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Strong Women for Healthy Country Network and Forum

Forum 2022 Support Proposal

Best practice principles for employing women caring for Country

In 2019, Rembarrnga, Dalabon, and Mayili elders invited women caring for country from across the NT to meet at Bawurrbarnda in central Arnhem Land. Here, women from 32 ranger groups articulated their shared vision:

We are strong Indigenous women of the Northern Territory. We stand united as one strong voice. We commit to a network that gives equal power to the rights of all our women. Strong Women means Healthy Country.

Today, this network is known as the Strong Women for Healthy Country Network.

Welcome to Country Anne Kelly SWHC

In May 2021, over 260 women from across the NT met at Banatjarl on Jawoyn Country for the second Strong Women for Healthy Country Forum. At this Forum, women recommended that the Strong Women for Healthy Country Network should:

  1. Promote the understanding that healing country means healing people, and advocate for women’s caring for country values, aspirations, and needs.
  2. Facilitate opportunities for Strong Women for Healthy Country from across the NT to meet and work together through ranger exchanges, women’s camps, training, and forums.
  3. Convene Message Stick Meetings every two months to maintain communication across the Network, plan future Network events, and inform the development of the Network’s governance.
  4. Develop the Network’s governance together with Strong Women for Healthy Country, and pursue support for governance training and meetings on different countries throughout the NT.

The next Strong Women for Healthy Country Forum will be held at the Ross River Resort on eastern Arrernte Country.

Message Sticks

Message Sticks

At the 2021 Forum at Banatjarl on Jawoyn Country, women formed the Message Sticks Working Group. This group meets every two months to maintain communication across the Network, plan future Network events, and inform the development of the Network’s governance.

photo credit: Renae Saxby

Strong Women for Healthy Country also co-created a message stick art piece at the 2021 Forum, to symbolise their enduring commitment to maintain communication with each other. Co-creator and artistic facilitator Karla McGrady explains this collaborative process:

The idea for the message stick art piece came from fellow artist and collaborator Shantelle Miller. Message sticks are a symbol of going back to old ways of communicating, the traditional cultural way. It’s how knowledge was shared. They were traditionally used as a mapping tool as well as passing on messages between clan groups, they gave direction, people would share information such as what you can expect along the journey, how to know where you’re going, the things you need to get to where you’re going. Women talked about how us Aboriginal people have used message sticks while painting them at the Forum.

Before the Forum we invited women to bring a significant item to share with the message stick piece (with permission from the hosts of the Forum). Women brought white ochre, red earth, a dilly bag, shells, carving of significant cultural items and printed material from Yolngu stars that made up the backdrop which tied the piece together as a collaborative art piece. Women sat by fire to do their designs, while other women came and watched, it was a learning and creating space, the women would yarn, paint, talk and share different stories. We were sitting under a billy-goat plum tree and an elder shared her story of the tree with us as she painted. We collected plums together, kids came to pick the plums and climb the tree, there was a constant supply of plums that the children collected for us.

To see it all come together the way it did, experience the unique differences and everything women bring, and understand that we are all connected to one earth, that’s how we are as Aboriginal people. We all connect and communicate on one earth. We designed the message stick piece to align with the dimensions of the Gundung mural to create a story map of the journey of the Network. The third art piece will be designed and created at the next Forum in 2022, to continue the story mapping of the Network.

The younger women cut timber, drilled holes, did the measurements to make sure it all sat right, they did the construction element of the whole piece, the base. It was a hands-on experience of women putting it all together, channelling their energy, ideas, thoughts, feelings, and labour. The message sticks were placed next to the fire, everyone came together and put sand into the base of the piece. The ceremony of everyone coming and doing that, encapsulates what the women are doing with this Forum. This Forum was the first time my mum and I ever did something like this together, by ourselves, it was incredible. To be able to draw on that experience whilst we are in a challenging time with COVID down here in Queensland and New South Wales, it really makes a big difference to our wellbeing to be able to go back and think about the whole experience. The elders shared with us that they hadn’t left their communities at all since COVID started last year.

