Boon Wurrung Elder, N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM has a family history of fighting for justice.

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Boon Wurrung Elder, N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM grew up hearing stories about her family’s fight for justice; from her great-grandmother, Louisa Briggs, who was a thorn in the side of mission administrators, to her grandfather William Briggs, who lodged an unsuccessful land claim.

As a result, starting school came as a rude shock.

‘Suddenly you're learning a different way. Teachers taught you, but we were never in the picture — in their (white) picture we did not exist, except if they were marauding Aborigines, black people killing sheep.

‘You saw that there was an inequality in the way they treated you, the way they used to check on whether you were living life like little white people with a tan skin. Were you eating food from a supermarket? Were you speaking in English? Were you off to school and were you clean?’

Luckily, her mother’s ambitions for Carolyn ensured that the environment did not stop her going on to achieve success.

‘Mum’s aspirations were that you could be anything you want to be, so I've tried most things,’ Carolyn says.

Amongst other endeavours, Carolyn has recorded genealogies to help her people reconnect with family; studied linguistics to safeguard the Boon Wurrung language; worked for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; and, established the Boon Wurrung Foundation to represent the traditional people and custodians of the lands from the Werribee River to Wilson Promontory.

She even set up a bush tucker restaurant at Federation Square.

‘I wanted to make it a dining experience with the foods of our lands. I made bush cuisine, posh cuisine.’

Carolyn also began a search for documentation of those early patronising ‘welfare’ checks, which led her to a treasure trove of documents. Written over the past 200 years by colonists through to government workers, the documents detail the minutiae of Aboriginal people’s lives, including her own. 

‘All the recordings of my life, about the way my mother brought me up and the way if she didn't adhere to (their rules), I could be removed. I found them all.’

The material has formed the basis of her doctorate, providing insights into the perception of the Aboriginal community at a point in time. Carolyn says the documents also provide an important reminder that Aboriginal activism is not new — Aboriginal people have fought for their right to self-determination from the first days of colonisation.

Watch N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs 2020 Victorian Seniors Festival reimagined performance.