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A tribute to Indigenous icons

Thu 8th Jul 2021

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this website contains images and names of deceased persons.

 

NAIDOC week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Celebrated not only within the Indigenous communities, but by all Australians, it's important to honour the invaluable contributions that Indigenous Australians have made to improve the lives of the people in their communities and beyond.

We pay tribute to six outstanding Indigenous figures, recognising their importance, their story and acknowledging their achievements which continue to enrich our nation today.

Neville Bonner

 Neville Bonner
Neville Bonner Contributed

Neville Bonner, was a popular parliamentary figure and Aboriginal activist who dedicated his life for his people. In 1971, he became the first Indigenous Australian to sit in Australian Parliament.

Neville Bonner, an elder of the Jagera people, was born on 28 March 1922, on Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, New South Wales. Sadly due to prejudice at the time, schooling wasn't readily available to Aboriginal children and Bonner only finished third grade at the age of fifteen in 1935 - this became Bonner's only formal education. He went on to work as a rural labourer around Queensland and New South Wales before settling down on Palm Island with his wife. During his time living on the island from 1945 until 1960, Bonner was active in the Palm Island Aboriginal Welfare Association.

In 1960,  Bonner and his family moved to Ipswich where he became Director of Aboriginal rights organisation, One People Australia League (OPAL), later becoming the Queensland president in 1970.  In the most historic year of his life, 1971, he became the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Commonwealth parliament after he was hired to fill a casual position in the senate. Then, by popular vote, he became the first Indigenous Australian to then be elected to the parliament.

During his time as a senator, Bonner became a popular parliamentary figure and a well respected advocate for Indigenous issues. Neville Bonner remained a strong commentator for Indigenous rights until his passing on 5 February 1999, aged 76.

Albert Namatjira

Indigenous Australian artist Albert Namatjira signing autographs.
Indigenous Australian artist Albert Namatjira signing autographs.

Albert Namatjira is one of Australia's most renowned contemporary Indigenous artists and distinguished Indigenous Australians of his time.

Albert Namatjira, a member of the Western Arrernte people, was born on 28 July 1902, at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory. In 1905, his family was received into the Lutheran Church where he was baptized and attended Hermannsburg mission school. Namatjira's life was not like his people, and at age thirteen he returned to the Northern Territory bush to experience important Aboriginal rituals of initiation. He lived as one of the Aranda group for six months, immersing himself in traditional laws and culture taught to him by elders - later becoming an elder himself.

Leaving the mission when he was 18 to start a family, he enjoyed sketching the life around him and worked odd jobs making and selling pieces of artwork. In 1934, a pair of Melbourne artists visited the mission to exhibit their works which sparked Namatjira to begin painting seriously. In Melbourne, 1938, he held his first exhibition which sold out and his work drew much the same success in Adelaide and Sydney.

Namatjira's work gathered acclaim in Australia and abroad, but none greater than from Queen Elizabeth II herself who became a fan and awarded him the Queen's Coronation Medal in 1953. He was elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1955 and in 1956. The paintbrush changed hands when a painting of him was done by William Dargie which won him the Archibald Prize - the first painting of an Aboriginal person to ever win.

One of Australia's greatest artists and pioneers for Aboriginal rights, Albert Namatjira passed away 8 August 1959, aged 57. Namatjira painted approximately two thousand paintings in his life which are now in public display in some of Australia's major art galleries.

Albert Namatjira's artwork
Albert Namatjira's artwork

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, picutred in 1985, was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal, picutred in 1985, was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, later Kath Walker, was an Aboriginal Australian political activist, artist, poet, environmentalist and educator for Aboriginal rights.

Born on 3 November 1920, on North Stradbroke Island, Walker attended Dunwich State School, joining the Australian Women's Army Service in 1942. During this time she made lasting contacts with soldiers from different ethnicities which helped lay the groundwork for her later causes in Aboriginal rights. She joined the Communist Party of Australia during the 1940s where she gained important writing and political strategy skills. She later emerged as a successful poet becoming the first Aboriginal poet in Australia to publish a book of verse. By the 1960s, Kath Walker's voice was also being heard as a political leader and activist and was elected Queensland State Secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement (FCAATSI) and a member of the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League.

Kath Walker passed away on 16 September 1993, aged 72, and is remembered as a strong leader whose poetry captured the strength of Aboriginal culture and passion for Aboriginal rights.

