Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue: Against All Odds

We need to take the time to reflect on the heroism of Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue who passed away on 4 February aged 91.

Consider the odds against her.

She was stolen from her Aboriginal mother when she was only two years old in 1932.

Lowitja was stolen from her siblings and her extended family.

Her identity was stolen from her when she was forcibly placed in a mission home, her name anglicised.

Her heritage and her culture were stolen from her as she was prohibited from speaking her own language and removed from contact with her mother or with any Indigenous community.

Her agency was stolen from her as she was left alone and powerless.

Her education and prospects were stolen from her as she was trained for a life of servitude.

Her sense of self worth was stolen from her as she was repeatedly told by the matron of the home that she would never amount to anything.

And yet.

With extraordinary courage, she reclaimed her identity and her family, even though it was over 30 years before she could meet her mother and learn that she had named her Lowitja.

With extraordinary courage, she challenged racial discrimination to become, in her early twenties, the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at Royal Adelaide Hospital.

With extraordinary courage she fought not only for a better life for herself. This Yankunytjatjara woman spent the next 60 years fearlessly advocating for justice and equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue became a formidable leader in the fight to achieve Indigenous rights and recognition, including the success of the 1967 Referendum. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recalls that in 1993 Dr. O’Donoghue played a key role in drafting the Native Title legislation that arose from the High Court’s historic Mabo decision. As the founding chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) she assembled Aboriginal representatives to act as an advisory group. “ It was the first and only time the Aboriginal community of Australia was brought into the Commonwealth Cabinet Room for what became a deep and eight-month consultation in the design of the Native Title Act,” says Keating.

Kevin Rudd was another Prime Minister who sought her counsel in preparing his Apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008.

Dr. O’Donoghue kept on setting precedents and winning recognition as an Indigenous leader. She was the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly. She became the first Aboriginal woman to be made a member of the Order of Australia in 1977 and in 1984 she was named Australian of the Year.

Dr O’Donoghue also held two Honorary Fellows, nine Honorary Doctorates and a Professorial Fellow from various universities. 

In 1998 Dr O’Donoghue was declared a National Living Treasure.

Against impossible odds, Lowitja O’Donoghue took her place as a truly great Australian woman.



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