Graham Atkinson is a community leader committed to social justice and empowering individuals. The Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta Elder is an untiring advocate for Traditional Owner groups and was one of the architects of an alternative system for settling native title claims in Victoria.
Born in Echuca in 1948, Graham is the son of Iris (née Nelson) and Clive Atkinson. His father was a shearer who was absent for long periods and battled with alcoholism, leaving Graham's mother to raise her children on her own. She worked many jobs, including one as a cook at the Echuca Hospital. Graham was close to his 7 siblings. They were one of the few Aboriginal families in town and rallied together when confronted with racism.
Education was important to Graham, a value he inherited from his mother and his maternal great grandfather, Thomas Shadrack James, a teacher. Graham attended Echuca State School and Echuca Technical College until he was 15 years old, but financial constraints prevented him from continuing his studies. He became an apprentice fitter and turner, gaining his trade certificate in 1968. At the age of 20, Graham was called up for national service training. He served in the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers for almost a year, as an armament fitter at Australia's army base at Nui Dat in South Vietnam.
Graham found himself moved by a desire to influence social change
The experience in Vietnam was a formative one for Graham. The racism he encountered in the army and the human rights abuses he witnessed overseas brought into focus the disadvantage endemic to his own people. Once discharged, Graham returned to Echuca and married Francis Hynes, with whom he had 2 children, Mason and Melanie, but later separated. Unfulfilled as a toolmaker, he indulged his love of music outside work and was drummer for The Shades. The band enjoyed notable success, however Graham found himself moved by a desire to influence social change. In 1972, he used his army benefits to relocate to Melbourne and return to study.
After completing his Higher School Certificate, Graham enrolled at the University of Melbourne. At the time he was one of only 3 Aboriginal students there. While studying, Graham became involved in Melbourne's Aboriginal community. He was elected to various community-based service boards, including the Victorian Aboriginal Housing Co-operative, Camp Jungai and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. During the summer holidays he worked part-time at the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and then as a community advisor for the newly established Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
An exponent of Aboriginal self-determination
In 1977 Graham graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work, becoming Victoria's first tertiary qualified Aboriginal social worker. He joined the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) in 1978 as its senior social worker, eventually becoming its program director. Together with VACCA founder Mollie Dyer, he drafted the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, which still governs the practice of child protection services today. In 1982 Graham was recruited to a regional director role with the Aboriginal Development Commission. He also served as chair of the Aborigines Advancement League, helping to raise funds for its new premises in Thornbury, and embarked on a Masters in Business Administration. In 1984 Graham married Kay Norris and had a further 2 children, Kiah and Neikah.
As an exponent of Aboriginal self-determination, Graham became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of Aboriginal representation amongst government policy makers. In 1986 he left the public service and risked his own money to establish Yuruga Enterprises, an Aboriginal-run consultancy that was the first of its kind. Today, Atkinson Consulting Group, as it is now called, specialises in Indigenous social reform strategies in areas such as health and social justice and economic development. Graham remains the director and principal consultant.
Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010
On the issue of land rights, Graham has been a leading activist since the mid 1980s. Working alongside his brother Wayne and others, he helped steer the land rights claim of the Yorta Yorta people to the Federal Court. The experience taught Graham many valuable lessons and he became a key advocate for the development of an alternative agreement-making model, one that bypassed the Federal Court system. Over many years, Graham helped broker an agreement between Traditional Owners and the Victorian Government, resulting in the landmark Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. The Dja Dja Wurrung people have since been recognised as the Traditional Owners of lands in central Victoria under the Act. Graham is a founding member and chairperson of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation.
A highly respected role model
Recognised for his leadership qualities, Graham has served on the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Aboriginal Heritage Council of Victoria and the Victorian Traditional Owner Land Justice Group. He chaired Native Title Services Victoria and was director of the National Native Title Council. Graham sits on the Indigenous Land Corporation board of directors and is deputy chair of its subsidiary, the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. He is also a board member of the newly established Federation of Victorian Traditional Owners and chairs one of its subsidiaries, Barpa Pty Ltd.
In 2001, Graham was awarded the Centenary Medal. He was a state finalist for Senior Australian of the Year in 2013. A highly respected role model, Graham remains as committed as ever to enacting positive change to help build a better society for his people and the community.
Reviewed 29 September 2019