Reconnecting to country

FOR most of her life, local indigenous artist Cassie Leatham has been taking indigenous and nonindigenous people on a cultural journey, working across different mediums to share traditional techniques and the ways of old.

But this group of women is different.

The aged care disability group usually participates in day outings like group meals, lawn bowls or even ten pin bowling, but after showing a strong interest in learning more about their own culture, invited the Boisdale-based artist to hold regular workshops.

In their youth, this group of elders weren’t taught traditional ways, but were keen to regain the old skills and techniques to pass onto the younger generations, and spiritually reconnect to country.

The group’s activities focus on the traditional — weaving, making emu feather skirts, and they are about to embark on a new project — possum pelt cloaks.

After seeing the enthusiasm the elders displayed in previous activities, Ms Leatham knew she had to up the ante, and brought the pelts, which will be traditionally decorated and stitched together, as something the women could pass down in their own families.

This year, NAIDOC week is themed, “Because of her, we can”, and celebrates the essential role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played — and continue to play — as active and significant role models at the community, local, state and national levels.

Ms Leatham said women played such a significant role in the indigenous community, and it was important to recognise that.

“The women did all the bush tukka, the weaving, the fishing, they were singers and dancers, there were mission women … by teaching culture, I want to empower women with what’s meant to be,” she said.

“We’re in our time now … I’m trying to bring out the best in our women.”

Workshop participant Cheryl Pike said she was grateful to Ms Leatham and the knowledge she brought each week.

“We lost our culture a long time ago, but we’re learning it now,” Ms Pike said.

“[Cassie] puts the smiles back on our faces. “I can teach my granddaughter what to do now, because of this.”

Ms Leatham said the elders were her role-models, and through their stories, she was learning as much from them as they were learning from her.

For example, after Ms Pike shared a story from her youth about hunting mutton birds, Ms Leatham visited San Remo to try the bird for herself.

“My passion in my journey is to bring back culture to my community, to my people,” Ms Leatham said.

“The spiritual connection to country is just so important… it’s a skill they can get back, so it’s not extinct for generations to come.”

Ms Leatham said she had seen the old ways lost in communities, and it broke her heart.

“I just want to share as much as I can — bring it back, and break down barriers,” she said.

“I think everyone’s entitled to teach and share what they have … I know where my links are, and no-one is going to tell me I can’t teach.”

The self-proclaimed “little bushy from Gippsland” is self-taught, exploring with different mediums and bushland from a young age, but is heavily influenced by elders’ stories to inspire her pieces.

From humble beginnings, Ms Leatham has gone on to be the first indigenous artist from Gippsland to have her work showcased in the National Gallery of Victoria, and led a troupe of dancers in the creation story at Tanderrum.

However, she always returns to her roots, devoted to making a difference in the lives of indigenous people.

The Ramahyuck Aboriginal access and support for aged care and disability service provides short term support for the elderly or people with a disability and their carers who need help to stay living at home or have diverse needs or circumstances.

Services include home care and home maintenance, as well as a planned activity group, which partakes in day outings, group meals and social activities.

An access and support worker can help those who have difficulty finding out about services or applying for services.

For more information, visit Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation at 373 Raglan St, Sale, or phone 5143 2193.