Tanya Orman on Managing NITV and the Legacy of Gladys Tybingoompa

6 July 2018 Tanya Orman

Tanya Orman on Managing NITV and the Legacy of Gladys Tybingoompa

Tanya Orman, NITV Channel Manager

A new documentary looks at the people behind the historic Wik native title case. To celebrate NAIDOC Week, Tanya Orman pays tribute to a fiery woman who helped make it all possible, paving the way for other Indigenous women.

Image warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story contains an image of a deceased person.

When I introduce myself to people I always say I am a proud Birri and Guugu Yimidhirr woman. I am telling you three important things when I say these words. One: that I am a woman. Two: I am saying the name of the Birri and Guugu Yimidhirr nations from Far North Queensland, in the hope that you will get used to hearing these words, in much the way that Wollongong or Coolangatta are familiar to all Australians. Three: I am also saying that I am proud. That word proud is an interesting one when it comes to being an Aboriginal woman in Australia today. It feels pretty complicated at times, but there is a long history of Indigenous women who have fought hard so I can be here.

I have a beautiful husband and gorgeous son (who is growing up too fast!), both obsessed with rugby union. I also have a couple of labradors, a cute cat and, these days, I live on Guringai land in Sydney’s beautiful northern beaches. I manage Australia’s free to air Indigenous television channel (NITV), which is a privilege and an honour. It is dream-come-true stuff for me. One day I’m meeting with the Prime Minister, and another I’m on Thursday Island or Yakkala in Arnhem Land talking with the Aunties. It is an amazing, wonderful life. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I’m just a kid from regional Queensland. I speak to my mum every day or so; she keeps me grounded. She was raised at Woorabinda Mission in Central Queensland after my nan was forced there as part of Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act. My mum is smart and funny and tells it like it is. She is retired now, after a life of helping others.

How did I end up here? Once more, it feels pretty complicated. To answer that question properly, it’s not just about how I got here but, rather, how we all got here. Our big history, our long story is never far away. Sixty thousand years in the making. We wear it on our skin, inside our hearts and in the way we speak and think. There are also so many individual stories that make up this history.

At NITV we have just finished making a documentary about the Wik native title case, called Wik vs Queensland. The Wik case is really the story of Gladys Tybingoompa, in the way that when you look inside a big story there is usually a person’s life at the heart of it. It was complicated for Gladys too, but I look to her for inspiration. I was a 20-year-old, bright-eyed uni graduate and aspiring journalist living in Canberra when my life orbited into that of Gladys’ and a handful of Indigenous leaders who held Australia’s political machinery in the palm of their hands. It was an apprenticeship from afar that influenced my career and continues to teach me today. 

Gladys Tybingoompa should be a household name. She is the woman who, in 1996, reached into her handbag, produced a pair of clap-sticks and began to dance on the steps of the High Court, and all those very serious and important lawyers broke into smiles. You can google it. Gladys had travelled all the way from Cape York to Canberra to hear the High Court’s decision. If you wanted to tell the entire history of Australia, then in my opinion that moment would be somewhere towards the top, along with Cathy Freeman winning the 2000 Olympic Gold Medal and the 1967 referendum. It’s the moment Gladys, one of five representing the Wik peoples, was granted native title by the High Court. Gladys said to a reporter “I’m a proud woman. I am hot woman” with a smile; her totem being fire. She was relishing the moment. What a sweet victory! It was magnificent history in the making.

Gladys was not alone of course. Jean George was another of the Wik people who stood beside Gladys; tall and strong throughout. Jean’s granddaughter, Fiona Wirrer-George Oochunyung, advocates passionately for the Wik people.

But Gladys was powerful, and as Professor Marcia Langton says in Wik vs Queensland, she was tough. She was a sorcerer and a survivor. Marcia said she once saw Gladys “sing” to give someone a headache! And then, just like that, Gladys was dead, at 59. She died of diabetes. All that power and experience gone too soon.

The simplest way I can explain what it is like being a contemporary Aboriginal woman leader is that we walk in two worlds. Gladys walked in two worlds and young Aboriginal women leaders like me follow in her footsteps. There is a path. There is always someone who has come before you that you can take inspiration from. For me it is people like Gladys and my mum. It is not actually that complicated. Come join me.

Tanya Orman, a proud Birri and Guugu Yimidhirr woman, has led NITV as channel manager since it joined SBS in 2012.

Wik vs Queensland is on NITV (Channel 34) on Sunday 8 July at 8.30 pm. NAIDOC Week is 8–15 July, find out more at naidoc.org.au.

Gladys Tybingoompa photo by Ricky Maynard 2000 © Ricky Maynard/Copyright Agency 2000