11 First Nations Icons

Bruce Pascoe by Anna Maria Antoinette D'Addario
March 19, 2021
July 9, 2024
Last Updated
October 31, 2022
Written by
The Common Ground Team
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11 First Nations icons who've led the way in politics, advocacy, sport, academia and more.


Geonpul woman, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, is one of Australia’s leading scholars and a  hero of First Nations academia. 

In 2020, Moreton-Robinson made history when she became the first Indigenous scholar to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Moreton-Robinson’s work has touched on race and whiteness, colonialism, feminism, native title law and Aboriginal land rights and her work has been highly influential in shaping current debates around intersectional feminism in Australia.

Her 1999 book, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism in Australia was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and The Stanner Award.

Whiteness is an invisibility. Whiteness has blackness as its opposition. Whiteness has never seen itself as radicalised, because those who racialise aren’t in power, it can invisibilise itself.
— Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson
Supplied by Cathy Freeman Foundation


Cathy Freeman became a household name when she won gold in the 400m sprint at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She was the first Aboriginal person to do so at an individual event.

While winning Olympic gold made her an Australian sporting legend, her work with the Cathy Freeman Foundation (CFF) has cemented her as a First Nations hero.

Freeman was born in Mackay, Queensland, on the lands of the Yuwibara people.

From age eight, Freeman knew she was born to run.

Following her retirement from running in 2003, Freeman has strived to make the world a better place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 2007, she established the CFF to support First Nations childrens’ education.

Every child deserves the right to reach their potential and achieve their gold medal moment in life.
— Cathy Freeman


Eddie Koiki Mabo is the namesake of one of the most significant land rights cases in Australian history. The Mabo Case overturned the false doctrine of terra nullius and signalled a crucial step towards a mainstream recognition of First Nations people as the true custodians of the land.

In 1982, Mabo, a Meriam man from the island of Mer in the Torres Strait, entered a ten-year-long legal battle arguing the Meriam people were the traditional owners of the Murray Islands.

In 1992 the outcome of the Mabo v Queensland case (No 2) saw six of seven High Court judges uphold the claim that the Meriam people were entitled to “possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.

Legislation followed, and by the end of 1993 the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) was established to recognise the traditional rights and interests to land and waters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

‘Mabo Day’ is celebrated every year on 3 June, to commemorate Eddie Koiki Mabo as a hero of First Nations land rights. 


Adam Roy Goodes is a  former AFL superstar and 2014 Australian of the Year.  In recent years he became the face of the fight against racism in Australian sport. 

The Adnyamathanha man took a stand after a young girl called out “ape” from the crowd during a Sydney Swans game in 2013.  For Goodes, this highlighted how deeply ingrained racist attitudes are in Australia, even in children .

Since that time, Goodes has been a passionate advocate for tackling discrimination.

He was the target of a prolonged booing campaign by crowds at his matches, racial abuse and widespread vilification. These events culminated in Goodes’ retirement in 2015. Since that time, the former-AFL player’s experience of racism has been the subject of two documentaries, The Australian Dream and The Final Quarter. He founded the Go Foundation with Michael O'Loughlin and James Gallichan.  

In his acceptance speech for Australian of the Year, Goodes  said “racism stops with me”. He  remains an impassioned advocate for stamping out racist attitudes in Australia.


Dr Charles Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon man, was an activist, soccer champion, and politician. He was pivotal in the fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civil rights in Australia. He was also the first Aboriginal man to head an Australian government department — the Department of Aboriginal Affairs — where he served from 1981-1988. 

Perkins’ skills as a soccer player took him to England in 1957 to play for Everton — he was even offered a contract with Manchester United, which he declined. Back in Australia, he played as a captain and coach for Pan-Hellenic in Sydney.

 As well as a First Nations sporting legend, Perkins was one of the key figures in the 1965 Freedom Ride, a bus tour through New South Wales which aimed to draw attention to the disadvantages in health, education and housing experienced by First Nations Australians.

The Moree Baths and Swimming Pool Complex was the first place the Freedom Riders encountered local laws which prevented First Nations people from entering based on the colour of their skin. Perkins, leading The Freedom Riders, gathered Aboriginal children from the mission to try to enter the pool. After hours of negotiations, fighting and arrests, the 21 Aboriginal boys were let in to swim.

Perkins’ entire life revolved around achieving justice and recognition for First Nations people in Australia and in 1987 he was awarded an Order of Australia.

Our land, our pride and our future has been taken away from us and our people buried in unmarked graves. We wander through Australian society as beggars. We live off the crumbs of the white Australian table and are told to be grateful. This is what Australia Day means to Aboriginal Australians. We celebrate with you but there is much sadness in our joy. It is like dancing on your mother’s grave.
— Charles Perkins
Pat Dodson by Matthew Syres


Pat Dodson’s big beard and Akubra hat make him a recognisable figure in Australian politics. As does his unrelenting passion for reconciliation between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians. 

A Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia, Dodson’s life has been dedicated to the fight for the rights of Australia’s First Peoples. Dodson started his professional life as a Catholic priest ­– the first Aboriginal Catholic priest in Australia — but left the priesthood because he felt Catholicism was at odds with his First Nations belief system.

Dodson went on to be the chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, as well as chief executive officer of both Central and Kimberly Land Councils. He also played a vital role as a commissioner in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — a cause he campaigns for to this day.

