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.

Famous Aboriginal Australians

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: partner: James 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.

Neville Bonner 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)

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 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 a teenager still herself.

[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 (7)

[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,

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - People - Famous Aboriginal people & role models, retrieved 30 July 2015