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May 14, 2021

NAIDOC: Breaking down the ‘us’ and ‘them’

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After recently stepping down as Arakwal Corporation CEO after 17 years, Yvonne Stewart received the Byron Shire Leader Of The Year award at Monday’s NAIDOC ceremony in Mullumbimby.

Photos & story Eve Jeffery

There are few who would disagree that Arakwal woman Yvonne Stewart is a strong, intelligent woman who is a role model for indigenous people and, in particular, Aboriginal girls.

This assumption is flawed in that Yvonne is actually a strong, intelligent woman who is a role model for all people regardless of race and, in particular, a wonderful example to all girls regardless of nationality or creed. And there’s the rub for reconciliation.

Too often white fellas, in their ‘tolerance’ of the first peoples, relegate Aboriginal Australians to a ‘them and us’ status as a nation and a people. White Australia, in its rush to fall over itself over-compensating for the horrors of the past, is missing the point: we can only be reconciled when we are one body of humanity.

It has become a habit in recent years for the worst type of separation to happen and it is not helping the ‘Aboriginal problem’.

An Aboriginal man told me a few years ago that his children, who were talented athletes, were being overlooked for representative teams because the coaches believed they were better off in the Aboriginal team.

This man felt as though his sons were being given the consolation prize – playing for the black fellas.

‘Don’t get me wrong, my boys are happy to represent their people, but not at the cost of representing their country.’

The biggest employer of Aboriginal people in the shire is the local mob. The Arakwal Corporation employs dozens of indigenous people because there is little else for them in town and in the shire.

Yvonne Stewart has been involved in the Arakwal Corporation since it was first registered in 1994, around the same time as Native Title was registered.

She moved back to the area with her family in 1997 to take a more active role. Yvonne recently left her job as CEO of the corporation after 17 years. ‘Seventeen years in one job is a long time,’ says Yvonne.

‘It has just come to a stage where I feel a bit stale and need to do something else.’

Yvonne says the Native Title registration was a great thing for the local mob. ‘It was about bringing family back together to connect with their roots and have an understanding of their family ties and their heritage.’

Yvonne says that her involvement with council has been another highlight of her work. ‘I have had a great time working with the Byron Shire Council and the community and community groups. I have enjoyed all of it.’

Yvonne says one of the achievements she is proudest of is looking after country. ‘I think the creation of the Arakwal National Park, working with National Parks and preserving country has been a great thing. And following the ideology of the elders and following what they wanted. I guess looking after the environment has been my biggest goal and I will continue to be involved with conservation.’

Yvonne-Stewart-EJ-IMG_6666Byron’s changes

Yvonne says that as a child growing up in Byron, she certainly suffered the effects of racism, but she feels things have changed.

‘Today, a lot of people are actually appreciating not only Aboriginal heritage but understanding their own heritage, and I think that puts it into perspective. Knowing that we were the first people here and we are still here – I think the community has really embraced that.

‘I think there is a lot more respect and people certainly want to interact and understand, but if you walk into a shop, tell me how many Aboriginal people are employed in this town?

‘Tell me how many Aboriginal people are employed in local government or any of the agencies? Very few. I think we have a long way to go.

‘It would be nice to walk down into Byron Bay and see a lot more Aboriginal people employed and engaged in working in their town.

‘That opportunity is still there with the youth and there are still a lot of older people who can still work.

‘There is still a high level of racism around here and I think there is a lot more the corporation can do and the Aboriginal community can do to keep breaking down those barriers.’

As for our country’s political leader suggesting last week that Australia was ‘unsettled’ before the arrival of the British, Yvonne didn’t mince words. ‘It’s just totally racist, ignorant and arrogant. Aboriginal people had a beautiful social system.

‘We had a system with the land; we would cultivate the land, and we bargained and we bartered and we had our own technologies that were very modern and advanced.

‘Abbott is just arrogant and rude and I think he chooses to be that way and that’s why we are not moving forward.’

Abbott’s racism

Yvonne says that she feels that the spirit of all people, not just indigenous folk, is down.

‘This country will not go forward while that man is in leadership.

‘Where do we go from here? We’ve got to get the fire back in our bellies and we’ve got to continue to protest and speak out about all of the issues affecting Aboriginal people today.’

Yvonne says that now is the time for all people to stick together for their own rights as well as Aboriginal rights.

‘We travel around the world. Why do we travel? To see the people. To see the culture in those countries. Australia doesn’t get that and the respect doesn’t come here because the support is not there to help Aboriginal people to interpret and welcome and share the wealth of our cultural and heritage with those international visitors.

Work with us

‘It’s got to start from your heart, from your ground-roots stuff here in Byron, here in Ballina, here in Mullumbimby and here in Lismore, in the northern rivers.

‘We need the non-Aboriginal community to be walking and talking with us. Everyone seems to understand the plight of other indigenous cultures around the world but they don’t understand the plight here in their own country.

‘We need our non-Aboriginal counterparts and friends to work with us and help us stand up, because that’s how you make changes. Aboriginal people’s words are falling on deaf ears in a lot of areas. Cultural independence is a long way off.’


Celebrations are held across Australia this week to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life.

For more information visit the NAIDOC website.


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