GATJIL DJERRKURA LIVED the last decade of his life moving between two worlds – the world of Canberra politics and his distant homeland that looked out on the Arafura Sea. A senior elder of the Wangurri people of the East Arnhem land/Yirrkala Aboriginal community in Australia’s far north, he was a natural leader who exuded an effortless presence and grace. For three turbulent years, between 1996 and 1999, he chaired the representative indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). For me, a Canberra-based historian who knew more of London and Berlin than Arnhem Land, the story of our meeting, his death and the subsequent public response, both here and abroad, reveals much about a deep cultural divide in this country.
I had only known Djerrkura for three months before his death on May 26, 2004, but every moment of the time we spent together has stayed with me. I remember our conversations, but most of all, I remember his spirit. He was a person who could make you believe anything was possible.
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