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Blazing a trail

Since the settlement of this land in 1788, the traditional owners of this land have faced brutal oppression, violence and displacement. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have pushed back, shaping Australian history over the years with their strength, perseverance and defiance. These women are also responsible for educating future generations and advocating for Aboriginal rights. Here is a sneak peek at some of these women’s amazing lives and achievements.


One of the most well-known figures in Aboriginal history, Truganini is best known for surviving the European invasion that wiped out Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the 1820s. As one of the last members of the Nuenonne clan, she grew up learning her people’s traditional culture and ways of living, but this was interrupted by the European invasion.

In 1847, Truganini returned to her traditional lifestyle in 1847 – she would dive for shellfish, visit Bruny Island and hunt in the bush. In 1874, she moved to Hobart and passed away. A century after her death, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’s request that Truganini be cremated and scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel was granted. This event was an important recognition of the survival of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Truganini’s lasting legacy.

Gladys Elphick

Lovingly dubbed ‘Aunty Glad’, Gladys Elphick was an Aboriginal community leader who advocated for Aboriginal and women’s rights all her life. She founded the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, which helped advance Aboriginal rights within the community. This group played a key role in campaigning for the ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum that ensured Federal responsibility for Aboriginal people. This council expanded to include men and was renamed the Aboriginal Council of South Australia in 1973.

She was deeply respected in her community and known for her humour and shrewd personality. In 2003, the Aboriginal women’s group advising the International Women’s Day Committee set up the inaugural Gladys Elphick Award to commemorate her memory.

Mum Shirl

A passionate activist, Wiradjuri woman and beloved by all, Shirley Smith was key in progressing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare. She helped set up the Aboriginal Legal Service, Medical Service, Housing Company, the Tent Embassy and the Aboriginal Children’s Service.

She was given the name ‘Mum Shirl’ after visiting her brother in prison. She would visit often, talking with him and the other inmates. These visits were a source of comfort and joy, so she kept visiting. When prison officers would ask what her relationship was with the inmates, she would say ‘I’m their mum!’ The affectionate nickname ‘Mum Shirl’ stuck and the Department of Corrective Services acknowledged her work by giving her an all-access pass to all inmates.

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