Gariima Elders Group: healing community and weaving resilience

In the wake of the devastating 2022 floods, the Northern Rivers region of NSW, on Bundjalung Country, has been slowly rebuilding.  

Two years ago, Maria Bolt-King started working at reception at CPL Ballina, but she soon moved into a role providing support to CPL clients, and then became a Service Facilitator. A proud Widjabul woman from the Bundjalung Nation, with strong connections to Mob and Country in the area, Maria worked closely with other local services to ensure clients were having their needs met in the difficult flood recovery period.  

Wardell and Cabbage Tree Island were particularly badly affected by the disaster, but as the community now has access to safe accommodation, Maria knew it was important to rebuild connections too.  

Four years prior, there had been group of Elders who had been meeting each week with the support of Service Facilitator Jacqueline Loader. As life after the floods began to return to some sort of normality, Maria thought it would be a good idea to get the group back up and running.  

Although some of the group were initially hesitant, word quickly spread and there are now about 10 regular attendees every Friday, to create weaving and other traditional artworks. It has helped that Maria had grown up in the community and had a strong connection with many of the Elders in the group.  

“A lot of the Elders, they watched me grow up. I spent a lot of time at Cabbage Tree Island as a kid,” Maria says. 

The first thing the group did was consider a name. There was some back and forth, but they reached a consensus on Gariima Elders Group. “Gariima” is a local language word for respect.  

The group spend a lot of time out on Country, gathering natural materials to create their traditional weaving projects.  

“We’ve created this connection to Country around here, across Lismore, Ballina, Alstonville and Cabbage Tree Island,” Maria says.  

Local artist Tania Marlowe also works supporting the group, and they have plans to expand their creative pursuits in the coming months. Next up, the group are going to learn to screen print tshirts, creating designs with native animals and their traditional names. They are planning to sell the tshirts to fund a trip to the Elders Olympics.  

Recently, the group have had their work on display at the Ballina Airport, and they have been approached by the Lismore Regional Gallery about an exhibition.  

For Maria, working with the Gariima Elders Group is an incredibly rewarding experience.  

“I'm learning from them. I'm learning about my Country from our Elders, and stories about their childhoods. Fridays can’t come quickly enough for me – I love it!” she says.  

“They love to laugh and share jokes. And they teach me and tell stories – I’m at that age now they can share these things with me, so I’m starting to gain knowledge about my Country and where I’m from.”  

The group also provides a safe place to share the harder stories, with members having experienced the trauma of the Stolen Generations.  

“We’ll never forget the past,” says Maria, “but I want the group to be space where for a couple of hours, we can keep out the outside noise.”  

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A group of traditional Aboriginal woven objects are suspended from the ceiling at Ballina Airport