First Australian leaders

For our Elders
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For our Elders

The 2023 National NAIDOC Week theme is For Our Elders. 

Across every generation, our Elders have played, and continue to play, an important role and hold a prominent place in our communities and families. 
They are cultural knowledge holders, trailblazers, nurturers, advocates, teachers, survivors, leaders, hard workers and our loved ones. 

The National NAIDOC Committee

Find their stories

Throughout 2023 Trove will highlight First Australian leaders and their communities. 

Many of them have a number of names they went by or there may be many alternative spellings. Help us highlight their lives, and give them the recognition they deserve, by finding and tagging information about them in Trove!

By using their Austlang language group tag you can help people find information not just about them but also their communities.

  • Rosalie Lynette Kunoth-Monks OAM, also known as Ngarla Kunoth

    Rosalie Lynette Kunoth-Monks OAM, also known as Ngarla Kunoth, was a First Australian film actress, activist, and politician.

    An Anmatyerre woman born in 1937 in Utopia, Northern Territory she became the first female First Australian lead when cast in the 1955 film Jedda. 

    She also worked for several government agencies before being appointed as an adviser on First Australian issues to the Northern Territory Government. 

    Throughout her life she was involved in activism and in 2014, she was a major influence in bringing together a national gathering of Indigenous leaders to unite in the '"fight" for their lands. She died in Alice Springs in 2022, aged 85. 

    Anmatyerr Austlang code: austlang C8.1
  • Joe Anderson also known as King Burraga 

    King Burraga also known as Joe Anderson, grew up at Salt Pan Creek in New South Wales, Australia. An important First Australian leader Joe became known as ‘King Burraga’ after his mother Ellen's father, Paddy Burragalang. 

    In 1933, Joe made a moving appeal to King George by film to extend Parliamentary representation rights to Aboriginal people. Stating: 'All the black man wants is representation in Federal Parliament'. He also addressed issues of black and white inequality, saying 'there are plenty of fish in the river for us all and land to grow all we want'. This appeal was likely the first appeal for equality by an First Australian to be recorded on film. 

    Dharawal Austlang code: austlang S59

  • Emily Kame Kngwarreye 

    Emily Kame Kngwarreye was a senior initiated Anmatyerr elder, a respected ceremonial leader, cultural ambassador and a custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan Country, Alhalkere. A world renowned artist her work was deeply linked to  her strong connection to her Country. Born c.1910 in Alhalkere in the Utopia Homelands, an Aboriginal community located approximately 250 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.

    Kngwarreye spoke almost no English and had her first contact  with white people at the age of about nine. She worked as a stock hand on pastoral properties for many years. Through a community arts project in 1977 at Utopia, Emily began working in batik and for a decade exhibited her batik paintings with other Utopia women. In  1988 Kngwarreye began to work with acrylic paints and over the next eight years until her death in 1996 Kngwarreye created more then 3,000 acrylic paintings. Today her paintings are held in collection around the world. She was the first First Australian artist in Australia to have a major national touring retrospective and she holds the record for the highest sold artwork by an female Australian artist with her work 'Earth's Creation' selling  in 2017 for $2.1 million.

    Anmatyerr Austlang code: austlang C8.1

  • Alice Lovett and the Lovett Family

    Alice Lovett, Service Number: 95994 was born in Hamilton, Victoria on 16 June 1922. A Gunditjmara woman her family had a strong military history. During World War I her grandparents James Lovett and his wife, Hannah, had 13 children and lived at the Lake Condah mission. At the time when none of them were considered citizens of Australia five of their sons volunteered to enlist with the Australian Imperial Force. The first to enlist was Alfred, followed by Leonard, Frederick, Edward and Herbert.

    Then during World War II Alfred, Leonard, Frederick, Edward and Herbert re-joined and along with another brother Samuel. Alice, Leonard's daughter volunteered as a aircraftwoman in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Alice served between 10 Jun 1942 and 17 May 1943 across various RAAF Bases in Victoria. On the 7 December 1944 Alice married Signalman Claude Henry McDonald of the 10 Australian Dispatch Radar Section who served in New Guinea, Torakina and Bougainville and their wedding photo is now in the Australia War Memorial and available on Trove.

