Long Live Chicka's memory (01/04/2010)

Colin Markham pays tribute to Aboriginal activist and unionist Chicka Dixon.chickaSF.jpg

Charles "Chicka" Dixon died on March 20 in Sydney after battling asbestosis, a legacy of years working on the waterfront.

Chicka was born in 1928 in NSW and lived at Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Mission and later at Wreck Bay.

At the age of 14 Chicka got a job on the Port Kembla waterfront as a casual labourer.

In his early adult life he worked as a seasonal labourer picking beans, then as a builder's labourer before becoming a Sydney wharfie and a organiser for the Waterside Workers Union.

In 1972 Chicka was the leader of the first Aboriginal delegation to China to highlight the struggle of Aboriginal people. Over the following years Chicka represented Aboriginal people at conferences and seminars throughout the world.

As Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs from 1995 to 2003, I spent a lot of time with Chicka and we often discussed issues about the waterfront and China, which I had visited several times to promote Aboriginal issues.

I was honoured when Chicka's family asked me to be one of the speakers at his 70th birthday, a day that will forever live in my memory.

Chicka was an incredibly perceptive person and dedicated his life to fighting for and promoting the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - the First Australians.

I have no doubt that the three doctorates awarded to him from different educational institutions were to honour his unselfish dedication to his people. The highest honour was from the UNSW, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Chicka often said: I believe every woman on this planet is my sister, I believe every man is my brother, and like all indigenous people throughout the world, I know the earth as my mother. I share and care for these three. If everybody could learn to share and care for those three, there would be no wars, but most importantly no more starving children.

He campaigned for a "yes" vote in the 1967 referendum that gave his people the right to vote in elections.

He helped establish Australia's first Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern in 1970, and in 1971, while working with Fred Hollows, helped set up the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service. He co-founded the Tent Embassy in Canberra on January 26, 1972.

Today's international recognition of Aboriginal arts is a tribute to Chicka, who in 1973 was an original member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council.

As chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board, he was appointed as a councillor on the Australia Council in 1983, the first Aborigine to be appointed. He took up the fight to promote Aboriginal artists and their work across Australia and throughout the world.

On April 11, 1997, Chicka was the opening speaker at Wollongong City Gallery's exhibition of Gloria and Clive Martin's private collection of art collected from northern Australia.

I was at the gallery that day and with everyone else was entertained by Chicka's vast knowledge of art.

Chicka Dixon will be sadly missed by many people from all walks of life. He touched the lives of so many over the decades and his state funeral yesterday was just one way the people of NSW could honour an outstanding human being.

Colin Markham is a former NSW MP and Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs

This article was originally published in the Illawarra Mercury.

More information 

  • View photos from Chicka Dixon's State funeral here.