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20 Inspiring Indigenous Australians Changing The Face Of A Nation

The latest generation of the world's oldest living culture.

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1. James Saunders, digital PR agency head and openly gay rugby player

James Saunders is from the Killcare clan of the Gunditjmara nation in south west Victoria and calls himself "a proud Wiradjuri man". Saunders runs his own recently launched digital PR agency Mopoke Media, aiming to promote the Aboriginal community from a positive angle. According to Saunders, he was most proud of casting the 20 new faces for this year's first ever Australian Indigenous Fashion Week. James is also a member of the Sydney Convicts, Australia’s first gay rugby team who will defend their title in the Bingham Cup this August in Sydney.

2. Samantha Harris, Vogue cover girl and face of Australian Indigenous Fashion Week

(cc) Eva Rinaldi
Flickr: 58820009@N05

(cc) Eva Rinaldi

Samantha Harris began her modelling life ten years ago, as a young teen, when she entered the Girlfriend magazine modelling competition and was signed to Chic management. In 2010 she would grace the covers of Vogue Australia, and has walked the runway for some of Australia's biggest names in fashion, including Alex Perry, Anna and Boy, Dion Lee, Ellery, Kate Sylvester, Rachel Gilbert and Lisa Ho. She was also Ambassador of the recent inaugural Australian Indigenous Fashion Week .

3. Adam Goodes, champion both on and off the Australian Rules playing field

National Australia Day Council

An Andyamathanha man, Adam Goodes has collected two Brownlow Medals and two premierships playing with the Sydney Swans, marking him for Australian Rules legendary status. But it is his use of this sporting fame to fight against racism and work with Indigenous sport and community programs - including with youths in detention centres - that saw him pick up the Australian of the Year award this year. Goodes, along with cousin and former teammate Michael O’Loughlin, is continuing this community work with their Go Foundation.

4. Anita Heiss, prolific poet, writer and destroyer of stereotypes

Amanda James

Dr Anita Heiss is a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales and author of a number of books, from her historical novel, Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937, to a children’s book and poetry collections. In 2007 she released her first “chick lit” title (or as she says, tongue-in-cheek, “choc lit”) that was born out of “purging myself of 15 years of bad dates” but also sought to find common ground between mainstream and Indigenous Australia. Be sure to watch her TedxBrisbane talk in which she says: “lots of my first dates turn into cultural awareness training workshops”.

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5. Charles Prouse, delivering opportunity to Indigenous businesses

Charles Prouse is a Nyikina man and Chief Executive Officer of SupplyNation, a non-for-profit body that connects corporate and government organisations with Indigenous business suppliers. Prouse's professional history has been in leading employment programs for Aboriginal communities and says, “As Aboriginal people, we continue to build on the achievements of our Elders. In the 21st Century, the time has come for Indigenous people to be on equal footing with our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters and to share in the social and economic benefits of our country.”

6. Benson Saulo, young gun leading a new generation

Benson Saulo is a descendent of the Wergaia and Gunditjmara nations of western Victoria and the New Ireland Provence of Papua New Guinea. At only 26, he is the Founding Director of the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, whose aim is to “develop the next generation of young Indigenous changemakers from communities across Australia.” In 2011 he became the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations since this role began in 1999, attending the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Previously he worked as a Business Analyst in the ANZ Indigenous Employment and Training Team, is a current Ambassador for Welcome to Australia and was recently included in CLEO's 30 under 30 list.

7. Shareena Clanton, breakout star from "behind bars"

Shareena Clanton hails from Western Australia and currently plays Doreen Anderson in Wentworth, the acclaimed remake of the television show Prison. The role nabbed her a recent nomination for Most Outstanding Newcomer at this year's Logie Awards. Along with extensive theatre work Clanton has also appeared in television shows Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, Redfern Now and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. She graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2010, joining luminaries such as Hugh Jackson.

8. Jeffrey Lee, defender of the land from mining giants

Australian of the Year

Jeffrey Lee is the last surviving member of the Djok clan, and therefore the sole traditional owner of land known as Koongarra, in the Northern Territory. The area is rich in uranium and despite the potential to earn millions from a sale, Lee consistently said "no" to mining on his land. Last year the Australian of the Year award recognised his work protecting land that is "home to sacred burial sites and other special places that Jeffrey feels a sense of responsibility to look after". In 2013 the land was incorporated into the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, for which Jeffrey works as a ranger, and is thus permanently protected from uranium mining.

9. Carla McGrath, a force to be reckoned with in sustainability and development

Carla McGrath considers herself a "proud Indigenous Australian woman from Thursday Island". Although raised on the mainland, she says she retains strong family and community ties to the Torres Strait Islands. She currently works at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence as the Head of Sustainability, and wears a long list of other - equally impressive - hats: Co-Chair of the NSW Reconciliation Council, the Vice-Chair of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, a board member of the George Hicks Foundation and Flashpoint Labs, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel member of The Smith Family and a delegate to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

10. Jessica Mauboy, outlived Idol graduated to genuine pop star status

(cc) Eva Rinaldi
Flickr: 76753780@N02

(cc) Eva Rinaldi

With three albums and several hit songs already under her belt, it's easy to forget Jessica Mauboy is only 24 years old. She was still in her teens when she took out second place on the fourth season of Australian Idol, and since then has outshone many of her fellow contestants, becoming a truly celebrated and loved musical performer in the nation. In addition to her singing and acting career (appearing in the Australian hit film The Sapphires), Jessica is Ambassador to the Yipirinya School which describes itself as "bi-lingual and bi-cultural" and as teaching four Indigenous languages, "perhaps the only school in Australia to do so."

