communities, and improve the nation for everyone.

“I believe it is possible to work together to respect this land of ours and to achieve justice, equity and unity for all Australians.

“That’s part of the story I’d like to tell my great-grandchildren in the years to come, to help them understand who they are and what has come before them,” Matilda says.

Through her activism, work for reconciliation and subsequent national recognition, Matilda is living proof of a cultural acceptance that would have been unthinkable during her childhood.

words Maria Triaca

photography Steve Keough

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