    Alice died in Melbourne, Victoria, on 10 May 1994, aged 71 years

    In 2000 the then MLC Tower, in Canberra was renamed The Lovett Tower to honour the family, with former veterans affairs minister Bruce Scott, saying: “This one family demonstrates how the ANZAC tradition, born during WWI, has been passed down from generation to generation and endures today.”

    Today over 21 members of the Lovett family have served in the Australian Armed Forces. Edward’s daughter, Sarah Pearl, was the second Lovett woman to enlist, serving with the Australian Women’s Army Service during the Second World War. Samuel’s son Murray served in the Volunteer Defence Corps and with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. Alice and Claude son Mervyn served in the Vietnam WarLeonard’s son (also named Leonard) served in the Korean War. Frederick’s grandson, Ricky Morris, joined the Australian Army, serving in East Timor and Afghanistan.

    Dhauwurd Wurrung^ Austlang code: austlang S20

  • Essie Coffey OAM

    Essie Coffey OAM, born Essieina Shillingsworth, was born northern New South Wales. A Muruwari woman Essie was the co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and served on a number of government bodies and Aboriginal community organisations. Including being an inaugural member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, helping establish the Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Museum in Brewarrina, and being on the board for the NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust, the NSW Aboriginal Advisory Council, and Ngemba Housing Cooperative.

    She also helped create the first women’s knock-out football team in the state’s northwest. A remarkable filmmaker alongside documentary filmmaker Martha Ansara, she made the award-winning film My Survival as an Aboriginal in 1978 and later the sequel My Life as I Live It, in 1993.

    Essie received the Order of Australia (OAM) medal in 1985. Her struggle with kidney disease featured poignantly in Darrin Ballangarry’s documentary Big Girls Don’t Cry. In the 1950s, Essie married Albert ‘Doc’ Coffey and they raised eighteen children, ten adopted. Essie died in 1998. 

    Muruwari Austlang code: austlang D32

  • Charles Nelson Perkins AO

    Charles Nelson Perkins AO, also known as Charlie Perkins was born on 16 June 1936 at Alice Springs to Hetty Perkins, an Arrernte woman, and Martin Connelly, a Kalkadoon man.

    A civil rights activist Charlie was the first First Australian man to graduate tertiary education and is known for his instigation and organisation of the 1965 Freedom Ride. The 1965 Freedom Ride  was a student bus tour around New South Wales to draw attention to the state of First Australian health, education and housing, and to try and stimulate local action. Today it is recognised as one of Australia's most significant civil rights events.

    Charlie also had a key role in advocating for a "yes" vote in the 1967 Referendum and a long career as a public servant included appointments as secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission and Aboriginal Hostels. He also had a career as a soccer player and remain a huge supporter of the sport.

    Charlie died on the 19th October 2000.

    Arrernte Austlang code: austlang C8
    Kalkatungu / Kalkadoon Austlang code: austlang G13

  • Lionel Edmund Rose MBE

    Lionel Edmund Rose MBE (21 June 1948 – 8 May 2011) was an Australian boxer whose professional boxing career spanned from 1964 to 1976. He held the undisputed WBA, WBC, and The Ring bantamweight titles between 1968 to 1969. At that time, no other First Australian had won a world title.

    Born and raised at Jacksons Track in Victoria Rose learned to box from his father, Roy Rose, a skilled boxer who fought at local house shows. Later, he started to train under Frank Oakes in Warragul when he was around age 15. Rose later married Oakes daughter Jennifer Oakes, at Mernda in December 1970. The couple’s son, Michael, was born in 1974.

    He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1968, that same year he also was named Australian of the Year, the first time the award went to First Australian. After losing to WBC world junior lightweight champion Yoshiaki Numata, in a fifteen round decision in May 1971, he declared his retirement.

