Barbara Pickett named Female Elder of the Year at NAIDOC Perth Awards

"They were painting us like furniture,"

Barbara Pickett remembers the day her life changed.

It was 1977, and she was in her late 20s living and working on the Aboriginal mission in Gnowangerup in Western Australia's Great Southern region.

A scabies outbreak had been felt largely across WA, and the government had stepped in.

We were forced to strip our clothes off and put into these big showers.

Barbara Pickett

Barbara recalls all the people in her mission being ushered to local football ovals, where they were forced to strip their clothes and were "painted" with treatment ointments and chemicals.

"There was no dignity in it," she said.

"That's when something clicked in me and I thought 'nah, I have to do something'.

"It was just hard to sit there and watch my old Noongar people having to say 'yes sir' as they were told what to do all the time.

"So I went into education, and I started working at the kindy."

Back to Pinjarra Day 2018 is one of many community projects Barbara Pickett has helped spearhead. Photo: File image.

Back to Pinjarra Day 2018 is one of many community projects Barbara Pickett has helped spearhead. Photo: File image.

Barbara buried that day deep in her memory, and it would be years before she felt comfortable enough to speak of it openly.

But her story is one of courage and determination.

From being "born into racism" on that Gnowangerup mission because her mother wasn't permitted to attend a hospital, to becoming one of Mandurah, on WA's southwest coast, most respected Aboriginal educators, the local elder has used willpower to overcome the odds at every turn.

On Friday night, Barbara was named the 2020 Female Elder of the Year at the NAIDOC Perth Awards.

It's an accolade that shines the spotlight on her tireless community work in the Peel region, be it running cultural experiences for the Young Yorgas program or her role as part of the Koolbardies Talking group.

She's labelled it one of her proudest moments.

"It was special," she said.

"What I do in the community I just see as my job. I've been doing it for years and awards never really mattered.

"But to know other people see that work, and they recognise it, that's very special to me."

Like many Aboriginal people born in the 1950s, life wasn't easy for Barbara.

There was one word that came to her mind when describing what it was like to grow up on the Gnowangerup mission: Sad.

"It was sad," she said.

"You weren't allowed to go into town after six o'clock - you weren't allowed to do anything, really."

Barbara's father was a shearer, and through his work she and her family made their way from Gnowangerup through several towns, settling in Kendenup for a few years where she attended school.

Barbara Pickett. Photo: Justin Rake.

Barbara Pickett. Photo: Justin Rake.

Eventually she found her way back to Gnowangerup, and took up work on the Noongar reserve.

"That's where I started working, but I didn't get paid," she said.

"I enjoyed working with the kids there, though."

After that fateful day in 1977, she worked hard to balance the injustice through education.

After years of working with school children in the area, she eventually found her way to Mandurah in 2007, where she joined the Koolbardies Talking women's group.


It was there, in one of the group's meetings, that she found the courage to tell her story.

"That was my healing," she said.

"I had tears coming out, but I felt comfortable talking about it with them."

Since then, Barbara has used her story as part of her mission to educate today's youth.

Calling on her own real-life experience, she has been able to impact the lives of countless students at St Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Pinjarra and Coodanup College.

Koolbardies Talking members Barbara Pickett, Louise Helfgott and Elsie Ugle. Photo: Supplied.

Koolbardies Talking members Barbara Pickett, Louise Helfgott and Elsie Ugle. Photo: Supplied.

"It helps for these kids to hear about racism, real racism, from people who have been through it," she said.

"It's important we acknowledge this history. It helps us see how far we've come and how far we still have to go.

"I grew up on a mission, where I wasn't allowed to mix with white kids. Now I work at a school where kids come from all different types of backgrounds."

Yarning with students about the Pinjarra Massacre, or teaching them about the region's past Aboriginal elders like Yaburgurt, Barbara has been able to form a strong rapport with our local youth.

"Every time they walk past me they call me Aunty or Nan," she said.

"They're good kids. Some need a little direction but if you take the time to sit down with them they respond well."

While being named the 2020 Female Elder of the Year will always have a special place in Barbara's heart, a few trophies could never adequately reward the tremendous positive change she has made in our region.

This story 'Forced to strip our clothes': Elder speaks of harrowing past to educate today's youth first appeared on Mandurah Mail.