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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Margaret Valadian (1936–2023)

by Patti Warn

When prime minister John Gorton flew to Washington on his first official visit in 1968, he was met at Honolulu Airport by a small contingent of Australian students from the East-West Centre, led by Australia's first Aboriginal woman graduate, Margaret Valadian.

Pleasantly surprised by this unexpected welcome, Gorton readily agreed to Valadian's request for a lift to California so she could attend a conference. The additional name on the VIP manifest belonged to a pioneer of higher education for Indigenous young people.

Margaret Valadian was born in Darwin on September 3, 1936 to Olive Valadian, whose family came from the Northern Rivers district of NSW. Olive was ambitious for her daughter and decided that they should move to Brisbane where Margaret would get a better education than was likely in the Northern Territory. She supported them through cooking and cleaning jobs.

There was no immediate prospect for Valadian to attend university when she left school with an Intermediate Certificate, not to mention the expense involved, so she, too, worked in similar part-time jobs. Then she learnt of an Aboriginal scholarship scheme (known as Abschol), funded by the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS), which was designed to enable eligible students to go to university.

At the time, there was no other government or private sponsorship scheme to encourage such students; indeed, there were very few young Aboriginal people finishing high school. Awarded one of the first Abschol scholarships, Valadian entered the University of Queensland in 1962 to study for a Bachelor of Social Studies degree.

She impressed the NUAUS president, Peter Wilenski, and other office-holders and became a regular delegate and speaker at NUAUS council meetings, making lifelong contacts with future politicians and bureaucrats from Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Graduating with a bachelor of social studies in 1966, Valadian was the first acknowledged Aboriginal woman to complete a university degree. In the same year, Charles Perkins graduated from Sydney University. Their achievements, nearly 60 years ago, are cause for celebration, but Perkins the soccer star and Freedom Rider got most of the attention.

Her university experience consolidated her belief that the key to Aboriginal advancement was education. In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra in 1965, she made the pointed remark: "The first thing to do is to educate white Australians - we are easy to educate."

During the 1967 referendum campaign, she was interviewed by Bob Moore on Four Corners, discussing practical barriers to Aboriginal advancement and her own experience of racism.

She decried the reluctance of government authorities to employ Aboriginal people in disadvantaged communities and advocated greater educational and employment opportunities. She was frank about her experience of what she termed the "black velvet" attitude in interracial personal relationships.

So impressed by her intelligence, articulateness and warmth in that interview, the head of Coca-Cola in Australia secured a scholarship for her at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, which provided education and leadership training for students from Asia and the Pacific.

Valadian enrolled in a master's degree in education, enjoyed the mentorship of a prominent Hawaiian family and quickly involved herself in student affairs. Hence, the airport welcome for Gorton and her airlift to the US mainland in 1968.

Graduating that year, she returned briefly to Australia before continuing her postgraduate education on another scholarship at the Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York. She had become a great admirer of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both assassinated in 1968.

On Australia Day 1970, her talk to the National Press Club was on "Aborigines 200 Years after Cook". She warned that overseas investment in mining meant land rights should become an issue for all Australians, not just Aborigines.

She was sympathetic to the situation of black Americans, but her social work placements and travel through Native American reservations and communities led her to feel their plight was more akin to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia.

Her master's degree in social welfare from New York in 1973 meant she was the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from an overseas university.

In 1974, she was sharing a flat in Kirribilli with me when I was working for prime minister Gough Whitlam. In the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, the prime minister's women's adviser, Elizabeth Reid, and I had been at Kirribilli House when neighbouring governor-general Sir John Kerr arrived.

To our surprise, he accepted an invitation to join a small party at the flat. The housekeeper gave us a bottle of whisky, the G-G's favourite brand, to take with us. Valadian welcomed the visitor, talked to him about Darwin and watched the whisky level drop until he left about 2am. Nearly 50 years later, I collected a package from my local post office. It contained the Queen Anne whisky bottle, now a lamp, courtesy of custodian Valadian.

In Sydney in 1978, she joined with South Australian Aboriginal management graduate Natascha McNamara to establish the Aboriginal Training and Cultural Institute. With consummate skills of persuasion and a largely Catholic education behind her, she persuaded the congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph to allow them to use their old convent in Jane Street, Balmain as the institute's headquarters.

Soon the chapel was filled with bookshelves and students arrived from the Top End, Kimberley and Cape York to learn basic community management skills and to plan early childhood development projects.

After visiting the institute, Professor Charles Rowley wrote in 1982: "I learnt more about education and the possibilities of new methods from this experience than I have from any single remembered experience of education and have what I hope is the humility here to salute the genius of two Aboriginal women."

The award of an MBE for services to Aboriginal welfare in 1976 was followed in 1986 by an AO. A BHP Excellence Award for Community Service and Welfare in 1984 came with a welcome $40,000 cheque. An honorary doctorate of letters from Macquarie University in 1995 was an echo of Abschol days, witnessed by Macquarie chancellor Michael Kirby and other NUAUS friends from 1962-64.

The Balmain institute had wound down in 1990, when Margaret and Natascha relocated to the South Coast and joined the Centre of Indigenous Development Education and Research at the University of Wollongong.

Valadian was scathing in private about the two-faced nature of politics and, while accepting grants and appointments from governments of different hues, was critical of politicians' failure to deliver real change in Aboriginal communities at practical levels.

She saw no need for a republic and lent her name to Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy.

She had an enormous library. Her ensuite shower at the Kirribilli flat was filled with cartons of books. She loved food and eating in fancy restaurants, but was a cheerfully bad cook. Journalists visiting Honolulu and New York were required to bring supplies of Vegemite. She felt entitled to call anyone in her overflowing address book when necessary.

Admitted for heart surgery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1983, she also suffered a stroke. Diagnosed with cancer some years ago, she was reluctant to undergo treatment but had numerous admissions to Wollongong Hospital. Margaret moved to a nursing home in Figtree; her companion of so many years, Natascha, was admitted to a different home despite their wish to be together.

Margaret Valadian died on December 23, aged 87. She is survived by Natascha and the family of her late brother Bernard in Darwin.

Original publication

Citation details

Patti Warn, 'Valadian, Margaret (1936–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/valadian-margaret-34086/text42744, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

3 September, 1936
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Death

23 December, 2023 (aged 87)
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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