Rev Dr DJ Gondarra, Yolŋu elder and advocate for political and spiritual freedom, dies aged 79

Yolŋu elder Rev Dr DJ Gondarra, has been remembered as a man of principle and a builder of cross-cultural bridges.

He died in his sleep on Tuesday night, at home on Elcho Island, surrounded by his family. He was 79.

Gondarra’s many roles included being the first Indigenous representative on the World Council of Churches; a Reconciliation Australia director; and the first Yolŋu chairman of the Arnhem Land Progress Association (Alpa) – a position he held from 1993 to 2023.

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In a statement, Our Generation Media (where Gondarra was a cultural adviser) said he led Alpa from “a small eight-store retail organisation with little money and resources to the largest and most diverse Aboriginal corporation in Australia”.

“His leadership made the corporation what it is today,” the statement said.

Gondarra also taught cross-cultural leadership training and traditional mediation practices through the Mawul Rom Project.

He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1995 for “service to the Uniting Church and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress”.

Alpa chief executive officer, Alastair King, said Gondarra’s death was “an immeasurable loss”.

“He was so widely respected … because he understood both worlds so well,” he said.

The Mawul Rom board said he “exemplified how to build bridges and inspired a vision of peace and healing in this country [and] taught many hundreds of people from all walks of life a better way to deal with conflict”.

He also battled depression in his life; including after the death of his wife, and after the announcement of the Northern Territory intervention by the Howard government in 2007.

Gondarra fought for an end to the intervention alongside journalist and activist Jeff McMullen, who said he was “never bitter or wallowing in hopelessness but reminded us all that we must heed our moral compass”.

“This remarkable man of principle was one of the prophetic voices, clear minded and always reasonable, who warned government[s] that the Northern Territory intervention would be massively damaging to the rights of the First Peoples.”

Gondarra also co-produced Ḻuku Ngärra: The Law of the Land, a documentary on his life’s work. Film director and Our Generation Media co-founder, Sinem Saban, said the film was “an intimate lens into this great man’s heart and mind”.

“His fight was beyond the left and right, yes and no, and black and white polarising agendas of the system.

“His fight has been what all great and selfless leaders strive for – the God-given political and spiritual freedom of all humanity.”