William Cooper’s dreams of Indigenous representation in Parliament inch closer

Senator Patrick DodsonThe man leading the charge on enshrining a First Nations voice in the constitution says he’s often inspired by the work of Indigenous rights pioneer William Cooper says the Special envoy for the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Senator Patrick Dodson.

William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man who was born around 1860 near the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in Victoria, played pivotal roles in the Cummeragunja Walk Off and founded the Australian Aborigines’ League.

“He’s a foundation pivot member of our search for justice and recognition within the complexity of colonial settlement and subsequent federation,” said Senator Pat Dodson, the Special Envoy for Reconciliation tasked with implementing the Uluru Statement of the Heart.

“He had a very passionate concern for seeing things done right for First Nations people, and I think that will be the legacy that hopefully we can work towards fulfilling in some way.

“I think he’s just one of those great human beings that have set a good example for First Nations people but also for the rest of the nation on the just cause of Aboriginal people in this country.”

A record number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives were elected to federal parliament last month, and just this week a landmark bill was passed to establish an independent body to oversee a treaty between Victoria and its first people.

The bill gives the treaty authority the legal powers necessary to facilitate negotiations and resolve any disputes between the government and Indigenous people.

“Overall, I think [Cooper] would be very proud in the fact that we are in parliament and that we are working towards achieving something of his dream and something of the justice that he wanted to see brought about for Aboriginal people, not only in Victoria and NSW but across Australia,” Senator Dodson said.


Statue of William Cooper
Statue of William Cooper – Queen’s Gardens, Shepparton

A remarkable life

Growing up during a time when Aboriginal people were not considered citizens of the land they lived in, Cooper acted tirelessly as an advocate for Indigenous rights.

He lived mainly on missions and state-funded reserves in New South Wales and Victoria, including the Maloga Mission and the Cummeragunja Mission where the government controlled the lives of Aboriginal people and living conditions were poor.

Elders share stories of children being told to run and hide when cars arrived and pulled into Cummeragunja so they would not be taken from their parents.

Cooper was a figure that led the Cummeragunja Walk Off in 1939 which saw about 200 Aboriginal people leave their homes and cross the Murray River to Victoria in protest against the harsh conditions.


Cummeragunja Mission
A walk off was held at Cummeragunja Mission in NSW.(Supplied: State Library of Victoria)

He founded the Australian Aborigines’ League to lobby state and federal governments, arranged a Day of Mourning on January 26, produced a petition calling for Aboriginal representation in federal parliament and inspired generations of activists working for justice for Indigenous Australians.

He was a man whose activism extended beyond First Nations issues, also lodging a personal protest against the treatment of Jews in Germany.

In what became one of the first protests in the world against the actions of the Nazis, he walked from his home in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy to South Melbourne.

Cooper died in 1941, after which many of his initiatives began to gain recognition; Senator Dodson said his legacy continued to strengthen throughout history but more still needed to be done to achieve his goal.

“I think that much more has to be done about contributions to the movements that we belong to today,” he said.

“I think he would have felt a little bit saddened by the fact that the movement for a referendum to have a voice enshrined in the constitution wasn’t being supported as vehemently as I think he would have loved to have seen.”

His legacy continues

Gary Cooper said awareness of Aboriginal peoples’ issues were growing and his great uncle’s work was being recognised more and more.

“We’ve come a long, long way … I think it’s slowly but surely getting there,” he said.

“I think the next generation will carry on that work because there’s more awareness now of it.”

William Cooper’s extraordinary life and advocacy work is celebrated in a book by Bain Attwood, a professor of history at Monash University.

The biography William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story aims to educate people on history and Cooper’s work of activism.

“I think it’s really important in Australia, particularly among non-Aboriginal people, to recognise Aboriginal people as the First Nations and to know as much as we can about important Aboriginal advocates like William Cooper,” Professor Attwood said.


William Cooper
William Cooper – founder of the Australian Aborigines’ League


Image Credits: ABC News/Tim Leslie , State Library of Victoria, AIATSIS/Alick Jackomos Collection