Famous Aboriginal people & role models

Not many Australians know a famous Aboriginal person although most have one in their wallet.

We need more Aboriginal role models for the next generation of Aboriginal youth.

David Unaipon

Detail of a 50-dollar note showing David Unaipon. David Unaipon on a 50-dollar note. Some notes show his name at the bottom, some don’t.

If you live in Australia, do you know that you’re probably carrying a famous Aboriginal man in your wallet?

David Unaipon (1872 - 1967) was a Ngarrindjeri man, a preacher, inventor and writer. Among his patents was a helicopter design based on the principle of a boomerang [1].

David Unaipon is featured on the front of Australia’s 50-dollar note (first issued on 4 October 1995), along with drawings from one of his inventions, and an extract from the original manuscript of his book Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.

The 50-dollar note shows an Aboriginal couple in the bottom left-hand corner. The couple represents residents of the South Australian Raukkan community (Unaipon’s birthplace) in the late 19th century. The illustration is based on a photograph provided to the designer by Jean and Henry Rankine from Point McLeay [6]. Unaipon is the great great grandfather of Aboriginal footballer Michael O’Loughlin [7].

David Unaipon fact file

  • Nation: Ngarrindjeri, South Australia
  • Born: 28 September 1872, Raukkan community, South Australia
  • Died: 7 February 1967, Tailem Bend, South Australia
  • Famous for: inventions, writing
  • Family: partner: Katherine Carter (married 1902), father: James Unaipon, mother: Nymbulda Ngunaitponi
  • Education: Point McLeay Mission School (renamed Raukkan in 1982)
  • Inventions: Improved hand tool for sheep shearing (1909), helicopter, based on the principle of the boomerang (1914)
  • Publications: Articles entitled ‘Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs’ (Sydney Daily Telegraph, 2 August 1924), ‘The Story of the Mungingee’ (The Home magazine, February 1925), booklet ‘Native Legends’ (1929).
  • Awards: Coronation Medal (1953), FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers (posthumously in 1985)

Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman is one of the most well-known Aboriginal Australians. Her skills and achievements as a runner have been seen by people all over the world as she has competed in multiple Olympic Games.

Freeman’s greatest achievement was being the first Aboriginal person to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event (400 metres sprint). Freeman was further honoured by being given a vital role at the Sydney Olympics (2000), which was the lighting of the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony.

Cathy Freeman fact file

  • Nation: Kuku Yalanji, Queensland
  • Born: 16 February 1973, Slade Point, Mackay, Queensland
  • Famous for: winning a gold medal at the Olympics, displaying the Aboriginal flag
  • Family: mother: Cecelia Freeman, father: Norman Freeman; partner: James Murch, daughter: Ruby Anne Susie Murch
  • Education: Kooralbyn International school, Fairholme Colledge, University of Melbourne
  • Achievements: First-ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games gold medalist at age 16 in 1990, 200 m and 400 m gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, 400 m silver medal in the 1996 Olympics, 400 m gold at the 1997 World Championships, 400 m gold at the 1999 World Championships.

Neville Bonner

Neville Bonner was Australia’s first Aboriginal politician. He then became a senator for Queensland and served for twelve years (1971-1983). He was also the first Aboriginal person to sit in federal parliament.

A central focus to his work as a politician involved improving the conditions of his fellow Aboriginal people. Bonner helped change the face of Aboriginal rights in Australia. He was an honest man who never let anger dominate his work.

Neville Bonner fact file

  • Nation: Jagera, Queensland
  • Born: 28 March 1922, Ukerebagh Island, New South Wales
  • Died: 5 February 1999 (aged 76), Ipswich, Queensland
  • Famous for: involvement in politics, engagement for Aboriginal people
  • Family: partner: Mona Bonner (deceased), Heather Bonner
  • Political parties: Liberal (1971–83), Independent (1983)

Archie Roach

Archie is Australia’s beloved, respected and admired Aboriginal singer/songwriter. He captured the hearts and minds of a nation in 1990 with his debut album Charcoal Lane and the landmark song Took The Children Away which tells the story when he was stolen from his family. Throughout his life Archie has worked tirelessly to heal the Stolen Generations.

