The land of Australia is brimming with famous and talented politicians, social activists, singers and musicians, dancers, fashion designers, writers, chefs, and the list goes on. But have you ever wondered about the famous indigenous Australians living in the country?
There are so many famous indigenous Australians that you know the name of but did not know they were aboriginal.
Shining like hidden gems and an unacknowledged force of light, these famous indigenous Australians brought about a great many significant changes and contributions to their country and are truly worth knowing about.
About Indigenous Australians
Indigenous Australians are people with familial heritage and membership in the ethnic groups of people that lived in Australia before the British Empire colonized the country.
They include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. Before the British colonization, the population of the Aboriginal Australians was around 318,000 and 1,000,000, with the majority living in South Australia, centred along the Murray River.
Following the diseases, massacres, and frontier conflicts associated with the British settlement majorly in New South Wales, there was a large scale depopulation of the Indigenous Australians.
After years of discrimination, the aboriginal people were finally granted Australian citizenship and citizenship rights and are still striving for representation in the Australian community.
15 Famous Indigenous Australians
1. Albert Namatjira
Albert Namatjira, one of the most famous indigenous Australians, was an award-winning Arrente artist who was widely renowned for his vivid watercolour landscapes that reflected the Australian outback. He became the first aboriginal person to be granted Australian citizenship.
Namatjira was originally by law, a “ward of the state” and was denied the normal rights of an Australian citizen. He dedicated much of his life towards raising awareness about the inequalities of the aboriginal people and fought for all indigenous Australians to have citizenship rights.
2. Eddie Mabo
In 1974, Eddie Mabo used to work as a groundskeeper at James Cook University. While working there, he realized that the traditional lands of his people were owned by the Government. This realization led him to challenge the land ownership laws in Australia.
It took ten years, but ultimately the Hight Court of Australia recognized the fact that the indigenous Australians had lived in the country for thousands of years and should be able to enjoy the rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.
The new law gave rise to the Native Title Act 1993 and paved the way for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take back their traditional rights to their land. Unfortunately, Mabo died of cancer just months before the law was made.
3. Evelyn Scott
Evelyn Scott was a social worker, activist, and educator who is one of the most famous indigenous Australians because of her mark during the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League in the 1960s.
She was also a strong advocate for social justice and change and campaigned in the 1967 Constitutional Referendum to include indigenous Australians in the national census and to push the Government to create laws for them.
4. Samantha Harris
At the age of 11, Samantha Harris was thrust into the limelight at she won the ‘Girlfriend Covergirl’ competition and landed a contract with Chic Model Management.
One of the nation’s top models, working alongside Miranda Kerr and Megan Gale, she was the brand ambassador for Seafolly and fashion ambassador from David Jones, graced the cover of the Vogue magazine, and walked the runway for designers like Lisa Ho, Alex Perry, and Rachel Gilbert.
Samantha Harris is a member of the Dunghutti tribe along with her mother (who was a member of the Stolen Generations). She has also become a role model for aboriginal children and works with organizations like the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence.
5. Linda Burney
A proud member of the Wiradjuri nation, Linda Burney is the epitome of the woman force. She began her working life as a teacher in Western Sydney and, in 2002, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Education by Charles Sturt University.
Burney became the first aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She was also the first indigenous Australian to be elected to the NSW Parliament in 2003, where she served for 13 years.
A strong woman and a mother of two, she was led solely by her own power and never got limited by others’ opinions. Giving her first speech, she was guided by three primary political motives – aboriginality, being a woman and being a change maker for social justice.
6. Cathy Freeman
Cathy Freeman was the aboriginal Australian who stole the show at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. First seen at the “best ever” Games, lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony and winning Gold in the 400m, her talent and tireless efforts brought about some of the greatest Australian sporting achievements.
Freeman began her journey in athletics at an early age and won her first Olympic medal (silver) in the 400m at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Following her retirement in 2003, she created the Cathy Freeman Foundation which assists in aboriginal education.
7. Shirley Colleen Smith
Shirley Colleen Smith, better known as ‘Mum Shirl’, is a well-known Wiradjuri woman, social worker, and humanitarian. One of the most famous indigenous Australians, her pioneering career and remarkable work included the setting up of the Aboriginal Children’s Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company, Legal Service, Medical Service, and the Tent Embassy.
Her nickname ‘Mum Shirl’ became a part of her after she was seen talking with the inmates while visiting her brother in prison. She kept on visiting these prisoners and when people asked her about her relationship with them, she simply answered that she was their “mum”.
8. Bronwyn Bancroft
Bronwyn Bancroft is an Australian artist, fashion designer, and one of the first aboriginal people invited to show her work in Paris. In 1985, she established a shop called Designer Aboriginals that aboriginal art and fabrics made by aboriginal artists, including herself. She is also an adoring member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.
One of the few famous indigenous Australians, she has also provided artwork for more than 20 children’s books, including Stradbroke Dreaming by aboriginal writer and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
Bronwyn Bancroft has a long history of involvement in community activism and arts administration and was also a board member for the National Gallery of Australia. Her painting “Prevention of Aids” (1992) was significant as it helped in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in Australia.
