Aboriginal leader. Born June 30, 1949. Died Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory, May 26, aged 54.

IN his last public address just two weeks ago, the indigenous leader Djerrkura (his family has requested his first name and image not be used during their period of mourning) spoke of his disappointment about the present and his hope for the future. It is the experience of indigenous Australians to always be speaking this way.

The former chairman of the soon to be abolished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, who died on Wednesday of a heart attack in the Northern Territory, aged 54, was in Canberra to launch a book by historian Mark McKenna, which grapples with the unresolved hopes for a republic and the difficult journey of reconciliation, This Country: A Reconciled Republic?

McKenna had asked Djerrkura to write the foreword for the book and to launch it on the basis of Djerrkura's role at the 1998 Constitutional Convention. Djerrkura, speaking first in his own language, had asked the convention delegates "to think about the place indigenous Australians have in our past and in our future. Now is the time to right the wrongs of the past."

Djerrkura paid his own way to the book launch, from the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory. Even then he was not well, telling McKenna he was booked in for a heart operation in Adelaide and that he might have to bring it forward because he was suffering a shortness of breath. He died of a heart attack at Nhulunbuy hospital, on the Gove Peninsula.

Djerrkura had witnessed the collapse of ATSIC, which he led from 1996 to 1999, with sadness. Despite the peak indigenous organisation's flaws, which he did not deny, its abolition, he said, had been done in "the classic imperial fashion, without negotiation, without understanding and with little empathy".

He noted that as early as December 2001 he had called on his successor Geoff Clark to resign for the good of the organisation. But he reserved his harshest words for John Howard.

"Let me be clear," he said. "The Prime Minister has long refused to accept the fundamental difference of Aboriginal people in our community. He was never sympathetic to the principles on which ATSIC was based and founded. He has always rejected any suggestion of indigenous autonomy and self-determination. Even when the Prime Minister took up my invitation to visit Arnhem Land in 1998, he seemed incapable of understanding indigenous aspirations."

This was at the heart of Djerrkura's disappointment. He invited Howard to his traditional country at Yirrkala in February 1998. But this was to be no ordinary meeting. He had arranged for Howard to witness important secret traditional ceremonies. It was, as one of those close to the indigenous leadership said, "like inviting a Protestant to an audience with the Pope".

Djerrkura's cultural bosses had been reluctant to allow Howard this entry into their culture, but bowed to Djerrkura's reasoning that this would surely change the heart of the Prime Minister.

It did not. Howard called it a "very moving experience" and said: "I have always respected Aboriginal culture, but until today I don't think I had understood the depth of feeling that the indigenous people have in relation to their culture." But it was not, he said, a step on the road to Damascus on land rights.

Two weeks ago, according to McKenna, Djerrkura was still shaking his head. He told McKenna that Howard didn't have it in him to understand what he had seen.

As tributes flowed for Djerrkura, Howard said yesterday: "I liked him enormously and he tried very hard to help his family."

Djerrkura was regarded as a conservative in indigenous politics, although McKenna's view is that "he was conservative in the sense that he was a bridge-builder".

He was a former Country Liberal Party candidate in the territory; a former chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation; and a former director of the Henry Walker (mining) Group. He was a complex man, a product of the missionaries at Yirrkala, but also a senior man of the Wangurri people.

In 1984 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, General Division for his services to the Aboriginal community. He was a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the National Australia Day Council.

Australian Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine in the federal parliament, yesterday recalled Djerrkura leading the charge for economic development in northeast Arnhem Land through his leadership of Yirrkala Business Enterprises, which operated independently, providing employment and training to local people.

Ridgeway told The Australian: "My favourite memory of him was at Yirrkala - his home country - with the palm trees blowing in the afternoon breeze. The energy from his traditional country just radiated through the man."

While many indigenous people had feared Djerrkura would be a "yes man" for the Howard Government, Ridgeway said, he instead increasingly became "one of many indigenous Australians who have attempted to help the Prime Minister understand the essential role of land and culture to indigenous people, only to have it thrown back in his face". He said although Djerrkura's attempt to engage Howard failed, "it sent a message of pride in his heritage".

The acknowledged father of reconciliation, Pat Dodson, though never close to Djerrkura politically, expressed sadness at his death and reflected that he had died at an age when non-Aboriginal men were in their prime.

In Dodson's biography, Paddy's Road, author Kevin Keeffe described a scene that explains a great deal about both men and the worlds in which they have walked. It was at the Regatta restaurant overlooking Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra in December 1997 and, to farewell a disillusioned Dodson from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Djerrkura was presenting him with a powerful and beautifully decorated ceremonial pole from his Yolngu people. This was more than a gift, Djerrkura explained. It was a pledge of unification and commitment between the people of Arnhem Land, the bosses of that country and that law, to Dodson's Yawuru people on the other side of the nation, in Broome.

Keeffe writes: "The two big men came together in a rough and close embrace, pulling their bodies in to each other in the way of the ceremonial ground."

ATSIC mourned Djerrkura yesterday as the federal Government introduced legislation to dismantle it. Acting chairman Lionel Quartermaine said that after the High Court's Wik decision - which provoked the most aggressive and sustained backlash against indigenous interests of modern times - Djerrkura fought to preserve indigenous rights and led with "gentleness and inclusiveness".

He said Djerrkura's death was "an example of the cruel injustice inflicted by the substandard indigenous life expectancy that robs us of people with so much to contribute".

Djerrkura was the consumate diplomat. NT commissioner Akarriyuwu Hill described Djerrkura as "a visionary who crossed many bridges". Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone said he "successfully walked in two worlds". NT Chief Minister Clare Martin described Djerrkura as a "great Territorian", who was a strong voice for indigenous people for the past two decades. And Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission social justice commissioner Bill Jonas described Djerrkura as one of the pioneers of the reconciliation movement who had fought to preserve indigenous rights and advance their economic position "right up to the end".

At the end of his last public address, at Manning Clark House in Canberra, Djerrkura was looking to the future. He said he dreamed of a reconciled republic. "If we want to break away from the colonial past and begin anew, then we have to walk together - hand in hand and side by side - as a truly reconciled nation," he said. "A republic that does not make the first concrete gesture towards reconciliation is a republic that walks in the footsteps of the crown."

May 28, 2004