Irene Watson made history more than thirty years ago in 1985 when she became the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the University of Adelaide with a law degree.
Despite the triumph, her objective has always been clear.
“I don’t think about it at all, I studied law not to be recognised or celebrated, but rather to better understand a legal system that is underpinned by the unlawful foundation based on Terra Nullius,” Ms Watson told NITV.
The proud Tanganekald and Meintangk woman, from the Coorong region and the south east of South Australia, has dedicated much of her work to the ongoing effects of colonialism - its co-existence with Aboriginal sovereignty and the importance of a treaty.
“It is always important for First Nations to have the place and the space to discuss who we are as the First Nations peoples with each other and also other colonial states and states of the UN,” Ms Watson says.
“We are also colonised peoples who are wanting to re-centre our lives as Aboriginal Peoples and to decolonise from the negativity of colonial subjugation,” she says.
Ms Watson also became the first Aboriginal PhD graduate at the university for which she won the Bonython Law Prize for best thesis. Today, she is research professor of law at the University of South Australia.
Her work stretches across the seas to other Indigenous peoples lending her knowledge and expertise on global issues.
“I have attended a number of UN workshops on the drafting of the UNDRIP [The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] up until 1994, and before the drafting process was taken up and over by the states in 1995. I have since worked to critique the UN processes as a global phenomenon of colonialism. There remains a lot of work to do, as they say one step forward and two back. It was a bit like that with UNDRIP. We need to continue to work on opening up spaces where First Nations stories of our ongoing survival of colonialism can be told without fear or favour,” she says.
Her current work demonstrates her continued commitment to decolonisation.
“I have completed an ARC project titled 'Indigenous Knowledges Law Society and the State', one of the outcomes was a book titled 'Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism, International Law: Raw Law', which is about my thinking around de-centering the colonial state, I am also finishing a number of other writing projects on the same theme, focusing on the environment, identity, the origins of law and another book project, Indigenous Peoples are subjects in International law.”
Ms Watson says one of the most pressing issues for Indigenous Australians is to not be sidetracked by the ongoing effects of colonialism but rather focus on country and kin.
“We have always worked to change the negativity of colonialism and it is a long toiling project we just keep focused on the work before us. Don’t get distracted by colonialism, it has only been here for 200 years, and we have been here forever, perhaps the most important thing to remember,” she says.
Young graduates follow in her footsteps
Last month, the University of Adelaide paid tribute to Ms Watson by re-dedicating a student lounge in her name in a ceremony where she was guest of honour.
Indigenous students Joshua Andersen-Ward, Kylie O’Loughlin and Narrah O’Loughlin all graduated with a Bachelor of Law from the University of Adelaide, hoping to follow in Ms Watson's footsteps.
“I’m proud and honoured to come in after Irene and to be opening that door for other students, particularly women and young girls,” says Kylie, who completed her study while bringing up three children on her own.
“I’m doing this to better the lives of my children and to address social justice issues for Aboriginal people. I want to make my kids proud,” she told NITV.
Kylie's sister Narrah agrees.
“It’s inspirational to hear from her especially a woman and Aboriginal with a law degree and to listen to her story and how far she is come,” she says.
The Adelaide Law School is equally honoured.
"The School is delighted to re-dedicate the renovated Irene Watson Lounge in her honour, which will ensure that the inspirational example set by Professor Watson will continue to guide law students for many years to come,” says Matthew Stubbs, Associate Dean of the School.
Mr Stubbs has been working with Indigenous students for the past 10 years and is extremely proud of their success.
“The Law School is incredibly proud of the achievements of these three students and congratulates them on their success. We look forward to seeing the students making a difference in their communities, as their predecessors have done before them,” he told NITV.
“The Law School has been working hard to provide opportunities for Indigenous students and we are really pleased to have a significant number graduate this year,” he says.
Kylie and Narrah, Narungga sisters from Adelaide are both halfway through their Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice which they’re hoping to finish by next year. Like her sister, Narrah also studied while looking after two kids and with another on the way.
“I’m happy and glad it’s over,” she told NITV.
“I knew that I wanted to help people. A lot of Aboriginal people are going through the legal system, I thought this might be a way to help. I want to work with youth.”
Joshua, Yanuwa Gandalidda man from the Gulf Country in Queensland, said Irene words confirmed his aspiration to help his people.
“It’s really cemented this is what I want to do. There is some years of hard work to come but its great to have it ahead of us. It’s also daunting but I took away from it not to get overwhelmed, it’s a not time to wrest on our laurels, we need to start mobilising and getting clear direction to talk about issues,” he told NITV.
“I’m really happy, but it’s also like 'wait a minute the torch is being passed on, it’s time for others to pick up',” Joshua says.
Joshua hopes to ensure Indigenous South Australians have access to effective legal services.
“I’m passionate about our local South Australian Indigenous legal professional association and want to get it up and functioning properly for both local and federal issues, without this platform it can be silent.”
Ms Watson left the graduates with some wise words.
“Pursue the truth and find peace in being yourself as First Nations,” she said.