David Unaipon

Author, inventor and Aboriginal spokesman David Unaipon
Author, inventor and Aboriginal spokesman David Unaipon

David Ngunaitponi, known as David Unaipon, was an Aboriginal Australian, preacher, inventor and author who is featured on the Australian $50 note for the significant contributions he made during his life to Australian society.

Born on 28 September 1872, at the Point McLeay Mission on the Lower Murray in South Australia, Unaipon began his education at Point McLeay Mission School at the age of seven where he became known as the intelligent one. He left school at thirteen to work as a servant to C.B Young who encouraged his interest in all things literature, philosophy, science and music. Unaipon married in 1902 and worked with Aborigines' Friends' Association where he travelled and preached for many years, retiring in 1959 to focus on his inventions.

Over the next few years Unaipon improved his ideas and prototypes and made nine different applications to various inventions, including a patent for a hand tool for sheep shearing (which later became known as sheep shears), a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. Sadly none were fully developed due to limited funds.

Also an advocate for equality for Aboriginal people, Unaipon in 1927 became the first Australian Aboriginal author after his book of Aboriginal legends, Hurgarrda was published. He was later awarded the Coronation Medal in 1953.

Passing away on 7 February 1967, Unaipon's name was honored when the David Unaipon Award was established in 1988 as part of the Queensland Literary Awards, which is given to an unpublished Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer every year.

Eddie Mabo

Eddie ‘Kioki’ Mabo’s name echoes throughout Australia and beyond
Eddie ‘Kioki’ Mabo’s name echoes throughout Australia and beyond

Edward Koiki Mabo was an Indigenous Australian from the Torres Strait Islands who advocated for Indigenous land rights. In an historic decision by the High Court of Australia, which overturned the legal document terra nullius ("nobody's land"), officially recognising the rights of Aboriginal Australians to own and use the land their families had lived on for thousands of years.

Mabo was born on 29 June 1936, on Mer (Murray) Island, in the Torres Strait. Growing up, Mabo worked on pearling boats, as a cane cutter, railway fettler and at the age of 31 was hired by James Cook University Townsville as a gardener. At the time, laws stated the land he grew up on belonged to the Australian Government, and not as he believed in his heart, to the people who had lived there for millennia.

In 1981, while Mabo was at James Cook University, he gave a passionate speech sharing his people's beliefs about the ownership and inheritance of land on Mer. A lawyer heard this and asked Mabo if he wanted to challenge the Australian Government in court to decide who was the true owner of land - Eddie Mabo did exactly that!

Eddie Mabo passed away 21 January 1992, aged 55. Five months after his passing, on 3 June 1992, the High Court announced its historic decision to overturn the legal document of terra nullius - which is now commonly called "Mabo" in Australia.

Vincent Lingiari

Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in 1975. NT News | PICTURE: Merv Bishop
Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in 1975. NT News | PICTURE: Merv Bishop

Vincent Lingiari was an Australian Aboriginal rights activist and member of the Gurindji people.

Born on 13 June, 1908, Lingiari worked as a stockman at Wave Hill Station in his early years. During this time, Aboriginal workers were given only rations, tobacco and clothing in exchange for their laborious work. The owners of the station having refused to: improve working conditions, offer proper pay and hand back some of Gurindji land, Lingiari was appointed a leader to represent the workers in August 1966. Lingiari inspired his people in the Wave Hill walk-off - also referred to as the Gurindji Strike.

On 16 August 1975, a powerful and symbolic moment in Australian history occurred when Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam handed over land title to the Gurindji people by pouring Australian soil into Vincent Lingiari's hand, symbolising the return to Indigenous hands.

Vincent Lingiari who loved to play the didgeridoo, was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the Aboriginal people on 7 June 1976.

Passing away on 21 January 1988, he can be remembered thanks to Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's song "From Little Things Big Things Grow" which is based on Lingiari's story.

"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within." 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://biography.senate.gov.au/bonner-neville-thomas/ 
  • https://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/recipients/senator%20neville-bonner/82/  
  • https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/first-australians/other-resources-about-first-australians/neville-bonner 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Namatjira 
  • https://manyhandsart.com.au/about/albert-namatjira/ 
  • https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/articles/anzac-day-2018/oodgeroo-noonuccal 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oodgeroo_Noonuccal 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Unaipon 
  • https://banknotes.rba.gov.au/australias-banknotes/people-on-the-banknotes/david-unaipon/ 
  • https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/learning/significant-individuals-david-unaipon 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Unaipon 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Mabo 
  • https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mabo-edward-koiki-eddie-16122 
  • https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/wave/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Lingiari