11. Damien Miller, nation's first Indigenous Australian to head an overseas mission

Damien Miller is of the Gangalu nation in central Queensland but grew up in Brisbane. His life in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) saw him posted in Malaysia and Germany, but his recent move to Denmark will see him become the Australian ambassador of that nation, also covering Norway and Iceland. He recently told the ABC that he's always held a great sense of pride in being an Indigenous staff member of DFAT, which he says currently has 49 Indigenous staff members, 12 of whom are overseas.

12. Ella Havelka, performer in the nation's top ballet company

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Australia Network / Via

Ella Havelka is a descendant of the Wiradjuri people and the first ever Indigenous Australian to join the prestigious national ballet company, The Australian Ballet. This followed several years as part of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. The dancer also practices traditional Aboriginal basket weaving, and sells her baskets and bags to raise funds for Oxfam Australia's Close the Gap campaign.

13. Richard Bell, artist, political activist and provocateur

Linden Contemporary

Richard Bell is a painter and activist who came to national prominence in 2003 when his work (featuring the words "Aboriginal Art: It's a White Thing") won the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Since then his work has been shown across the nation and overseas and are marked by their strong commentary on modern Australian society. His recreation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a direct critique of the Australian government and the state of human rights and land rights of Aboriginal people in Australia. And he's been vocal in his disapproval of the art establishment and their narrow definitions of Aboriginal art.

14. Tanya Orman, media marvel for National Indigenous Television (NITV)


Tanya Orman calls herself "a proud Birri woman from Central Queensland" and is currently leading NITV as Channel Manager, directing the overall management and programming of the network. The rising star network is part of the SBS family and employs approximately 50 Australians. Some 70% of these staff members are Indigenous, many of whom were recruited from other fields and trained on the job. Orman has over a decade of media experience, including as a journalist and producer for ABC and SBS, and a number of different positions at NITV since 2007.

15. Luke Pearson, amplifying Indigenous Australian voices through the power of social media

Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man and creator of the social media project @IndigenousX, which showcases the diversity of Indigenous Australia on Twitter and Guardian Australia, by inviting a new guest tweeter each week. Pearson is also a qualified teacher and is currently working on the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence’s social media network, the Community of Excellence. He is most passionate about the potential for Indigenous voices to be heard online, and assists a number of Indigenous organisations, community groups and individuals in the development of new and innovative forms of online engagement.

16. Johnathan Thurston, the most celebrated footy player on the planet

(cc) Peter Byrnes
Flickr: 42286588@N06

(cc) Peter Byrnes

The co-captain of the North Queensland Cowboys, Johnathan Thurston has picked up so many awards over his incredible rugby career his cabinet must be sagging under the weight. The list includes not one, but two Golden Boots, which is awarded to the world's best player. Thurston is also Ambassador to a number of programs aimed at improving Indigenous health, education and employment.

17. Leah Purcell, bringing Indigenous Australian stories to life on stage and screen

Leah Purcell is one of Australia’s leading creative artists, with a career that would be the envy of many. She began in the mid-90s as a television presenter, but quickly transitioned into acting, writing and directing. Her work has picked up a swag of awards, including a 2002 Inside Film award for her documentary Black Chicks Talking. She has also acted in some of Australia's finest plays, films and television shows, such as Somersault, Lantana and Redfern Now. This year she was busy directing Brothers Wreck at the Belvoir St Theatre.

18. Jane Pompey, creatively breaking down the barrier between kids and transit officers

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Jane Pompey and her friends would often ride the trains all night in their hometown of Perth. Most evenings it was the transit officers vs the kids. Millenium Kids stepped in and taught Pompey and her friends how to safely handle snakes. They then used these new skills as a mediation tool between transit officers and young people. The Snake Project has recently been chosen to feature on Propeller - an online platform to support social-change initiatives for young Australians.

19 and 20 Narelle Long and Malcolm Lynch, Indigenous climate ambassadors

Malcolm Lynch and Narelle Long are both known for their work in AFL, Lynch as a player and Long as a program coordinator. But their lives changed when they became the first Indigenous Australians to go to Antarctica, representing Australia for an international youth summit in 2010. At the time Lynch found links between his experience as an Indigenous Australian with others he met on the trip: "We want to keep our culture and family strong, and to do that, we have to look after our land. Indigenous people are one with the land. And being on this expedition, I can definitely share similar stories with people who have a relationship to this land." Both have continued their work as climate ambassadors by documenting the effects of climate change on traditional land in a documentary called The Tipping Points - Oceans: The Last Frontier.