9. Lowitja O’Donoghue
Lowitja O’Donoghue is an Aboriginal Australian retired public administrator. At the tender age of two, she was taken away from her mother, whom she did not see for 33 years. She never met her own father either.
In 1967, Lowitja joined the newly formed Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the Commonwealth Public Service as a junior administrative officer. After 8 years, she became the Director of the Department’s office in South Australia, where she was responsible for the implementation of the national Aboriginal Welfare policy.
She was also the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. She then became the first aboriginal person to address the United Nations, General Assembly.
Following her retirement, she launched the Lowitja Institute. The Lowitja Institute became Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.
10. Adam Goodes
Adam Goodes was a popular Australian Rules (AFL) football player along with the Sydney Swans. Holding an elite place in the AFL history, he played 372 matches over 18 years, won two Brownlow Medals (2003 and 2006) and two premierships (2005 and 2012).
He represented Australia in the International Rules Series and was inducted into the Sydney Swans Hall of Fame. He also got the title of “Australian of the Year 2014.”
Adam was actively involved with various Aboriginal sports and community programs. Being one of the most famous indigenous Australians, he is a great role model, who put tireless efforts into trying to combat racism.
11. Neville Bonner
One of the famous indigenous Australians, Neville Bonner started his life working as a ring baker, cane cutter, and stockman before he rose to the position of Assistant Settlement Overseer. He didn’t know anything about his father and had no formal education. But, Neville Bonner was not the kind of person to give up because of some difficulties.
The fighter, Neville Bonner became an Australian politician who served as a Queensland senator for twelve years, and then became the first aboriginal Australian to sit in the Federal Parliament.
In 1981, Bonner was the only Government opposing voice against the bill that allowed drilling of the Great Barrier Reef. In 1979, Neville Bonner was jointly named Australian of the Year along with naturalist Harry Butler.
12. David Unaipon
A preacher, inventor, and author, David Ngunaitponi, known as David Unaipon was an indigenous Australian whose contribution to Australian society helped to break a lot of rigid stereotypes revolved around the aboriginal people of Australia.
David Unaipon took provisional patents for 19 of his inventions but was probably unable to afford to get his inventions fully patented. His inventions include a centrifugal motor, the multi-radial wheel, and a mechanical propulsion tool.
He has a recognized authority on ballistics. He drew many of his inventions like a helicopter design based on the principles of a boomerang.
Unaipon spent five years trying to create an everlasting motion machine. His most successful invention was, however, an improved mechanical motion device that could convert rotatory motion to its reciprocation tangential motion (for example in sheep shears). Sadly, he received no recognition or financial returns other than a newspaper report in 1910 for this invention.
A lover of classical English, David Unaipon was also a writer and a lecturer. He wrote numerous articles for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and published three short booklets on Aboriginal stories. With several other publications, Unaipon was in fact the first aboriginal writer to publish works in English.
David Unaipon is featured on the Australian $50 note in commemoration of his notable contributions to science as well as literature.
13. Archie Roach
Another one of the most famous indigenous Australians, Archie Roach is the country’s beloved and admired Aboriginal singer and songwriter. His debut album Charcoal Lane captured the hearts and minds of his people in 1990.
His landmark song “Took The Children Away” tells the story of when he was stolen from his family. Throughout his life, he has given tireless efforts towards healing the Stolen Generations.
Archie and his long-term partner and soul mate Ruby Hunter formed a band, the Altogethers in the 1980s. Their band included various aboriginal musicians. In 2010, after Ruby died, Archie was shattered. Later, in mid-2011, he was diagnosed with early stages of lung cancer and also had to go to rehabilitation.
14. Evonne Goolagong Cawley
One of the most famous indigenous Australians, Evonne Goolagong Cawley is a former World Number 1 female tennis player. She won 14 Grand Slam Titles: 7 in Singles, 6 in Women’s Doubles, and one in mixed doubles.
Nicknamed “sunshine supergirl”, Evonne was the first aboriginal Australian to win a Wimbledon Tennis Championship in 1971. She won Wimbledon again as a mother in 1980 and was the second woman to do so.
In 1993, the NSW State Transit Authority named a RiverCat ferry in Sydney after Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
15. Anita Heiss
Anita Heiss is one of the most famous indigenous Australians and a well-known aboriginal writer. Her stories range from historical novels to children’s books and poetry collections. Labelled as the “destroyer of stereotypes”, she is a tireless worker who tries to enhance her readers’ understanding of aboriginality.
Her first ‘chick lit’ title tries to find a common ground between mainstream Australia and aboriginal people and shows the difficulty of navigating relationships, especially for educated aboriginal women.
Anita Heiss is a strong advocate for aboriginal education, aboriginal literature, and its publications. She is also working for the publication of Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.
Making Australian History
Don’t you think that indigenous Australia was actually the birthplace of generations of notable, respectable, and admirable characters? Facing years of racism, prejudice, and discrimination, the aboriginal Australians work hard every day to make their traditional country a better place for themselves and for their future generations.
The mentioned 15 famous indigenous Australians are just a few among the many who contributed significantly to the making of rich Australian history.