A wildflower of Aurukun

Keri Tamwoy has been described as a gentle warrior with a fierce heart. But that is too simple a narrative for all of the layers that make up this fearless Wik woman.

Even Keri herself might say you’d be mistaken in describing her courage as a lack of fear, for it’s her perseverance throughout the challenges she’s faced that has strengthened her resolve.

There is, in fact, not much she wouldn’t do for her people, the Wik, Wik Way and Kugu people of Aurukun. While she must try to inure herself to the harsh realities of life as a mayor in a remote Aboriginal community, she must also be led by, above all, a spirit that continues to search for the best in others.

On reflection, Keri’s path seems almost predetermined, aligned with all the great cultural leaders that preceded her, and all that will come after.

Just like her mother before her, the late Alison Woolla, Aurukun’s second female mayor has come to understand that a life of service comes with great sacrifice.

It was her mother that knew, long before anyone else, the life Keri was destined for.


 I’m not a fragile flower, I’m a wildflower. I’m from the bush in Aurukun. These wildflowers thrive despite the elements and that is how I see all Indigenous women, no matter what we face, no matter the harsh environment, we continue to display strength and raw beauty, we continue to thrive.

“My mother was born to lead,” Keri says. “She did this thing at a community meeting. Everyone showed up and were nominating people to sit on this board to negotiate with Government and Chalco Mining Company. Mum was nominated by her uncle and she gets up and thanks him and says, ‘Now is the time where we should let the younger ones take over.’ She turns around to me, and here I am, she’d invited me to come to this meeting. She turns around and looks at me and says, ‘I’m going to have to nominate my daughter Keri if everyone agrees to that.’ And I couldn’t say ‘no mum’ because that would have been disrespectful. That was about 18 years ago now. I am just a humble housewife raising my children, and that’s all I ever wanted to do. But she could see that in me. And here I am today, because of mum.”

Keri keeps her mum’s memory close to her heart, an ongoing strength to support and guide her in everything she does.

"Mum was a single mum, but she made sure we had the right people around us, she created a positive home environment for us, she was also a very strict parent. It was my mum’s grandfather, Francis Yunkaporta that saw her potential and told her, ‘Granddaughter you need to step up.’ It can be male dominated, the Indigenous space. But I had all of these positive influences around me growing up."

“Apart from doing all the advocating, being a mayor, then deputy mayor, a land rights activist, mum was just mum to us. She loved taking us out on Country, camping, fishing, sitting under the shade of her tree with some of her grandmothers and her small mothers, doing all the baskets and weaving and grass skirts for cultural ceremonies or the Laura dance. Sometimes it was just for the sake of coming together and it gave the women an opportunity to discuss community issues.”

Wik women have always been renowned for being staunch, and Keri’s mum was no exception. Alison was an early champion of keeping women and children safe, and many of Keri’s earliest memories consist of her house being a welcoming refuge for all those seeking a safe haven.

“I have all these memories of my mum telling the younger sisters, ‘Make a bed for granny or make a bed for aunty.’ I remember thinking, where is mum finding all these mattresses from? She managed to accommodate people and her home was known as a safe home back then.

“This was at the height of alcohol when the first wet canteen came in, and then what followed after the alcohol was introduced. She was a superwoman, my mum. She’d have all her small mothers step in and help and the grandmothers who would help look after us if she would have to travel. I’m sure she had challenges, but I didn’t see them.




Aurkun Landscape

The traditional homelands of the Wik, Wik Way and Kugu people 

 I’ve never been scared to use my voice...my mum always told me, 'Your voice is the most powerful tool, and you should use it to help other people'.

“I think back to 25 years ago in Aurukun and I feel like everyone was more united, we supported each other and had amazing leaders and Elders. There was no competition, just the idea that we were all in this together and we’ll move forward together.”

Keri’s foray into local politics has been a true trial by fire. There are lessons she has had to learn the hard way. And there are days when she yearns to turn off her phone and disappear into the anonymity of being her own person again. But despite it all, she continues to show up for her people, her family, her community, every day, without fail.

“Sometimes I think that for once, I just want to be Keri, I just want to be me. I don’t want people asking me questions all the time, and sometimes they ask out of the goodness of their heart, and I don’t blame them for that. But the pressure is always on me to step up to the plate. The pressure is always there. Otherwise, If I don’t and it’s left unattended, the situation will only get worse. Especially when families are relying on you to help them solve issues.”

Despite being the ultimate diplomat, Keri Tamwoy is also a formidable opponent. Fear has no place in her boardroom. These are the roles she must expertly try to weave and balance if she is to survive this kind of life.

