How Jo made good on a promise to herself

Dr Joanne Buckskin mentors indigenous students at the University of Wollongong. 
Dr Joanne Buckskin mentors indigenous students at the University of Wollongong. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

University of Wollongong academic Joanne Buckskin tells how a teen pregnancy and surviving domestic violence compelled her to succeed.

Country towns in the 1980s could be unforgiving places for unwed mothers, especially for a mixed-race indigenous teenager.

Joanne Buckskin was 14, pregnant and alone when she was sent to The Mission of St James, more than 300 kilometres from her Albury hometown.

"I lived in the country so I had to go away for nine months to have my baby. The mission was in the city in a spooky old building," she says.

"I thought if I'm giving up a child it has to be for a good reason, I made a pact to myself to get educated."

Concerned about being able to provide for herself and her son, she made the irreversible decision to adopt out her newborn.

"I thought if I'm giving up a child it has to be for a good reason, I made a pact to myself to get educated," she says.

Several degrees and many years later her name is now Dr Joanne Buckskin, an academic at the University of Wollongong and a woman who made good on a promise she made herself all those years before.

Between delivering her baby at a mission in Melbourne to her flower-filled office at UOW, Dr Buckskin has experienced discrimination, domestic violence, raised five children as a single mother and lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her story is as much about survival as it is about achievement.

"It was awful but those sort of hard knocks make you develop character, strength and resilience," she says of those days spent in the mission.

"When you face those hard knocks, you learn to get up again."

Joanne had given birth and given up a baby before most people learn to drive, yet she returned to high school despite the social stigma, determined to graduate.

She moved interstate to attend the University of Adelaide to be close to her indigenous father and his family, despite the fact that he didn't know she existed until a few years earlier. She had found him by chance, flicking through a phone book.

"Until I was 15 or 16, he didn't know I was his. One night we looked for his last name in the phone book and found a whole mob of Buckskins, my sister and I got drunk and started dialling numbers."

They eventually called their father's sister, Aunty Glynnis.

"She said: 'Hang on a second I'll ring your father' and half an hour later we were talking to our dad for the first time," she recalls.

Growing up with her Anglo-Saxon mother, Joanne and her two siblings had no cultural reference point for their indigenous heritage.

"It was a really confusing time because physically and visually, we were Aboriginal-looking kids but we had no connection to family and the root of Aboriginal culture is about kinship and family ties," she explains.

For Joanne, her family is the direct channel to her culture, her history and the starting point of her identity.

In 1990 she moved near Adelaide to take her place in her father's Kaurna and Narrangga community, a language group that had inhabited the Point Pearce Mission on the South Australian Peninsula.

"The main cultural learning happened when I went to Adelaide. I got to know my community and my place in the community," she says.

Joanne spent 12 years with one foot in the white, rigid world of academia and the other in traditional indigenous culture.

"I was getting white fella educated, culturally educated and developing my identity as a mother in my community."

Joanne had three of her five children in Adelaide as she completed her teaching degree and worked part-time.

"I soon realised from being a single mother to small children of my own, I didn't have the temperament or the patience to be a teacher forever," she laughs.

"I did my masters in adult education and I fell in love with that field."

Domestic violence eventually forced Joanne to abandon her life in Adelaide along with her newly made family ties.

"It was really traumatic because I left my family support, all my sisters, aunties and uncles - there was none of that in Wollongong," she says.

After tolerating years of abuse, Joanne's turning point came after she considered how the toxic environment was affecting her children.

"I thought how do I create more stability and safety for my children? After I was stalked and abused, I didn't think it was going to get better even with three restraining orders."

Joanne now lives with post-traumatic stress syndrome as a stubborn hangover of past violence.

"I'm open about it, it's like coming out that I'm gay. I'm not ashamed," she says.

She manages her day-to-day life by avoiding triggers and going to counselling.

"It's about really knowing yourself and knowing when to step back in situations when you're feeling vulnerable."

Joanne chose to flee to Wollongong because it was the furthest place she felt she could get from her ex-partner.

Once again she turned to education to rebuild her life, enrolling in a graduate certificate of indigenous research while working at UOW.

"I tried never to stand in victimhood, I empowered myself through education," she says.

Dr Buckskin regularly uses four-letter words, far from traditional academic language, when she isn't teaching. She finds formal speech unfriendly and unnecessary. To her, everyone is a "darl" or a "bub", while anyone older or in a position of respect gets "auntie" or "uncle".

Her disarming immediacy and overriding maternal instincts sees her checking if her often bemused colleagues have eaten lunch each day. However, she isn't always comfortable straying from the traditional academic mould.

"I am always a bit worried about being taken seriously, as a working-class indigenous woman in a white institution," she says.

"I'm not always confident speaking."

This inability to see herself as belonging to the "white" world of academia nearly ended her career.

"When I finished my PhD in 2012, I applied the next day to be a shelf-packer at Unanderra Woolworths because I didn't feel like I could do anything with it," she says.

At Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at UOW, Joanne realised she could exist in a white institution without forfeiting her culture. She now mentors indigenous students to do the same.

"I tell my kids that cultural black learning and formal white education has to be two priorities so you can deliver and operate in both worlds competently."

Her own children have taken the advice. Joanne's two daughters are completing university, with her eldest just offered a place in an honours program. Her sons are still in school. She has an open adoption arrangement with her first child, meaning that she was able to be reassured that he had the best life possible.

"All my kids have had a private education, even my adopted son; they're all studying and productive kids in society," she says with pride.

"My daughters are really selective in their partners, so thank God I've broken the cycle of domestic violence."


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