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Tributes flow for Indigenous land rights and health trailblazer, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue

Dechlan Brennan -

WARNING: This story contains the name and image of an Aboriginal person who has passed.

Proud Yankunytjatjara woman and Indigenous land rights activist, Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue AC CBE DSG, has passed away on Kaurna Country, aged 91.

Dr O'Donoghue, a trailblazer for Indigenous rights and who dedicated her life to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, died peacefully on Sunday with her immediate family by her side.

Once described by Cape York community leader Noel Pearson as "the greatest Aboriginal leader of the modern era … the rock who steadied us in the storm," Dr O'Donoghue was pivotal in the advancement of Indigenous causes and prominent in some of the most historic moments in modern Aboriginal affairs; including the 1967 Referendum; the Native Title legislation in 1993; and the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

Charge sister at Royal Adelaide Hospital 1959 (Image: Lowitja O'Donoghue Collection)

Dr O'Donoghue's niece, Deb Edwards, described her as "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," Ms Edwards said.

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

Admired and respected worldwide, Dr O'Donoghue's family noted she was regularly sought after by dignitaries globally; becoming the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations in 1992.

"We thank her for being a loving and devoted daughter, sister, Aunty and Nana to our families, always ensuring that we were looked after and cared for," Ms Edwards said.

"As an Australian 'National Living Treasure', we shared her with admirers far and wide, but we always loved having her home close to us."

Pat Dodson, former senator and "the father of reconciliation" said: "This is a sad day for first peoples of this nation. We have lost an extraordinary person of great courage and strength."

Lowitja O'Donoghue addressing United Nations general assembly, Geneva 1992 (Image: Lowitja O'Donoghue Collection)

Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney called Dr O'Donoghue an inspiration for generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including herself.

"She was a truly extraordinary leader. Lowitja [O'Donoghue] was not just a giant for those of us who knew her, but a giant for our country," she said.

"My thoughts and sincere condolences to her family."

Born Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in 1932, Dr O'Donoghue was removed from her mother at two years old, and along with her siblings, grew up at Colebrook Children's Home at Quorn, South Australia. They were not allowed to speak their own language, ask questions about their origins or inquire about their parents.

The Matron of the Colebrook said Dr O'Donoghue would not amount to anything, her name was anglicised, and she did not see her mother again until their reunification in 1967 at Oodnadatta.

Dr O'Donoghue's dedication to health and wellbeing, eventually seeing the Lowitja O'Donoghue Foundation established on her 90th birthday in 2022 with her blessing, began from a young age. She campaigned for the right to train as a nurse before becoming the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1954.

During the 1967 referendum, Dr O'Donoghue campaigned for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before joining the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

She became the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1990 and was heavily involved in lobbying the Keating government to recognise Aboriginal acknowledgement through Native Title laws in the wake of the Mabo decision.

Dr O'Donoghue was the first Aboriginal woman to be made a member of the Order of Australia in 1977; was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983; named Australian of the Year in 1984; and a National Living Treasure in 1998.

The Lowitja Institute said on Sunday the sadness felt at Dr O'Donoghue's passing was "a sadness we know will be shared by people across Australia and around the world as she touched the hearts of many with her strength and courage throughout her life".

"When Dr O'Donoghue entrusted her name to the Lowitja Institute, she told us to be a courageous organisation, committed to social justice and equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to match words to action, and be known for working fearlessly for change and improvement in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," the Institute said.

"We judge all our work through that lens."

Ms Edwards urged people to continue the work, activism and commitment to Indigenous people she displayed her entire life.

"We ask that you continue to honour Aunty Lowitja's legacy through using your Voices to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to share the stories of her incredible life, which always had our First Peoples at the heart of all that she worked for and achieved," she said.

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