Aboriginal honour for Atkinson

Tatura's John 'Sandy' Atkinson has been honoured for his work for the Aboriginal community.

BOB NICOL December 11, 2012 11:43am

John 'Sandy' Atkinson at the Rumbalara Medical Clinic.


Tatura’s John ‘Sandy’ Atkinson was one of 15 Victorians recently recognised at a second Indigenous Honour Roll induction.

Mr Atkinson, who was born in 1932, is a Bangerang Elder and leader in Aboriginal affairs and helped establish the first Aboriginal keeping place or museum at Cummeragunja and Tatura.

He said the induction was a huge honour and recognition of many years service to the Aboriginal community.

Premier Ted Baillieu paid tribute to Mr Atkinson and the 14 other ‘‘exceptional Victorians who have played a significant part in the community’’ at the second Indigenous Honour Roll induction ceremony at Federation Square on November 30.

‘‘The Victorian Coalition Government is proud to recognise the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal Victorians to our shared history,’’ Mr Baillieu said.

‘‘The remarkable achievements of these outstanding individuals provide an inspiring legacy for future generations.’’

Robert ‘Wally’ Cooper, a Yorta Yorta Elder, respected cultural ambassador and long-time mentor to young Aboriginal people in the Mooroopna-Wangaratta, region was also inducted.

Uncle John Atkinson, or Uncle Sandy as he is more widely known, has an extensive record of service to his local community.

The impact of his work, particularly in the areas of Aboriginal culture, art and languages, has been felt far beyond the Murray-Goulburn region he calls home.

The second eldest child of Daniel and Myra Atkinson, Mr Atkinson was born at the Cummeragunja Reserve, on the NSW bank of the Murray River, in 1932.

His father worked as a shearer, while his mother cared for their 11 children.

He attended the school at Cummeragunja until he was 14 years old.

After early jobs spent milking cows and collecting mail, Mr Atkinson became a shearer alongside his father, who had established himself as a successful contractor.

The trade provided him with regular employment for many years.

In 1953, Mr Atkinson married Gwen Thorpe, who has lived an equally interesting life and has pictures at Goulburn Valley Health’s Shepparton Hospital as a patron, among other high achievements.

The couple has five children.

They lived in Griffith, Barmah and Mooroopna before settling in Tatura in 1965.

There, he drove a cement truck for a time. He and Gwen involved themselves in all aspects of community life and remain highly respected in the local area.

Mr Atkinson has been an influential figure in Aboriginal affairs, at a local, state and national level. In particular, he is committed to the promotion and protection of Aboriginal culture.

In 1975, while chair of the Shepparton Aboriginal Art Council, he began work to establish Australia’s first Aboriginal museum, or ‘keeping place’, to house important local artifacts and art.

He campaigned hard to secure funding and rallied enthusiastic support for the project. He also contributed to the design of the building.

Opened in 1982, the Bangerang Cultural Centre, as it is known today, has become a regional tourist attraction and an important cultural institution for the local Aboriginal community.


The Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative and Medical Clinic in Mooroopna is another organisation to benefit from Mr Atkinson’s involvement.

He was instrumental in establishing the medical clinic there in 1981.

Today, the organisation provides a range of health, welfare and housing services, as well as social and cultural activities.

Roles with the Museum of Victoria, Victorian Ministry of the Arts and the State Library of Victoria – where he worked on the oral history program – helped cement Mr Atkinson’s reputation as an important custodian of Aboriginal culture.

He went on to serve as national chairperson of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council for six years.

He was also the Victorian commissioner for the Aboriginal Development Commission, established in 1979 to help further the economic and social development of Aboriginal people.

These are just two of his several high profile appointments.

Mr Atkinson is a trustee of the Koorie Heritage Trust, an organisation he has been involved with since its establishment in 1985.

He was the first Indigenous person in Australia to serve on a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation committee, he helped found the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages in 1994 and is currently vice chairperson of the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages and Culture.

As vice chairperson of the Cummeragunja Land Council, Mr Atkinson is committed to the future of the land he grew up on.

He is known for his work with young Aboriginal people, to whom he offers encouragement to pursue higher education opportunities.

In 2006, he ran a series of workshops to pass on the traditional skills of canoe making to a new generation. He has also been a member of the Rotary Club of Shepparton for many years.

A talented musician, Mr Atkinson taught himself to play the pedal steel guitar in his youth – making him one of the first Aboriginal people to master the instrument.

In 1983, Mr Atkinson was made a Member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of his service to Aboriginal arts.

According to daughter-in-law Sue, ‘‘Sandy is the only person I have ever met whose presence has a totally calming effect on me, almost spiritual’’.

She said he was very much loved and respected, and she had no doubt that no matter how much of himself he revealed, it would barley have scratched the surface of his amazing life story.

‘‘He is one of life’s true gentlemen,’’ she said.

State Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jeanette Powell said the Indigenous Honour Roll would ensure Victorians now and in the future could acknowledge and celebrate the wide-ranging achievements of past and present Indigenous Victorians.

‘‘This Honour Roll is another step in raising the awareness of the many Aboriginal Victorians who have helped shape who we are today, and where we will be heading in the future,’’ Mrs Powell said.

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