Culture, faith, family and education are chief among the driving forces in Theresa Ardler’s life, and she credits the strong women in her life for planting the seed and nurturing her belief that she could do anything she chose to make a difference in the world.
BY Debra Vermeer
Theresa, who is a Gweagal Aboriginal woman of the Eora region in Sydney, her mother’s country, says that this year’s NAIDOC Week theme, “Because of her, we can!” rings very true in her own life.
Born in Sydney, Theresa grew up in her father’s country, the Yuin nation in Booderee National Park within the Jervis Bay Territory (ACT), on the NSW south coast. The National Park was returned to its Aboriginal traditional owners by the Commonwealth Government in 1985 and Theresa was raised, and still has a home she returns to regularly, in the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community.
“Growing up in an Aboriginal community is a bit like growing up anywhere, I suppose, it has its ups and downs,” she says.
“But the most important thing is that we were all one family. We look after each other and it’s always been like that.
“Everyone looks after you and makes sure you’re alright, but everyone also disciplines you. You don’t get away with much.
“My Nan did a lot of the discipline with us. She was the matriarch.”
By the time Theresa was 18 years old, both of her parents had died. Theresa was their only child but has an older brother belonging to her father.
“Dad was an Aboriginal ranger in the National Park before it was actually named a National Park, and he died at the age of 35 from a massive heart attack while he was fire-fighting in the park. So then it was just me and my mum.
“Mum was a wonderful woman, very strong in her culture. She was a graphic designer and a very clever, very artistic woman.
“My mum and my grandmother actually moulded me into what I am today. They both had a strong drive in everything, but especially in regards to culture, and now I realise how enriching that was for me.”
Theresa says the strong women in her life were part of a broader community of strong women.
“My community is a matriarchal society,” she says. “Women here have a lot of power in the community and men have learnt to listen and learn from them about our vision for our community and especially the future.
“All of the important services like the Aboriginal Legal Service, the South Coast Aboriginal Medical Service and Aboriginal Women’s Health were established and developed by Aboriginal women in my community.”
Sadly, Theresa’s mother died of cancer when Theresa was 18.
“After she died, my Mum’s sister, Aunty Julie and her husband reared me. I had lots of uncles and aunties and their kids were like brothers and sisters to me,” she says.
Theresa says evidence shows that Aboriginal people who grow up in Aboriginal communities are more immersed in their culture than those who move away, and therefore, can more easily pass it on.
“For me, our community is a fishing community. We are ocean-born people because we believe we came from the ocean onto land. We believe we came from the whale, we call them our Murrungbunguttas – ‘Our Ancestral Beings’,” she says.
Theresa says the ownership rights obtained by her community encompass rights to the land, local skies and the waters.
“So we still dive in the waters and we eat a lot of fish,” she says. “And on land, we also collect different bush medicines and food to eat. In spring, for instance, when our coastal wattle blooms, we know there are certain fish running, such as mullet, salmon and whiting.”
Education was important to Theresa from a young age. She started school at St Michael’s Catholic School Nowra, a Good Samaritan school, and says that while she was only there for one year, she still fondly remembers one of the elderly sisters who supported her learning. She also came to know the Good Sams well through St Michael’s Parish.
“Over the years, being involved with St Michael’s, I continued to have a great relationship with the Good Sams, and still do,” she says.
In St Michael’s Church on the middle confessional door is a large Aboriginal cross that she was commissioned to paint by the parish priest Father Pat Faherty. In 1993, the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, Theresa was asked to paint a mural of dolphins swimming, as bottlenose dolphins are prominent in the Shoalhaven.
Theresa finished her primary schooling at Jervis Bay Primary School along with the rest of the kids from her community and then went on to Shoalhaven High School and Chevalier College at Bowral for Year 11 and 12.
“But I never really left St Michael’s Parish,” she says. “I did my First Holy Communion and Confirmation there and I’m still very close with the parish today.
