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Honouring the remarkable legacy of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG

*** Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and details of people who have passed *** 

Introduction by Croakey: On 8 March 2024, hundreds gathered at St Peter’s Cathedral, on Kaurna Country, for a state funeral to honour and celebrate the remarkable life of Yankunytjatjara woman Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG.

Following a powerful Welcome to Country by Jakirah Telfer – who thanked O’Donoghue for believing in young people and community – Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to “one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known”.

Eulogies were also delivered by the Co-Patron of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, Patricia Anderson AO, and Senior Project Officer of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation and O’Donoghue’s niece, Deborah Edwards.

Jakirah Telfer. Photo by Che Chorley, ABC

Premier of South Australia Peter Malinauskas and Attorney-General of South Australia and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Kyam Mahar delivered readings. Singer Paul Kelly AO performed O’Donoghue’s favourite song, ‘Brown Skin Baby’, written by Bob Randall.

The funeral was attended by Indigenous leaders including Professor Marcia Langton AO and Professor Tom Calma AO, as well as Ambassador for First Nations People Justin Mohamed and former CEO of the Lowitja Institute, Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed. Other dignitaries included Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler, SA Minister for Health and Wellbeing Chris Picton, and former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja AO.

Below, the eulogies delivered by Anderson and Edwards are published in full, with permission.


An enormous contribution

Pat Anderson AO writes:

I acknowledge the Kaurna people and on behalf of us all, pay our respects to them as Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we are meeting today.

Thank you all for coming here to remember Dr O’Donoghue and celebrate her life and honour her and her considerable achievements, of which there are many, as you all know.

My name is Pat Anderson, and I’m an Alyawarre woman from the Northern Territory. I am deeply honoured to have been asked by her family to address you today.

My first words then are to the O’Donoghue family. It is always a time of sadness, to say goodbye to a dear relative who was passed. But I hope her family can take comfort from the love and respect that Dr O’Donoghue inspired and all who met her throughout her long life.

Dr O’Donoghue and I worked closely for many years. It started when she helped a group of us set up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research institute that bears her name, the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s first Aboriginal controlled, managed and led research Institute, where we set the research agenda.

Dr O’Donoghue played a pivotal role here, as some other people did as well, including Professor Marcia Langton who’s here and Professor Ian Anderson, to name a couple. It took almost 23 years to get the Lowitja Institute established and running as it does today. These years were turbulent and very difficult. Dr O’Donoghue’s status and skills as a politician guided us through this extended process.

Dr O’Donoghue was my colleague and mentor, and we became close friends over these years. And she was a companion to many of us in our struggle for justice for First Nations people. A struggle which began, you could say, in 1788, and continues today. There’s no doubt about that.

Dr O’Donoghue made an enormous contribution to that struggle. In doing so she made an equally enormous contribution to the life of the nation.

O’Donoghue had an extraordinary lifelong career of service. She played a leading role in many of the major political movements across her long lifetime. As you all know, she came from very humble beginnings and was, like all of us, subject to systemic racism.

In her distinguished career she was recognised many times, and a few accolades are Australian of the Year in 1984, the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly, Companion of the Order of Australia in 1999, and even a Papal honour, being made a Dame in the Order of St Gregory the Great in 2005. This was bestowed upon her by Pope John Paul the Second. How amazing is that! First time I heard that I couldn’t believe it. And all this and more, of course, is public history.

But what it doesn’t tell you is her importance to us, First Peoples of this country, as a leader, mentor, and advocate, she never stopped campaigning for justice for us. She did this with characteristic toughness, humour, and grace.

I remember when we [NT] took the Commonwealth to court, the first jurisdiction to do so for Stolen Generations. We were standing outside of the court on the footpath in Darwin and all the silks and the barristers were going into court with those trolleys, you know that you carry fridges on, piled high with folders like this thick. And we are standing there, looking at each other saying, “Oh my goodness”. And anyhow, we’re… feeling really apprehensive.

And, this car pulls up – with the big red Zed plates – and we all looked at each other and said “oh goodness, who’s coming now?”

And out got Dr O’Donoghue and she came over and we all hugged her…relief went out of the air, even though we were outside, and we thought, “thank goodness for that”. She just turned up to be with us. As you know in those days Darwin was quite small – we’re pretty parochial – it never occurred to us that she would come and spend two days with us. And she did. There was no press conference. She just hung out with us.

Everything she did was with characteristic toughness, honour and grace. I knew Dr O’Donoghue by her work and her standing before I met her. She was at the forefront of national affairs when I was still running around Darwin wondering what to say and how to say it.

Later, I saw her work in meetings between senior Aboriginal leaders, Federal cabinet ministers and ATSIC commissioners. She was a tough defender of the organisation that she chaired and someone whose intellect and determination commanded respect always. Her leadership style was formidable. She was no nonsense.

Her work ethic was unmatched. And all, as the Prime Minister already said, because she loved us so much.

However, I can recall times when we were all quaking in our boots, and that includes Cabinet ministers. It was during, when Mr Keating was the Prime Minister, and we had a Cabinet meeting with senior Cabinet there on one side of this huge table, and we are on the other side of the table, and Dr O’Donoghue was really angry with us.

She…stomped into the room, went and sat at the end of the table and sort of looked, glared down on the table at us all including the cabinet ministers, and I think it was Mr Crean who leaned across the table to us. He says, “I think you guys have got the floor.”

