Lowitja O’Donoghue, a revered Aboriginal rights activist, has passed away at the age of 91.
The Yankunytatjara woman and former Australian of the Year was recognized as “one of the most remarkable leaders” in Australia for her tireless advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. O’Donoghue peacefully passed away on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, as confirmed by her family in a statement.
“Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives,” they said.
“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 Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, established on her 90th birthday, is expected to carry on her legacy, according to her family.
“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.”
Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue, a prominent Indigenous rights activist, had an Indigenous mother and a pastoralist father. At the age of two, she and her two sisters were taken from their mother, and she grew up at the Colebrook Children’s Home in Quorn. It took three decades for her to reunite with her mother. In 1992, Dr. O’Donoghue became the first Australian Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly, advocating for a change in the Australian constitution to recognize Indigenous people as the continent’s original inhabitants. She was actively involved in negotiations with then-Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1993, leading to the creation of Australia’s Native Title legislation following the Mabo High Court decision.
In her 20s, Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue achieved several groundbreaking milestones, including becoming the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Later on, she became the first woman to serve as a regional director in an Australian federal department. Dr. O’Donoghue went on to become the founding chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference and achieved another significant milestone as the first Aboriginal woman to be appointed as a member of the Order of Australia in 1977. In 1990, she became the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Her contributions were further recognized when she was named Australian of the Year in 1984 and honored as a National Living Treasure in 1998.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Dr O’Donoghue was “one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known”.
“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,” he said.
Mr. Albanese also lauded her efforts to achieve real reconciliation.
“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.”
Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians, praised her “remarkable legacy” and described her as a
A “fearless and passionate advocate” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Ms Burney stated that she had “enormous courage, dignity, and grace” over her nearly 60-year career in public life.
“She was a truly extraordinary leader. Lowitja was not just a giant for those of us who knew her, but a giant for our country,” the minister said.
“My thoughts and sincere condolences to her family.”