In 2008, Dodson was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize and was a John Curtin Medallist in 2009.

Leadership is an elusive concept, hard to describe and impossible to prescribe. It is more evident in its absence, so that when leadership is needed, its lack is sorely felt. ­
— Senator Pat Dodson


William Barak, or Beruk Barak, was a Wurundjeri-willam man of the Woiwurrung people. He was born around 1824 and was an important ngurungaeta, or leader, to First Nations peoples in Victoria.

An artist and activist, Barak was a pivotal figure in the advocacy of Koori rights and protection of Wurundjeri culture.

Koori ways of life were devastated following white settlement, but Barak emerged as a sound leader and diplomat as he navigated the needs of his people and the politics of the settlers.

Alongside his cousin Simon Wonga, Barak was central to the establishment of Coranderrk Reserve, a self-reliant Aboriginal farming community near Healesville in Victoria.

He spent most of his life at the Reserve and worked tirelessly to protect it. White settlers frequently visited Coranderrk and Barak’s skills as a mediator bridging relations between white and First Nations peoples became infamous.

It was at Coranderrk that Barak created many of his artworks, telling stories of Koori culture and ways of life, educating the settlers and recording First Nations history.


Professor Marcia Langton AO is a Yiman and Bidjara academic. Her career and contributions have given Australians a deeper and more informed understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cultures.

Professor Langton is an anthropologist and geographer and the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. She’s also the co-chair of the Senior Advisory Group of the Indigenous voice to government, convened by Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians.

Langton first became an Indigenous rights activist at the University of Queensland in the 1970s and since that time has worked across land councils and a Royal Commission to tackle First Nations disadvantage.

If you’re a tough woman — and many Aboriginal women are tough because we grow up tough, you have to be tough to survive — then you’re thought of as less female.
— Marcia Langton 
Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam


In 1975 Gurundji man Vincent Lingiari opened his palm to a handful of sand poured by Gough Whitlam. It signified the handback of Kalkarindji, and created an  image that will be burned into the minds of Australians forever.

The legal transfer of ‘Wave Hill’ back to the Gurindji people made them the first Aboriginal community to have land returned to them by the Australian Government.

It was momentous, and  sparked the beginning of land rights movements across the country. This campaign was pivotal in the lead up to the creation of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1976). 

Kalkarindji, formerly ‘Wave Hill’ cattle station owned by the British pastoral company Vesteys, is about 600 kilometres south of Darwin. The station employed at least 200 of the Gurindji people as stockman and maids. Underpayment and discrimination was routine at the station.

The employees and their families banded together and staged the Wave Hill Walk-Off to protest their mistreatment by Vesteys. In 1967, they petitioned the Governor General, while the group’s leaders traversed Australia to raise awareness of their cause. It was the longest protest in Australian history. 

In June 1976, Lingiari was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to First Nations people. 

Let us live happily together as mates, let us not make it hard for each other... We want to live in a better way together, Aboriginals and white men, let us not fight over anything, let us be mates.
— Vincent Lingiari


Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker) is an iconic poet, environmentalist and activist of the Noonuccal people.

Noonuccal led a diverse life before she became established as a writer and public speaker. In 1942, after her two brothers had been captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore during World War II, she  joined the Australian Women’s Army Service. She was discharged in 1944.

In the 1940s Noonuccal joined the Communist Party of Australia, which was the only party in the country opposed to the discriminatory White Australia Policy. Through her involvement with the party, Noonuccal learnt about public speaking and political strategy, while honing her skills in speech writing and leadership. She eventually left the party as they began trying to write her speeches for her.

Noonuccal’s interest in writing poetry began in the 1950s. Following a glowing recommendation by renowned Australian poet Judith Wright, Noonuccal’s first collection We Are Going was published in 1963. She was the first Aboriginal person in Australia to publish a book of verse.

During the 1960s, Noonuccal became increasingly vocal about Aboriginal rights and social justice while her reputation as a poet continued to flourish. In 1969, Noonuccal attended the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on Racism in London and brought ideas back to Australia about the need for Aboriginal owned and operated political organisations.

Noonuccal established the Noonuccal-Nughie Cultural Centre at Moongalba on Stradbroke Island, working as an educator and ambassador of First Nations knowledge and sharing.

Noonucall changed her name from Kath Walker in 1988 as a protest against the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia.  She also returned her 1970  Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award.

Noonuccal’s poetry continues to inspire and educate First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians.

Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within.­
— Oodgeroo Noonuccal
Bruce Pascoe by Anna Maria Antoinette D'Addario


Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man. He has been a central figure in the reshaping of Australia’s taught history. He has helped to bring forth a history that includes the truths of First Nations people and their historical connection to and caring for land.

Pascoe is a writer and editor and a winner of a number of literary awards. His book, Dark Emu, has been vital in the retelling of Australia’s history outside of a white Australian, colonial narrative.

By re-examining  personal accounts from white settlers,  and using evidence of pre-colonial agriculture, construction and engineering, Pascoe has helped break down  previously dominant  narratives of ‘nomadic’ First Nations people. His work provides information around complex systems of land management, agriculture and community — and highlights that this information has been blatantly understated and dismissed in most contexts after colonisation.

Pascoe is considered a hero of First Nations academia and truth-telling.

If we are to attempt to understand Indigenous philosophy it has to begin with the profound obligation to land.
— Bruce Pascoe
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