NAIDOC Awards: Gulpilil reveals he has cancer

Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil last night revealed his battle with lung cancer while receiving a NAIDOC Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

The 66-year-old became the first Aboriginal actor to rise to international fame for his roles in the 1970 films Walkabout (1971) and Stormboy (1976) and changed the way Australian screen represented Aboriginal people and their cultural heritage.  

“I’m sick…cancer,” he told the audience in his pre-recorded acceptance speech.  

“To everyone, thank you for watching me…I will never forget you, I will still remember you even though I am gone forever. 

“I thought I was going to be a big movie star, but I just ended up as a big movie star, he joked. 

Unable to attend the ceremony in Canberra due to his illness, Gulpilil’s daughters Phoebe Marson and MaKia McLaughlin accepted the award on their father’s behalf.  

In an emotional speech, the sisters honoured their father’s accomplishments on and off the silver screen

“He made many films for us, he danced for us, he wrote dreamtime stories and published them into books for us, above all he looked after our people by sharing our stories and culture with the world,” Ms Marson said. 

“Our father is retiring, he is sick, he has lung cancer and one day soon he will go to the dream time. 

We are all one red blood, thank you for acknowledging our father.” 

David Gulpilil’s daughters Phoebe Marson and MaKia McLaughlin gave an emotional tribute. (Photo: NITV/SBS)

The Arnhem Land man learned the traditional dance and customs of one of the world’s oldest cultures. Through his acting, Gulpilil introduced audiences to traditional practices and a new way of seeing and understanding Aboriginal heritage.  

After his memorable role in Crocodile Dundee (1986), he was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia in the 1987 Queens Birthday Honours list for his services to the arts. 

On a night celebrating indigenous excellence, the NAIDOC awards honoured nine indigenous men and women — and one community group— for their contributions to sport, community services, education, and social justice. 

The theme of the awards ceremony this year, Voice Treaty Truth, was addressed by numerous speakers including the new minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt and MP Linda Burney. 

Burney, the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, and Wyatt, the first indigenous politician in charge of indigenous affairs, were a powerful pairing to kick off the awards night. 

NAIDOC’s Person of the Year Dean Duncan. (Photo: NITV/SBS)

Indigenous Australians want a greater acceptance and teaching about the atrocities and mistreatment Aboriginals suffered in the colonisation of Australia by Europeans, including widespread massacres and the policy of removing children from their parents, known as the Stolen Generation, but which encompassed multiple generations and has caused ongoing traumas. 

“We need all of our voices to be heard” 

NAIDOC’s Person of the Year was awarded to Dean Duncan for his career as a teacher and senior lecturer. The Aboriginal education specialist has spent many years advocating for Indigenous youth sports programs and working with young people in out-of-home care.  

The Kamilaroi man who spent six-years in the Australian army paid his respects to those who had fought for many years for Indigenous voices to be heard. 

“In the year of international Indigenous voices, we need all our voices to be heard. We have taken a right step in that direction with the appointment of Hon. Ken Wyatt whom I pay my respects to as well,” he said. 

“If I can do it, you can too” 

A Barkindji woman, mother of three and Brazilian JiuJitsu athlete Shantelle Thompson won NAIDOC’s Sportsperson of the Year. 

Ms. Thompson is a three-times world champion with a vision to empower women and girls, challenge stereotypes and become a leader within her community. 

“I wanted to do something different, it challenges a lot of people’s perceptions and that’s when I realised that our people had lost the ability to dream,” Ms Thompson said. 

Three-time jiu jitsu champ Shantelle Thompson was named Sportsperson of the Year.

“I want to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, to break the victim mentality and sense of entitlement that of a lot of young people that I work with have. If I can do it in my 30’s, as a mother of three, with no sponsorship and in a sport that’s not well known, then you can too.” 

Female Elder of the year was awarded to Thelma Watson, a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, for her work in Indigenous healthcare. At 83, she is still working full time managing a needle-exchange program in Canberra. 

Noongar man Greg Little was named male Elder of the year for his work supporting inmates at Bunbury Regional Prison in Western Australia. 

Also honoured were artist of the year Elma Gada Kris, apprentice of the year Ganur Maynard, youth of the year Mi-Kaisha Masella, scholar of the year Prof Micheal McDaniel and Littlewell Working Group took out the care for country award.  

Newly appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians Hon. Ken Wyatt said he was extremely honoured to be at one of his favourite events of the year. 

Tonight we celebrate the local heroes across all of our communities…you are a hero if you touch the life of someone else and make this world brighter,” he said. 

“This is one of my favourite events of the year and such an important one for our people.” 

The award ceremony precedes NAIDOC week (7-14 July) which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

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