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Because of Her, We Can! 10 strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have led the way


​Every July NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia to remember the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year's theme, 'Because of Her, We Can', celebrates the essential role that women have played - and continue to play - as active and significant role models at the community, local, state and national levels.

But it doesn't have to be NAIDOC Week to celebrate all the amazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Here we take a look at 10 of the many, many strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have been trailblazers for Aboriginal people and all Australians:

1. Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Gibbs.PNGPearl Gibbs was one of the most prominent Indigenous female activists within the Aboriginal movement in the early 20th century. As a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association, she was involved with various protest events such as the 1938 Day of Mourning.

She played a vital role in ensuring that women were represented in the struggle for equality and injustices.

2. Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman.PNGCathy Freeman is a trail blazer. A proud Kuku Yalanji woman, Cathy became the first Australian Aboriginal woman to win a gold medal at an international athletics event in 1990 and, two years later, became the first Australian Aboriginal to compete at the Olympics.

Today, Cathy concentrates on charitable work through the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which focuses on educational programs to help indigenous children fulfil their potential in school.

3. Emily Kngwarreye

Emily Kngwarreye.PNGImage courtesy of Tara Ebes

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was one of Australia's most significant contemporary artists. Her remarkable work was inspired by her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder, and her lifelong custodianship of the women's Dreaming sites in her clan Country, Alhalkere.

She began painting quite late in her life and had first been introduced to silk batik with a group of women from Utopia in 1977. In 1987 Emily began working with acrylics on canvas. A design inspired by her artwork 'Yam Dreaming', featured on Qantas planes in 1994. Emily knew virtually nothing of the art world and drew her energy, creativity and inspiration from country in the centre of Australia.

4. Oogeroo Noonacal

Oogeroo Noonacal.PNGOodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker) was an Australian poet, political activist, artist and educator. She was also a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Oodgeroo was best known for her poetry, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.

She was Queensland state secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), and was involved in a number of other political organisations. She was a key figure in the campaign for the reform of the Australian constitution to allow Aboriginal people full citizenship, lobbying Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1965, and his successor Harold Holt in 1966.

5. Deborah Cheetham

Deborah Cheetham.jpgDeborah Cheetham is an Aboriginal Australian soprano, actor, composer and playwright. She is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken from her mother when she was three weeks old and was raised by a white baptist family. Jimmy Little was her uncle.

In 1997 Cheetham wrote the autobiographical play 'White Baptist Abba Fan' which tells of her experiences of coming to terms with her homosexuality and racial identity while trying to reunite with her Aboriginal family.

6. Pat O'Shane

pat oshane.jpgPat O'Shane is an indigenous Australian of the Kunjandji clan of the Kuku Yalanji people. She was a teacher, barrister, public servant, jurist, Aboriginal activist, and was Australia's first Aboriginal magistrate, serving the Local Court in Sydney between 1986 until her retirement in 2013.

Pat O'Shane was the first female Aboriginal teacher in Queensland; the first Aboriginal to earn a law degree; the first Aboriginal barrister; and the first woman and indigenous person to be the head of a government department in Australia, the NSW Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

"The women are the movers and shakers in the community...they initiate things...they keep things going." - Pat O'Shane

7. Linda Burney

Linda Burney.PNGLinda Burney has paved the way for women to take leading roles in their communities. On 26 January 1988, Ms Burney marched along side of her fellow community members at La Perouse in protest over the Australian Day celebrations.

Linda Burney is the first Aboriginal person to enter the NSW Parliament and was the Australian Labour Party National President through 2008-2009. Today, she plays an influential role in policy decisions that impact on Aboriginal people. Even though she has a very busy schedule in politics, Linda can still find the time and energy to march for rights and equality for various sectors of society.

8. Rachel Perkins

Rachel Perkins.PNGRachel Perkins has dedicated her life to ensuring that the truth of Indigenous Australia is told from an Indigenous prospective just as her father Charlie Perkins had done.

She is known for her thought-provoking works such as Radiance (1998), First Contact, First Australians, Mabo and Redfern Now. The impact Rachel's films have on the Australian culture is massive and her influence on the industry has brought about cultural diversity and led the way for other Indigenous filmmakers to follow. 

9. Barangaroo

Barangaroo.PNGBarangaroo was a powerful Cammeraygal woman. She was a leading fisher woman given much respect and reverence in her community, which pre-1788, was a matriarchal society, according to Jessica Birk, Aboriginal educator for the Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

Barangaroo was often invited to sit down and eat and drink with the Europeans, as she and her husband, Bennelong, were respected Aboriginal leaders. Barangaroo would occasionally meet with Europeans, but would never eat or drink their offerings and refused to wear clothes other than a bone through her nose. According to The Dictionary of Sydney British officers found her "striking and a little frightening, with presence and authority".

10. Nakkiah Lui

Nakkiah Lui.PNGSource: @nakkiahlui via Twitter

Nakkiah Lui is an Australian writer and actor and is a young leader in the Australian Aboriginal community. She is a co-writer and star of Black Comedy (a sketch comedy television program on the ABC), a columnist for Australian Women's Weekly and has also hosted Radio National's Awaye and NAIDOC Evenings for ABC Local Radio.

In 2012, Lui was the first recipient of the Dreaming Award by The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Arts Board of the Australia Council and was the inaugural recipient of the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright award.

Learn more about NAIDOC Week here.

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