Indigenous rights activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Yami Lester was a man who overcame personal tragedy to serve his community and who opened Australia’s eyes to injustice, Australia’s political leaders say.
Best known for his fight to clean-up the site of the 1950s British nuclear testing at Maralinga in South Australia’s north, Mr Lester was farewelled at a state funeral on Tuesday, with a large group of mourners gathering on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands.
“He will be revered for rising from personal tragedy to serve his community and to lead his people to ensure that they were recognised and their wrongs addressed,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told federal parliament.
The activist – who died late last month at the age of 75 – was left blind as a young man by the atomic testing, an episode of Australian history Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called a “bleak chapter” in the history of wrongs perpetrated against Aboriginal people.
“In the years that followed there were many who would have preferred to flip past those pages and averted their gaze,” Mr Shorten said.
“It was he, blinded by black mist, who opened Australian eyes to the injustice that had been done.”
Mr Lester was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his services to Indigenous affairs and worked on land rights issues across South Australia and the Northern Territory.
His work to have the Maralinga bomb sites cleaned up helped establish the McClelland Royal Commission and subsequent compensation for those impacted.
His daughter Karina said people travelled from across the country for the funeral at Walatina, with South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and Opposition Leader Steven Marshall among those to attend.
“Today really is a sad day but a day to celebrate this wonderful man,” Ms Lester told ABC radio.
Mr Weatherill said Mr Lester was a man of immense standing and dignity.
“Stockman and statesman, advocate and activist, husband, father and grandfather – Yami Lester was all these things and more,” the premier said.
“We’ll miss his storytelling, his generosity of spirit, his kindness, his warmth.”