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July 24, 2018

As part of our NAIDOC week celebration at Community Industry Group, we decided to collate some information on some of the female leaders, activists and social change advocates who are being honoured in this year’s NAIDOC Week theme – Because of Her We Can.


Barangaroo was an Aboriginal fisherwoman, from the Cameragaleon group, who lived around Manly and North Harbour and was one of the most powerful figures in Sydney’s early history.

Cammeraygal women were highly skilled at fishing from their simple bark canoes with intricate crescent fishing hooks carved from a shell, and bark fibre lines weighted with stones. They lit fires on clay pads for cooking and warmth, and cared for small children and babies in rough surf while catching fish. As primary providers for their people, they were respected and powerful within their societies.

Barangaroo’s first husband and two children died of smallpox. She later went on to become the second wife of Bennelong, a man who acted as a go-between for the Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Barangaroo fiercely opposed her husband’s interactions with the British and was very outspoken about the fact, refusing to visit the Governor with her husband. Bennelong spent considerable time in the British settlement in Sydney while Barangaroo maintained her way of life with her people.

In 1791, when Barangaroo became pregnant to Bennelong, he wanted her to give birth in a British established hospital in Sydney but she refused, instead giving birth on Country, alone, to a daughter, Dilboong. Barangaroo died shortly after and was buried in Governor Phillip’s garden (in the area now known as Circular Quay). The baby only lived for a few months.

Years later, Bennelong became disillusioned with the violence and broken promises and abandoned his attempts at smooth diplomacy. He should have listened to his wife.

Celuia Mapo Salee

Celuia Mapo Salee was part of a group of Meriam people (Murray Islanders in The Torres Strait) who lodged a case with the High Court of Australia for legal ownership of the island.

In May 1982, five Torres Strait Islanders: Eddie Koiki Mabo, Sam Passi, Reverend Dave Passi, James Rice and Mrs Celuia Mapo Salee, launched a legal challenge that altered the legal and social understanding of the impact of settlement on traditional Australians and their legal relationship to land, which became known as the Mabo case.

Through the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, they sought legal recognition of their traditional lands in the Torres Strait, land that had been in their families for countless generations, yet under Australian law was deemed to belong to the Crown. The applicants sought a declaration that the annexation of Mer by Queensland in 1879 had not extinguished native title in respect of its lands and waters.

The Mabo case was heard over ten years and generated 4000 pages of transcripts of evidence. Information such as the structure of traditional family property boundaries drawn on a map by Eddie Koiki Mabo in the 1980s played a key role in the evidence presented by the plaintiffs. During this period, three of the plaintiffs passed away, including Eddie Mabo, Celuia Mapo Salee and Sam Passi.

On 3 June 1992, six of the seven judges agreed that the Meriam held traditional ownership of the lands of Mer. This decision led to the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, providing the framework for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make claims of native title.

The Mabo decision delivered a measure of justice to Indigenous Australians by recognising their rights to their traditional lands.

Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher (Thanakupi), AO

Thancoupie was born in 1937 as Gloria James near Napranum, Weipa on the western coast of Cape York, Queensland. Thanakupi, or wattle flower, was birth ritual name. Her early years were spent as a pre-school teacher and artist. In her mid-thirties she moved from her remote home in the Cape to the urban environment of Sydney.

She began her training at the East Sydney Technical College under the guidance of famed Australian ceramicists and artists including Peter Rushforth, Peter Travis, Derek Smith, Joan Grounds, Bernard Sahm, Mollie Douglas and the great Japanese potter Shiga Shigeo.

Thancoupie produced more than 20 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas, and with assistance from her close friend Jennifer Isaacs exhibited at many of Australia’s finest commercial galleries. She spent much of the last 20 years of her life mentoring aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhem Land, the desert, and the Tiwi Islands, as well as influencing Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in art and professional development courses.

As a community leader she founded the Weipa Festival, and inspired many generations by running holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations.

Thancoupie passed away in 2011 leaving a modest sum in her will for a fund to support emerging young Aboriginal artists and is offered to Indigenous youth of the Western Cape York communities.

Fanny Cochrane Smith

Fanny Cochrane Smith was born in 1834 at the Wybalenna Aboriginal Mission, Flinders Island, Tasmania to mother Tanganooturra and father John Smith. Fanny was taken from her home at the age of seven and put into domestic service in the household of Robert Clark, the Catechist of Flinders Island where she suffered conditions of neglect and brutality.

In 1847 the 46 survivors of the Aboriginal mission were removed to Oyster Cove. Fanny was placed into domestic service in Hobart, but returned to her mother and sister soon after. In 1854 she married William Smith an ex-convict and had 11 children.