“My faith has played a big role in my life, especially since losing my parents. I became more close with Catholicism then. My mother’s family are all Catholic. My grandmother’s side of the family are Irish, from Tipperary.
“Catholicism nurtured me in such a way that it made me a stronger person and gave me a vision as to what I wanted to do – which was to teach in Catholic schools.”
Theresa says she has little problem reconciling her Catholic faith with her cultural spiritual beliefs.
“I look at the natural elements that are important in both cultures,” she says. “So with baptism, it’s water, which means new life. And then if you look at Pentecost and Confirmation, it’s fire. These natural elements are also very precious and meaningful in Aboriginal culture and that’s how I link our culture into Catholicism and the sacraments.”
After school, Theresa gained an Associate Diploma in Child Science and then studied a Bachelor of Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU) in Canberra, becoming the first person in her family to earn a university degree.
She didn’t immediately head into the classroom, as expected, but took a job at the Catholic Schools Office in the Archdiocese of Sydney, where she worked as their first Aboriginal Education Advisor.
“I was advising principals and teachers on Aboriginal education and how it should be taught in the classroom, with a particular focus on the initiation sacraments and how to put an Aboriginal perspective into teaching and preparing for the sacraments,” she says.
During that time, Theresa had a number of mentors, including the late Sister of Mercy Leonie Crotty, who was head of Religious Education at the Sydney CSO, as well as Bishop David Cremin, and the late Cardinal Edward Clancy.
“Sister Leonie was very supportive of me and inspired me to do my Master’s in Religious Education,” she says. “And Cardinal Clancy became like a grandfather figure to me.”
When Cardinal Clancy retired, Theresa was one of four people asked to speak at his farewell function from the Archdiocese of Sydney.
“That is still probably the greatest honour of my life,” she says.
As Theresa’s reputation for cultural knowledge and education grew, so did the list of significant job invitations.
She was a primary organiser of Jubilee 2000 at Stadium Australia, an event to promote Aboriginal awareness and culture, which saw her working with then Prime Minister John Howard, Governor-General Sir William Deane and other dignitaries. Theresa designed the Indigenous students’ dance costumes, the ceremonial mats, wrote the Reconciliation Commitment Statement for Sydney Catholic Schools and performed the Welcome to Country in Dharawal language.
That same year she was an artist for Corroboree 2000 at the Sydney Opera House. She designed the backdrop for the stage, ochered the hands of all official dignitaries, and also painted the reconciliation cylinder containing the reconciliation document presented to an elder by Sir William.
Over the following years, Theresa held a number of jobs in teaching and Aboriginal culture, working across the Catholic, State and independent school sectors, as well as institutions like the National Museum of Australia.
Having completed a Bachelor of Laws at Australian National University in 2006, Theresa is now in the last stretch of her Master’s in Religious Education at ACU and has her eyes set on an even bigger educational achievement ahead.
“When I finish my Master’s I’m applying to get into Oxford for next year to do my PhD,” she says. Her topic will be “Aboriginal Spirituality: Connecting Sea and Country” and she is hoping to be able to complete her Oxford doctorate in conjunction with ACU.
“My Mum used to tell me, ‘You’ve got to have a goal in life. You can’t sit back and wait for things to come to you. You’ve got to reach out and go and get things’,” she says.
“Both my Mum and my Nan inspired me to do that and I know a lot of people in my community and throughout my life are proud of what I’ve achieved.”
But before turning her sights to Oxford, Theresa, who currently works for ACU in the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education as the university’s first Research Indigenous Liaison Officer, is looking forward to graduating at ACU with her Master’s.
“Because I do the Welcome to Country, I process in with the academic procession rather than with my classmates, so I want to really honour that by wearing a possum skin cloak,” she says.
“It will be a very powerful statement when I walk into my graduation ceremony wearing my ancestors on my back and wearing my possum skin cloak.”
Theresa says it makes her happy that her community and her mentors along the way are proud of what she’s achieved so far in life.
“But at the same time, I keep looking forward,” she says. “I’m excited about what the future will bring.”