Jilpia’s life began in 1945 in the Walmadjari Nation, also known as the Great Sandy Desert, located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For the first five years of her life, Jilpia grew up within the aboriginal community learning aboriginal spiritual and cultural beliefs and life skills such as hunting and cooking. At five years old, Jilpia was stolen from her mother and sent to foster care in Queensland.
In Queensland, Jilpia learned English, a foreign language, having spoken only Walmadjari in her home. Jilpia was then educated in western culture and beliefs at an Anglican boarding school. She chose to pursue a career in nursing in 1960, describing it as something that ‘came to her’. She was one of the first aboriginal women to graduate with qualifications in nursing and midwifery in Cairns. “Studying nursing gave me knowledge but also the skills to stand up and be counted.” Said Jilpia on her experience.
In 1971, Jilpia worked at a local hospital in Cairns when she received the call to work with other aboriginal activists and establish one of the first community control medical services in Sydney; Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service.
Despite being new to the field, Jilpia saw the chance to be part of change and the need for specialised aboriginal medical services. In Sydney, Jilpia had the opportunity to work with Professor Fred Hollows, among other notable medical professionals. The Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service program was one of the first of its kind and has since been a practice adopted by over 150 community controlled health services across Australia.
In 1975 Jilpia would spend two years travelling to remote areas of Australia, working with Professor Fred Hollows and a team of health professionals as part of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. This program aimed to irradicate trachoma in aboriginal communities by treating as many people as possible within the two-year funding period. Jilpia experienced a high level of resistance and racism during this two-year journey but felt supported by Professor Hollows who always stated, “this woman stands on equal terms”.
Through her work as part of the program, Jilpia had the opportunity to return to her home country of the Walmadjari Nation. There she was reunited with her mob and her mother. Jilpia was under the impression her mother had passed away, as was the story she had been told when she was stolen from her home. She spent the next four days with her mother and was invited back to the Walmadjari Nation any time as this was ‘her country’. Jilpia regularly returns to visit the Walmadjari Nation. Members of her mob affectionately refer to her as ‘lost little girl’ in their native tongue.
In the years to come, Jilpia added many more accomplishments and accolades to her name. In 1995, she received the Member of the Order of Australia for her work with the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program and Indigenous in birthing choices. Jilpia also went on to study law at the Australian National University, but following the Mabo Decision changed paths to graduate with degrees in Political Science and History. Jilpia sought to help disadvantaged indigenous Australians further and sat on the ACT Sentencing board and the National Sorry Day Committee. In 2007 Jilpia was recognised as a Traditional Owner of her country Walmadjari Nation by birthright, by her people.