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Prominent Catholic wins Northern Territory Senior Australian of the Year

Building unity: Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann is the 2021 Northern Territory Senior Australian of the Year.

ABORIGINAL elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, is pleased to have helped her remote Northern Territory community reverse “oneway traffic” in relations with the rest of Australia. 

Ms Ungunmerr-Baumann, a prominent Catholic in the Northern Territory, was the territory’s 2021 Senior Australian of the Year for her work as an Aboriginal activist, educator and artist. 

She was named as the national winner in that category on the eve of Australia Day, January 26, and received her award from Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a ceremony in Canberra. 

In 1975, she became the Northern Territory’s first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher, and went on to serve as principal at St Francis Xavier Catholic School in her community at Nauiyu, Daly River, 230km south of Darwin.

Formerly a member of the National Indigenous Council, she established the Miriam Rose Foundation in 2013 as a not-for-profit body to foster grassroots reconciliation, and to empower Indigenous youth through education, art, culture and opportunity. Speaking from Nauiyu before heading to Canberra for the national awards ceremony, Ms Ungunmerr-Baumann was pleased that the work had been acknowledged by the Australian of the Year awards. 

“I wasn’t expecting it because I’ve been nominated before and someone else got the award, maybe three or four times before and, you know, this time I got lucky …,” she said of winning the state award. 

She’s pleased to have witnessed progress in reconciliation and understanding. 

“That’s what it’s all about in the Miriam Rose Foundation,” she said. 

“We invite people to come to the Nauiyu community at Daly River …” Visitors, including some from schools, come to Nauiyu to learn about the culture of the people there. 

“There’s three colleges that have been coming up for the past 16 years, which is really great – St Joseph’s College, Geelong; St Bernard’s, Essendon; and St Ignatius’, Adelaide – and it’s been great and I’ll say to them that just because they come here for that week or the few days that they spend with us, it’s for the long haul,” Ms Ungunmerr-Baumann said. 

“They can’t forget us when they go back to the cities, and they’ve got to keep coming back. 

“And they do. They become teachers, accountants, builders, doctors … and they keep coming back. 

“They bring their partner back, their families, their parents, that sort of thing, or they become teachers and they come up and work in our schools up here in the Catholic system, which is great.

“And then we get families to come up as well on tours to spend time with us, and it’s (often) based on that spirituality of dadirri – deep listening, silent still awareness – the (spiritual dimension) that I talk about.” The visits have built bridges and some people have wanted to continue to support the community. 

Ms Ungunmerr-Baumann sees it as a twoway thing. 

“It’s not every child or every family that can go south; why not bring the city to them,” she said. 

“And ever since I was growing up, it was always one-way traffic; we had to learn your way and understand how you work and function, and speak your language. 

“And I always said to myself as I’ve got older, ‘When are they going to turn around and start learning about us mob?’ “I think the time has come, and it’s been great actually. 

“There’s more and more people wanting to get to know us more and walk with us.” In terms of fostering reconciliation and appreciating Aboriginal culture, Ms Ungunmerr-Baumann said more was needed at a practical level. 

“I come from a remote community and (like other remote communities around Australia) we haven’t got things that are at our fingertips that are needed in supporting our people, our young people, both in education and health,” she said. 

“There’s got to be more support from the government and the outside world to be able to understand that there is that need for our people to be leading better lives and healthy lives. 

“We need support from the outside world and people have got to realise that. 

“We haven’t got everything that we need to help our people as in health and education, even just the families in being able to care for their young ones, especially the kids that are at risk …” But she remains optimistic. 

“With what’s happening now, with people – the outside world and us, the westerners – it’s getting better and better every day, all the time, every year, in people wanting to come and spend time – leave their comfort zones to come and live and work among us, which is good. 

“Like I said before, as I was growing up, it was always one-way traffic; we had to learn your ways. 

“And slowly – I don’t know what it is; I don’t know whether it was what I’m saying and inviting people to come to us – that more and more people are willing to spend time and live and work amongst us, which is good.” 

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