Tragically, it wasn’t an unusual day for the tough but likeable head of the Katherine-based Jawoyn Association – she estimates that she has been to more than 1000 Indigenous funerals over the past 15 years. Early death – through renal failure, heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, road accidents and violence – is a way of life for Aboriginal people in Australia, one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
“It’s heartbreaking. We have so many funerals, young, old and even for babies.” Lisa, who doesn’t drink or smoke, is one of the most outstanding Indigenous leaders in Australia.
She is acutely conscious of being a role model for Aboriginal people, particularly women. Her mission is grand: to nurture Jawoyn culture, to protect Jawoyn land rights and to empower Jawoyn people economically.
“I’m very passionate about this job,” she says. “I always ask myself what our ancestors would have wanted. “I have to be tough, especially as a woman. I sometimes ask myself, ‘How do other people see me?’
“My mind is never still. I sit down to be peaceful, but all the things I’m working on still go through my mind. “At most times I relax sitting by the campfire each night. That brings me peace and comfort.“I believe that there’s always transformation when I’m on country. You become a true person again, you become who you really are. When I’m on country my grandchildren say, ‘Nana, you’re so calm’. “When I’m at work I’m a different woman.”
Lisa was born in Katherine, with one brother and one sister. Her father Jerry, who was a police tracker, died of bronchitis and alcoholism when she was seven years old. Her mother Sally was also an alcoholic and heavy smoker, but she gave up both addictions later in her life.
“So many of my relatives have been affected by alcohol. It’s devastating.”
Lisa was brought up by her uncles and “dearest aunty” – Peter Jatbula, Sandy Baruwei, Albert O’Connor and Ivy Brumby – in traditional ways.
“These people were my circle. My uncle Peter didn’t want me or his three daughters to be influenced by alcohol or drugs, so he took us out bush. And that’s where I lived for most of my childhood, living off the land. “I owe them big time. “I am forever grateful and feel blessed to have had them giving me great knowledge of country, people and tribal places.
And, most importantly, my traditional identity, land and country. “I had a bit of a rough time when I was a teenager, but I always had family to nurture and protect me.” Lisa did a bit of schooling in Katherine and Barunga but left in year 9 when she was 14.
She started working as a shop assistant in Kalano at 15 and later became a liaison officer between the governments and communities.
The land rights campaign – led by Raymond Fordimail and many late senior elders – was underway when Lisa was a young woman. Jawoyn were demanding what seemed to them something very simple: that their ownership of what was then Katherine Gorge national park – where anthropologists accept Indigenous people have lived for at least 50,000 years – be recognised by modern law.
The controversy that it caused may seem strange now, but at the time conservative politicians whipped many non-Indigenous Australians into a frenzy.
There was even a “white for rights” march in Katherine. The main fear was that the gorge would be closed to outsiders; in fact, the opposite has happened – more visitors than ever are welcomed.
Lisa was thrilled by the land rights battle being led by Jawoyn elders. She remembers the day in 1989 when the gorge was officially handed back as a day of great celebration. And she is enormously proud that the Bolong rainbow serpent on the Jawoyn flag was painted by her late sister Mornokgololor Alice Mitchell, who died before the handback.
Lisa became a member of the Jawoyn Association in a most traditional way – her elders asked her to step up. She was visited at her home by senior traditional men, including her two stepdads. And she was told by her dad to take on the chair position.
“I had nothing to say because authority was standing before me and I was being given an important job to do.” She stood against three men in the election in 1997 and won. “It’s a challenging job and I was nervous at first. Some people said, ‘But you’re just a woman!’”
Despite many challenges, Nitmiluk is now a world-class national park with a swanky lodge, award winning restaurant, cultural tours, canoeing and helicopter rides. Visitors are fascinated to be told Dreamtime stories on Jawoyn land.
“Everything we have gone through is for our people and our young generation coming behind us. I will always remind people that Jawoyn have been on a long journey. It has all come good.