The Australian, - Friday, January 9, 1998
Author: Martha Ansara


Essie Coffey, OAM Community worker, film-maker and actor.

Essie Coffey
Born Goodgabah, NSW, 1942.
Died Brewarrina, NSW, January 3, aged 56.

BREWARRINA activist Essieina ("Essie") Coffey was known widely throughout the Koori communities of NSW by her nickname of "Bush Queen". Many nonAboriginal Australians also came to admire Essie for her outspoken yet entertaining grassroots militancy. She made a lasting impact on Aboriginal politics through sheer force of personality as much as through the depth and steadfastness of her commitment to black dignity and selfdetermination.

Essie was a big, beautiful woman, with a commanding and sometimes exasperating presence, a mischievous wit and a way of exciting minds while soothing souls.

She was instrumental in establishing and working with Aboriginal organisations in the north-west of NSW that advanced basic living conditions and protected human rights.

In 1985, she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. Among many activities, she was a co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service, a representative of the NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust, a representative of the NSW Aboriginal Advisory Council, a co-founder of the Aboriginal Heritage and Culture Museum at Brewarrina, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission regional councillor and a member of the first Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

She staunchly promoted the Community Development and Employment Scheme or "work for the dole" as a cornerstone of Aboriginal selfdetermination and had a strong commitment to women's issues. She was a co-founder of the Magunya Aboriginal Women's Issue Organisation and helped to create the first women's knock-out football competition in the north-west region.

Despite her grassroots activism, family came first with Essie. She mothered eight children of her own, 10 adopted children and many more who came her way from time to time.

She had more grandchildren than she could count and sometimes we'd find her tucked into bed for the night, literally surrounded by little ones.

Bed was a very social place. When her children were young, the family adopted Skippy, a baby kangaroo who went everywhere with them, even on trips to Sydney, staying up late in the motel, lying in bed with the other kids, watching television and sharing a bag of chips. Life was like that with Essie: close-knit with lots of laughs.

Essie was born near Goodooga, NSW, in 1942 and always had a strong connection to the land. Her mother, Ruby Bailey, spoke to her in her Aboriginal language and her father, Donald Shillingsworth, known as Goodgabah, was a Murrowarri tribal elder who resisted the government round-up of Aborigines in the 1930s, taking his family group into the bush.

As a teenager, Essie worked on stations, ringbarking, fencing and droving, before marrying Albert "Doc" Coffey and settling down on the banks of the Barwon River near Brewarrina.

It was there as a young mother in the 1960s that Essie helped to found the local Aboriginal Movement with Tombo Winters and Steve Gordon.

One of their more colourful activities was a sit-in to integrate Brewarrina's open-air picture show. It was during an Audie Murphy western. Essie and friends kept occupying the whitesonly seats; they were chucked out but kept returning until the proprietor finally gave up and let them stay.

SHE attributed her militancy to having seen her mother defend her brother from the police in Goodooga as a child. A policeman fired a bullet in the ground in front of Ruby. According to Essie, her mother didn't move and her brother was saved. In later years, Essie worked to improve police-community relations in the Brewarrina community.

In her heyday, Essie was a great entertainer, playing guitar and singing country and western songs. Her sizzling version of Frankie and Johnny was invariably a prize-winner at local and State music competitions.

She was an actor too, appearing in Phil Noyce's Backroads (1976) with Bill Hunter and Gary Foley , and in the television mini-series Women of the Sun (1980).

She decided to make her own films, directing two documentaries which won festival prizes around the world and brought her message to large international audiences. The central theme of her first film, My Survival as an Aboriginal (1978), was land rights.

Essie never let go of her awareness of standing on black land everywhere she went in Australia. The loss of this land was a source of spiritual pain as well as social dislocation for her. This pain was always with her, running underneath her great strength and good humour, and there were a few periods in her life when it pulled her into the darkness of alcohol.

Essie was as open about this as about everything else. "I used to be an alcoholic," she told me once, "I'm not an angel with a halo round my head.

No ways. I overcame my problem by having faith in something. Even if you don't have faith in a bible, have faith in yourself, your family, in life for what you're going to do next day.

That's life; life is how you make it and how you live it. I overcame my problem. If I can do it, so can you." But a life of struggle such as Essie's takes its toll. Over the past several years, Essie began to suffer from the health problems that had already caused the death of so many of her younger relations. Finally, her kidneys packed it in and she went on dialysis, laughing and joking, and keeping up the spirits of a whole new mob of nurses and doctors.

But life on the reserve in Brewarrina known as Dodge City does not offer the best living conditions for dialysis, and in the end there was one last infection Essie couldn't fight off.

Over the past few days, nonAboriginal friends, shocked to hear of her relatively young age, have been asking me what Essie died of.

"Racism," I answer, and I know that, if you get to the bottom of it, this is true.

Yet, at the same time, Essie's life and our memory of her have given those who knew her inspiration. Despite the hardship of her life and of those around her, she maintained a commitment to tolerance and reconciliation.

For Essie, reconciliation was based in the strength and pride of Aboriginal people and in an unwavering hope that justice might be done. Essie was a woman big enough and strong enough to hold all whom she encountered in the warmth of her embrace. She is survived by her husband, five daughters and three sons.

Martha Ansara worked with Essie Coffey on her films.

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