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Beloved Canberra health worker Aunty Thelma named NAIDOC female elder of the year

Genevieve Jacobs 8 July 2019

Aunty Thelma Weston with ACT minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Rachel Stephen Smith. Photo: G Jacobs.

A beloved member of the Canberra Indigenous community has been named female elder of the year at the NAIDOC National Gala awards, held at the Convention Centre on Saturday night (6 July).

Aunty Thelma Weston, who was born in the Torres Strait, told Region Media that she was “very surprised”, but also deeply honoured by the accolade.

Aunty Thelma was also the ACT’s elder of the year in 2018 and received a national Dreamtime Award last year.

Recognition for elders holds particular significance given the honour they are accorded in Aboriginal culture. There were roars of applause and delight when her name was announced, accompanied by photos in her nursing uniform and perched on the back of a motorcycle in Asia, proving that age is nothing more than a number.

Born on Murray Island, her father was a pearl diver until war broke out and the threat of Japanese invasion was imminent.

“We left there when I was four years old. My dad sailed down to Cairns with his pearling boat to get us away from the Japanese and then he and his crew sailed to Brisbane, where I grew up,” she explains.

Thelma spoke no English at all when she arrived at school. Her elegant bearing and speech is the result, she says, of elocution lessons that also helped her to present a capable and competent image when she decided at 17 to become an army nurse.

Although she’s returned to Murray Island only briefly in the intervening years, culture remains a strong force in her life and she is an integral part of the ACT’s Torres Strait Islander community. One of her treasures is a journal containing her mother’s translations of Christian hymns into the Murray Island language, so that the family could maintain their connections with home.

After a long career as a health worker in Western Australia, she and her husband moved to Canberra before his death in 2011.

At 82, Aunty Thelma still works fulltime running the needle exchange program at the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Centre, a job she enjoys mightily.

“People are just so nice here if you can help them, which I do with the needle exchange,” she says. “They are very respectful when they come in and I’ve got to know a lot of them now. A couple of the young girls who come in regularly, I make sure I pull them aside, have a little talk with them and see how they’re going.”

NAIDOC committee co-chair and Canberran John Paul Janke told a large crowd from around Australia that the NAIDOC Week awards provide an opportunity to showcase Indigenous excellence. “They celebrate our past, our present and our future and individuals’ unwavering determination and work to enrich our communities,” he said.

Other award recipients included social justice and prison workers, indigenous language and culture experts, the national female jujitsu champion and a young legal scholar.

The lifetime achievement award went to actor David Gulpilil, in recognition of his transformative role in building awareness of Aboriginal culture.


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