Being the Barkindji Warrior

The story of Shantelle Thompson OAM

Shantelle Thompson knows what it means to be a fighter, figuratively and literally.

A proud Barkindji woman, University of Wollongong (UOW) graduate Shantelle is a motivational speaker and truthteller, entrepreneur, mother of six and world champion in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, having just returned from the World Masters in Las Vegas. 

“I started jiu-jitsu at 19, as a form of discipline practice because I was operating from my trauma response to the world. I would punch first and ask questions later. I was getting into a lot of fights, and someone suggested that I go and check out the local martial arts club," she says.  

“I fell in love with the discipline, with the practice, and it gave me a vehicle to come home to myself. It was another connection point with bringing me back to my culture as well around values, discipline, respect, reciprocity, relationship.” 

Shantelle trained for years with the intention of practicing professional MMA, before having her first daughter at age 22, then twins three years later. While she maintained a love for the sport, professional training took a backseat while raising three young children.  

“I was doing it more for fitness, then after I got sick with my postnatal depression, jiu-jitsu gave me a vehicle to heal again, and brought me back to my culture.” 

Shantelle went on to win three world championships and is known as the Barkindji Warrior - in and out of the ring - a nod to her Country in western NSW.  Shantelle Thompson is wearing a black jiu-jitsu uniform with a purple belt. She standing in front of a World Championships 2016 sign, smiling, holding an Aboriginal flag up behind her back. Shantelle at the 2016 World Championships

After the birth of her fourth child, a fractured tailbone left Shantelle feeling ready to retire, but seeing her daughter compete in the US in 2021 “reignited the fire and hunger” to begin training again. 

Shantelle began a year’s worth of training, competing in local competitions while raising six children and running her two business – the Kiilalaana Foundation, a program where she shares her experiences to empower First Nations you and women, and the Becoming Better Together Collective, which provides bespoke programs on equity, diversity and inclusion and culture-first thinking in workplaces. 

With no coach, no official club or teammates, Shantelle took herself to Las Vegas to compete internationally for the first time as a blackbelt.  

“I've never been one to focus on logistics,” she says. 

“If I get that calling from my old people in my spirit and my body says yes, I just take the next step and trust that whatever I need to make that journey happen, I'll be supported because I trust the dreams and callings choose us. They choose us because they are possible.” 

While many would find the array of commitments overwhelming, Shantelle uses each passion to drive the other.  

“Balance and juggling are not analogies that work for me, and they never have. I've always lived a very full life, even as a young person with school, sport, culture and community,” she explains. 

“I talk about it as ‘life weaving’, where one role has to honour and bring resources to another, otherwise I’m not doing the right thing. The roles that I have are Ngamaka (Mum), Aunty Shan, jiu-jitsu, entrepreneurship, and culture. 

Shantelle Thomspon is standing against a sunset, holding a small child, with two teenagers by her side. The family is all wearing traditional Aboriginal body and face paint, and weaved skirts. Shantelle with three of her children

“My entrepreneurship is a vehicle for me to take care of my family and to have an impact in a way that allows for self-determination and sovereignty in how I show up. My jiu-jitsu is a calling and a way for me to actualise myself in my journey.” 

Not about the destination 

At not yet forty years old, Shantelle has achieved more than most do in a lifetime. 

She is the first in her family to go to university, completing a double degree in arts and teaching at Deakin, then a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Trauma and Recovery at UOW, which she credits with helping build the foundations for her businesses Kiilalaana and Becoming Better Together. 

“The Graduate Certificate was really the foundations of me wanting to understand trauma, the impacts of it, what causes it, where does it come from, and then how do I use that knowledge to manage not only my own trauma, but then to empower people to want to take control of their own trauma and their own journeys, to move from surviving life to thriving in in life,” she says.  

“It was a foundation for me in understanding my own practice and thought leadership and how I teach and guide others in their healing and self-development journey, especially for my work at Kiilalaana. 

“You need a story worth telling and you need the space for people to step into their own power and potential in a supported environment. [The graduate certificate] allowed me to create trauma-informed spaces and environments for people to step up to their own journey and find their own agency and self-power again.” Shantelle Thompson is wearing traditional Aboriginal face paint holding a weaved basket with smoke.

In 2021, she received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for her work in cultural teaching and services to First Nations people. 

“The Order of Australia Medal was very much a something I saw as a Western thing that didn't really add any value to my life. However, when I thought about and considered the people who had nominated me and that I was nominated and acknowledged for my services to the Aboriginal community and sport and women, that I accepted it for what I could use it for as a tool to open up doors and leverage those networks.” 

Between the OAM, three university degrees, three world championships, a blackbelt and her six children, Shantelle can’t pick a highlight – and doesn’t feel the need to.  

“Being able to share my story on different platforms and learning about the power and the responsibility of being your own boss, where there is no nine-to-five and no one setting the agenda for me. It also allows me to work towards being able to serve my community and create that intergenerational wealth and impact that I want to have,” she says.  

“So overall, it wouldn't be a particular moment. It would be the journey itself to get to a point where I trust myself enough to know that my family and my income is solely reliant upon myself, how I'm willing to show up and how I have the courage to let go.”