“I’ve never been scared to use my voice. One time a couple of months ago in an agency meeting I actually questioned myself whether I came on too strong,

“My mum always told me, ‘Your voice is the most powerful tool and you should use it to help other people.’ I’m the kind of person who manages well under extreme stress. I get better results when I get a lot of demands and I’m stressing.

“I’m not a fragile flower, I’m a wildflower. I’m from the bush in Aurukun. These wildflowers thrive despite the elements and that is how I see all Indigenous women, no matter what we face, no matter the harsh environment, we continue to display strength and raw beauty, we continue to thrive.”

It is this dichotomy of beauty and struggle, of rich culture and language and deep suffering that seems to epitomise life in Aurukun. And for Keri, there is no other place she’d rather be.

Despite her track record of getting the job done, Keri continues to be underestimated. That in itself, she says, is a kind of superpower for women like her leading in historically male-dominated fields.

Recently, when the Aurukun Shire Council CEO had to resign unexpectedly, Kerie was inundated with ‘offers of assistance’ directing her to go into administration.

“I have had some experience with people trying to tell Council how to do our job. And I’ve come across a lot of mansplainers. Sometimes I ask that question verbally, 'Is it because I’m a woman?’ Sometimes they make me feel just because I’m a woman that I don’t have everything in control. I tell people if I need your help, I do have your number.

“In this instance I didn’t need anyone to tell me what I should be doing. I had everything planned. The council had a new CEO in straight away so there was only a gap of two weeks.”

  I think back to 25 years ago in Aurukun and I feel like everyone was more united, we supported each other and had amazing leaders and Elders. There was no competition, just the idea that we were all in this together, and we'll move forward together.

There are moments, amidst the noise that cause her to question if she can endure, if she is made for this long battle. But Keri needs only to think back to the trailblazers that have come before her and their stories of great sacrifice and hope, of battles won and lost, of love for a people that will never be extinguished. And so, Keri perseveres. Like her mother before her. Like her grandmothers and aunties. Like she has been preparing for this role her entire life.

While Keri balances the weight and expectation of her people’s lives and wellbeing with expert grace and determination, what many do not see is the personal grief and loss that must be endured alongside this. March 21 marked a date that will be etched in the minds of Wik people forever. A day they lost three of their own. This year marks 28 years since Keri lost two of her brothers in a single plane crash along with the deaths of the pilot and two other passengers. It is a date heavy with grief and one that Keri, her family and community must dig deep to find extra strength to keep going.

“There were six of us. My older brother passed away along with the brother after me in the plane crash in Weipa. We are a close family, and that afternoon ripped our hearts out knowing I would never see my brothers again. That was the day that our mother's heart would never be the same again and the lives of so many would never be the same.”

For Keri, her family remains her greatest strength, the sole reason keeps going. With six children aged between 29 and 15 and five grandchildren, Keri’s time is finely balanced between community and family, between duty and love. Throughout it all, she says, her faith and lore keeps her resolve steadfast.

“Life is such a juggling act, and it can be extremely difficult to manage all of my roles. I’m trying to encourage the councillors to get more involved, to attend meetings on my behalf. We’re a team and we’re all supposed to be working together. That’s how I want us to be operating. We have younger councillors, maybe in the next elections they might say, ‘I’m going to nominate for mayor.’”

In quieter times, Keri loves nothing more than to retreat to her family’s ancestral homelands, turn off her phone and just enjoy time with her family. But these days, that luxury is getting harder and harder to come by.

“We always plan a yearly Easter break to go out onto homeland and just be in the saltwater. In the creek water, the sun burning your skin and the sand between your toes. Eating the fish you catch. That’s all I want.”

For anyone lucky enough to have known Keri and her mum, it is clear the two share some remarkable traits. Keri is most certainly her mother’s daughter. It is a badge she wears with pride, a living testament to the generations of Wik women who fought for their place in this country and refused to give up.

Quietly spoken but fiercely determined in her approach, Keri continues to lead Aurukun with grace, resilience, and most of all, love. Just like her mum before her, a wildflower from Aurukun.

“If mum was still alive, she would have been my greatest supporter and mentor. I miss that. Sitting with mum, having a cuppa and listening to her stories.

“I think she’d be really proud of how far I’ve come. There are some people who have known mum during her lifetime that I come across and they say to me, ‘Your mum just spoke. You are so alike.’ When people say that to me, I feel so humble, because that’s the greatest thing anyone could ever say to me.”


Keri Tamwoy would like to acknowledge and pay her respects to all the deputy female mayors and councillors of Aurukun who have served before her. 



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