Butchulla woman Vanessa Graf stands outside the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.
Butchulla woman Vanessa Graf stands outside the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.

Butchulla lawyer’s historic moment in top court

AS SHE stood before the chief justice in our capital's highest court, Vanessa Graf proudly bore Butchulla culture on her skin.

Wearing her grandmother's headpiece and three ochre dots, representing the three Butchulla lores, she was admitted to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.

The admission ceremony, held on Friday, June 19, was an important moment not only in Ms Graf's life but in Butchulla history.

It was the first time a Butchulla person had become a lawyer in the nation's capital.

The significance of the occasion was not lost on Chief Justice Helen Murrell, who took the opportunity to acknowledge Ms Graf before those gathered to witness the admission.

"Ms Graf is wearing her grandmother's headdress," Justice Murrell said.

"The ochre dots worn by Ms Graf represent the three Butchulla laws/lores: what is good for the land comes first; do not take or touch anything that does not belong to you; if you have plenty, you must share."

Though she has never lived on country, Butchulla culture and a connection to the region run deep in Ms Graf's veins.

Her mother is Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation chairwoman, Veronica Bird and her grandmother is well-known Butchulla language advocate, Joy Bonner.

The family regularly visited Butchulla country while Ms Graf was growing up and she is a frequent visit to K'gari.

"My mum made sure I knew who my family was back on Butchulla country," she said.

"We went back there often. I'm very close with my grandmother and my cousins.

"I often go back there and I always try to go back to K'gari and spend some time.

"It's important to me that I now teach my son and daughter where they're from."

Ms Graf said while she was raised on the Central Coast of NSW - Darkinjung country - her mother made sure she understood her ancestral roots.

Vaness Graf with her son, Josef and her mother, Veronica Bird.
Vaness Graf with her son, Josef and her mother, Veronica Bird.

While she understands the significance of her role as a trailblazer, Ms Graf, 39, said she was still finding her feet as a lawyer.

The mother-of-two said, however, she saw opportunities to make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal people.

"I'm still very new to all of this so I'll find my voice along the way," Ms Graf said.

"I got into law because I was, at the time, working in the local court system supporting women and children.

"I often saw a lot of indigenous clients who were in custody and they had stories about intergenerational trauma. I wanted to make a difference.

"To be admitted is a huge deal, particularly for an Aboriginal person.

"It's becoming more frequent now but it's not often you hear of an Aboriginal person getting into law."

She did not want to go into detail about hot-button issues like the Black Lives Matter movement but said, at a personal level, discussing the problems with people in her life had helped change perspectives.

"As an indigenous person I have very strong views about this," Ms Graf said.

"I've seen a lot of my friends who I had respect for and I thought they reciprocated that respect, so I've had conversations with people.

"If you can just change one person's perception of these kinds of things, you're making a difference."

Now working for the National Indigenous Australians Agency, Ms Graf studied law at Deakin University in Victoria, mostly by distance while raising her son, Josef.

All up, her law training and study took about 10 years and her daughter, six-year-old Amari Johnson, was born during that time.

She hopes her journey and success will inspire other Aboriginal people to achieve their dreams.

"As much as this is a significant time for me and my family and Butchulla people and perhaps in one way just the start of my journey, this is not just about me," Ms Graf said.

"This is something I never thought I would do but 10 years down the track, I've got my law degree and I went on to do my Masters of Law.

"I was the first female indigenous student from Deakin University to be placed on the Dean's Honour Roll."

Ms Graf said she would not rule out one day moving home to Butchulla country, "to make a difference in people's lives".