Celebrated author, teacher and “fearless” Indigenous activist Sam Watson has passed away after a short illness in hospital.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of a deceased person.
The 67-year-old passed in his hometown of Brisbane, surrounded by loved ones who “held his hand as he made his final journey back to the Old People”.
Across more than half a century, Mr Watson made an indelible contribution to the advancement of the rights of Indigenous Australians and has been remembered for his fierce commitment to social justice.
His daughter Nicole Watson said her Dad would be deeply missed, but his legacy would continue in the future.
Mr Watson marched in Brisbane in 2006 to protest against the death in custody of Indigenous Australians. (AAP: Tony Phillips)
“Each year, Sam would be at the forefront of the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane,” she said.
“It is his family’s hope that the Invasion Day rallies will continue to grow each year, because we know that he will be there in spirit.”
Mr Watson became politically active at 16, when he handed out how-to-vote cards for the “yes” campaign for the 1967 referendum.
Mr Watson addressed a crowd protesting Aboriginal deaths in custody in Brisbane in May 2010. (AAP: Steve Gray)
The successful referendum resulted in changes that saw Aboriginal people included in the Census for the first time.
He then served at the Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra from 1972, the year it was founded.
Through the 1970s, Mr Watson also worked with 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.
In 2009, he was appointed Deputy Director at the University of Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, where he taught courses in Black Australian literature.
As an author and screenwriter, Mr Watson was named National Indigenous Writer of the Year in 1991 for his novel The Kadaitcha Sung.
He wrote and co-produced the 1994 film Black Man Down that was screened to global audiences as part of the Sand to Celluloid collection of Indigenous short films.
“Just as he loved his community, Sam was also devoted to his family,” his daughter said.
“He was a much-cherished husband, father, brother, uncle and grandfather.”
Mr Watson’s death has caused an outpouring of tributes on social media.
Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said he was “a fearless Indigenous leader and advocate”.
“You will be missed by so many,” she wrote.
Labor Senator for Queensland Murray Watt wrote: “Sam Watson is one of Queensland’s most significant Indigenous leaders. We are all the poorer for his passing.”
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