“Indigenous women are remarkably resilient”

A conversation with Tasmanian Stolen Generations activist, Debra Hocking

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Debra Hocking is an Indigenous woman stolen from her family and the Tasmanian representative on the National Sorry Day Committee. Debra is from the Mouheneenner nation in the southeastern part of Tasmania. She is a strong feminist, dynamic organiser and proud palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian). She spoke with Alison Thorne about her journey to be reunited with her people and to reclaim her culture.

Stolen childhood. Debra was just 18 months old when she and her siblings were removed from their Aboriginal mother. “I was born in 1959 and placed with a foster family in 1961. When I was first removed, I was sent to a series of foster homes. I’ve read my records and there were complaints from families asked to foster me that I was fretful and crying all the time. I would get passed on to another family.

“I have no memory of this. My knowledge comes from government documents. The reasons behind the removal are not clear. When Sir Ronald Wilson was compiling the Bringing Them Home report, he found no evidence of neglect. But I do know from looking at the records that racism  played a huge part. Aboriginal families in Tasmania were targeted. Unlike all the other states, there was no explicit removal policy. But authorities got around this by using claims of neglect — even when there was no evidence of neglect! My family was visited by the welfare. Statements are on file that the kids looked happy. The mystery of why we were taken is part of the frustration.”

Debra described how some of her sisters and brothers were returned to the family. But Debra remained in foster care. “ My siblings were returned after a period of time, and my mother was closely watched by the department. Inspections were done at random. From the documents I have read, there were also preparations for me to go home. My father wrote a letter saying they were organising a party for me. But I never got there.”

Debra describes a childhood which was living hell. “My name was changed. I was baptised without the knowledge of my natural parents. I was told nothing of my parentage except that I was from the gutter! I didn’t even know my mother’s name!

“There was resistance from my foster siblings. There were already four children in this family. I was treated with utter racism and discrimination. It was hard because I didn’t know what a family was supposed to do. There was abuse. I got floggings from my foster mother. My foster father raped me. My brothers raped me. You become numb and, knowing nothing different, you accept this as the norm. It took me years to be able to utter those words to anyone because, like a lot of victims of abuse, you have a lot of guilt. I lived with that for years. Life in the foster home was just plain terrible.”

Coming home. “It wasn’t until I was nearly twenty that I decided I wanted to find my Mum. I knew nothing about her, so she was hard to locate. It took me two years, and she only lived five minutes away. When I found her, she was ill. I didn’t realise she was dying. I only had the one visit with her. Very little dialogue occurred because of the emotion and tears. So I never got a chance to sit and talk with her.

“I began to search out other members of my family and elders in the community. That was really hard. When I knocked on one fella’s door, he actually fainted because he thought I was dead. I did all of this in isolation. I prompted people to remember. Some embraced me, others were very scared.

“It was difficult for me to step back into a family I’d had nothing to do with for 20 years. I worried they may not accept me because I’d been gone so long. So as much as I didn’t belong with my foster family, I didn’t seem to belong with my natural family. I just did not know where I fitted in.”

Debra described her journey from being an insecure 20-year-old to becoming a strong woman: “It has been some journey! I pushed myself not to be bitter because I could see how hatred can make people self-destruct with anger. I drew on all of my strength to reclaim what was rightfully mine. I am very proud of my Indigenous heritage, and I identify strongly as an Aboriginal Tasmanian. I get challenged about it sometimes because of the climate within the community and issues associated with the colour of people’s skin.”

Last year, Debra featured in A Green Shell Necklace, a short film which explores the efforts of palawa women to reclaim their cultural heritage. “It was extremely moving to stand on Indigenous land at Oyster Cove and talk about my ancestors. Unless we speak out, our history will get buried. Some Indigenous Tasmanians are now using words from our language when we speak. Our young people are starting to dance again. It may not be in the traditional ways. They are not taught. They just know how to do it. For a lot of us we’ve lost our communities, we’ve lost families, we’ve lost loved ones, so it is an important process struggling to reclaim this identity.”

Debra explained the significance of the green shell necklace. “That is one of our continuing cultural traditions which is handed on through women today. Each shell necklace has a history and a story. The shells in my necklace are mariner shells. They come from the Furneaux  Islands. They are collected in the traditional way. The elders who collect them teach the younger women about the moon and the tides. The shells live on kelp and can be collected when the tide is out. Everything has to be right.”

Fanny Cochrane-Smith wearing a shell necklace. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania.

Debra’s great, great grandmother was Fanny Cochrane-Smith. The State Library of Tasmania has a photo in its collection of Cochrane-Smith from the 1890s wearing a green shell necklace. “My great, great grandmother was a focal point for reclaiming my history, because she is my ancestor. She died 100 years ago last February. She survived both government policy and organised racism. She had the capacity to sit down with people and win their respect. She changed the way a lot of people thought. She is remembered for being one hell of a great woman.

“My life has similarities with Fanny Cochrane-Smith. All those years ago, she was denied rights on the grounds she was not a full-blood Aborigine. She took her case to parliament and won! She was granted 150 acres of land at Nichols Rivulet. And 150 years later her great, great granddaughter is standing in parliament and arguing for the importance of acknowledging the traditional owners. Tasmania was the first parliament in Australia to make that acknowledgement.  We were both struggling to get recognition.”

