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Aunty Phyllis Pitchford - Tribute

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 28 October 2021

Tags: Tasmanian Aboriginals

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, what beautiful contributions. We have just heard about the life and legacy of Aunty Phyllis Pitchford from Mr Jaensch and the member for Bass, Ms O'Byrne.

I rise to pay tribute to Aunty Phyllis Pitchford, Elder, teacher, mentor, historian, poet, academic, author, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother. Aunty Phyllis Pitchford, what an extraordinary Tasmanian and what a wonderful legacy of love she has left behind.

Aunty Phyllis is what my mother would call 'one of life's rare happenings'. She was fierce in her determination to speak up for her people and be a voice for her people and recognition of her people's struggle and identity but she did this with such gentleness and love. An extraordinary human being.

The first time I really met Aunty Phyllis was when I was the minister for Aboriginal affairs and we went to a community cabinet in Launceston. It was about 2010 or 2011. Aunty Phyllis came along to, I think it was the Royal Oak, where we had dinner. I had only just met this amazing person and instantly felt this connection because Aunty Phyllis had a way of looking you deep in the eyes and reaching right into your heart.

I think Aunty Phyllis was one of those people who was absolutely full of love. I agree with what Mr Jaensch said before about the twinkle. She was one of those people who could make your heart smile. That enveloping hug; there was no feeling quite like it. It was such a privilege as a newly minted minister for Aboriginal affairs to have Aunty Phyllis there offering her hand and her heart in friendship to help me understand some of the issues affecting her people.

We have heard from the minister and Ms O'Byrne about Aunty Phyllis' amazing contribution to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people but also to civic life and to arts and academia. On another occasion I remember going to Riawena when Aunty Phyllis was the Academic in Residence. You could tell that everyone who worked there basked in her love. In the half a day I was there she took me around, introduced me to everyone, made sure we had a lovely sit-down lunch together and her delight in being with people and just sharing time was really quite rare. She was deeply beloved.

I will read now from an Examiner article from October this year, not long after Aunty Phyllis passed away on the 19 October. The article says:

In an interview with the Examiner last year Aunty Phyllis said she had not experienced racism while being taught on Cape Baron and first experienced discrimination when she took a trip with her father to Flinders Island. She said, 'Growing up and going to school on Cape Baron there was no conflict between the kids', she said. 'We were all different skin colour, some were darker and some were fairer but we never thought about anything like that, we were all just a bunch of kids and we were happy kids.'

Her parents often went mutton birding on Mount Chapel Island and Aunty Phyllis often shared memories of that time with the generations below her. Michael Mansel said, 'Not only did she have a lot of knowledge on the generations before but she was passing that on to a lot of people who would listen. She was the bearer of cultural history and someone who passed it on and that is why she was such a prominent figure in the community.'

As a poet and an author Aunty Phyllis's work has been widely recognised. Her poem 'We Are Here' has been exhibited by the National Museum of Australia. As a member of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Elders Council and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre she spoke out against injustice in the community.

TASC secretary, Trudy Maluga, made particular note of Aunty Phyllis' work as an elder and a mentor for the meenah mienne project that Ms O'Byrne referred to which encourages artistic expression for Aboriginal youth in the justice system. She said:

She gave them a place that incorporated their artistic talents as a therapeutic way to deal with their past demons and the racism that Aboriginal children still endure today. She believed that art, culture and the connection to country was the key to making our community strong.

The beautiful poem 'We Are Here' is in the National Museum was written many years ago in 1984. .

They tell us we are not here we don't exist

As though we are phantom shadows from the mist.

The last one went when Truganini died or so they say

What is there left to hide?

The more we prove, the more they disagree

They're just not here, won't listen to our plea and come to grips.

Accept us as we are on equal terms, forget the colour bar.

We know we are here,

Let's get one story straight

The government helped choose our present fate

When they dropped the word half cast so long ago

And Aborigine became the 'yes' or 'no'.

On forms that helped some people to survive.

The census count tells us we are still alive

So try to acknowledge we're living here

On an even scale not bringing up the rear

to prove ourselves. We cannot live a lie

We are equal born and equally we die.

What a beautiful poem. Aunty Phyllis was Luna Mangena which in palawakani is warrior woman but she was a warrior woman with a gentle heart. For a long time on the wall of the eleventh floor of the executive building was an extraordinary painting which was part of the state collection by Bridport artist Wendy McLennan. It is a picture of Aunty Phyllis. It is a large painting. It is such a beautiful painting of Aunty Phyllis standing at wybalina, proud and strong for her people and in her people's identity.

As we know, her image in that painting will endure and remind us of her kindness and strength as will her extraordinary and generous legacy. On behalf of the Greens I want to wish a most heartfelt condolences to Aunty Phyllis's large family, her community and the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, vale gentle, loving, grand, generous and wise, Aunty Phyl, I am sure the old people will greet you well.