WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this story includes images of an Indigenous person who has died. 

Australia has lost one of its most celebrated Indigenous leaders, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG.

The Yankunytjatjara woman and former Australian of the Year who fought endlessly for the rights of her people has died aged 91 surrounded by family.

The ABC has been given permission to name Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue and show her image.

Her family announced her death in a statement, saying she died peacefully on Kaurna Country in Adelaide.

“Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives,” the statement read.

“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.

The family said her legacy would continue through the work of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, which was established on her 90th birthday.

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

“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.”

‘One of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known’

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese issued a statement praising Dr O’Donoghue’s leadership and commitment to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“Lowitja O’Donoghue was one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known,” he wrote.

“From the earliest days of her life, Dr O’Donoghue endured discrimination that would have given her every reason to lose faith in her country. Yet she never did.”

Mr Albanese also commended her efforts to bring about meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“With an unwavering instinct for justice and a profound desire to bring the country she loved closer together, Dr O’Donoghue was at the heart of some of the moments that carried Australia closer to the better future she knew was possible for us, among them the Apology to the Stolen Generation and the 1967 referendum,” he said.

“She provided courageous leadership during the Mabo debates and as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.”

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson called Dr O’Donoghue “a leaders’ leader” who “gave our people everything she had, and tutored so many of us in our callow years”.

“Her passing … ends an extraordinary public life, marked by unstinting service and dedication to her people and country,” he said in a statement.

“She was full of grace and fortitude. She was the definition of courage and never lapsed in her principles. Her love and loyalty to our people across the country was boundless.

“We owed her an unrepayable debt for the sacrifices she made while she lived. Her memory will never be forgotten and her legacy will endure.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney expressed her sadness and paid tribute to a “remarkable legacy”.

“Throughout her career in public life, Dr O’Donoghue displayed enormous courage, dignity and grace,” she said in a statement.

Ms Burney said Dr O’Donoghue deserved “our deepest respect and gratitude” for her fearless and passionate advocacy.

“[Dr O’Donoghue] said that the seeds of her commitment to human rights and social justice were sown in a childhood where she felt powerless and deprived of love,” she wrote.

“The Matron of the Colebrook Children’s Home in South Australia where she grew up, told her that she wouldn’t amount to anything.

“How wrong she was. Dr O’Donoghue grew to become one of the nation’s most influential Indigenous women.”

Separated from her mother for three decades

Born to an Aboriginal mother and pastoralist father at De Rose Hill in the remote north-western corner of South Australia, Lowitja O’Donoghue and two older sisters were taken from her mother when she was two.

She grew up at the Colebrook Children’s Home in Quorn, alongside other Indigenous children removed from their families.

Lowitja O’Donoghue (front left) with her siblings at Colebrook Children’s Home.(Supplied: Lowitja O’Donoghue Collection)

There, she recalled how children were punished for speaking Aboriginal languages and heard news of their families only through new arrivals.

“I feel angry about the policy that removed us and also took away our culture, took away our language and took away our families,” she told the ABC’s Compass Program in 1997.

“The thing that upsets me most is what my mother went through for all those years, having five children removed — because my eldest brother and sister had been removed years earlier.

“I feel quite angry about the mission authorities for not in fact keeping in touch with my mother and at least sending her some photographs so she could know that we were OK and what we looked like.”

Thirty years went by before a chance meeting with relatives in the outback town of Coober Pedy led her to meet her mother Lily again.

“What I saw was a woman who had been undone,” she recalled.

“Even now I just can’t cope with thoughts of what has happened — not for myself but for all those years that she in fact didn’t know where her family were.”

Lowitja O’Donoghue was South Australia’s first Aboriginal nurse. (Supplied: Lowitja Institute)

SA’s first Aboriginal nurse

Lowitja O’Donoghue was trained at the children’s home to be a domestic worker, a job that led to work as a nursing aide at the Victor Harbor hospital.

But she was refused admission to Royal Adelaide Hospital to complete nursing training because of her Aboriginality.

“The matron … stood me up in the corridor outside her office and just told me very bluntly that I should go to Alice Springs and nurse my own people,” she told the National Film and Sound Archive in 1994.

“Alice Springs of course being a place I had never been to and ‘my own people’ being a people that I didn’t know. So of course that really hurt me, but I didn’t give up.”

She successfully fought the decision, seeking support from then-premier Sir Thomas Playford to eventually become South Australia’s first Aboriginal nurse.

After a decade of nursing that included time in India with the Baptist Overseas Mission, Dr O’Donoghue joined the South Australian branch of the Federal Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

That was the start of a lengthy career in the public service that saw her rise to become the founding chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).

She then advised the government on how to replace the NAC, working with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gerry Hand to create the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), an organisation she chaired.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue addresses the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva in 1992.(Supplied: Lowitja O’Donoghue Collection)

In 1992, Dr O’Donoghue became the first Australian Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly, urging “that the Australian constitution be changed to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the continent’s original inhabitants”.

She was a senior member of the team that negotiated with prime minister Paul Keating in 1993 to create Australia’s historic Native Title legislation in the wake of the Mabo High Court decision.

“It was very heady days of course … while we were negotiating … and we really at the end of the day had to come out with a result,” Dr O’Donoghue said the following year.

“The most important thing to do for Australians generally is to accept that Aboriginal people have rights and to appreciate that we have a living culture and one that they can be part of.”

Mr Keating issued a statement on Sunday paying tribute to Dr O’Donoghue — who he once considered appointing governor-general — and crediting her “judgement and good sense” for much of the success of Australia’s native title system.

“Lowitja O’Donoghue served her people with high dedication and unremitting faith. Her death represents an unmitigated loss to her people and the Australian community at large,” Mr Keating said.

After retiring from ATSIC, Dr O’Donoghue oversaw research into Aboriginal health policy and chaired the Sydney Olympic Games National Indigenous Advisory Committee.

Despite her many accolades, which included an Order of Australia, a papal honour from Pope John Paul II, a NAIDOC lifetime achievement award and seven honorary doctorates, Dr O’Donoghue was always humble about her achievements and the state of Indigenous affairs.

“My own heart is very heavy, heavy with the sadness of how little has been achieved,” she said in Adelaide in 2008 at her final public address.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue worked at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs during the 1970s.(Supplied: Lowitja O’Donoghue Collection)

Community mourns loss

Australian Indigenous rights activist and former politician Patrick Dodson said in a statement this was “a sad day for First peoples of this Nation”.

“We have lost an extraordinary person of great courage and strength,” he said.

“Her leadership in the battle for justice was legendary.

“Hers was a strong voice, and her intelligent navigation for our rightful place in a resistant society resulted in many of the privileges we enjoy today.”

South Australian Attorney-General Kyam Maher said he would offer Dr O’Donoghue’s family a state funeral.

“So much of what we see in Aboriginal Affairs policy today can be found in its genesis in the things that Lowitja O’Donoghue has done,” he said.

“We are a different country, we are a different state, for the better, for Lowitja’s impact.”

Her legacy continues through the Lowitja Institute, a health research body, the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation and the annual Lowitja O’Donoghue Orations at the University of Adelaide.

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