Suzanne Bryce

In her own words

I attended La Trobe University to do Humanities. It was not my first choice; I wanted to go to Melbourne and study English literature. Nevertheless, I loved university life, especially when I settled into a share house in Montmorency with four other students.

My life took an unexpected turn after one of my lecturers returned to Melbourne from a visit to the Northern Territory. Doug White had been to an Aboriginal owned and controlled cattle station where the different families were living on their own land and managing their own affairs. The snatches of information were enough, I had to go there myself. I arrived at Haasts Bluff for the last term of 1974. It had been a huge year in the Territory, with massive floods and more Aboriginal families returning to country.

I still recall my arrival; helping out in the station store, quite unable to understand simple requests for ‘luchiffa’ or ‘tilipii’, which turned out to be matches and tealeaf. It became my personal and professional frontier, standing in a place where I didn’t know but wanted to find out, and I stand there still today, having worked with Aboriginal people for around 40 years.

Philip Toyne, who was already living in the Territory before my arrival, became the lawyer who secured land rights for the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara people of South Australia. I followed him into that world. Land rights opened the door for many other things to happen. For the Aboriginal women, it led them to require their own council because their men were not sufficiently inclusive. The women were equally committed to their land and their law, and they needed to be heard.

I attended and photographed the first meeting of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankuntjatjara Women’s Council in 1980, and worked alongside the women for many years before joining as a staff member in 2004.

I somehow hoped to make a contribution to this extraordinary movement of people to their homelands, and today I’m without adequate words to say just how that reshaped me. I became part of a small band of people working to develop services for the area: medicine, education, community management, essential services and employment. We spoke in inadequate Pitjantjatjara language, whilst learning proper cultural behaviour and realigning our skills for the desert.

I began with craft as women wanted work that suited their lifestyle. When my son was born the health service asked me to collaborate with health workers on wellbeing and nutrition of babies and young children, and this has been the greater part of my focus ever since.

Over all these years I have witnessed and participated in rapid and unrelenting change. I have received many generous gifts of knowledge from people who took most of their vast accumulated learning with them when they died. I take refuge in the brilliance of the digital archive ‘Ara Irititja’, which provides a visual and audible memory of people’s lives and families, culture and country. As a volunteer I record and transcribe for the delight and reassurance of people now, and for future generations to help them to know who they are in very changed times.