In the late 1980s Archie and his long-term partner and soul mate Ruby Hunter formed a band, the Altogethers, with several other Aboriginal musicians.

In 2010 Ruby died, shattering Archie. In mid 2011 he was diagnosed with the early stages of lung cancer and had to go into rehabilitation.

Archie has gone from singing songs about suffering and pain to more uplifting songs after letting go of the past and overcoming his challenges.

Archie Roach fact file

  • Nation:  Yorta Yorta, Northern Victoria
  • Born: 8 January 1956, Mooroopna, Victoria
  • Famous for: Writing and singing songs about his experiences as a stolen child and overcoming hardship; life-long engagement for the Stolen Generations.
  • Family: partner: Ruby Hunter (deceased)

Bronwyn Bancroft

Bronwyn Bancroft is an Australian artist who is amongst the first Australian fashion designers invited to show her work in Paris. Trained in Canberra and Sydney, Bancroft worked as a fashion designer, and is an artist, illustrator, and arts administrator.

In 1985, Bancroft established a shop called Designer Aboriginals, selling fabrics made by Aboriginal artists including herself. She is also a founding member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.

Art work by Bancroft is held by the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of Western Australia. She has provided art work for more than 20 children’s books, including Stradbroke Dreaming by writer and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and books by artist and writer Sally Morgan.

Bancroft has a long history of involvement in community activism and arts administration, and has served as a board member for the National Gallery of Australia. Her painting Prevention of AIDS (1992) was used in a campaign to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in Australia.

Bronwyn Bancroft fact file

  • Nation: Bundjalung, north-east New South Wales
  • Born: 1958, Tenterfield, New South Wales
  • Famous for: Artistic works in fashion, painting and book illustrations.
  • Family: father: Owen Cecil Joseph Bancroft (Djanbun clan), mother: Dot (Scottish–Polish)

Adam Goodes

Adam Goodes is a champion Australian Rules (AFL) football player with the Sydney Swans. He holds an elite place in AFL history, winning two Brownlow Medals (2003 and 2006) and two premierships (2005 and 2012). Adam is a four-time All-Australian (2003, 2006, 2009, 2011), member of the Indigenous Team of the Century, and has represented Australia in the International Rules Series. He is also Australian of the Year 2014.

Adam is actively involved with several Aboriginal sport and community programs. He has spent time working with troubled youth, including those in youth detention centres. Together with his cousin and former teammate Michael O’Loughlin, Adam established the Go Foundation which empowers the next generation of Aboriginal role models in all walks of life. Adam co-chairs the foundation, focused on promoting education, employment and healthy lifestyles.

Adam is a great role model and advocate for the fight against racism both on and off the field. Because of this he has endured more than 12 months of booing from audiences between 2014 and 2015 which led to a “I Stand With Adam” campaign against racism.

Adam Goodes fact file

  • Nation: Adnyamathanha nation, Flinders Ranges, South Australia
  • Born: 8 January 1980, Wallaroo, South Australia
  • Famous for: AFL player, community leader, role model against racism.
  • Family: mother: Lisa May Goodes; father: Graham Goodes; siblings: Brett Goodes, Jake Goodes

Albert (Elea) Namatjira

Albert Namatjira (Elea is his birth name) was the first Aboriginal person to become an internationally renowned artist. He always enjoyed painting whilst he was growing up, but it was not until 1934 (aged 32 years) that he began to paint seriously. A man named Rex Battarbee taught Namatjira a lot about the skill of painting, and Namatjira showed Rex some of the best places to paint in Australia. Namatjira’s art was very different to traditional Aboriginal art.

His first exhibition went on show in 1936 in Melbourne, where his paintings sold out. His success continued and his paintings became very valuable. Although he had become very successful and made a great deal of money, Namatjira still had to follow the strict laws placed on Aboriginal people during that time. He was not allowed to buy a home or any land, and could not rent a property.

In 1957, Namatjira became the first Aboriginal person to become an Australian citizen. His art and his life made governments aware of how Aboriginal people were being treated in Australia during that period.