After Trugernanner’s death in 1876, Fanny renewed her claim to be the last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal. In recognition of this claim, she received 300 acres of land and an increase to her annuity of 50 pounds.

Proud of her Aboriginal identity she continued to hunt and gather bush foods and medicines, and dive for shellfish. She also moved with confidence in the European world and was an early convert to Methodism. Services were held in her kitchen until a church was built on land she donated.

In 1899 & 1903 she recorded songs on wax cylinders: these are the only audio recordings of any Tasmania’s Indigenous Languages.  Fanny died in Port Cygnet 1905, her voice and story lives on through her recordings housed at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery.

Justine Saunders

Justine Saunders was born on 3 January 1953, one of seventeen children, part of Keppel Island’s Kanomie clan. She was removed from her family and taken to a convent school at a young age. As a teenager, she left Queensland for Sydney to pursue a career as an actor.

Justine got her first professional acting job in 1974, at a time where there was little work for indigenous actors. Justine fought against the stereotypes. She was sassy and determined and became a role model, particularly for young women.

She came to national and international prominence with roles in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), the TV mini-series Women of the Sun and the movie The Fringe Dwellers. She also appeared in No. 96, Prisoner, Blue Heelers, Farscape and MDA. Her theatre credits were also extensive including the Last Cab to Darwin with Barry Otto in 2004.

Saunders played a prominent part in establishing the Black Theatre and the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust. She famously handed back her Order of Australia in 2000 to highlight Prime Minister John Howard’s attitude to Aboriginal reconciliation.

Saunders died of cancer on 15 April 2007 leaving behind a lasting legacy having paved the way for future Aboriginal actors.

Mrs Rose Richards

Rose Richards, a proud Yalangi and Tagalaga Elder from far north Queensland, was working as an Aboriginal Welfare Officer with Cairns Base Hospital during the 1970’s when she became aware of abnormally high instances of Aboriginal children from Far North Queensland requiring treatment.

After being discharged following long term hospitalisation these children were taken back to their communities where follow-up treatment was inadequate or impossible, meaning they became patients once again.

When it became obvious that an appropriate place to house patients was urgently required Rose began taking these patients into her own home. She sought funding for a halfway house with Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan. In 1983, the funding was approved and later became known as Rosie’s Farm. The new purpose built complex in Cairns can now house up to 36 clients.


Oodgeroo was born Kathleen Ruska in 1920 on North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah). She dreamed of being a nurse, but went to work as a domestic servant in Brisbane. Like many Aboriginal servants, she received her board and a small stipend – much less than white domestic staff. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Service in World War II, where she was trained in signals and reached the rank of lance corporal.

In the 1940’s she joined the Communist Party of Australia, because it opposed racial discrimination. In 1943, she married Aboriginal man Bruce Walker and had a son, Denis. After the marriage ended, she raised her son as a single parent, and later had a second child. She continued to work as a cleaner and taking in ironing to support her family.

Her time in the Communist Party enabled her to pursue writing, and after she left the Party, she joined the Brisbane Realist Writers Group. Her 1964 book, We Are Going was the first poetry publication by an Aboriginal Australian. She wrote many acclaimed poetry anthologies, and two children’s books.

She became a leader in the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement, and the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League. She campaigned widely for citizenship rights and equality. Her campaigning, along with that of other great Aboriginal leaders, lead to the 1967 referendum.

Kath Walker returned to Minjerribah in 1971, and established a facility for cultural learning. She adopted the Noonuccal name, Oodgeroo in 1988, and died in 1993. She is remembered as a great writer, Indigenous rights leader, anti-nuclear campaigner, and cultural teacher. Her poetry lives on, and some examples are available here.

Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Mary Brown Gibbs was born in La Perouse, Sydney, in 1901.

In 1930, Gibbs helped run a camp to support unemployed Aboriginal workers, in 1933 she organised a strike for Aboriginal pea-pickers. She was one of the first members of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), and attracted large crowds when she gave speeches in Sydney.

She was involved with organising the Day of Mourning protests in 1939, which at the time was the most significant Aboriginal civil rights demonstration in Australia.

She acted a spokesperson for the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, a group that was set up to carry on the work of the Day of Mourning Congress. Later she became secretary of the APA, a position she held until 1940.

In 1941, Gibbs made the first radio broadcast by an Aboriginal woman, on 2WL in Wollongong. Her speech was on Aboriginal civil rights, and was carefully scripted to be allowed to air. In 1960, Gibbs set up a hostel in Dubbo to care for the families of Aboriginal hospital patients. From 1954 to 1957, Gibbs was the only Aboriginal member of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, and was the only woman to ever serve on the board.

Gibbs continued to be politically active, including supporting the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. She died in Dubbo in 1983.

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