• Vincent (Vince) Copley (Flinders University)Source: Flinders University
From freedom rides to sporting triumphs, tributes flow for a teacher and mentor who dedicated his life to promoting and protecting Aboriginal rights and culture.
Nadine Silva

13 Jan 2022 - 6:54 PM  UPDATED 13 Jan 2022 - 6:54 PM

Ngadjuri Elder and activist Vincent (Vince) Copley has passed away peacefully at his home in Goolwa on the Murray River in South Australia.

Mr Copley was surrounded by loved ones at the time of his death.

NITV News has permission from his family to use his name and images.

Mr Copley grew up in residential care.

When he was 10-years-old his mother took him to live at St Francis Anglican Home in Port Adelaide, where he met other First Nations people, including Charles Perkins, Gordon Briscoe and John Moriarty.

Mr Copley was part of an extraordinary group that would go on to achieve excellence in education and sport and use that determination to lead the campaign for change in Australia.

Yanyuwa man John Moriarty is the first Indigenous person to be selected in the Australian national soccer team.

In paying tribute to his late friend Mr Moriarty described the strong bond the group formed growing up at the St Francis Anglican Home before they went on to become prominent activists.

“It’s a sad loss for us boys that lived with him and grew up with him and shared the same issues in a racist area,” Mr Moriarty said.

“Those connections made us have a good life in general and we still do enjoy that life today.

“To Vince, we thank you very much for your friendship…we miss him very much.”

Over a lifetime of service, Mr Copley visited almost every Aboriginal community in Australia. 

In 1965 he joined Charles Perkins on the 15-day bus journey through regional New South Wales known as the Freedom Ride, which drew international attention to the treatment and living conditions of Aboriginal people.

In his early days, Mr Copley made a name for himself as a footballer and cricketer.

“The boys achieved a great deal because of our comradeship and also the work we had to do to achieve the sporting levels that we did,” Mr Moriarty said.

“Vince Copley gave good inspiration to some of the younger boys as well.”

In 2000, Mr Copley's activism and love of cricket saw him elevated to Chairman of the National Indigenous Advisory Committee where he organised national and international cricket programs.

He was also instrumental in bringing about the 1988 tour of England which commemorated the first Aboriginal Australian tour of 1868.

His contribution is acknowledged by the Vince Copley Medal an award that recognises the ‘most outstanding cricketer’ at the annual Lord Taverner’s Statewide Indigenous Carnival.

Later in life, Mr Copley’s focus turned to the reclamation and protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage.

He played a vital role in Native Title Claims for the Narangga and Kaurna people.

Mr Copley’s colleague at Flinders University, Professor Claire Smith, said he was a great leader.

“He generously shared his knowledge with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people,” Ms Smith said.

“He was a wonderful teacher and mentor.”

Mr Copley’s grandfather, Barney Waria was one of the last initiated Ngadjuri men.

His stories about Aboriginal knowledge and culture were documented by a trainee anthropologist named Ronald Bernt.

Mr Bernt’s field notes containing Mr Waria’s stories are currently stored at the Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia under a 30-year embargo set to lift in 2024.

Sadly, Mr Copley wasn’t able to fulfill his dying wish of regaining his grandfather’s memories. 

Vincent Copley was 85 years old at the time of his passing.