Indigenous women connect across the Pacific

Meet Kaurareg Traditional Owner Aunty Rose, who shared her jewellery-making knowledge and teaching skills with iTaukei women in Fiji.

A person holds up a handmade beaded necklace.

Rosaline Tomsana, known as Aunty Rose, is a Kaurareg Traditional Owner and Kala Lagaw Ya speaker from Waiben (Thursday Island) in the Torres Strait. She has worked in many sectors throughout her life, but her true passion is jewellery making and passing on knowledge to others.

Aunty Rose uses techniques that have been passed down from her mother and grandmother.

‘I've been making jewellery with beads since I was five years old. Back then, it was all about survival. Jewellery was a source of income for my family, and we all learnt how to do beading.

'We used bush seeds, seashells, and other things you can find on the land and beaches to make the beads,’ says Aunty Rose.

‘Us children, we’d go into the mangroves, at low tide and cut pieces of ghost net* caught up in the mangroves. We’d use this as thread for our bead jewellery, which we traded with people in Papua New Guinea for fruit and veggies.

'We were all taught beading, sewing, fishing and gardening, but it was the beading that stayed with me.’

Now using contemporary materials, Aunty Rose often runs jewellery making workshops at the Gab Tutui Cultural Centre on Waiben.

Aunty Rose first heard about the Australian Volunteers Program when staff visited Waiben in 2022 on a community engagement visit.

The small staff team saw her jewellery at the Gab Tutui Cultural Centre and asked who the artisan was. They were soon introduced to Aunty Rose, and an idea was sparked.

Apaitia Rokotuni (Apai), the Australian Volunteers Program Deputy Regional Director for Central and North Pacific, saw an opportunity for a cultural exchange between Aunty Rose and program partner Na I Soqosoqo Vakamarama i Taukei Cakaudrove (SVTC) in Fiji.

One year later, this came to fruition through Indigenous Pathways, a component of the program that aims to connect Indigenous Australians with Indigenous people internationally, to collaborate on projects that are mutually beneficial.

SVTC is a community organisation run by and for iTaukei (Indigenous) women of the Cakaudrove Province in Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island.

The organisation engages with women across 15 districts and 134 villages, and aims to enhance the status of iTaukei women, as well as preserve and strengthen traditional values, cultural practices and arts throughout their province.

‘Economic development for women running small businesses is a key focus for SVTC, hence the correlation with Aunty Rose,’ says Apai.

SVTC were excited to host a series of workshops for their members, with Aunty Rose volunteering to share her skills with more than 50 women from rural locations across the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni.

With Aunty Rose excited to volunteer, staff from the Indigenous Pathways program worked hard to ensure Aunty Rose felt well supported and had a culturally safe experience, as it was her first time travelling overseas.

Aunty Rose reflected that: ‘One thing about islanders is that they can be scared to step out of their own comfort zone. I was the same, but it’s good that I went to Fiji, I learnt a lot from everyone and it’s a good lesson to take back... It helps that there are plenty of similarities between us; the way we dress, the way we speak, the weather and even some of the same food and veggies’.

Throughout her four-week long assignment more than 50 iTaukei women between the ages of 18 and 70 came together from across the Cakaudrove province to learn from Aunty Rose. Her workshops attracted strong interest, with many women travelling long distances from their villages to participate.

The effects of economic empowerment were directly visible, with a number of women advertising their newly made jewellery on social media and selling pieces even as the workshops were taking place.

Inter-generational connections were also formed, as younger women sat side by side with older women, chatting and connecting during the workshops, something SVTC’s President, Adi Kavu Fong said is a rare occurrence.

Aunty Rose felt an instant connection with the women from SVTC.

'I made so many good friends and had such an amazing experience,’ she says.

‘I felt at home straight away… the women at the workshops would suddenly start singing. Or someone would put some music on their phone, and they would get up and dance. I thought that was great.

‘Everyone was so keen to learn, and I really enjoyed sharing my skills. The ladies always kept me happy, and they want me to come back. Of course, I want to go back too. For one, I have heaps of pattern ideas to share with them!’

Aunty Rose also wanted to share her gratitude to those who made the assignment possible:

‘I would really love to thank everyone who was involved to help make this happen, without them I wouldn’t have had this amazing experience - The Australian Volunteers Program, SVTC, Torres Strait Regional Authority, Alice Tamang, Apai Rokotuni and Eve Aihunu, Adi Salaseini Kavu Fong and Adi Sereana Kunea Lalabalavu,' says Aunty Rose.

*Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded in the ocean. Ghost nets can get snagged in mangroves, becoming especially visible at low tide.

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