“Those women who came before me planted my seed in softened fertile ground, allowing my generation to come forward,” she said. “And I hope that the ground that I have dug and cultivated has allowed my children to live successfully in two cultures, indigenous and white Australia.
“I believe in empowering Aboriginal women, who have been silent for many years,” she says. “Feminism began in the western world, but for Aboriginals I think it means the raising of the grandmothers, the mothers and the aunties to a place where they feel strong, and can lift others with them.”
Doseena Fergie, 62, was born and raised on Thursday Island, and is a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman. On Monday, when she was admitted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women for her work in nursing and community health, she took time to reflect on women’s hopes and fears with her daughter and granddaughter.
“Girls have courage and strength, with their beauty and their hearts. They can probably have a go at anything,” she says. “I could be prime minister one day, probably. But I would rather be a midwife and also an artist. I’m not sure – that’s just what I’m planning for now.”
Arieta Fergie Aged 7 Granddaughter
“My mother was taken out of school when she was in grade three, to look after the rest of the 15 children in her family,” says Doseena. She was denied schooling and became a cleaner, but through her – my heroine – I was given an education.”
Doseena worked as a nurse and midwife in Brisbane, as a healthcare worker in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, and came to Melbourne two decades ago to work with an Indigenous health team in Healesville. She lectures in nursing at the Australian Catholic University and has just submitted her PhD thesis on post-natal depression in Aboriginal women.
Safina Stewart, 35, is Doseena’s eldest daughter. She is a teacher and painter, but believes her most important role right now is being a mother to her son and two daughters.
“The role is one of great self-sacrifice, and one where resilience and patience has to be a solid characteristic,” she says, “at least if we want to raise secure, strong, stable and creative young kids.”
Her biggest challenge is to raise a pair of indigenous girls to thrive in an urban culture while retaining their traditional identity.
“I want them to have a connection to their culture and ancestry – but also to be arrowheads in modern society, bringing justice, hope and love back to places where there’s hopelessness and devastation and pain.”
Safina has legitimate worries for her girls. The wage gap. The sexualisation of young women. Domestic violence. “I’m wary and I’m watchful for them,” she says. “I think the fear is valid, but it shouldn’t stop us from having a go. It should be the ingredient for our passion. It’s about protection and preparation – doing all we can to watch out for them as fragile, unique and beautiful spirits, but also preparing them to have broad and wide eyes, and to advocate for others. I see my girls as leaders.”
Arieta Fergie was born seven years ago, delivered by her “Garma”, Doseena Fergie. “I was having a bit of trouble trying to get out, but then I shot out,” she said. “They didn’t want me to fall splat on the ground, so Garma caught me.”
Arieta is in grade two at Wonthaggi Primary School, and loves music and art. She plays the piano, but loves all instruments. She draws and paints, and experiments with textiles. “I love sewing. I’m trying to sew a doll, but it’s not really working. I’ve quilted. I’ve sewed my own jumper with some help from my mum.”
A program at her school gathers the Aboriginal kids together once a week to talk about respect and culture – to sing and dance and go on excursions. “It’s been quite a pleasure to be an Aboriginal girl, with a kind school, and a lovely principal and great friends.”
Seeing her grandmother included on the Victorian Honour Roll of Women was exciting. “It was special seeing her up the front there. Garma has been helping lots of Aboriginal people stay well. She is a kind and loving person. She loves to laugh, and she teaches me.