Indigenous elder Patricia O'Connor honoured with Queensland Day award

The world has changed a great deal since indigenous woman Patricia O'Connor was born. But this week, she reflected on the future when she collected one of Queensland's most prestigious honours.

From childhood in a tent home outside Beaudesert to Buckingham Palace for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Yugambeh elder Patricia O'Connor has covered a lot of ground. This week, she received the Queensland Great Award from Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. The awards are given annually on Queensland Day to six individuals and one organisation for outstanding service to the community.

Mrs O’Connor, who was born in Beaudesert in 1928, was honoured for her role as the joint founder of the Kombumerri Aboriginal Corporation for Culture in 1984. She was also part of a team which successfully negotiated Australia’s largest repatriation of Aboriginal remains in 1987. She helped with the reburying ceremony of 200 Aboriginal people who had been excavated from their original burial site at Merrimac on the Gold Coast by the University of Queensland in the 1960s. She also opened the Yugambeh Museum, Language and Heritage Research Centre, which is one of Australia’s largest language centres. However, her community work extended a lot further and she was also involved in the unveiling of Australia’s first memorial to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women in 1991. The memorial stone is on a bora ground at Burleigh Heads. Along with her sister Ysola, she also negotiated for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women to march under their own flags in the Brisbane ANZAC DAY parade.

Mrs O’Connor was born to Aboriginal parents Stanley Yuke and Edith Graham. Stan was a former Aboriginal champion boxer who had graced the ring in Brisbane’s Festival Hall in the mid 1920s. Edith was the youngest daughter of well-known Aboriginal matriarch Jenny Graham who raised her children with husband Andrew Graham in Southport from the 1900s onwards. In the early years of marriage, Stan, Edith and children Beryl, Patricia and Jimmy lived in a tent at Clune outside Kooralbyn, where Stan managed his own bullock team. Patricia said the Aboriginal community of the day was close knit and supportive of each other. She grew up in close contact with her extended family, who were the traditional people of Beaudesert, Southport and Stradbroke Island. “I had a lovely childhood,” she said. “The family was very close and we always felt very loved.” When Patricia was aged five, the family relocated to Southport, to live with Granny Graham and her many relatives on the banks of the Nerang River, by the Broadwater. “It was actually like paradise,” Mrs O’Connor said. “Our cousins lived close by and the mangroves and ocean were our playgrounds.” But the Australia Patricia was born into was very different to the one that honoured her last week. She was born in the Beaudesert hospital, representing the first generation of her Aboriginal family line not to be born in the bush. The Australian constitution was just 28 years old and it didn’t recognise Aborigines.

Aboriginal people were cut off from the rights enjoyed by Australian citizens, such as land ownership, the basic wage and access to public facilities such as swimming pools, theatres and hotels. Removal policies meant children could be taken from families without notice or explanation. And the month after Patricia was born, the Coniston massacre unfolded in Central Australia. For three months, police and civilians murdered Aboriginal men, women and children in revenge for the death of a non-Aboriginal dingo trapper. No one was ever charged for the massacre but it was a clear reminder to Aboriginal people about their place in Australian society. It took until 2018 for an official apology from the Northern Territory police. But Mrs O’Connor doesn’t dwell on the injustices of the past. Instead, she points to the work that needs to be done to create better opportunities for mobo jarjum — tomorrow’s children. “I think people need to know their own history,” she said. “They need to know the truth of what happened in their neighbourhood and around Australia. “Then they need to get to work to make it a better place.” Her final advice for people wanting to make a difference “don’t be afraid of hard work and know your own story”.

Judith Kerr, Quest Newspapers June 9, 2019 8:30am

Patricia and Rory O’Connor

Patricia and Rory O’Connor