Community engagement

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Dorothy Peters

1930-

A champion for reconciliation and recognition

Dorothy Peters has been helping to progress reconciliation in Victoria for many years, working within the community to build understanding and respect between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Among her numerous achievements, she successfully brought long overdue recognition to Aboriginal servicemen and women.

The well-known Yarra Yarra Elder is greeted by all as Aunty Dot. Born in Melbourne in 1930, she grew up in Healesville. Her mother, Daisy, had been born on the nearby Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission. As a child, Aunty Dot would visit her grandparents at the Coranderrk site. Her grandmother taught her traditional basket coiling, and how to weave eel traps out of reeds and sword grass. Aunty Dot would fish and swim in Badger's Creek, a tributary of the Yarra, while learning respect for the land and all its creatures.

Departing Healesville in her youth, Aunty Dot worked as a telephonist in Melbourne for a number of years. In the 1960s she was a stewardess on a cruise ship but in 1969, she returned to Healesville to raise her young son. She has been a valued member of the local community ever since.

For over 40 years, Aunty Dot has been a part of the reconciliation process in Victoria. Her involvement seemed natural and inevitable to her, and became as much about reconnecting with her own ancestry as promoting cultural awareness to the wider community. In 1980, she began to teach Aboriginal studies and for 10 years was a popular Aboriginal educator at a local primary school. She set up a program to teach the children about Indigenous history and culture. She also reflected on her own history and later was inspired to write a dreaming story about how Badger's Creek got its smooth rocks and clear water.

Aunty Dot has never lost the weaving and basket coiling skills her grandmother passed down to her. Over the years she has held countless workshops, teaching the ancient techniques in schools, at festivals and community events and to overseas delegations. In 2002, she won the prestigious Red Ochre Award for her work in preserving and teaching the art of basket coiling in Victoria.

Aunty Dot's father, Vincent, was a Yorta Yorta man born at the Cummeragunja Mission in New South Wales. He fought in the Second World War, but was captured and died a prisoner of war on the Thai Burma railway. The prejudices of the day meant her father's sacrifice for his country went unacknowledged. His family did not receive any of the support afforded other relatives of those killed, and when Coranderrk was annexed as a returned soldier settlement, no land was given to them.

Aunty Dot always insisted that her father's memory should be properly honoured and formal recognition given to the significant contribution made by Aboriginal men and women in the Australian Armed forces. In 2006, she approached the Healesville Returned and Services League (RSL) and persuaded it to take part in Reconciliation Week. Aunty Dot's son adapted the Ode of Remembrance to be accompanied by a didgeridoo. It was played during a special ceremony.

Soon after, Aunty Dot began discussions with the Victorian Government and, shortly after, on 31 May 2006, the first Victorian Indigenous Men and Women Remembrance Service was held at the Shrine of Remembrance. For the first time, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were raised at the Shrine. The service is now held annually and has been adopted nationwide. Aunty Dot is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Remembrance Committee, building further support and services for Indigenous veterans.

Over the years, Aunty Dot has broken down several barriers. She became the first Aboriginal member of the Healesville RSL Ladies Auxiliary and the first Aboriginal board member of the Healesville and District Hospital. She has involved herself in a wide range of local community groups and services, including the Police Liaison Committee, Healesville Indigenous Arts Enterprise, Yarra Valley Reconciliation Group, Yarra Valley Health Service and Outer Eastern Local Learning and Employment Network.

Aunty Dot's work has been acknowledged with many awards, including a NAIDOC Elders Award, Yarra Ranges Shire Lifetime Achievement Award, Victorian Aboriginal Award, and, in 2001, a Centenary Medal. In 2011, Dot was inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

Aunty Dot is a much-loved member of the community, respected and admired for her ability to connect with people in a warm and engaging way. She has given so much of herself in the name of promoting respect and recognition and in doing so has contributed not only to reconciliation in her local community, but right across Victoria and beyond.