Australia Day honours: Gunditjmara woman awarded for health work

CULTURE and well-being go hand-inhand, says Jill Gallagher.

Although she spends most of her days in Collingwood, the Gunditjmara woman makes sure to return regularly to her traditional country in western Victoria.

“For an Aboriginal person to put their feet on their country it’s like,” she pauses, “being rejuvenated”.

Gallagher is an indigenous advocate – promoting health and fi ghting to preserve culture for more than four decades.

On Australia Day, the 57-year-old was appointed an Offi cer of the Order of Australia for her contribution to Victoria’s indigenous community.

As a child she travelled the state with her family, who she says like other indigenous families at the time found work picking fruit and vegetables.

“Aboriginal people followed the seasons to get money, to get a job,” Gallagher says.

She says she went to 19 primary schools, mostly in the Gippsland area, while her family travelled with the seasons to pick beans, potatoes or onions.

They eventually settled in Collingwood - where she now works as the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

VACCHO, the state’s peak Aboriginal health body, aims to close the gap in health outcomes between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians.

Before VACCHO, Gallagher worked to preserve her culture – serving as the state government’s Aboriginal Health manager and working with Museum Victoria to return human remains and sacred objects to the communities they were removed from.

Aboriginal remains were taken from communities across Australia and seeing them home is something Gallagher says she is still passionate about.

“It’s one thing to sign away your body to science, but these people did not have that option,” she says. Gallagher took 12 months off in the late-1990s after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, starting with VACCHO when she returned to work.

She says the cancer was not the big motivator for her shift into health.

“I knew that our people were dying when there was no need for it, I knew our people weren’t accessing good services for a whole suite of reasons.”

She says health and heritage are not too “If you’ve got your culture, you’ve got your well-being.”

The Order of Australia was another thing to celebrate on January 26. Gallagher celebrates both Australia Day and Survival Day – commemorating the survival of Aboriginal people since white settlement. 

She says she is “humbled and honoured” by the appointment.

“I think it is fantastic ... I just do what I feel is right.”

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