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Cara Peek

There’s an electricity in the air at rodeos. A fatalist might say the charged atmosphere comes from the brushing of shoulders with the invisible crossroad of something omnipotent - which way will it go? The tossing of a coin, one side glinting with the rush, the jubilation, the dancing on the edge; the other scarred with what could happen, should it go wrong. A collective adrenaline, passed person to person so a crowd is no longer a bubbling crowd of individuals but a mass of shared molecules, eyes singularly trained on the cowboy or cowgirl in the ring. The breath of human and stock exhaled as one.

For Cara Peek, the sport is not just straining flesh, bright lights and flying dust. The arena represents a slice of Indigenous history that she is vying to inject back into her community; a sense of liberation, resilience and strength. It’s a sacred coming together, a shared experience, a cheering of champions and a transference of skill. As founder of the Kimberley’s Saltwater Country, the Yawuru/Bunuba woman helps create training and employment pathways for local Indigenous people through rodeo.

“Bull riding is relevant to our people. They enjoy it. They show up for it. The Aboriginal cowboy is a symbol of freedom for Aboriginal people,” she says. “Of course, it’s an adrenaline rush and it’s not the only sport we do, it’s just one part of rodeo; but when you’re living in a community that is grappling with intergenerational trauma on a daily basis, and the highest suicide rate in the world, jumping on the back of a bull isn’t much of a risk.”

The Indigenous cowboy is richly intertwined in Australia’s pastoral history. “Although there are dark elements associated with that, it was and continues to be an opportunity for people to live and work on their own country and still practice their own culture and look after and support their families financially, in an open and inclusive environment,” Cara says. “That history hasn’t always been bright and shiny, but it has definitely been a space where people could be more of themselves than they were allowed to be otherwise.”

Advocacy is laced in Cara’s DNA. The former Native Title lawyer moved to the red rock, white sand and turquoise water of Broome from her native Melbourne 12-years-ago. At first it was to spend time in her mother’s country with her grandmother, but the feeling of coming home permeated any decision to leave. “I've travelled the world, but there's nothing like the Kimberley,” she says. “That sense of connectivity is innate, a freedom you wish you could bottle. The most similar experience I’ve had was working in Arizona with the San Carlos Apache people. In their people and on their country, I felt a similar sense of commonality; an underlying worldview and way of being.”

Saltwater Country started in 2014 with its first rodeo to follow in 2016. The not-for-profit now offers training for at-risk Indigenous youth in every tier of running a large scale agricultural and country music event – from photography and live music production, to judging, stock management and bull riding clinics. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the organisation’s annual Rhythm & Ride festival was able to go ahead in September, although the global pandemic pulled many of its clinics - including a bronc riding workshop - to a grinding halt. With just a four-week lead time, the event drew three times its 2019 campdraft entries and a huge number of spectators. In partnership with PBR Australia, the winner of the open bull ride won a wildcard entry to compete in a PBR event of their choosing. For Cara, the work is a passing on of a torch lit for her by preceding generations.

“I can recognise the work that I have done and the access and the opportunities that have flowed from that; I can also recognise that not everybody has access to that. It’s my role to create a path for the people that are coming after me,” Cara says. “I have a sense of stewardship, not ownership, over any position that I hold, any country I occupy or any work that I do. If I can create opportunities for others out of that, and play a part in the collective strength of our people, that’s what I’m going to do every day.”

Donning a cowboy hat and running ABCRA clinics is a long way from Cara’s childhood growing up in Melbourne’s south east. The eldest of three, Cara studied a double degree in psychology and law, hailing from a richly multicultural suburb. “I come from a long line of strong advocates and thinkers. My Mum says I always knew exactly who I was and what I wanted. Mum was actually the greatest guiding light and strength that I had the privilege of being around when I was growing up,” she says. “She took me to hear Nelson Mandela speak when he was released (from prison) and came to Australia.”

Now the 40-year-old pours her energy into her community engagement work, running her consultancy firm, The Cultural Intelligence Project alongside her directorships for the Museum for Freedom and Tolerance and National Rural Women’s Coalition.In January, she and co-founder and sister, Adele Peek will launch the Cultural iQ; an online education platform for businesses and individuals who want to elevate cultural intelligence. Meanwhile, she was named the 2020 Western Australia finalist for Agrifutures’ Rural Women’s Award, with the overall winner to be announced next year. With an eye firmly on the horizon, Cara’s voice is a clear conduit to a future built sustainably for rural and remote Indigenous people, by Indigenous people.

“In five years’ time, I would love to have a purpose built facility, delivering for our community and attracting first nations brothers and sisters from across the nation and globe to come and compete and perform their dance and music. It would be a place to share our culture and welcome the rest of the country to come and experience that as well,” she says.“We’re an Indigenous run organisation from top to bottom, but inclusive in terms of who we welcome in to get involved. We’re unfunded, so we generate our own income and attract event sponsors. I would encourage people to get involved or donate to us to keep us going because we’re delivering social, emotional, cultural and economic wellbeing for our community - the Kimberly is often forgotten. But we come at it from a strength mindset. We are trying our best to help our community thrive and realise their potential.”

This article was first published in the 2020 summer issue of Graziher magazine

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