From an Aboriginal Reserve to Graduation Podium

Renowned elder and champion of the Aboriginal people, Elsie Heiss has been awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts by the University of Notre Dame, Sydney.
“I felt like a VIP,” Heiss says, recalling last December’s award ceremony, as she diligently sets up her church for the next mass. “It was the ultimate thing for me, for my work over the years.”

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Aboriginal elder Elsie Heiss addressing 2010 graduates

The award was given in recognition of Heiss’s devoted work as a health educator in the Aboriginal community and her role as administrator at the Reconciliation Church and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) in La Perouse.

Heiss became involved with ACM in 1989. It was then located in Erskineville and had a strong base in a community of big Catholic families. However, by the mid 1990’s the church began to slow down, as many Aboriginal people were moved out of Redfern. Having worked there for eight years, Heiss came to La Perouse and founded the Reconciliation Church in 1998.
“Whether we come to mass or we come to pray, we are reconciling with each other, reconciling with God.” Heiss says when they named the church it was very important to engage with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

“It gives people a different pride in the place. It’s something that they belong to. Aboriginal music is an integral part of it because it brings people back to their land and community identity.”

Heiss beats a pair of clapsticks as she explains the traditional mass her church holds on the first Sunday of every month. The elder thinks that because of her indigenous storytelling culture, she can relate so well to Biblical stories and this is where Aboriginal and Catholic spiritualities merge. Heiss has inherited this oral culture from her father, whom she describes as an emancipated and self-taught man, a Wiradjuri warrior who defended his family from welfare.

A member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Heiss was born on an Aboriginal mission in Cowra where her family lived in confinement until she was nine. “I never honestly knew what it was to have a glass of milk until we left the reserve. I have never seen green vegetables growing out of the ground”.   Four of Heiss’s brothers and her parents later died of heart disease and diabetes. The Elder puts it down to the starch and carbs that made up their ration in the mission.

Once her family managed to get away from the reserve, they started travelling as fringe dwelling campers, picking fruits during the summer. Despite the poverty and hardship of the their lives, Heiss’s father would bring home comic books and old newspapers, and encourage his six children to learn from these resources.
We may not know the algebra and sums but we could read and write really well, tell stories and listen to stories…We have got a culture.”

When she was 12, Heiss topped her class at school and asked her father, “Why in school the kids won’t sit near us? Why do they hate us?” Her father replied, “You have one goal in this life and that is to be educated. That is the strength of the Aboriginal people — to have education— because one day you will get up and tell a story of how it was.” One of those days came when Heiss addressed Notre Dame’s 2010 graduating year, when she told this story of how education creates opportunity and hope.

This piece was previously published in the magazine, Artifact, March 2011 Edition

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