Albert Namatjira fact file

  • Nation: Western Arrernte, Northern Territory
  • Born: 28 July 1902, Hermannsburg (Ntaria), Northern Territory
  • Died: 8 August 1959, Alice Springs, Northern Territory
  • Famous for: Influential painter, most famous for his watercolour paintings.
  • Family: father: Jonathan Namatjira; mother: Emilie Ljukuta; wife: Ilkalita (Kukatja nation); children: sons Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice, daughters: Maisie, Hazel and Martha.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of Australia’s most significant contemporary Aboriginal artists. Emily was born at the beginning of the 20th century and grew up in a remote desert area known as Utopia, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, distant from the art world that sought her work.

Although Emily began to paint late in her life she was a prolific artist who often worked at a pace that belied her advanced age. It is estimated that she produced more than 3,000 paintings in the course of her 8-year painting career—an average of one painting per day.

For virtually two-thirds of her life she had only sporadic contact with the outside world. It was not until she was about 80 that she became, almost overnight, an artist of national and international standing. She received the Australian Artist’s Creative Fellowship award in 1992.

Her remarkable work was inspired by her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder, and her lifelong custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan country, Alhalkere.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye fact file

  • Nation: Anmatyerre, Northern Territory
  • Born: about 1910, Alhalkere, Northern Territory
  • Died: 2 September 1996, Papunya, Northern Territory
  • Famous for: Contemporary paintings.
  • Family: Emily had one brother and one sister, and no children of her own.

Benn Harradine

Ben Harradine is the Australian and Commonwealth discus champion, and the first Australian male to reach the Olympics final in this discipline.

At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Harradine became the first Aboriginal athlete to represent Australia in a field event, and in 2010 the first Aboriginal Australian to win a gold field medal. [9] Benn is coached by his father Ken and Melbourne’s stalwart throws coach Gus Puopolo.

Benn studied Exercise Physiology at University of Newcastle and Deakin University in Melbourne. He can speak German and a bit of Swedish (he lives part-time in Sweden). Benn only found out his Aboriginal heritage in 2005 when he was 22 after his father wrote letters trying to discover who his relatives were. [9]

He is a speaker and role model for young Australians of all backgrounds. He was a mentor for Athletics Australia’s Jump Start to London 2012 program.

Benn Harradine fact file

  • Nation: Watjabaluk/Wergia, Goolum Goolum community, Wimmera district, Victoria
  • Born: 14 October 1982, Newcastle, New South Wales
  • Famous for: Internationally successful discus thrower.
  • Achievements: Gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India; finished in the top ten at competitions in 2006, 2011, 2012, 2014; broke the Australian record 3 times. [8]
  • Family: mother: Beth Harradine, father: Ken Harradine.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley

Evonne Goolagong Cawley AO MBE is an Australian former World No. 1 female tennis player. She was one of the world’s leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s, when she won 14 Grand Slam titles: 7 in singles (four Australian Open, two Wimbledon and one French Open), 6 in women’s doubles, and one in mixed doubles.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley ranked in the top 10 for nine years and climbed to the top of the rankings for one week in 1976. She was the first Aboriginal Australian to win a Wimbledon Tennis Championship in 1971. She won Wimbledon again as a mother in 1980, only the second woman to do so. Nicknamed “Gong”, she finished her career in the mid-1980s.

Renowned for her grace, ethereal touch and fluid speed around the court, Goolagong Cawley started playing as a young girl by hitting a ball against a wall with a board from an apple crate.

Fact In 1993, the State Transit Authority named a RiverCat ferry in Sydney after Goolagong.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley fact file

  • Nation:  Wiradjuri, New South Wales
  • Born: 31 July 1951, Griffith, New South Wales
  • Famous for: Playing tennis internationally.
  • Achievements: International Tennis Hall of Fame (1988), Sport Australia Hall of Fame (1985), Order of Australia (1982), Order of the British Empire (1972), Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, Australian of the Year (1971).
  • Family: mother: Melinda Goolagong, father: Kenny Goolagong, husband: Roger Cawley (married: 1975), children: Morgan Cawley, Kelly Inalla

Aboriginal Australians of the Year

Each year on Australia Day (January 26th) Australia honours the Australian of the Year, persons who “inspire us through their achievements and challenge us to make our own contribution to creating a better Australia” [3].

