The Australia Post Australian Legends Award recognises individuals who have shaped Australian society and identity in a variety of positive ways. In 2017, we honour three remarkable Indigenous leaders: Tom Calma, Lowitja O’Donoghue and Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

These highly respected elders have been tireless in their life-long efforts to improve social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Together, their work has spanned the areas of land rights, economics, self-determination, health, welfare, education and reconciliation.

Since its inception, the Australia Post Australian Legends Award has been announced to coincide with Australia Day. Out of respect for those who associate 26 January with the colonisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this year it will be awarded in May. This timing coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, which saw more than 90 per cent of Australians vote “yes” for constitutional change that would see Indigenous people subject to federal rather than state laws – just like every other Australian citizen – and give them visibility through inclusion in the census. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision, which saw Native Title replace the misnomer of terra nullius (the legal doctrine that declared that Indigenous lands belonged to no one prior to European settlement).

Tom Calma AO

Thomas Edwin (“Tom”) Calma was born in Darwin, Northern Territory, in 1953. He is an elder of the Kungarakan people and member of the Iwaidja tribal group, whose traditional lands are south-west of Darwin and on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

For more than 40 years he has championed the rights, responsibilities and welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Between 2004 and 2010 he was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and also Race Discrimination Commissioner for most of that time.

Calma has been involved in Indigenous affairs at local, community, state, national and international levels, contributing to the wellbeing of Indigenous people most particularly in the areas of health, education, reconciliation and economic development. He was active in forming the Close the Gap campaign, and delivered the formal response on behalf of Aboriginal people to the government’s National Apology to the Stolen Generation.

He is co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and a director of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC), the board of which he joined in 2009 and chaired from 2011 to 2014. The federal government has named AILC a key in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Calma has received honorary doctorates from Charles Darwin, Curtin and Flinders Universities. In January 2014, Professor Calma was appointed chancellor of the University of Canberra, making him the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander man to hold the position of chancellor of any Australian university. He was named ACT Australian of the Year in 2013 and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2012 in recognition of his “distinguished service to the Indigenous community as an advocate for human rights and social justice, through contributions to government policy and reform, and to cross-cultural understanding”.

Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE

Lowitja O’Donoghue was born in South Australia in 1932, her mother being Yankunytjatjara and her father Irish. She is a member of the Stolen Generation, taken from her mother at age two to be raised by the United Aborigines Mission.

Following her initial training as a nurse she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to continue her studies because of her Aboriginality. This led to her active involvement with the Aboriginal Advancement League, joining with other Aboriginal people, trade unions and churches to agitate for the rights of Aboriginal people to enter professions and take up apprenticeships.

Following her contestation of the ban, she became the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1954. She graduated and became a charge sister at the hospital, where she stayed for 10 years.

During the 1960s, she employed her nursing skills outside Australia, working in Assam, India, with the Baptist Overseas Mission. Her role in the area of health is also evident in her being the inaugural chair of the Cooperative Research Centre of Aboriginal and Tropical Health (2003–09) and CRC for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.

She joined the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs following the 1967 referendum, and in 1975 became the director of the South Australian region of the department. Two years later, she was the foundation chair of the National Aboriginal Conference, established to represent Indigenous Australians.

O’Donoghue was the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded an Order of Australia, in 1976 and a few years later, in 1983, received a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). She was named Australian of the Year in 1984 in recognition of “her enormous personal contribution in bridging the cultural gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of the Australian community”. In 1990, O’Donoghue became the founding chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), so was involved in drafting Native Title legislation in the wake of the Mabo decision.

She was the first and only Aboriginal Australian to address the United Nations General Assembly, and for seven years the most senior Aboriginal person in public office and a delegate to Australia’s 1998 Constitutional Republic Convention. In 1999, she was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia for “public service through leadership to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of human rights and social justice, particularly as chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission”.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is a Yolngu man, from the Gumatj clan group of north-east Arnhem Land. Born in 1948, he is a leader in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds.

In 1970, he came to prominence when he acted as court interpreter for the first litigation on traditional land rights in Australia, in which Yolngu contested the federal government’s grant of traditional lands to the Nabalco Corporation for bauxite mining. Although the court rejected the applicant’s arguments, the case was nevertheless significant in that it led to the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976. The Act has since seen more than 50 per cent of land in the Northern Territory and 80 per cent of the coastline returned to the ownership of Aboriginal people.

In 1975, Yunupingu joined the Northern Land Council, the new authority that was appointed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) to represent traditional Aboriginal landowners and Aboriginal people. From 1977, he was chair of the council for 25 years before retiring in 2004. During that time he led a number of negotiations with mining and government bodies to advance Indigenous wellbeing, particularly in relation to the Ranger Uranium Mine. For his efforts he was recognised as Australian of the Year in 1978.

Yunupingu has dealt personally with the last eight prime ministers and has consistently advocated development of Aboriginal land on terms set by the traditional owners and in a way that equips Aboriginal people with self-determination and economic independence.

In 1985 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia. In 1997 the National Trust named him an “Australian Living National Treasure”, and one of a select group of people “considered to have a great influence over our environment because of the standards set”. In 2015, the University of Melbourne awarded Galarrwuy Yunupingu a Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa for his outstanding work in advancing Indigenous rights.

Today, he continues to pave the way for a stronger future for Indigenous Australia, as the chairman of the Yothu Yindi Foundation and the Gumatj Corporation.


The Legends 2017: Indigenous Leaders stamp issue is available from 29 May 2017, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

View the gallery of stamps and technical details for this issue.

This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team