    During his time off from boxing in the 1970s, Rose embarked on a modest singing career in Australia having hits with "I Thank You" and "Please Remember Me" in 1970. Produced and written by Johnny Young and engineered by John L Sayers, the song "I Thank You" was a top 5 nationwide hit. Comedic sports commentators Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson played it as a substitute to the Australian national anthem during radio broadcasts of the State of Origin series and other sporting events.

    In 1975, he tried his hands in boxing again but lost four of his six fights, including one against Rafael Limón. This led him to retire from boxing permanently. Post retirement, he became a successful businessman. Rose was also involved in grassroots community work, mainly in the areas of reconciliation and Indigenous health and was a Patron of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service from its start.

    Rose was also the 2003 inductee for the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame "moderns" category and in 2010 was the second person to be elevated to "legend" status by them.

    Arrernte Austlang code: austlang S20

  • Edward Koiki Mabo

    Edward Koiki Mabo was born in 1936 in the village of Las on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. In 1959 he moved to Townsville and married Bonita Neehow and together they had ten children. 

    A skilled artist and performer as well as a teacher of Meriam song and dance he is perhaps best known for his role in campaigning for Land Rights in Australia. He also worked in a variety of industries in Townsville including working on pearling boats, cutting cane and as a railway fettler. 

    While best known for his role Land Rights he was also involved in a number of other political causes including First Australian education and was the co-founder and director of the Black Community School in Townsville and was a part of a number of organisations including the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) and chairing the Torres Strait Border Action Committee in Townsville. 

    Mabo died of cancer at the age of 55 on 21 January 1992 five months before the High Court announced its historic decision in his case Mabo v Queensland (No 2). The case was found in his favour, leading to the Native Title Act 1993 and establishing native title in Australia.

    In 1992, Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards.

    Meriam Austlang code: austlang Y3 

  • David Unaipon

    David Unaipon was born in 1872 at Point McLeay Mission in the Coorong region of South Australia.  

    A Ngarrindjeri man throughout the 1920s and 1930s he regularly authored newspaper articles and published his first book in 1927. These works were the first items to be published by a First Australian author.

    He also patented an improved hand tool for sheep shearing in 1909 and conducted research into perpetual motion throughout his life. Other inventions included a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. He was a recognised authority on ballistics.  

    As a committed Christian and evangelist he travelled widely in South Australia, preaching in cities and towns up until his retirement at age 87. 

    Unaipon was a great supporter of First Australian self-determination. He worked as a researcher and was also a witness for the Bleakley Enquiry into Aboriginal Welfare and lobbied the Australian Government to take over responsibility for First Australians. He also proposed that the South Australian government replace the office of Chief Protector of Aborigines with a responsible board and was arrested for attempting to provide a separate territory for First Australians.

    He died aged 94 in 1967 at Tailem Bend, South Australia.

    He was awarded a Coronation medal in 1953 at the age of 81 and received the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers in 1985 after his death. He was chosen to featured on the Australian $50 note in commemoration of his work.

    Ngarrindjeri Austlang code: austlang S69

  • William Cooper

    Born in 1860/1861 William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man was a First Australian political activist and community leader. He was one of eleven signatories to the Maloga Petition in 1887 and in 1935 he helped found the Australian Aboriginal League (AAL). He was also Secretary of the AAL from 1933 to 1941, during which he helped arrange the first Day of Mourning in 1938. 

    On 6 December 1938, in response to the events of Kristallnacht in Germany, the AAL led a delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition which condemned the ‘cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany’. On the anniversary in 2018, members of the Victorian Jewish community organised a walk ‘in remembrance and appreciation of William Cooper and to reciprocate the march that he led on the German Consulate...’. 

    Cooper retired in 1940. He died on 29 March 1941.

    Yorta Yorta code: austlang D2


Austlang was created by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). It is the national database for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups and covers diversity of spellings.

It allows items on Trove to become searchable by a single tag or code rather then users having to search multiple spellings. 

Watch the video of Trove staff member and proud Gamilaraay woman, Rochelle Armstrong as she tags collection items with the AustLang code in Trove. 

You can also download and follow an easy instruction help sheet made for our annual code-a-thon to help you get tagging today.