So many women came because of what they’d heard about the first Forum. The fact that we were able to produce something that usually takes months, and do it in such a short time is remarkable, and it’s because the women are all together, sitting together, working together, focusing their time on this common goal. This proves that when we value something, we make it happen. Women came to the presentation ceremony and found their message stick when it was presented around the fire, and they could say, “here this is my bit, this is what I did”, and look at all the different parts of it to share the ownership of something so beautiful. There is so much relevance and importance of art in our culture, and what an incredible connection that can be for our mob.

photo credit: Renae Saxby


Gundung - all panels

‘Gundung’ is the name of the mural that was created at the forum and is a collective effort, built around the central theme of ‘Strong Women for Healthy Country’.

The mural consists of a series of five panels on stretched canvas. Each panel represents, an element symbolic to women - Night, Fire, Sun, Earth, Water. The panels are tied together by the feminine and masculine duality of the Rainbow Serpent.

Artists, Shantelle Miller and Karla McGrady, worked with community members and project staff to formulate a design based on the theme of the conference ‘Strong Women for Healthy Country’.

The process of creating the mural began with Mimal community members who formulated a design based on the theme of the conference ‘Strong Women for Healthy Country’ prior to the forum.

Throughout the forum all participants had the opportunity to contribute to each piece and to the design and development process.

The finished mural is a visual representation of a powerful and symbolic moment for women in the region; the coming together of over 140 Indigenous elders and local women working for healthy country and their non-Indigenous allies all unifying with a shared vision – to strengthen the voice, role and support structures for women working for healthy country in the NT.

This symbolic piece of art represents the importance of shared knowledge, deep cultural connections to country and the desire to care for country with its value to us and each other.

The mural is an example of one medium of traditional storytelling. Within its layers, sacred knowledge is being passed down from generation to generation. This mural is a symbol to be passed down to future generations.


Gorl Gorlhk - Night


Gundung panel 1 - Night

The moon tells us the time and month.

The stars are used to navigate - North, East, South and West.

The night also tells us when it is time to sleep.

At new crest moon, fire is thrown towards the moon, to give us plentiful food like fish and turtle.

The seven sisters is in the north and signifies sisterhood, women connecting and keeping strong in a group.

Milky Way, Buhwah, is the river up in the sky that tells us when it is winter (cold weather), it also tells us about our spirit rising up into the stars when we have passed / pass away.

Ngurra, Mimal - Fire


Gundung panel 2 - Fire

Fire is the main source of cooking food and keeping warm when it is cold.

Fire is used in many ways.

Fire is used to burn old groth to make way for new growth.

The brown falcon we call Kgarrganj, carries a fire stick that has flame, when the fire stick drops the fire spreads everywhere.

The smoke from the fire can be seen by the two cockatoos, which then start to give warning signs by their calling to signal danger.

Fire and smoke is also used to send signal to other clans and tribes.

The magpie geese are a staple food source and they are cooked on the fire.

The white sea eagle we call Mahgagah has a different connection to different parts of people from the Northern Territory.

Here in Bigetti the Mahgagah is a sacred totem for the Murray family.

Muta - Sun


Gundung panel 3 - Sun

The sun is the ruler of the day.

When the sun rises it tells us it is time to wake up from sleep.

Women get up to prepare food for children and family.

Women during the day go out hunting for small game, collecting yams, sugar bag, fish, berries, roots, tubers and shellfish.

They carry it with the Coolaman. Some women hunt for goanna, grubs and turtle.

Elderly women gather to support young mothers to help them raise small babies. This nurtures the baby to become healthy and strong.

This painting depicts the women of the sun.

Godgork - Earth


Gundung panel 4 - Earth

The earth is our mother (Mother Earth).

It has the source of giving life to plants, trees and animals.

In this painting there are prints of the emu, kangaroo, goanna and people.

When people are out hunting, they follow the tracks (prints) of different animals to sources of collected water and water holes.

The white gum tree is a source of witchetty grubs and sugar bag (bush honey).

When the first rain falls in Central Australia this creates the blooming season for desert flowers.

Uluru, Ayers Rock, is sacred to Indigenous people in Central Australia.

The intricate dot painting patterns depicts tracks of the emu and the desert kangaroo.

Dularh / Djulah / Julah / Wah - Water


Gundung panel 5 - Water

Water is the main source of all life.

Water is used in many different ways.

Water is used to drink, bathe and cleanse, for cooking and for watering plants.

Animals, plants and us as humans rely on water to keep us alive.

There are two types of water, freshwater and saltwater.

