Tributes pour in after passing of respected Wilyakali Elder

Wilyakali Elder and Chairperson of the Maari Ma board, Maureen O’Donnell, passed away peacefully at her home on Sunday night at the age of 81, surrounded by her family.

Mrs O’Donnell had been a major figure in the region, sitting on the Maari Ma Board since it opened its doors and for the past 14 years being the Board Chairperson – overseeing the roll out of

Maari Ma’s Chronic Disease Strategy, the opening of the Broken Hill Primary Health Care Service, establishment of the Maari Ma’s Balranald Service and the significant expansion of service delivery in Broken Hill, Wilcannia, Menindee and Balranald, and was Chairperson of the Broken Hill Aboriginal Community Working Party.

The Aboriginal elder also played a large and key role in her extended family and was much loved by her nine children, 37 grandchildren, 58 great grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.

Maari Ma interim CEO, William ‘Smiley’ Johnstone, said the far west community had lost an inspiring and passionate advocate for Aboriginal health, land rights, legal rights and equality, and her passing would be greatly felt.

“As the founding CEO of Maari Ma, I had the fortune of working with Maureen at the beginning of Maari Ma’s journey. We also worked together on the then Far West Local Health District Board.

“Her advocacy to improve the health of our people in far west communities was really unparalleled.

“She had no fear of tackling the issues she knew needed to be addressed and went into bat for the younger generation so that they would have the opportunities that her generation did not have, so they would not be disadvantaged by poor health and inequality.

“Her commitment to Aboriginal people extended well beyond health, and her work in land rights was well known.

“She was part of an 18-year struggle, which she described as a long, hard fight – to have Barkindji people recognised as the traditional owners of the land. That struggle was won in 2015 and that same year she permanently raised the Aboriginal flag at the Broken Hill Civic Centre.

“We have lost not only an Elder in our community who was respected for her commitment to Aboriginal people, we have also lost her guidance and wise counsel, and her knowledge of tradition and language.

“Maari Ma pays tribute and gives thanks to Maureen. She will live on in her family – her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – who she has inspired and encouraged in every way and who I’m sure will continue to walk on her path,” Mr Johnstone said.

The Broken Hill Local Aboriginal Land Council – which Mrs O’Donnell was Chairperson of for many years – paid their tribute too, thanking her, “for sharing her knowledge, strength and love to her people and community”.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council also paid tribute, saying Mrs O’Donnell was “a land rights legend”.

“Maureen spent her life campaigning for social justice for Aboriginal people and was deeply involved in her community,” said a statement from the Land Council.

“Most notable for the Land Rights Network, Maureen was the Chairperson of the Broken Hill Local Aboriginal Land Council for numerous years, and remained an active Board member.

In addition to her Land Rights advocacy, Mrs O’Donnell was on the Mutawintji National Park Board of Management, and Chairperson of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service for 10 years.

She provided major input into the 2018 Wilcannia Aboriginal Community Heritage Study conducted by the Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council and Central Darling Shire, as well as always giving generously of her detailed knowledge of Mutawintji and the Paakantji language.

NSWALC Councillor for the Western Region, Ross Hampton, said Mrs O’Donnell’s dedication to Land Rights and her people would be remembered by generations to come.

“I have had the honour and pleasure of knowing Maureen for many years,” Mr Hampton said.

“She was hardworking, resilient, and was always focused on bettering her community. Her legacy will benefit Aboriginal people not only in Broken Hill and the Western Region, but across NSW. I will always remember Maureen with respect and admiration,” he said.

“On behalf of the Land Rights network, I send my deepest condolences to her family.”

Those who wish to celebrate Mrs O’Donnell’s life are invited to attend a service to be held at the Broken Hill Civic Centre on Monday November 21 from 11am. The service will also be live-streamed for those who can’t attend.

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