Influential Indigenous Australians who changed history
Posted on August 10, 2018 by Sarah Ryan
In the spirit of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we wanted to highlight some of the most influential and inspiring Indigenous Australians who have had an extraordinary impact on not only their communities, but also Australia and the rest of the world.
In 1974, while working as a grounds keeper at James Cook University, Eddie Mabo learned that what he thought of as his people’s traditional land was actually owned by the Government. This discovery lead him to challenge the land ownership laws in Australia.
It took ten years, but finally on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that the lands were not terra nullius and that the Meriam people were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.
The High Court recognised the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. Unfortunately, Mabo died of cancer just months before the ruling was made.
The new law of native title replaced the former concept of terra nullius. In recognition, the High Court changed the law in Australia to establish the Native Title Act 1993, paving way for claims by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take back their traditional rights to their land.
Joyce Clague is a Yaegl elder and one of Australia’s most influential female political activists who has spent her life trying to revolutionise the nation and create social change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. With a strong passion for bettering indigenous welfare, Clague helped instigate the 1967 Constitutional Referendum and fought against the inequalities that run deep within Indigenous Australia as the convener of the 1969 Federation Council for Advancement of Aborigines.
Her tireless efforts to fight for what’s right did not go unacknowledged as she was appointed a representative of the World Churches Commission to Combat Racism.
Evelyn Scott was a social activist and educator who first made her mark working in the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League in the 1960s. A strong advocate for social change, Evelyn campaigned in the 1967 Constitutional Referendum to include indigenous people in the national census and push the government to create laws for Indigenous Australians.
Albert Namatjira was an award winning Arrente artist who grew up in the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. While he was widely renowned for his vivid watercolours of dessert landscapes that were synonymous with the Australian Outback, he was also the first indigenous person to be granted Australian citizenship. Prior to this, Namatjira was, by law, a "ward of the state" and denied the normal rights of a citizen. He dedicated much of his life to raising awareness of indigenous inequalities and fought for all Aboriginal people to have citizenship rights.
"Namatjira wasn't just a key figure in our history, he changed our history." – Hetti Perkins