A singer, model, academic and educator, Dr Lois Peeler AM, is continuing her legacy as an advocate for Aboriginal people across Australia.

Dr Peeler is a Yorta Yorta and Wurundjeri woman who was born in Shepparton, Victoria. She continues a legacy of strong women who hail from the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve nestled on the banks of the Murray River. Her family took part in the historic Cummeragunja Walk Off in 1939.

“The family clans from Cummeragunja were very strong and everyone worked together to bring about improvements. We carry that with us, we’ve seen the involvement of our families, it’s been our lived experience,” said Dr Peeler.

“Following the walk-off my grandmother continued to live on Cummeragunja and we’d go back there all the time on the back of my Dad’s truck.

“We spent a lot of time there … we always held that connection, that was a beautiful connection to have—our association with the river and the people—knowing our connectedness to all the family clans. I feel very blessed to have had that experience.”

Dr Peeler, now an academic and educator, began her journey as one of the four Sapphires, touring Vietnam during the war and entertaining Australian troops serving in one of the world’s harshest wars.

The story of the Sapphires took Australia by storm in 2012 when the film, The Sapphires, was released. The film was directed by Dr Peeler’s nephew, Tony Briggs.

“When we talk about it now, we think, gee, we were stupid!” she laughed.

“We didn’t take in the enormity of it all, going into a war zone. We no sooner got there [and] they were bombing the airport where our plane had landed, so we couldn’t turn around and go back!”

Laurel and Lois, two original Sapphires. Photo supplied.

Reminiscing on her experience, Dr Peeler spoke of the importance of focusing on the joy in those memories.

 “It was a very interesting experience, we matured very quickly … we’d go out into the regional areas, traveling through villages to get to the remote areas of jungle where the troops were—that was always risky,” she said.

“We would travel through villages, go through areas where there had been skirmishes the night before seeing the ugly side of war and the damage caused.

“When I think about it, those moments are still in my mind, but they’re things you can’t dwell on. The happy times were when we brought musical joy to the troops in such a stark period.”

Dr Peeler was also the first Aboriginal model and television presenter as well as a Sapphire. Upon returning home, she stepped into activism and advocacy in the education space.

“That came from Cummeragunja, my Nanny. She was a great scholar; she was a student of Grandpa James who was the teacher that married into our tribe. He was an Indian teacher who married a woman from our tribe and was accepted in,” she said.

“I acknowledge Grandpa James for providing rigorous education to our people who went on to do many things to improve the conditions of our people.”

Dr Peeler is the Executive Director of Worawa Aboriginal College, a college dedicated to providing holistic education to young Aboriginal girls between Years 7 and 12.

“The school was founded by my sister Hyllus Maris based on her lived experience. She saw the need for a holistic education model for our Aboriginal children,” said Dr Peeler.

“When we were living on the riverbank and kids were going up to the local school, they fought their way through because of the racism. It’s not an uncommon story for our mob.”

Worawa is an independent school whose curriculum, although aligned with the Australian curriculum, incorporates Aboriginal perspectives.

“It is an integrated education model, so it’s academic learning, health and wellbeing, and cultural celebration,” she said.

Having worked extensively in Aboriginal rights, in 2016 Dr Peeler was Acting Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People—a role she stepped into through her position Chairing the Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee.

“We see all too often our children being removed, even today. Our children coming into contact with the justice system far too early. When you drill down and look at what it is, a lot of it is intergenerational trauma,” she said.

“There is certainly a lot of working being done in this space, we have some great organisations which have been going for a number of years and are getting stronger and stronger.

“But we are still having this experience. One of the things we are able to focus on in this school is identity … young people having pride in who they are and being knowledgeable about their ancestry, and that underpins everything.”

Dr Peeler credits her success to her Old People. She said whilst we’ve come a long way—there is much left to walk.

“I owe my career to my family and their experiences … Watching my mum and dad so immersed in Aboriginal affairs and community development, it just became a normal thing for us and here I am at my age now and I’m still doing it!” she said.

“When I reflect on this and what is happening now, I go back to the Day of Mourning in 1938. Our people had a ten-point plan they presented to government—amongst other things they wanted equal rights, education and self-determination.

“It’s taken us this long to get where we are today, I am hopeful that we will be able to continue to work towards self-determination.”

By Rachael Knowles