MADELINE WELLS: Visibility is key
For Madeline Wells’ identity is an unquestionable strength that runs proudly through the lineage of her family and intertwines with her connection to country. Growing up in Tasmania, Wells has faced many challenges and stereotypes of what it means to be Indigenous in Australia.
As a strong, youthful, leader and advocate for social change in her community and the country, Wells has a specific interest in the rights of First Nation People, especially young Indigenous Australians living in smaller local communities.
In addition to the many accolades for her work, last year Wells was selected to attend the Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law in Geneva; discussing ‘Widening the Democratic Space: the role of youth in public decision-making’. Back in her hometown, Wells continous to work with her community and provide an affirming representation of proud Aboriginal woman.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up and what your childhood was like?
MADELINE WELLS. I grew up in in Somerset and Wynyard, two small towns on the North West coast of Tasmania. My mum is a hairdresser, which is super cool, she has been doing it for 30 years. My dad has worked in many jobs, I think that's where I get it from, having such a wide range of interests, gaining skills in many areas.
My childhood was filled with imagination, I loved to dance, create, and sing. I loved nature, and living across the road from the beach. I liked collecting things, just like my parents, and would go to markets or comic book shops with my dad. My parents love op-shops and garage sales, so I’ve become quite the bargain hunter over the years.
I grew up curious about the world, my family's history, what I wanted to do, and how I could contribute to making change. My parents have always supported my decisions, with working or studying, and especially my volunteer work.
Not everything about my childhood was great, there were times I was bullied at school. Growing up as one of the very few Aboriginal kids in my school, and town was difficult, I knew I was different and felt unwelcome a lot of the time.
It wasn’t until a teacher handed me a quiz with a question asking who the last Tasmanian Aboriginal was, that I started to question the education system more, and started educating people if they said something to me about my skin colour, my family, or lame racist jokes.
How important in the feeling of connection to your identity? Has this impacted others in your family or friends?
M. Knowing who and what you are is important. Understanding your own identity grounds you. Being staunch, and respecting the knowledge that is passed down from your parents, grandparents and elders makes you strong. The connection to what makes me who I am, is what shapes the decisions I make. Being proud to be a part of a legacy of the oldest continuing culture in the world. If I’m feeling lost or need to recharge, I go back to country. I’m so thankful for that, because my people and our country are the most beautiful things in my life.
Who is your mob and where is your country?
M. On my dad's side I’m trawlwoolway, which is a nation from East Coast of Tasmania, Cape Portland area. On my mum’s side I’m wemba wemba, wadi wadi, madi madi, and wotjobaluk: nations along the borders of Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia. Most of my family live around Swan Hill in Victoria. I currently live in Wynyard, on tommeginer country in Tasmania, also known as trowunna or lutruwita, it will always be my a special place to me.
Can you tell us if you have experienced people treating you differently due to the assumptions they've made of you based on your appearance?
M. I’ve had people asking me to justify myself, and convince them I’m First Nations, because of my blonde hair, my blue eyes, my freckles and my siblings are darker than me; because I don’t speak any of my family's language fluently; because I wear nice clothes; because I go to school; because I don’t drink alcohol - people feel justified in questioning my identity.
Sometimes people assume I’m white and talk about First Nations People in front of me. It makes people uncomfortable when you call them out, and that’s exactly the point of it. I've never sat back and let someone get away with putting down someone for their race or skin colour.
When did you become aware of the concept of race?
M. I think it gradually happened over time. Growing up advocating for Aboriginal rights, I saw the ugly side of people in my town and nearby cities, the hatred and racism. I become more aware of how important it was to be a part social movements, to be visible, to be heard whether people wanted it or not. I had always been taught not to trust everyone, and that sometimes it’s okay to lose friends if they are toxic or discouraging. I didn’t really understand when I was younger, but being exposed more to it on social media especially, seeing that huge division between races, understanding white privilege, white supremacy, and more of the true history of Australia.
Who are the people that helped shape your sense of self and your own identity?
M. Different people to different parts of my identity. My family, especially my parents made sure that I grew up knowing everything that they could teach me. My identity as a queer black woman is supported with conversations and safe spaces with other queer black people in my community, and my sister especially. Most Indigenous groups around the world had, and still do have, many genders, sexualities, and are fluid. It’s something that makes sense to a lot of us, and it can be quite challenging, especially being queer, black, and young in Australia, there are so many layers of oppression.
My family and I are very open, we talk about a lot of things together. I have women in my life that I can ask advice of, or have a yarn with anytime. Having those conversations helps shape who I am, and make sense of things in my life.
From your experience, how should a community strengthen or help develop a young person's sense of self? Or is it up to the individual?
M. That’s a tough one. I wish I had all the answers. I think for all young people it’s about being included, respected, safe, and being listened to. Young people have their own rights, they need to be allowed space to grow and create the future they want for themselves. Without pressure, they should be allowed to just be a young person. I think it’s about their parents or guardians too, having the support they need, and being able to talk to them. I’ve worked with young women who’ve felt empowered through being visible, creating change in their community, learning more about themselves; what they are passionate about, and having those opportunities. It’s hard to provide opportunity to young people in small towns, but I believe it can be done. It happened for me, and I think it should be done holistically through community, home, and school. Everyone working together to give a young person the environment to blossom in their own time, with all the tools they need is most important.
Sometimes it’s simply that a young individual just needs a mentor for inspiration, and everything else falls into place.
Do you think representation in mainstream media, and society in general is important to the development of a person’s identity?
M. Being visible through media makes me feel appreciated, but more than that, I’m a role model for other young First Nations People in my community. It can be powerful seeing someone just like you on TV, in an article, or on social media.
Growing up I saw Cathy Freeman on television and I thought it was pretty cool, but I wasn’t sporty. I had some weird idea in my head, that if I don’t become an athlete as a First Nations person will I ever be heard or seen? I was unsure of how much power you needed to be heard, and who I should be looking up to. But the thing is everyone does their own part, and they have their own identities. I wanted to relate to someone who was in the media. I wanted someone to shout it from the rooftops, the world needed to know the truth of Australia, and what is happening to First Nations People here.
I think now with social media, you can see people you know sharing articles on issues that are so relevant, and matter to you. Articulating thoughts and feelings that you couldn’t at the time, helping you process, and connecting with you so that you don’t feel so alone in this fight for justice. We need our black writers, journalists,
people in the film and arts industry because it shows us that what we’re saying does matter. That strengthens who I am, and I'm able to keep going when I feel disempowered by what's going on in our communities.
What does it mean to be an Indigenous woman in Australian society today?
M. Being strong for my people's past, present and future. There are many battles to be won, and I believe I am on the right path, with the right people in my life. It does also mean that I will come across a lot of hatred and racism in Australia, but I am always resisting and standing tall. This is who I am, this is my life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Do you get asked 'Where are you from?'
M.There have been a lot of times I've been asked this question, even more so when I'm with my family. I usually ask whether they mean my family and I, or where I live at this point in my life? It's a pretty broad question.
Also depends where you are being asked this question. If it was at a family event or community event, you usually just say where your mobs from. If individuals aren't comfortable with that or don't know, it's a safe space to say that too.
I find it frustrating when I've been at events and people will come up to young First Nations People and ask them where their mob is from straight up. There needs to be respect for those still figuring out who they are and how they want to identify. There is a time and place for those conversations.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
MADELINE WELLS. Embrace every part of what makes you. Don’t compare your beauty standards to photoshopped white girls in magazines. Stretch marks and cellulite are normal - don't stress about it. Even Beyonce has them.
Header photo credit: Heath Holden Photography
Published August 2017