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Community leaders mourn passing of Dr Samuel Bush-Blanasi - "giant of the Top End"

Giovanni Torre -

Community leaders from across the Northern Territory and Australia have expressed shock and sadness over the passing of Northern Land Council Chair, Dr Samuel Bush-Blanasi.

Central Land Council deputy chair Warren Williams said the CLC's younger members "can barely remember a time when Dr Bush-Blanasi did not provide strong leadership to the Northern Land Council, either as chair or deputy chair".

"It is truly heartbreaking to lose yet another respected and outstanding Territory leader well before his time," he said.

The CLC lowered its flag to half-mast out of respect for Dr Bush-Blanasi, the 2023 NT Australian of the Year.

"Dr Bush-Blanasi was a steadfast and outspoken ally over many years. He connected with people from all walks of life and cut through with decision makers on all sides of politics," Mr Williams said.

"From the 2018 Barunga Agreement about a treaty with the NT government to the campaign to bring the Aboriginals Benefit Account under the control of Aboriginal Territorians and this year's voice referendum, you could always count on him to fight on the right side of history.

"He stood with the other NT land council chairs as they delivered the Barunga Voice Declaration to the Australian people at Parliament House in Canberra in July.

"Our thoughts are with Dr Bush-Blanasi's family, friends and colleagues, especially those at the NLC. We know how they feel, having lost our own chair unexpectedly this time last year. In a year of losses this is a loss that reminds us that we all must do so much more close the life expectancy gap between our people and other Australians."

Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT (APO NT) acknowledged Dr Bush-Blanasi's passing "with sad hearts".

On Tuesday the organisation said: "We are all shocked by this news."

"We offer our heartfelt condolences to Dr Bush-Blanasi's family, his community and his colleagues.

"Dr Bush-Blanasi was a strong leader for us as well as a trusted friend. He led great change for our people, especially in securing land rights and advocating for Aboriginal economic development and self-determination."

APO NT acknowledged Dr Bush-Blanasi's served four terms as the Chairman for the Northern Land Council and decades of bold advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal Territorians.

"He spoke up strongly against the NT Intervention and contributed to the establishment of APO NT," the organisation said.

"During the COVID pandemic, Dr Bush-Blanasi played a pivotal leadership role ensuring that remote communities were kept safe and protected."

APO NT convenor and chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), Dr John Paterson, said Dr Bush-Blanasi was "a passionate advocate for Land and Sea rights and Two-Way Learning on Country programs".

"We will miss his leadership, his friendship and his fearlessness. We will remember his guidance, his truth and his passion for justice."

In a joint statement, federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, Assistant Minister Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, and Member for Lingiari Marion Scrymgour expressed "great sadness" at the loss of Dr Bush-Blanasi, who they described as "a giant of the Top End, an inspiring leader and a fighter for Aboriginal Land Rights".

"Dr Bush-Blanasi was a proud Mayili and Yolŋu man, raised in the Wugularr community (Beswick) of Roper Gulf.

"His mother, a Yolŋu woman from Blue Mud Bay in Arnhem Land, was a claimant in the historic 2008 Blue Mud Bay case which determined 85 per cent of the Northern Territory's coastline belonged to Traditional Owners.

"With tenacity and pride, Dr Bush-Blanasi devoted more than 40 years to the Northern Land Council, representing his home community of Wugularr since 1989. Dr Bush-Blanasi served 9 terms as Councillor, three as Deputy Chair, and in 2022 he was elected to an historic fourth consecutive term as Chairman."

The three MPs noted Dr Bush-Blanasi's "pivotal role" in advocating for a Voice to Parliament and constitutional recognition, including for the many bush communities across the Northern Territory.

"Dr Bush-Blanasi always sought to amplify the concerns and aspirations of Indigenous communities, including through the Barunga Declaration... stating: 'We must right the wrongs of the past and deal with the serious issues impacting First Nations peoples, empower First Nations peoples and unite our country'," they wrote.

"We thank Dr Bush-Blanasi for his fearless and passionate support for a Voice to Parliament and determination to see a better way forward for Indigenous Australians.

"Dr Bush-Blanasi was a strong supporter of Traditional Owners, traditional law and ceremony, caring for Country, and 'two-way' learning for young people."

Dr Bush-Blanasi was appointed Co-Chair of the interim board of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation in 2022, following his leadership in designing this important reform.

He was also a member of various Indigenous-controlled organisations including the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, the Aboriginal Housing Northern Territory Aboriginal Corporation, and the Governing Group of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory.

An accomplished artist, Dr Bush-Blanasi was a founding member of the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists and the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association.

Dr Bush-Blanasi was also a strong champion for Aboriginal women - advocating and promoting their unique and special role in Indigenous communities. He supported women at all levels during his time at Land Council including his appointment of the first female CEO in 2019.

Ms Burney, Senator McCarthy and Ms Scrymgour said his "respect and courage was a constant source of strength for all of us".

"We pay tribute to Dr Bush-Blanasi who gave so much to First Nations people in the Northern Territory. His wisdom, leadership and his sense of humour will be sorely missed," the MPs said.

"A true leader of his community, and a shining example of what can be achieved through a vision and the belief that Indigenous Australians can and will decide their own futures. To his family, his community: our hearts go out to you."

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