'Someone who stood up': Indigenous leader Sam Watson dies aged 67

Ben Smee
Photograph: Tony Phillips/AAP

Last year the Indigenous leader Sam Watson was asked to reflect on the legacy of his five decades of radical activism, which began handing out how-to-vote cards at the 1967 referendum.

Watson, who died on Wednesday aged 67, said that when groups began establishing “survival services” to support Indigenous people in the 1960s and 1970s, there were “no black doctors, no black lawyers, no black professionals”.

“Because of the struggles fought in the 1950s and 60s and 70s young people have now got these opportunities, they’ve now got the doorways open where these things can happen,” Watson said.

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“I think that if we played a small part in creating those opportunities and creating those pathways then I think that in our final moments we can look back at that as being a fitting and true legacy.”

Watson was a Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba man, who had blood ties to the Jagara, Kalkadoon and Noonuccal peoples. He was an award-winning author, playwright and activist.

“He was surrounded by loved ones, who held his hand as he made his final journey back to the Old People,” Watson’s daughter, Nicole, said.

Watson became exposed to the Indigenous rights movement as a child and recalled being taken to meetings by his parents, and listening to soapbox speakers in Brisbane who exposed him to – in his words – the radical trade union movement.

In 1971 Watson founded the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party and has talked about how many Indigenous people were at the time inspired by the black power movement in the United States.

“(It showed) the need to be strong in our own identity and our own culture and our own language – the way we look, the way we walk, the way we talk. Instead of being something the white fella hounded in to us, that we should be ashamed of that sort of stuff, we embraced that.”

Watson fought the Queensland Bjelke-Petersen government over its repressive treatment of Aboriginal people; he marched against the 1971 Springbok rugby tour, the Vietnam war and for civil liberties. He recalled being beaten by police during those years.

He was also a proud staff member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and worked with many Indigenous community organisations including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, where he campaigned to help end deaths in custody.

“Each year, Sam would be at the forefront of the Invasion Day rally in Brisbane,” Nicole Watson 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.”

In recent times Watson has led campaigns to change racist place names; he recalled recently how in 1973 he stopped and removed a road sign bearing an offensive name . Watson fought to keep the name Boundary Street in West End, which had marked an exclusion zone for Aboriginal people until the 1940s.

Alongside his activism, Watson was an engaging storyteller and a gifted writer, who was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 1990 for his novel, The Kadaitcha Sung. He wrote two plays and a short film, Black Man Down.

Tributes have flowed for Uncle Sam – from political leaders and community members – who has been remembered as a giant of the Brisbane activist community and an irreplaceable voice for Indigenous people.

“Across more than half a century, he made an indelible contribution to the advancement of the rights of Indigenous Australians,” the Queensland deputy premier, Jackie Trad, said.

Others shared personal memories of Sam from his involvement in marches and protests.