Darwin Elder Uncle Richard Fejo’s decades of leadership has been recognised with an honorary doctorate at Flinders University.

The Larrakia man was in May awarded the title for his leadership in Indigenous health and rights at the university’s campus.

Uncle Fejo said the title was recognition for his years fighting to overcome Indigenous disadvantage.

“Growing up in the seventies we saw a lot of disadvantage, and my family has been quite strong in fighting,” he said.

“I’m the last of seven.

“I’m surrounded by people that are just as passionate – we have teachers, researchers, a great line manager and a great team that includes Adelaide’s doctor Aunty Pat Miller, in Alice Springs, doctor Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien.”

In his role as an Elder on campus, Fejo works within Poche SA+NT which is responsible for Aboriginal Health.

In addition to community linkages, Fejo provides cultural and wellbeing support to students.

“Every Friday I’m normally down at Royal Darwin hospital, taking them on a bush walk, or be there for them whether they’re Aboriginal or not,” he said.

But Uncle Fejo’s work doesn’t end there; kicking off a recent interview series, Fejo said it was important Aboriginal stories were told, and the next generation of Leaders were being created.

“All Aboriginal people have our own stories, but when we share them, there’s power, there’s generosity, in the exchange is respect,” he said.

“We’re actually engaging directly with community, we’re engaging with schools, (asking) how can we support you.

“We’re opening the definition of leadership – as self-defiant, that’s self-determination.”

Uncle Fejo is also a singer, songwriter, and comedian, but his primary work in the past 25 years has been within urban, rural and remote communities in the Northern Territory.

The story behind Uncle Fejo’s honorary doctorate starts with his own family and early experiences, particularly Nanna Nangala Fejo, a tireless advocate for the Stolen Generations.

“Mum would always say, education is knowledge, knowledge is power,” Uncle Fejo said.

His earlier experiences continue to inform and shape his work, particularly his time at the Aboriginal Legal Services.

“It made me aware very fast, we are diverse, not only in our origins, but our exposure to English and understanding – the law is a language in itself, and medicine,” Uncle Fejo said.

“But for me I always said communication is everything, if you have two people with different worldviews, immerse into that space.

“One of the things I experienced, through working during the intervention period – there came very clear the negative stereotypes that were put on Aboriginal men, and Aboriginal people generally across Australia.”

In response to this Uncle Fejo worked to change the narrative.

“I started sharing positive stories – started a post called the Larrakia Rise,” he said.

“I started changing the way people think about Aboriginal people.

“A lot of people don’t know how to start… to engage with Aboriginal people.

“We need to change our attitude to what we can achieve, while we’re changing the social discourse of Australia.”

In challenging Australia’s social discourse, Uncle Fejo reflects upon deeper sentiments of reconciliation.

“We have a creek here, Rapid Creek, Gurinbey, it means elbow, because it bends,” he said.

“We say it comes from the freshwater spring, it meets the ocean.

“Where salt meets fresh water there’s a big splash, there’s a big muddy section area.

“As it resides its salt water and fresh water – like two cultures, who meet, quite often a misunderstanding- to me that’s reconciliation.”

In presenting the honour, Chancellor Stephen Gerlach said that Uncle Fejo played a key role in the University’s Reconciliation Action Plan, and has been an advocate for Flinders students and partners.

  • Story by Rachel Stringfellow