Vale Yami Lester: Aboriginal activist, elder and anti-nuclear campaigner

July 28, 2017
Yankunytjatjara elder and lifelong activist Yami Lester.

South Australian Yankunytjatjara elder and activist Yami Lester, who was blinded as a teenager by dust from the Maralinga nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s, died on July 21 in Alice Springs, aged 75.

His family said his death "leaves an incredible legacy of better global understanding of the devastation of nuclear bombs and for the ongoing battle for recognition of the consequences of them".

As a young man Lester joined the Aboriginal Advancement League in Adelaide, fighting to gain recognition of the human cost of the British nuclear tests in South Australia, and an acknowledgement of the 1800 Aboriginal people affected. His campaign for the cleanup of Maralinga became his life's work.

He organised a legal team and travelled to London, where he demanded justice. His agitation helped trigger the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia of 1984–85, known as the McClelland Royal Commission.

While they were unable to prove the radiation had made his people sick, it did result in group compensation for the Maralinga Tjarutja people and long-term clean-up operations to restore the land. His work was also the inspiration for the 1987 Paul Kelly song Maralinga.

As well as his anti-nuclear advocacy, he was a respected community leader, who worked in Alice Springs as a linguist helping to preserve indigenous languages and helped lead the Institute of Aboriginal Development.

He was also a staunch land rights activist and was central to the work of the Pitjantjatjara Council that eventually led to the return of Anangu Pitjantjatjara (APY Lands) and Uluru to their traditional owners.

His children have taken up the call for his lifelong battle for justice. His eldest daughter, Karina Lester, recently travelled to New York for UN negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

[Yami Lester’s name and image were used with permission from his family.]

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