The Sovereign Tent Embassy fighter known for her passion

Chris Johnson Canberra Times November 13, 2012

Australia is mourning the death of one of the nation's leading indigenous rights campaigners.

Wiradjuri elder Isabel Coe. Photo: John Donegan

Aboriginal elder Isabel Coe died in Cowra on Saturday aged 61, following a long battle with ill-health.

Ms Coe was a prominent figure at the Aboriginal tent embassy near Old Parliament House and was instrumental in ensuring the controversial embassy remained there.

A dignified indigenous leader, Ms Coe was never far from controversy, making headlines around the world in the late 1990s when she called for a boycott of the Sydney Olympics.

More recently Ms Coe, a Wiradjuri woman, defended those who in January burnt the Australian flag on the steps of Parliament House.

''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,'' she said at the time.

Yesterday, Ms Coe was remembered fondly by family and friends and others who knew her well. ''She was one of our dear friends and will be well missed,'' said fellow activist Lee Nangala Daylight Lacey.

''She was one of the best voices for Aboriginal sovereignty in Australia.

''She has been a leader of the tent embassy for 40 years and she travelled the world for our cause. And then she set up a tent embassy in Cowra in recent years, too.''

Fire keeper at the Aboriginal tent embassy, Anthony Coombes described Ms Coe as a passionate person.

''She was very passionate in the fight for sovereignty,'' he said.

''And she made progress in the past 40 years, but there is still much to do.

''She was quite sick for a while but she didn't let that affect what she was fighting for.

''We have lost not only an elder but more or less the spokeswoman for our community.''

In the 1990s Ms Coe led the campaign to keep the tent embassy open when it appeared that the federal government led by John Howard wanted it removed.

She was also a leading figure in helping Aboriginal communities in Redfern, NSW.

It was because of the plight of the Redfern communities that Ms Coe called for the Olympics boycott, saying Redfern's problems should be sorted out first.

In recent years she suffered from diabetes.