Among the towering figures of Australia’s Aboriginal and Islander communities, Dr Evelyn Scott AO, stood proud and tall.
The Indigenous educator and social justice campaigner has died in far north Queensland aged 81, and is being remembered as a trailblazer who changed Australia.
She possessed a striking presence, often wearing her signature black hat, perhaps to lessen the glare of the spotlight in which she worked, even into her later years.
The grand-daughter of a man brought to Queensland from Vanuatu in chains as a slave labourer to work the sugar fields, Dr Scott took to heart her own father’s words: “If you don’t think something is right, then challenge it.”
The motto would mark her life and her role at pivotal moments in the history of the nation.
Finding friendships with the likes of Eddie Mabo, Faith Bandler and Joe McGuinness to name just a few, Dr Scott was a tireless and determined fighter for the equal rights of Indigenous Australians.
She was one of the leading figures of the decade-long campaign to change the constitution, allowing for the Commonwealth to make laws for Indigenous people and to have Indigenous people included in official census data.
The 1967 vote remains the most successful referendum in Australian history.
Dr Scott became the first general-secretary of the Indigenous-controlled Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1973.
This heralded a new era of Indigenous political activism and the push for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.
A high point for Indigenous advancement came with the Mabo High Court judgement overturning the concept of ‘terra nullius’ — a land with no people — in 1992.
More work was to follow, when calls for an apology to the Stolen Generations in the wake of the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report was met with stiff resistance by the government of John Howard in the late 1990s.
Dr Scott navigated those fraught and emotionally charged times with grace and unwavering dedication to the path of reconciliation, stepping into the role of chairwoman for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the years 1997 to 2000. Her time there was capped by the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk, when 250,000 people marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of an official apology.
The image of the bridge can be seen as symbolic of Dr Scott herself, and her ability to walk in two distinct worlds simultaneously.
Equally at home with her family, fishing on the beach, as she was in the corridors of power and boardrooms of government and corporate organisations.
As our nation once again ponders the possibility of further recognition for Indigenous Australians — the unfinished business of 1967 — it’s worth recalling Dr Scott’s words once more:
“Our struggle for Indigenous rights and equality is bound up inextricably with the rights of all Australians. Our freedom is your freedom.
“Reconciliation is not an isolated event but part of the fabric of this nation.
“The Council and I believe in a lasting reconciliation that is a healing salve for the woes of this land.
“We believe in a resolution of the national conscience that leads to a society where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultures are respected and valued as the first peoples of this land and share in the nation’s wealth.
“This recognition should extend into our constitution and all institutions.
“We extend our hand to other Australians.
“Those Australians who take our hands are those that dare dream of an Australia that could be.
“In true reconciliation, through the remembering, the grieving and the healing, we can come to terms with our conscience and become as one in the dreaming of this land.
“What a rich and valuable heritage to leave our children — a 56,000-year culture, thriving in a country at peace with its conscience.
“Will you take our hand?
“Will you dare to share our dream?”
Miriam Corowa, ABC