Bertha Kapeen was awarded the Ballina Electorate's Woman of the Year at the Ballina RSL Club yesterday.
Bertha Kapeen was awarded the Ballina Electorate's Woman of the Year at the Ballina RSL Club yesterday.

Recognition for reluctant recipient

By JAMIE BROWN jamie.brown@northernstar.com.au WHEN Ballina's Bertha Kapeen was presented with the Ballina Electorate's Woman of the Year award yesterday, she shed a public tear.

That's a rare thing for the stalwart supporter of indigenous rights and education.

"My mother never said, 'look at me', or 'give me money'," reflected Bertha's youngest daughter, Monica.

"She always told us: 'Being Aboriginal you need knowledge to compete. Being a black woman you need to be smarter'.

"Her reward has always been education and knowledge. But today's award is a great honour."

Born under a big fig tree on Cabbage Tree Island, Bertha - one of 13 children - wasn't allowed to attend white schools.

When her parents moved to North Lismore, just a stone's throw from the local primary school - now Richmond River High - Bertha was forced to take a train to the Cubawee Aboriginal school near Tuncester, where she learned to do her own washing and cooking and very little of the three Rs.

"I didn't want my eight children to go through what I went through," said Bertha yesterday.

Bertha and her family moved back to the island of her birth, just outside Wardell, where she became the first indigenous postmistress, receiving a letter from the Queen for her efforts.

But when time came to move off the island and into Ballina, Bertha and her husband David required permission from authorities.

And when they made the move to their home in Kerr Street they were caught in the middle: Labelled 'uptown niggers' by the Aboriginal community and 'filthy blacks' by the whites, according to Monica.

Bertha ignored the taunts and sent her children to school: Her youngest to the Fox Street Pre-School and the elder ones to primary and high school. She joined every committee on every school and worked tirelessly to communicate the need for equal education among black and whites.

"What I do," said Bertha, "I do for the whole of the Aboriginal community."



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