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In praise of Aboriginal trailblazers



Narungga Elder, Tauto Sansbury, NAIDOC lifetime achievement winner, died 23 September after a lifetime of campaigning. Among other matters his key concern was to make the criminal justice system just for Aboriginal people. In the early days of the SA Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement Tauto designed its logo, with the motto: 'Justice Without Prejudice'.

Tauto SansburyBack in 2012, Tauto came to our Josephite SA Reconciliation Circle a few times. None of us could fail to be moved — emotionally and then to action — by the incredible sadness of his personal open letter, written on 13 January 2012: 'And on this day, I attended the funeral of the eighth South Australian Aboriginal person to die — the eight deaths in our small community this year. And it was only Day 13 ...

'Aboriginal people are always at funerals ... Of the eight premature deaths, three were by suicide and another was violent. How can this be considered right for Aboriginal people, in the 21st century, in a first-world country like Australia?'

As Tauto concluded, 'The issue is not going to go away.' Nor indeed have various governments' oppressive legislation and neglect which can lead to such statistics. On the day after Tauto's passing, the Guardian noted that the UN committee on the rights of the child chastised Australia. In Australia, contrary to almost every other nation on the planet, children as young as ten can still be incarcerated. In May 2019 every child in detention in the NT was Indigenous.

In this area of Aboriginal youth justice, as on so many other issues such as protection of country, Tauto Sansbury was a state and national trailblazer

I was first struck by the fittingness of that word at the Point Pearce funeral of another Narungga Elder, Owen (Odie) Karpany, early this year. His son Daniel, a quiet young man and colleague of his exuberant father in the great triumph of their lives, stood at his father's graveside giving tribute: 'Dad was a trailblazer.'

Kym Mavromatis' superb documentary The King's Seal weaves the story of the father and son's improbable campaign all the way to the High Court of Australia over their original prosecution for fishing for abalone. 'My people have been fishing here for thousands of years and now we're being charged for taking our cultural foods because we've got commercialism versus culturism,' they said. 'Everything has been stolen from us and now we can't even go and get a feed.'


"Grace, Tauto Sansbury's partner in life and work, hopes the next generation will carry on with his work. The forces against are powerful. But there's concrete hope."


After Odie and Daniel's appearance in Canberra in 2013, the High Court unanimously declared that the SA Fisheries Act 1971 had not extinguished native title fishing rights. Outside the High Court, Owen's exultant advice to us all summed up his own motivating motto: 'Fear will prevent you from doing anything. But if you do not fear anything, you've got nothing to fear!'

Kaurna/Narungga Elder, Dr Alitya Wallara Rigney (posthumous AO), was a clear trailblazer as the first Aboriginal woman school principal in Australia, at Kaurna Plains Aboriginal School in Adelaide's north. Alitya was renowned as an educator, beloved of students and staff. Renowned also was her significant contribution to the preservation of the Kaurna language.

In 'retirement', however, and less well known, her activities spread even further to many areas of injustice to her people. Alitya was fearless in facing down politicians' racism and inaction. When she was awarded a state memorial service, I couldn't help thinking that, while Alitya would surely appreciate this honour, she would have preferred to be listened to more in life.

Ngarrindjeri Elders George and Tom Trevorrow were long-term defenders of country, waters and the rights of their people. At Tom's 2013 funeral near Lake Albert I was privileged to witness the beloved No:ri — pelicans — of the Ngarrindjeri give their own tribute in praise of another trailblazer. Flying in perfect formation the flock flew directly over Tom's coffin at the precise moment it was borne out of the Church.

Yankunyjatjara Elder Eileen Kampakuta Brown AM and Kokatha Elder Eileen Wani Wingfield in 2003 won the prestigious Goldman Prize for the Environment, really as representatives for those groundbreaking defenders of country, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta (Senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy). In an exhausting, ultimately successful 1998-2004 campaign against the federal government's attempt to impose the national nuclear dump on their ngura (country), all the Kungkas played their courageous part.

There are so many more — Leaders of the Ngarrindjeri Hindmarsh Island campaign, Doreen Kartinyeri and Aunty Maggie Jacobs; Pitjantjatjara Jack May, the Yalata/Maralinga cross cultural exemplar; Yankunyjatjara nuclear survivor/campaigner Yami Lester ... So many more in South Australia and right throughout the nation. Trailblazers all.

Grace, Tauto Sansbury's partner in life and work, hopes the next generation will carry on with his work. The forces against are powerful. But there's concrete hope. Younger First Nations campaigners for country like Adnyamathanha Dwayne Coulthard have been emerging in recent years. It was good to see this recognised with his first billing at the very large Adelaide Climate Strike on 20 September. Like 16-year-old trailblazer Greta Thunberg, young counterparts have emerged in every part of our own nation. Never has young people's energy and commitment been more needed right across the spectrum for positive change, and justice.

May the trailblazers of old intercede for them — and for us all.