But in the fierce policy and political battles that went with the job, she was remarkable in that she never held a grudge. She was always willing to build bridges. She was always respectful of other people. I, like many of us, saw this combination of strength, grace and humour, admired it and tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to learn from it.

One of her other important achievements, often overlooked in the obituaries of Dr O’Donoghue, is the significant role she played in the flourishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. This is particularly relevant to recall today, which of course is International Women’s Day. There’s a whole generation of First Nations women who flourished because of Dr O’Donoghue.

First Nations women have contacted me over these last few weeks… telling me stories about catching a glimpse of Dr O’Donoghue in some hallway of power and being totally starstruck and inspired to follow in her footsteps.

Despite her toughness, she was always a gracious person. Notwithstanding the extraordinary demands on her, she always found time to remember who our kids were and, in some cases, our grandkids and ask after them, remembering their names and with genuine interest.

I also want to mention her faith, which I believe gave her joy and sustained her through some hard and dark times, of which there were many. She loved the symbolism and ritual of the church and the music. She so loved the music. She also loves singing and of course her love of Thai food is legendary.

I will leave you with Dr O’Donoghue’s words from 1997 when she gave one of her many addresses to the National Press Club, talking of the need to give us, Australia’s First Peoples’, a voice on all matters that affect our lives. She said in 1997:

We cannot lose the will to resolve these issues, because they will not go away. But tackling them half-heartedly or high-handedly will be a recipe for continuing failure. I believe that solutions are at hand, but they will require determination and patient effort, negotiation and compromise, imagination and true generosity.”

I just want to emphasise those qualities again, determination and patient effort, negotiation and the art, the art of principled, principled compromise. There is such a thing. Imagination, again, and true generosity. I cannot think of better words to describe her gift to all those who had the good fortune to know her and interact with her. These qualities shone through in everything she did with us and for us and for the nation.

Always. Always. These qualities are why she was and always will be so loved and respected. Indeed, a grand, a truly grand woman.


On love and legacy

Deborah Edwards writes:

I acknowledge the Kaurna people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting, and all First Nations peoples present with us and who are joining us online today.

On behalf of our family, I would like to welcome you all and sincerely thank you for gathering to honour and celebrate the life of our Auntie, Nana and sister – Lowitja O’Donoghue.

I know for certain that she would think today is just perfect!

My name is Deborah Edwards, many of you will know me as Deb, but my Auntie only ever called me Deborah and she would want me to address myself correctly on an occasion as important as this, otherwise I will get into so much trouble!

I am the daughter of Lowitja’s sister Amy, who was two years older and with whom she shared a very close bond.

It would be amiss of me, on this International Women’s Day, to NOT acknowledge both for their incredible trailblazing achievements in South Australia – Lowitja, as the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and my mother Amy, her big sister, the first Aboriginal primary school teacher in South Australia. Such an incredible legacy.

The collective hearts of our family are filled with heartbreak and sadness that our beloved Auntie and Nana has returned home.

Graciously, she chose her time well, a Sunday, and when it came, she was very peaceful, comfortable and surrounded by those of us who loved and adored her.

Deborah Edwards. Photo by Che Chorley, ABC

Auntie Lowitja was always fiercely independent and strong-willed, as many of you would know! We knew that she would always go when she was good and ready and most likely, not without a fight.

We almost lost her in the first week of November when Auntie Lowitja reached end of life stage across a period of about seven to 10 days, but she soon decided, assisted by the power of prayer and song, that it was not yet her time.

By December, she was up and about and taking walks around her home at Helping Hand Aged Care in Golden Grove.

On January 8th, Auntie Lowitja broke her hip, she had surgery as a palliative measure, which went very smoothly; however, she was never able to fully recover and passed away on the morning of Sunday February 4th, just in time for church.

We knew our Auntie Lowitja to be a kind, generous, compassionate and larger than life one-of-a-kind woman. She was always immaculately dressed, never a hair out of place, zipping around Adelaide in her groovy Volkswagen which was often parked on the front lawn of our family home. Inside the bonnet, there was always a picnic basket packed full of everything you might need on a day out for a quick cuppa and snack.

Lowitja O’Donoghue was always ready. Ready with a packed overnight bag for a hospital stay, ready with a needle and thread, ready with a mini laundry kit to wash her ‘smalls’ out in a hotel room, and always ready to help, support and comfort people in need.

Childhood memories for many of our family include visiting Auntie Lowitja at work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, her being front and centre of many gatherings of the Colebrook Home families, watching her run around a hockey field which in turn inspired many of us to take up hockey, including myself, and of course many trips to visit Auntie and her late husband Gordon Smart, aka Smarty, at their home at Quorn in the Flinders Ranges.

When Auntie Lowitja’s career blossomed in national Aboriginal affairs, it meant that she headed off to live in Canberra and travelled even further afield month after month, year after year.

We missed her, we all had to adjust to not seeing her so frequently, and instead we watched on with great pride as she created pathways, took charge of board meetings, negotiated history-making events, received awards of the highest order and she handled it all with determination, a cool head, grace, dignity and compassion.

We knew that she was independent; however, we still would have loved to have her close by and family was always so important.

I have found a guest book within Auntie’s collection at the National Library in Canberra from when she featured on the TV program ‘This Is Your Life’. It contains a handwritten message from our mum Amy – which says:

We as a family loaned you to the Commonwealth for many years, but we