'Determined' Aboriginal campaigner Isabel Coe passes away in Cowra

Lindy Kerin ABC Radio National 'The World Today' 12 November 2012

Australians are mourning the death of one the country's most prominent Indigenous leaders, Isabel Coe.

Image: Isabel Coe helped establish the Redfern Aboriginal Children's Service in the 1970s (AAP: Mark Graham)

For decades, Ms Coe played a key role in the campaign for Indigenous sovereignty and was instrumental in keeping the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra going.

The Wiradjuri woman died on Saturday in Cowra at the age of 61.

Today, she has been described as a mighty warrior and a remarkable woman.

Ms Coe was a tough talker. She spent her life campaigning for Indigenous rights.

Back in the late 1990s she made headlines around the globe when she called for a boycott of the Sydney Olympics.

"From the Tent Embassy, we're calling for a boycott on the Olympic Games if things don't improve here in Redfern," she said at the time.

And earlier this year, Ms Coe defended the rights of Aboriginal protesters in Canberra who burnt the Australian flag.

"You've got to start asking why people have taken this attitude, where they've got to do these things to try and get people on our side or upset."

One of Ms Coe's long-time friends and fellow activists, Michael Anderson, was one of the founders of the Tent Embassy and first met her when she was 16.

"There was a time period in the 1960s, all these young, well-educated young Aboriginal people were the first sort of the class of year 12 or a higher school certificate, as it was known then, to achieve that and we all turned up in Sydney," he said.

"We came from a background I guess collectively where there was a lot of racism and a lot of struggles for human rights at the time.

"And so we grew up in that period and then we all landed in Sydney and we formed a militant movement similar to that of the African Americans in terms of fighting for land rights in Australia."

Mr Anderson says Ms Coe was deeply committed to the cause.

"Isobel was a very powerful, staunch young black woman who was there with all us rough and tumble.

"When you talk about women's liberation, I think Isobel liberated a lot of us young fellas because she was such a powerful young lady.

"Mind you, all of us were saying that she was so beautiful, she was a very attractive young woman, and we told her that 'you could make a lot of money modelling', but no, she was committed to fighting for her people."

Lead role
In the 1990s, Ms Coe took a lead role in the Tent Embassy when rumours emerged the Federal Government wanted to get rid of the protest site.

"Well, we've been sitting her for 27 years and we're going to continue to stay here," she said at the time.

"We're here in sovereignty, we have never signed a treaty, we have never relinquished sovereignty to our country and that's what this Aboriginal Tent Embassy is all about and that's why they want to remove us."

Ms Coe's cousin, Matilda House, says she had been instrumental in keeping the Tent Embassy going.

"She kept it going because she believed that all things would come right, which they didn't, and she'd still be sitting there today because she knows the job was a never-ending job," Ms House said.

Ms Coe also played a key role in setting up many of the Aboriginal organisations in Redfern in Sydney.

Her cousin Ann Weldon says she leaves behind a huge legacy.

"She was a Wiradjuri woman, she was a founder and a leader that established organisations in Redfern, that's her legacy, that she's built on for every Aboriginal person and indeed every Australian person."

Ms Coe spent most of her time between Redfern and Canberra, but most recently she went back to her home town of Cowra in the central west.

Ms House says she had been battling diabetes for some time.

"She not only tried to look after her own health, but neglected it in some ways because she wanted to just get on and do things," she said.

"And that probably was the worst thing, that she thought that could have happened to Isobel was a lack of not looking after her own self, to move on a make things better for other people."