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, Tauto Sansbury, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

The difference between the situations of Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, Maoris and North American Native peoples, and that of Uigyurs and Falun Gongists, is that the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and US majority law systems are benevolent at heart. Gandhian non-violence worked in South Africa and India. It would not have done so in the Third Reich or the Soviet and Chinese communist systems. Justice for the minorities of the West is a matter of when not if. The court of first instance, at the magistrate level, actually found for the Karpanys. At the end of the day, it was white legal reasoning which found a way, based on an earlier instance of more white reasoning, to say that while white law can abolish native title, its mere presence in an area of native title doesn’t mean it has done so. Certain arcane statutory construction tests have to be made. In a nonliberal system, would the senior appeal court have used technicality to swing the same way? Realising the essential kindness of liberal law might be how to begin to do away with premature funerals.

roy chen yee | 06 October 2019  

Vale Tauto and bravo to the good Sister.

Peter Goers | 07 October 2019  

Last Thursday October 3rd, Tauto's funeral in Adelaide was attended unsurprisingly by over 1000 people. The Premier and also the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs both expressed their gratitude to the family for being allowed to deliver their own eulogies. The Premier noted that just a few days previously Tauto had been due to have an appointment with him. How good if action in his memory follows anyway. The eulogies apart from the official one of family life written by his daughter Trudy, and another of his later life by his partner Grace, could have gone on forever. Just towards the end of the long service though I was thrilled to hear Neil, Tauto's eldest son speak so briefly: Dad was a Trailblazer!

Michele Madigan | 07 October 2019  

The worrying question raised by this article is "Why are all the children detained in the NT Aboriginal"? It is highly dubious that the answer is either, "Because they are Aboriginal", or "Because it is government policy".

john frawley | 07 October 2019  

In 2000, in Ceduna South Australia, in the early evening, Tauto Sansbury knocked on my front door pleading for help for a child who was locked in cells in the Ceduna Police Station. I had been in Ceduna for a short time and was in the role with direct delegation from the Minister for children and young people and he knew I held this responsibility. I went to the police station and asked to see the child and was taken to the cell where a small framed and frightened child was being held. He was shivering from the cold and possibly shock and was in desperate need of warm clothes. I gave the child my socks and got a blanket from the police. I still don’t know what crime the child was being held for but I immediately knew that a child should not be held in such circumstances. Prior to my visit Tauto, who worked as a liaison person and visitor for Aboriginal people, had pleaded with the police to take the child to family and or his community. When the police came to ask me if the interview with the child had finished I advised the police that I needed to stay with the boy as he was too vulnerable to be detained without an adult who could advocate for him and provide support for him. Within a short time the police allowed me to take the child to responsible family. In Tauto’s memory let us work together to stop the perpetration of abuse on children who are being held in state care across Australia

Kenise Neill | 07 October 2019  

Thanks to correspondents. Perhaps someone better equipped than I would answer well Roy Chen Yee. I only know that in view of many aberrations such as mandatory 3 strikes, no matter how trivial the 'offence' and drunkenness in some jurisdictions still being an offence belies the idea of the 'essential kindness of liberal law.' Certainly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Thank you for mentioning that the court of first instance did indeed find for the Karpanys. Space in such an article doesn't mean much detail but as you know this first stage made all the appeal against that and defeats along the way even more exasperating for Owen and Daniel. In reply to John Frawley 'It is highly dubious that the answer is either, "Because they are Aboriginal", or "Because it is government policy".' I can only ask why is either statement highly dubious? Sadly there is an enormous body of statistics and factual evidence to say both statements are true. Tauto Sansbury spent a life time campaigning for Justice Without Prejudice. Waleed Aly talks about Australia's 'casual racism.'

Michele Madigan | 07 October 2019  

What an inspiring number of responses to this fine article by Michele. I think we might have met some many years ago Michele. Just a brief word about the comment bout the statement - 'Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and US majority law systems are benevolent at heart'. Where is there any evidence for that statement. Leaving aside the other countries how could a benevolent system allow the detention centres and children in custody to mention two? The arguments for treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru talk incessantly of the legal system. Need I say more. Australian society and law is built on violence against its first people bereft of any 'benevolence'.

Tom Kingston | 07 October 2019  

Michele, thank you for giving us the opportunity to read this tribute to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' "trailblazers'. I thank Eureka Street for carrying these important stories because these are not the ones that our Australian Newspapers carry as a general rule.

Sr Elizabeth Morris | 07 October 2019  

Thanks for your reply, Sister Michele. I presume you took Aly’s ‘casual racism’ from this article: https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/curse-of-australias-silent-pervasive-racism-20130404-2h9i1.html. Aly isn’t concerned so much about grossly incivil racism because they are committed by people who don’t represent the norms of the population. He is more concerned about the unwitting racism of the nice middle class. However, his reasoning is unconvincing. It is important to make that point because people who misguidedly choose to believe that their world is a gloomy place may end up as one of those premature funerals. The article fails to provide a reason to be racially gloomy because when the overwhelming majority of applicants for a job (probably a cookie-cutter job which can be done by anyone in the cohort of people with relevant qualifications) have recognizably Australian surnames, it is almost a statistical given that the overwhelming majority of both those who are successful and those who are not will have a recognizably Australian surname. Law of numbers is not racism. Anyway, what, these days, is a recognizably Australian surname? Do we seriously think someone called, let’s say, Gladys Palaszczuk, is going to be selected out because of her surname per se?

roy chen yee | 08 October 2019  

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