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On the passing of Hal Wootten, a great lawman

As I mourn the passing of a great Australian and a man I called the lawman, Hal Wootten, I wonder how Indigenous voices will record his enormous contribution to our struggle and his recent passing.

I have known about Hal Wootten for a long time and his words influenced the path I chose to take in life.

As a 15-year-old I remember reading Kevin Gilbert’s ‘Because a White Man Will Never Do It’ in which a quote from Hal described the Aborigine of the day. From memory Hal said something to the effect that the young black Aboriginal person of today is educated, articulate, angry and most of all they know what they want.

When I read that quote as an impressionable and fairly angry young black teenager at the time, I took his words to heart. Only thing is I completely ignored the bit about education.

I first met Hal through his lovely wife, Professor of Anthropology Gillian Cowlishaw. I met Gil and Hal at a function at Tranby Indigenous College in Glebe. I was blown away to meet Hal but in many ways was also still an angry smart arsed Aborigine.

I remember having discussions with Hal and trying in some pointless way to win an argument. Hal and his wife Gil had always been great supporters of the first nations struggle in this country and my behaviour in the face of it must have seemed bizarre to both of them.

One thing which may not be discussed as the platitudes for the life of this great man are delivered is Hal’s degree of basic human kindness. The Hal Wootten I knew was a kind, gentle man. His strength to me was in his enormous strength of character. Although I often argued (or tried to argue) about black issues with Hal I can’t ever recall a single time when I won the argument. Hal would sigh, look at me, with the patience of Job and say, “Frank you’ve got to have a plan”.

It took me so long to realise the truth, the value and the absolute great advice in what the great man was saying to me. I knew that Hal had been involved with my people since the earliest of times.

The Aboriginal Legal Service Ltd, which was born in Redfern, actually came into being because Hal and people like Neville Wran, Frank Walker and Paul Landa, supported Indigenous Australians, saw their great need for proper representation in the legal world and actively assisted them to establish same.

The birth of the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern as I see it was actually the beginning of an era in which the possibility in partnerships, rather than the oft heralded need for self-determination, rose to the fore.

It is a fact that the Aboriginal Legal Service Ltd grew out of a partnership and that before it came into being there were few if any black organisations, certainly not organisations which were recognised and funded by government.

Once the Legal Service came into being other black organisations, housing co-ops etc sprung up nationwide. So you can see from those events and judge for yourself the part Hal Wootten and supporters like him have played in our black struggle.

The formation of our legal service was a combined effort between blacks and whites. I don’t know how well that fact is celebrated these days but I would say to my people that a great man, a brother, a friend, and a champion for all Australians has gone from our midst and all of us in so many ways are diminished.

RIP brother Lawman.