Understanding Through Remembering

May 21, 2020

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Cherylee Cooper.

For Cherylee Cooper, reconciliation means remembering.

“By remembering, listening and recounting, it helps educate so we can all understand.”

“The biggest thing for me about reconciliation isn’t forgetting, it’s actually quite the opposite” the Junction Case Manager (Outer Southern Youth Homelessness Service) said.

Born to a Ngarrindjeri mother and a Yorta Yorta father, Cherylee reflects on a happy childhood.

“Mum took wonderful care of us – my brothers, sister and I – and anyone else who needed it too,” she said. “We always had people staying with us and she’d always make sure there was enough food to go round. We had good schooling and good clothes and shoes.

“My great grandfather, grandfather, great uncles and my father were jockeys. We grew up at the race meetings in Adelaide and Naracoorte. It was a big part of our lives.

“In the 1920’s – 1960’s Aboriginal people made up most of the jockeys in the country towns because they were never paid their wages for their riding in races. Back then no Aboriginal person even queried or complained and if they did no one would have listened. Their duties included feeding and washing horses, cleaning stalls, sleeping in the stables, they were all put on apprenticeships but that never meant anything as wages go."

“What I do remember was it was really hard for us to find a place to live when moved to Melbourne. My uncle who was not Aboriginal had to end up getting us a house in his name, we lived in South Oakley, now a very up market neighbourhood. I’m sure because we were Aboriginal, getting a rental property was really hard.”

“Things would happen that would really jolt you,” she recalls.

“One day we were at the football at a suburban oval, watching my brother play. It was rainy and starting to get dark. There were a group of men standing behind us. They were talking about my brother. I heard one say: It’s lucky he’s got white teeth cos we wouldn’t see him in the rainy weather otherwise. My Dad just pretended he didn’t hear it. I couldn’t do that.”

Her personal experiences – combined with a passion to drive change – have shaped Cherylee both personally and professionally.

After finishing school, she married and had four children of her own. However, following the break-up of her marriage, Cherylee, and her children, moved across the country. After working in administration in regional councils across Victoria and Queensland, she returned to South Australia.

“I completed Administration, Governance and Management Diploma’s but felt I really needed to have studied more in client areas, and I eventually studied and gained a degree in Social Work”

This led to Cherylee working for Link-Up South Australia – an organisation which traces, reunites and provides counselling services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the stolen generation.

“Of every case I’d work on, it was about 60 per cent positive outcome but 40 per cent not always a good ending,” Cherylee explains.

“Kids were taken away in most cases when they were small, some taken from their mothers at birth, and mothers told their babies had died.

“Their mothers had mourned for them for so long, and when a reunion took place some mothers and communities would feel this person was “too white” to be theirs. Too white meant they had no or knew nothing about culture, no language, everything about them was different. Then there were those cases where the mothers had mourned so much for their stolen child, they had died never to meet or see their child again. These were sad times too.”

While the Stolen Generation will continue to haunt people and communities for years to come, Cherylee said there is another issue which she struggles with, today, above all others.

A systemic failure to reduce high mortality rates and effectively deal with health challenges to which Aboriginal people are more inherently disposed, is something she can’t comprehend.

“So many of our health problems are inherent and our people and communities really suffer because of that,” Cherylee, who lost her brother to diabetes complications in his early 40s, explains.

“Our illnesses and health issues start at an early age and the average life span for an Aboriginal person is not a great age - usually 43 – 59 years.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, if only other Australians could understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People need support and assistance in such things many take for granted like health, mental health, social exclusion, housing and employment. Closing the Gap has been a good start but there is still more needed, especially for people living out in communities where the health issues are so bad and medical is hard to come by.

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Cherylee’s parents Jill and Bill Cox.

“I am so lucky, happy and grateful my own parents are doing so well in their 80's. However they have suffered bad health and losses over time that has really been hard on them. But my parents are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary on 21 May. It’s such a big milestone. Many of my friends, family and communities are not so lucky.”

Reconciliation Week 2020 runs from 27 May – 3 June.

See a timeline of this year's events here.