Lowitja O’Donoghue: Revered Australian Aboriginal rights activist dies aged 91

Revered aboriginal rights activist Lowitja O’Donoghue – described as “one of the most remarkable leaders” Australia has ever seen – has died in Adelaide. She was 91.

In a statement, her family said: “Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives.

“We adored and admired her when we were young and have grown up full of never-ending pride as she became one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known,” Deb Edwards, O’Donoghue’s niece, said in the statement.

Her family said that she died in the Kaurna Country in Adelaide.

A Yankunytjatjara leader and activist, O’Donoghue was much loved for her remarkable contributions to the rights and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

Prime minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to her lifelong dedication to advocating for indigenous rights. He said O’Donoghue was “one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known”.

“From the earliest days of her life, Dr O’Donoghue endured discrimination that would have given her every reason to lose faith in her country. Yet she never did,” he said.

“With an unwavering instinct for justice and a profound desire to bring the country she loved closer together, Dr O’Donoghue was at the heart of some of the moments that carried Australia closer to the better future she knew was possible for us, among them the Apology to the Stolen Generation and the 1967 referendum,” he added.

“She provided courageous leadership during the Mabo debates and as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.”

Former Senator Pat Dodson also remembered her and noted that “her leadership in the battle for justice was legendary.

“Her intelligent navigation for our rightful place in a resistant society resulted in many of the privileges we enjoy today.”

O’Donoghue’s family said her legacy would continue through the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, which was created on her 90th birthday.

“Aunty Lowitja dedicated her entire lifetime of work to the rights, health, and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” they said.

“We thank and honour her for all that she has done — for all the pathways she created, for all the doors she opened, for all the issues she tackled head-on, for all the tables she sat at and for all the arguments she fought and won.”

Lowitja Institute’s patron Pat Anderson AO described her as an outstanding leader and visionary whose story is one of great courage, integrity and determination.

“Lowitja was a national treasure,” Ms Anderson said. “She lived a remarkable life and made an enormous contribution to public life in pursuit of justice and equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Indigenous people across the globe.

“Courageous and fearless in leading change, Lowitja was continually striving for better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. She will remain in my heart as a true friend and an inspiration to Australians for years to come.”

O’Donoghue was the founding chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and played a key role in drafting the Native Title legislation that arose from the High Court’s historic Mabo decision, according to the foundation website.

She was named 1984 Australian of the Year and was the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly and the first Aboriginal woman to be appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney also paid tribute to her “remarkable legacy”, and described her as a “fearless and passionate advocate” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

“She was a truly extraordinary leader. Lowitja was not just a giant for those of us who knew her, but a giant for our country,” the minister said. “My thoughts and sincere condolences to her family.”

O’Donoghue, born to an Indigenous mother and a pastoralist father in South Australia, faced early childhood trauma when she and her sisters were removed from their mother at age two, growing up in Colebrook Children’s Home without reuniting with their mother for thirty years.

She became the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at Royal Adelaide Hospital, and later a pioneering leader as the first Aboriginal woman to hold significant positions including a regional director in an Australian federal department, the founding chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference, and the first Aboriginal woman awarded the Order of Australia in 1977.

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