Indigenous Australian activist and poet Roberta “Bobbi” Sykes died yesterday in Sydney after a long illness. Sykes was best known as an activist, campaigning for Aboriginal land rights and women’s rights. In the 1970s, she was the first executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the highly controversial semi-permanent settlement on the lawn of Parliament House in the nation’s capital. Sykes was arrested at the embassy in 1972 along with dozens of other activists. Her role in demanding rights for indigenous Australians was later recognized when she was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1994.
She was the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from an American university; she received her PhD in education from Harvard in 1983, and later set up a fund to help other Indigenous Australians to attend the university.
She was also the author of almost a dozen books including several poetry anthologies and a three-part autobiography, and was the recipient of numerous national book awards. In Snake Circle, the final installment of her autobiography, Sykes writes that the son she gave birth to when she was seventeen was conceived as a result of a gang rape by several white men, a crime for which they were later tried. Her son, Russell, told the Sydney Morning Herald that Sykes “was a motivated, dynamic individual. I’m really, really honoured to have her for a mother.”
Sykes is survived by two children and three grandchildren.