Renowned Aboriginal Activist Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue Dies Peacefully At Home


* WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and references to a person who has recently passed away.

One of Australia’s most renowned and respected Aboriginal activists, Yankunytjatjara woman Lowitja O’Donoghue has passed away this morning. She was 91 years of age.

Dr O’Donoghue, a former nurse, was a government-appointed chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and helped draft Native Title legislation that came from the historic Mabo High Court win in 1992.

She was the first Aboriginal woman to receive an Order of Australia (in 1976), awarded in recognition of her work as a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, and later as Regional Director of the Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, pictured in 1979 on her wedding day with Gordon Smart. (IMAGE: O’Donoghue family)

Deb Edwards, niece of Dr O’Donoghue and a spokesperson for the O’Donoghue family and the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, issued the following written statement, a short time ago.

“Today we announce with great sadness and sorrow in our hearts, the passing of our dearly loved Aunty and Nana Lowitja.

Yankunytjatjara woman, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, aged 91, died peacefully on Sunday 4 February 2024 on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia with her immediate family by her side.

Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives. We adored and admired her when we were young and have grown up full of never-ending pride as she became one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known.

Aunty Lowitja dedicated her entire lifetime of work to the rights, health, and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We thank and honour her for all that she has done – for all the pathways she created, for all the doors she opened, for all the issues she tackled head-on, for all the tables she sat at and for all the arguments she fought and won. 

We thank her for being a formidable leader who was never afraid to listen, speak and act. Always with strength, determination, grace, and dignity.
She was admired and respected universally, sought after to meet with dignitaries of the highest standing from all over the world, whilst being equally as loved in her own nation. 

We thank her for being a loving and devoted daughter, sister, Aunty and Nana to our families, always ensuring that we were looked after and cared for. As an Australian ‘National Living Treasure’, we shared her with admirers far and wide, but we always loved having her home close to us. 

We ask that you continue to honour Aunty Lowitja’s legacy through using your Voices to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to share the stories of her incredible life, which always had our First Peoples at the heart of all that she worked for and achieved. 

Aunty Lowitja’s legacy will continue through the work of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, which was established with her blessing on her 90th birthday in 2022.
It was her wish that future generations would learn and prosper from the pathways she had created, and that through the Foundation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be supported with strong impact through new opportunities and positive outcomes.

We acknowledge that many will feel a deep loss upon the news of her passing.

There will only ever be, one, Lowitja O’Donoghue. She who always believed that ‘we shall overcome some day.’

Thank you Aunty, you are home now, eternally safe in the arms of your family and beloved husband Gordon, who have been waiting for you in Spirit. You are forever and always in our hearts.

We acknowledge and share our immense gratitude for the health professionals and care staff who have cared for and supported our Aunty in recent years.

At this time, we graciously ask for privacy for our family, whilst we make arrangements to honour Aunty Lowitja.”

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.