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Talking about National Reconciliation

Tarni Jarvis

Tarni Jarvis


National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June) is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.

We spoke to Tarni Jarvis, a Djab Wurrung Gunditjmara student whose garment features in the Top Designs exhibition currently on display at Melbourne Museum.


You wanted your outfit to represent your culture and yourself as ‘a strong, proud Djab Wurrung Gunditjmara girl’. Could you explain a little more about your inspiration and the connection with your traditional culture.

I was always raised to believe that culture is a part of you, just as much as your DNA, and you can’t get rid of or change it. Culture helps to shape the type of person that you are, your values.

I have danced since I was eight years old and have always been a part of my local community. I am inspired by my amazing 60,000 plus year-old culture and how strong we are to have survived all that we have over this time and mainly during the last 220 years.

I’m so proud of my mob. Last year’s theme for NAIDOC was ‘Because of her we can’. It made me think about all the amazing women who have worked hard for me to have opportunities and to be counted as a person. This includes all the incidental benefits that come with having rights as people, such as getting a job, being able to sit in the same part of a restaurant as my white friends, going to the same pool, being served in a shop. We take these things for granted now but my Pop Wordie and many of our Elders were not as lucky and had to fight really hard for these rights.

I wanted my dress to show my history but also what modern Aboriginal life is today. I wanted to recreate cultural practices that have been taken away from our Elders, things like weaving, speaking in language and dancing, which at one time had to be done in secret.

At one stage you were close to dropping out of school. Why was that?

I was being bullied and felt unable to cope with school during Year 9. I then struggled again during Year 12 and nearly left because I was struggling to enjoy school and cope with the workload and the pressure of getting grades. It really affected my self-esteem and confidence.

You went on to become a high-achieving student at your school. What enabled you to turn things around?

My Aboriginal community and my Mum and her family were strong motivators. They sat me down and had serious conversations about how important an education is and how doing well at school opens doors and provides a lot more opportunities. They also helped to support my mental health and got me the help I needed to get my health back on track. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to cope.

You’re now completing a Certificate IV in Work Health and Safety. What attracts you to this field?

It’s important for people to always feel safe, wherever they are, and I want to learn how I can help people feel safer while at work. I am also very passionate about mental health and wellbeing. My own experiences showed me how, without the right support, the actions of others can be very damaging to one’s self worth. Completing a traineeship is a great opportunity for me to do something different, while I think about my next steps.

Are you still creating garments or finding other outlets for your creative expression?

I haven’t been able to of late but I am saving up in order to buy new sewing machines so I can start expressing some of my new ideas. I love looking at the great range of new and established Indigenous designers and labels and how I can incorporate Aboriginal images from fashion and art into mainstream areas.

Is there someone you look up to or who has inspired you on your path?

My mum, her siblings, my Nanna Lyn and Pop Wordie, they’re such strong people and each have had their own struggles and things they’ve had to work through. Even through the struggles, their values of family have always been strong and have taught me the importance of staying together and keeping close. They push me to be a better person every day.

The theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week is ‘Grounded in truth: Walk together with courage’. What does this theme mean to you?

To me, it means we need to start the process of truth telling and talk about what happened in the past and what is still happening. We need to do this together as a nation in order to move forward. It takes courage because it is awkward and hard, but it has to happen or else it won’t get any better.