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Indigenous elder Sam Watson fought for his people all his life

Laid to rest: Sam Watson in 2016. He lamented the number of Aboriginal children being taken from their families and locked up. Photo: Mark Bowling

FRIENDS and colleagues remember Indigenous elder and activist Sam Watson as down to earth, courageous and deeply committed to his people.

“I can’t remember a time when Sam Watson wasn’t in the public eye – all my life,” Catholic social justice advocate Peter Arndt said.

“I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t there at the forefront speaking up for and supporting the rights of his people.

“And it is just such an enormous and tragic loss.”

The 67-year-old died in Brisbane, his hometown, “surrounded by loved ones, who held his hand as he made his final journey back to the Old People”.

“Just as he loved his community, Sam was also devoted to his family,” a statement from his family said.  

“He was a much cherished husband, father, brother, uncle and grandfather.”

At 16, Sam Watson took his first political action by handing out how-to-vote cards for the “yes” campaign in the 1967 referendum.

The successful referendum resulted in changes that saw Aboriginal people included in the Census for the first time.

In 1972 he became a founding member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

“Sam fought against the policies of the Bjelke-Petersen Government that saw our communities subject to the oppressive controls of the former Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement,” his family said.

“Sam also marched against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and campaigned against the former apartheid regime in South Africa.”

Through the 1970s, Mr Watson worked with Queensland elders to establish community organisations and peak bodies in health, housing, education, employment and legal aid.

Through his work with the Brisbane Aboriginal Legal Service in the 1990s, Mr Watson played a vital role in implementing the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

“As well as the advocacy work, he spent a lot of time providing practical support to families of Aboriginal people who died in custody,” Mr Arndt,  the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Brisbane executive officer, said.

“In particular he was happy and proud of the work he had done as chair of the board of Link-Up Queensland that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.”

Link-Up Queensland provides services to reunite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by forced removal – individuals, families and communities that have a longing to connect with their heritage after being separated from it.

During an interview with The Catholic Leader in March 2016 Sam Watson expressed his concerns for young indigenous Australians.

He lamented the number of Aboriginal children being taken from their families and locked up.

“In 2016 it is the next generation of the stolen generation,” he said, while discussing the 10th anniversary of Closing the Gap, launched to address Indigenous disadvantage.

“Some areas of disadvantage are showing a marginal improvement, but what is chronic is the incarceration of our young people.”

Mr Watson said being locked up was part of a vicious cycle for his young people that included drugs and self-harm.

He also pointed to a close link between being locked up and suicide.

“Australia has the highest youth suicide rate in the world and, within that, the highest group at risk is Aboriginal youth,” he said.

Sam Watson was a proud Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba man, who had blood ties to the Jagara, Kalkadoon and Noonuccal peoples.

A funeral service was held in Musgrave Park, South Brisbane, on December 6. 

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