This story contains reference to someone who has passed away.

A matriarch is a leader – a symbol of compassion, strength and power.

She is the backbone of community and family, and a force building a path into the future.

Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai woman with ties to Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi country, encompasses all that is a matriarch.

Following in the footsteps of matriarchs before her, Ms Saunders was announced the inaugural winner of the Daisy Utemorrah Award, part of the WA Premier’s Awards, for her work Mother Speaks.

“I was so excited and surprised … when I found out. I feel really humbled to be following in the footsteps of Daisy Utemorrah who was a poet, a custodian of language and a wonderful storyteller,” Ms Saunders said.

Mother Speaks was born from conversation with Dr Anthony McKnight, a Yuin leader and mentor.

“He told me that before we learn to speak language, we must learn the language of Mother Earth. Mother Speaks attempts to awaken us to the conversations that bubble beneath the surface.”

Born and raised in the Southern Highlands NSW, on Gundungurra country, Ms Saunders has had a powerful yet difficult journey within her personal identity.

“My Mum was moved as a state ward [into] a children’s home, she started her life and married my dad. I have an older brother, and younger sister, Jesse and Pip, and we spent a lot of time outside bushwalking, being out on the earth, we were very rarely inside as kids.”

“I started off in local private schools and had really awful racial experiences, resulting in me disowning my Aboriginality for a lot of my childhood and into my late high schooling.”

“I was taught by teachers at that age that it was very shameful to be Aboriginal – that we should adopt white ways of being. That shaped my cultural identity and it was reinforced consistently through the 1990s.”

“I clearly remember being asked to stand up in front of the class and show what an Aboriginal kid looks like and when I said no, she called in my brother and he did it. He didn’t know what he was walking into, I was so ashamed.”

“I then went onto public schools and I was widely celebrated by my teachers and welcomed into cultural experiences often. I started to learn, I was always surrounded by Elders and community.”

Later in life Ms Saunders came into her own.

“It wasn’t until I was working with the Department of Education, that I was able to connect with wonderful First Nations people who encouraged me to be really bold in my cultural upbringing and to connect to culture. That’s when I really started unpacking all those ties of who I was.”

“I spent hours sitting with Aunties and Uncles asking questions, lots of time trawling through state archives … but beyond my great-great-grandmother we still don’t know [much] – there’s a strong history of dislocation and removal.”

“I use the word ties when I refer to some countries because they are not my matrilineal line. We have been moved around a lot but they’re not necessarily country of origin, but they have [impacted] my cultural identity, and they have shaped me. I do have some right to that country and some responsibility to caring for that country in that language and custodianship.”

Ms Saunders grew up watching those around her immerse themselves in art.

“My pop was a really beautiful artist and a wonderful role model of mine too, he was very close to me. He passed away a few years ago.”

“My mum has been a wonderful guide through cultural learning and in strength and resilience all through my life. My dad doesn’t actively make art, but he is so powerful in the way that he navigates the world.”

“I wanted to be an artist before being a writer and when I found out I wasn’t excellent at drawing I started writing.”

“I had a beautiful teacher at Bowral High School, and she welcomed me into poetry and beyond that I started to write more commonly. I’d sit at coffee shops every day with a book and just write and write and write – so I owe all this to 19-year-old me who fought through a lot of self-doubt and kept writing.”

Her newly released collection of poetry, Kindred, is a raw and honest mosaic of her journey of reclaiming and empowering her cultural identity.

“It’s raw and vulnerable. It was written during that time of rediscovering my cultural identity, of connecting to it and being really proud and strong – decolonising some thoughts along the way and starting to unpack the identity that was told to me. Writing it was very cathartic and healing,”

Ms Saunders works with the Sydney-based company Red Room Poetry and manages the Poetry in First Languages program (PIFL).

The program is designed to support First Nations students in creating poetry in first languages by connecting them to First Nations poets, Elders and Language Custodians on country.

“We take the poems and publish them in these wonderful public art installations to try and celebrate language, with the intention of strengthening our children’s cultural identities, making them really proud and enhancing their well-being and educational outcomes.”

“Highlight moments are always when I’m sitting with a kid and they write their very first poem or they wrap their mouth around a language word for the first time. You see them walk out a little bit taller and being little bit prouder and confident in who they are.”

Completing 35 workshops across the nation, Ms Saunders has felt the effects of the program first-hand.

“The program enables me to enact my Dreaming – it’s me being a storyteller and a truth speaker and a language holder and helping other kids connect to those elements within their own identities. For me it’s like feeling aligned to spirit, I feel aligned to my truth.”

“A community that holds particular love in my heart is Arrernte country up in Alice Springs – it was a tough learning for me, a hard learning. It was the first time I really questioned if my cultural competency and cultural capital [could] maintain itself in community that was very grounded in culture.”

“I knew a lot more than I thought I did about culture and language and protocol in community. It was a very proud moment to know that PIFL could be delivered in all types of communities and I had the capability, the eloquence to deliver it.”

From Wollongong, NSW to Perth, WA and now in Indonesia within a week, Ms Saunders is an official guest of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta – where she has been invited to celebrate poetry in First Languages.

“It’s so exciting to share stories with other communities and across cultures who have similar experiences of colonisation in different ways and whose languages haven’t always been celebrated.”

Big plans lay ahead for Ms Saunders, however, she remains incredibly humble and thankful for her journey and success.

“I’ve just submitted a three-book series of picture books to Australian publishers and I’m working on my poetry collection as well as two plays with Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong.”

“I never imagined I’d be doing an interview in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta or that I would be winning incredibly prestigious literary awards. This is all very surprising and exciting and mind-blowing. I’m so thankful for First Nations writers to be able to be published widely in Australia, for the organisations who helped me grow as a writer, such as Red Room Poetry, the Literature Centre, Bundanon Trust, Magabala Books and Scholastic.”

“I’m so thankful for every person who has paved the road for me, and I’m deeply grateful to my ancestor spirits who have brought me here – I never thought this beautiful life would be mine, but I am so grateful for it all.”

By Rachael Knowles