Women in the lead. Debra sees the issue of the stolen generations as a significant feminist issue. “Its impact on Indigenous women is enormous.  I look at my poor Mum. I have four children and I couldn’t stand it if they were taken away. If you have been removed as a child yourself, the government looks at you with suspicion. You have been artificially cared for and may lack parenting skills. The cycle repeats, and government comes in and takes children away from stolen children. It is still happening in Tasmania. Our culture has seen many changes, but the role of Indigenous women has not changed. Women play a leadership role, because we have an especially deep understanding of this issue. Our role in the movement is a symbol of transgenerational strength. Indigenous women are remarkably resilient. ”

Debra leads the committee which organises Sorry Day events in Tasmania. She explains the origins of the day: “Sorry Day was one of the 54 recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report. It was proposed that one day each year — May 26 — be recognised in every state of Australia to commemorate and recognise all the children who were stolen. We have been trying to get a formal apology from our Prime Minister who flatly refuses to do so. One of my roles has been to go around to schools and talk to children about Sorry Day. Sorry for a lot of people means one thing only — ‘sorry for what I have done.’ But I encourage people to understand that it is not what you have done and it is not about guilt.

“This year we have moved on to a Day of Healing. Even though the Prime Minister refuses to say ‘sorry,’ hundreds of thousands of Australians have, and that means a great deal. The government refuses to acknowledge what happened. However, the film Rabbit Proof Fence did that for us. The livers of the history and the learners of the history both have a key role to play so that we can work together to ensure that it never happens again.”

The Kimberly region is one of the areas worst affected by child removal. Debra explained, “the Stolen Generations activists from the Kimberly put a proposal to the national committee to have an emblem. They suggested the native hibiscus. It is a truly beautiful purple coloured flower. I was not sure if it grew in Tasmania. The local nursery advised it didn’t. We wanted to be part of the national focus, so we went to the Botanical Gardens and proposed that this flower be adopted. They agreed. The seeds were flown over and we had a planting. The Gardens were brilliant in their support. ”

Debra is keen to make connections between Indigenous Australians and all who are targets of the system. She explained that “the emphasis of Sorry Day this year was on getting people to reflect and to take time out and think about all of those people who have been marginalised — not only Indigenous Australians.” Debra was pleased to see this connection in the national statement adopted by the committee. The statement says: “Many people have come to our country who suffered in their homelands — from the early convicts expelled to our shores for petty crimes, to those seeking asylum today. We do not want anyone to experience the humiliation and trauma that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have endured over these past 217 years.” Debra, who read the national statement at the Tasmanian event, was also appreciative of its strength and feistiness. The statement clearly calls the theft of children acts of genocide and vows that Indigenous Australians and their supporters will continue with acts of resistance.

Resistance is certainly needed. While there have been achievements since the Bringing Them Home report, there is much that Indigenous people who were stolen from their families still want and need. Debra explains: “It goes from the demand for a formal apology right through to extra help with counselling services. We need parenting centres set up. These can support young mums who do struggle so they don’t come under fire from the welfare department and have their children taken away. We also need reparations and compensation. A lot of us have required counselling all of our lives. We’ve paid for all of that counselling. The damage done to us is a monetary issue, and it impacts on our lives. People also need assistance to be reunited. We do have the Freedom of Information Act but we really need much more assistance from government. But the Federal Government won’t assist, because it continues to claim that these things didn’t really happen anyway!”

Looking to the future. Debra was one of the organisers of the 2000 Tasman Bridge Reconciliation Walk. She reflected on the day: “About 25,000 people walked over that bridge! Coming from a state that has such a bleak Indigenous history, that made a huge statement. I believe that the Tasmanian march was the best attended march per capita in Australia. I walked across the bridge with elders from the community. It was emotional. We were so proud to be Indigenous Tasmanians.”

I put it to Debra that things seem to have stalled politically since the marches in 2000 and asked if she agreed. “Yes! At the time of the reconciliation walks around the country, there was a genuine hope that this would be part of an ongoing process. But this was at the end of the Council for Reconciliation’s ten-year charter. And when the funding dropped out, so did many people’s commitment, which is very sad.

“We are all aware that we have to keep the process going. It is not something people do once and then say ‘my work is done.’ Although, we’re leading in Tasmania in many ways. We have achieved the acknowledgement in parliament and we recently won back the Cape Barren and Clarke Islands in Bass Strait.”

Debra advocates looking to other parts of the world for inspiration. “The difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Tasmanians is twenty years. New Zealand had exactly the same situation, but they have improved the health outcomes for Maori because of obligations they have under the treaty. The life span difference now between Maori and other New Zealanders is currently about two years. I don’t mind if we have a treaty or a memorandum of understanding — call it what you like — but what is needed is an agreement that will force the government to act on and genuinely address Indigenous disadvantage.

“I don’t know how politicians sleep at night knowing the state of Indigenous health. Fix it! But to address health issues, they have to address the issues of the Stolen Generations, they have to recognise all of the barbaric acts of genocide, they have to recognise the theft of land. To make a treaty with Indigenous Australians, the government would have to admit to all of these things, because otherwise it simply would not work.”

Debra is scathing about the current agenda of the Howard Government: “The Shared Responsibility Agreements, and the insulting demands that children wash their faces, are racist crap. It is dehumanising and demoralising. The National Indigenous Council is appointed, and is not even representative of all parts of Australia. We can’t simply assume that Victoria has the same needs as Tasmania. It just doesn’t work like that. Even within Tasmania there is a diversity of regional needs. Indigenous people really do have to stand together. Unless there is strong leadership to drive the agenda we will just be mainstreamed. Differences will not be recognised or addressed.

“The problem right now is leadership. Auntie Ida West was one of our most celebrated leaders in Tasmania. I had the honour and privilege of her mentoring me in her last years. She was a leader who was respected by everyone.  We need to get back to grassroots leaders. Not just nine-to-five ‘leaders’ with a travel allowance. Leaders like Auntie Ida West did not need a title and were leaders 24/7 and 365 days a year. Auntie Ida not only provided leadership to Indigenous Tasmanians, she advised other communities. For example, the Sudanese community went to her for assistance. That’s a great leader. A great leader is not about creating followers, a great leader is about creating new leaders.”

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