Here is a list of the Aboriginal Australians of the Year.

  • 2014 Adam Goodes (AFL player)
  • 2009 Mick Dodson (Professor of law)
  • 1998 Cathy Freeman (athlete)
  • 1992 Mandawuy Yunupingu (Yothu Yindi band leader)
  • 1984 Lowitja O’Donoghue (nurse and ATSIC chairperson)
  • 1979 Neville Bonner (first Aboriginal parliamentarian)
  • 1978 Galarrwuy Yunupingu (Yolngu leader, brother of Mandawuy)
  • 1971 Evonne Goolagong Cawley (tennis player)
  • 1968 Lionel Rose (boxer)

Fact In 2014, there were 14 Aboriginal finalists for the Australian of the Year Awards.

It's this increasingly casual reaction to Indigenous achievement and success that is a marker of how far we've come. It's becoming unexceptional to have successful Indigenous filmmakers, artists, doctors, academics, lawyers, nurses and politicians. This is the other side, the often - and unfortunately - untold side, of the story we hear about Indigenous Australia.—Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009 [4]

Check out the collection of famous Aboriginal sports people.

Aboriginal role models

Who do you look up to? Who’s inspiring you? A role model. We all need them to motivate us go through tough times and gather our self-discipline.

But there are only few notable Aboriginal Australian role models to inspire Aboriginal children. Politicians, actors, musicians, comedians—most of these in Australia are non-Indigenous.

Part of this problem is the high rate of Aboriginal unemployment, but also the appalling low rate of airplay for Aboriginal music and the few occasions where Australians can celebrate their Indigenous actors in Aboriginal films.

Sport, particularly football and rugby league, is the only area where Aboriginal players are so successful that, at times, they outshine their non-Indigenous team mates.

Case study: Samantha Harris

Samantha came into modelling when she was 10 or 11 years old. Since then her modelling career has brought her success and fame. She is now considered a role model for Aboriginal children [5].

The daughter of a father of English-German descent and an Aboriginal mother, Samantha grew up in Tweed Heads, northern NSW. From an early age her mother entered her in child beauty pageants.

While in high school she won a Dolly Magazine model workshop, and about 2 years later became a finalist in Girlfriend magazine’s Model Search.

Harris became aware of her Aboriginality, and that her mother is a member of the Stolen Generations.

Being called a role model for Aboriginal children now sits comfortably with Samantha, although it initially confused her—being relatively young herself.

Harris is an ambassador for the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Sydney, and One Laptop per Child Australia.

Samantha Harris fact file

  • Nation: Bundjalung, north-east New South Wales
  • Born: 20 July 1990, Tweed Heads, New South Wales
  • Famous for: Fashion model.
  • Family: father: Andrew Harris (English-German), mother: Myrna Sussye (Aboriginal)

[Being a role model] I think it's great that indigenous girls can look up to me and they can set goals for themselves because I have pursued what I have whanted to do.—Samantha Harris [2]

Samantha Harris as ambassador for One Laptop per Child Australia Samantha Harris is an ambassador for One Laptop per Child Australia. which aims to give 300,000 laptops to primary school aged children living in remote Australia.
Photo: One Laptop per Child Australia


View article sources (9)

[1], retrieved 13/12/2008
[2] 'Date with Kate - Samantha Harris', The Sun Herald 26/9/2010
[4] 'Respect. Relationships. We have come so far', Sun Herald 17/1/2010 p.17
[5] 'Samantha Harris family album', SMH Sunday Life 25/3/2012 p.10
[6] 'The Australian $50 Banknote',, retrieved 25/4/2012
[7] 'Who Do You Think You Are?', Series 4, Episode 6,
[8] 'Benn Harradine', Wikipedia,, retrieved 25/8/2015
[9] 'Benn Harradine the first indigenous Australian to win a major field medal', The Australian 11/10/2010

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - People - Famous Aboriginal people & role models, retrieved 27 November 2015