Sincere condolences to the immediate and extended family members of Brisbane Murri elder Sam Watson, an inspiring leader and courageous advocate for indigenous and human rights in every field of community responsibility, social healing, and justice, who strived passionately to make this world a better place.
May peace, love and family supports surround all his loved ones during this time of grieving for your husband, father, brother, uncle and leader, who certainly has left us all with an impression and example of strength and commitment to the fight for indigenous rights to country. Sam will be sadly missed by all.
The following quotes from our departed friend and comrade Sam Watson are from Green Left when Sam Watson was running for the Senate in Queensland as a Socialist Alliance candidate. It is well worth-while reading the whole page, but I have here singled out some of it.
Sam wrote firstly about his family background:
“Grandfather [the first Sam Watson] was a senior man of the Birigubba tribe, in Bowen Basin country. Right back to his generation, our family have been the sort of people who wouldn’t accept the sort of bullshit that Aboriginal people have been expected to live with. When he was five, grandfather Watson was sold into bondage to a white station owner in central Queensland. After his day’s work, he was chained up like a dog under the station house and fed on a tin plate.” Fleeing this treatment, he worked in ring-barking camps until he had enough money to hire a lawyer who had him freed from the Aboriginal Protection Act, one of the first Aboriginal people to do so.”
Many of Sam Watson’s relatives worked on Palm Island. “Palm Island was called ‘Punishment Island’. Any Aboriginal dissident in Queensland who questioned the white managers on the reserves or missions, or who played up in the white towns, was shunted off [to Palm Island] in chains.” In 1957, Aborigines on the island went on strike for equal wages and conditions. Two of Watson’s uncles were involved: “The police naturally put them in chains and took them off in the government boat to other reserves.”
Sam recalled the indigenous rights movement of the 1960s with affection to the leaders. “In 1965, when Uncle Charlie Perkins lead the ‘Freedom Rides’ with his non-indigenous comrades from Sydney University, it was a huge morale boost for all of us. “We were battling against the dying stages of the White Australia Policy because we saw that as something that had to be confronted and exposed for what it was. We fought for the referendum that was eventually held in 1967.”
On referendum day 1967, Sam was still in high school and a member of the underground Students for Democratic Action, and he spent the day on a polling booth campaigning for a yes vote. “That was my first experience of electioneering. Everyone that came past thanked me for the how-to-vote card and spoke kindly to me — these were white people that I didn’t even know! The next morning the Sunday Truth had this huge banner headline saying that 92.5% of the Australian population had voted yes. That was just an incredible experience for us all and it showed what could be achieved through a political campaign.”
Sam told Green Left Weekly that he during the Vietnam War Sam would go out in the car with his father to pick up African-American soldiers who trying to hitchhike from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. “White drivers would stop for the white soldiers but they wouldn’t take the black troops. The [black soldiers] told us about the great leaders of the US civil rights movement, about the big marches they had been on and about being forced out of the ghettos in New York into fighting a war they really didn’t want to fight.”
Encouraged by his family to become a lawyer, Watson enrolled at the University of Queensland in 1971, the only indigenous student amongst thousands of whites. “I was called into a big meeting with the state director of Native Affairs and his staff. There must have been about a dozen senior white public servants there. He gave me a pep talk on how I had to stay away from the radicals and ratbags of the anti-war movement because they would ‘lead me astray’.” Sam followed this recollection with the comment: “It only took me about six months to link up with the radicals. The next time I saw [Native Affairs officials] we were all marching on them.”
In 1971, the tour of apartheid South Africa’s Springbok rugby team provided a focus for anti-racist activism. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson declared a state of emergency for the Brisbane match. “We declared the university a peoples’ university and closed down the formal lecture program. We invited Aboriginal people into the lecture rooms and the tutorial rooms to discuss racism.”
Strong bonds were formed between student activists, trade unionists, church leaders and political leaders from the broader community and the Aboriginal political leadership. “People like Dan O’Neil and Carol Ferrier are still very close comrades of mine. Every time I see them I kind of get a bit of a choke in the throat remembering the good old days of the 1970s.”
Sam Watson became a lecturer in aboriginal Australian literature, while still involved in local struggles, having been a central organiser of the People’s March on CHOGM.
Sam wrote: “In the Brisbane Murri community I am a link with the white left. For a long time, the Murri leadership was very suspicious of the white political movement and always insisted that Aboriginal politics should play a predominant role in joint activities. But over the years, Aboriginal and non-indigenous political leaders became far more accepting of each other. It’s still going to take work to take it further, to really bond the way I’d like to see it. The majority of Aboriginal families are struggling every day just to put food on the table and keep the landlord off their backs, so they’ve got other priorities. But on the big issues, they will mobilise. That’s what CHOGM is going to be and the major issue is going to be the demand for a Treaty.”
For more than half a century Sam Watson was at the forefront of struggles against racism and for Indigenous rights in this country, and the mobilisation to bring about a Treaty was sadly not something that Sam will be here for, but he has left it as a sort of legacy for activists to keep working towards.
Love and strength to Sam Watson’s family, to the whole aboriginal community whose welfare he worked so hard for, and to all his friends and comrades who worked with him for aboriginal welfare, social justice and human rights.
We have lost a big-hearted dear friend and great advocate for indigenous and human rights in every field of community responsibility, social healing, justice in the passing of aboriginal elder and leader Sam Watson. Passionate for justice, Sam was an inspiring leader and comrade who contributed greatly undoubtedly to making the world a better place. Farewell Uncle Sam Watson and safe travel to the Dreamtime.