In the saltwater we painted the dugong, saltwater turtle and barramundi.

Barramundi lives in both types of water, fresh and salt.

We painted green kelp, a source of food for saltwater animals.

In the freshwater we painted the pig-nose turtle, long neck turtle and the freshwater bream.

There are different types of water lilies. All parts of the lilies are edible from the roots to the stem and the heart of the flower.

The stem is also used as a straw to filter water when it is dirty.

The lines of the patterns below are the water dreaming for the people of North East Arnhem Land.

The pattern in the centre of the painting of the water is the dreaming from Central Australia.

The tracks of the emu are followed to different waterholes in Central Australia.

The two oval shapes and circles are depictions of rain clouds.

When rain falls people track animals to sources of water catchment to drink.

2021 Forum Logo


This logo was created by artist Shantelle Miller to represent the connections between all women in the NT. Together, the separate elements tell one story. The story of women coming together from countries spanning vast distances yet always connected through earth and sky, through Dreaming and the systems of community that nourish and sustain them.

Datum is the Rembarrnga name for water lily and holds deep significance for the people of the billabong country. The Datum Dreaming story is very closely related to the Yawk Yawk mermaid Dreaming story and represents women from the region who were the hunters and gatherers, who collected Datum and all other bush foods and medicine. The Datum is itself a beautiful example of how a network exists in nature. The root comes from way down deep in the water where it is pitch black and reaches underground to other plants which share nutrients and oxygen.

Bruppah – the Rembarrnga name for the water lily tuber – reaches up and the flower lives above the water in the sunshine, sending light down to the root. All parts work together in harmony. Traditionally, all parts of the Datum are eaten and used for cultural purposes.

The water ripples represent the flow from one place to another. When one movement happens in one place, the ripple effect means that the movement is felt from far away. What we do in one place, has an effect on the places all around us.

The water shells symbolise the salt water and fresh waters of the Northern Territory along with the shellfish and seafood that live in there.

The Seven Sisters constellation embodies an ancient Dreaming story and contains sacred meaning for peoples of the Central Desert as well as cultures all over the world. The Seven Sisters Songline travels over half the span of the Australian continent and connects peoples across the Central Desert, including Shantelle’s ancestors from Central Australia.

The yellow flower is the Parnarnak in Jawoyn language or wattle in English. This plant is a bush medicine that is used as a soap for the skin but is also acknowledged for the juice it holds inside. It is the Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Grup’s logo. Supporting our overall healing both physically and spiritually, just like the Banatjarl Bush Medicine Garden does. This flower is in honour of the women hosting the 2021 Strong Women for Healthy Country Forum.

2019 Forum Logo

The ‘Strong Women for Healthy Country’ logo was designed by the Mimal Women Rangers for the 2019 Northern Territory Women’s Healthy Country forum.

Women played a part to gather small things like fish, water lilies, little black berries and turtle. Pandanus was a major part to make mats, skirts and baskets to carry food. In the past cultural practice for women to gather small games to feed children, if the men couldn’t gather big games. It is also done to have enough food to feed everybody. Women had a role to look after kids from 0-13 years of age. They played some parts in making decisions as well as men, some decisions were to move from one place to another in search of food.

Women today still have the knowledge on how to connect to the land and understand the knowledge that was passed down from the women elders. Educated women today are becoming strong to pass knowledge on to young people to gain leadership in cultural practice and mainstream education.

Logo Elements

Muta - Sun: When the sun rises it’s the beginning of a new day.

Daiyarrh - Pandanus: Daiyarrh is the main plant we use for weaving mats carry bags , fish nets and clothing.

Jupi - Bush current: Collected in the bush during the wet and just before cold weather. Jupi helps absorbed iron in the body and give vitamins and mineral.

Wamurra - Long-neck turtle: Wamurra are collected by swimming (Watjawan) in the billabongs and swamps by hand.

Julah - Water: The main source that brings life to the land. We use water for almost everything.

Boerrn-darrnga - Black-bream: The most tasty fish, these bream are common on every stream and channel through the river of ever water way.

Datdam - Waterlillie: Mostly found in billabongs and swamps, we can eat the seed that’s at the bottom of the root.

Niparrhows - Wedge tail Eagle: signs to show that there are a lot of animals in the area. Niparr is also a traditional bird in this area.

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