A Tribute To Yami Lester: Yankunytjatjara Elder, Order Of Australia, And Nuclear Test Survivor


Indigenous Australian elder and activist Yami Lester died this week at the age of 75.

Lester, who died in Alice Springs on Friday, July 21st, 2017 was blinded as a teenager due to the atomic testing at Maralinga in the 1950’s. Nonetheless, Lester went on to become a highly influential activist and advocate against nuclear weapons, and for the return of Aboriginal lands.

“Mr[.] Lester was a key Aboriginal leader who embraced the challenge of bridging two worlds,” said NT Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, on Saturday. “He never let his blindness hold him back, he was sharp as a tack in negotiating at the highest levels of business and government. His life was a life of great hardship and challenge, met with great courage and foresight, and he achieved great change,” Gunner added.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, the British government conducted seven nuclear bomb tests that were 800 kilometres north of Adelaide, at the Maralinga testing site. As a result, the Maralinga area was contaminated with radioactive substances, and 1,800 Indigenous Australians were severely affected by the tests.

In 1957, while Lester was working on a station in Woomera, two nuclear explosions were conducted at Emu Field, when an ‘unexpected wind’ caught the toxic clouds, carrying it the 480 kilometres to where the 16-year-old Lester was.

Lester described the experience to ABC in 2011: “I was a kid. I got up early in the morning, about 7:00am, playing with a homemade toy… We heard the big bomb went off that morning, a loud noise and the ground shook. I don’t know how long after we seen this quiet black smoke — oily and shiny — coming across from the south. Next time we had sore eyes, skin rash, diarrhea and vomiting everybody, old people too.”

As an adult, Lester organized a legal team, who journeyed to London and insisted upon justice and compensation for the damage of the nuclear testing. Their activism eventually led to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia in 1984-85, which resulted in compensation for the Maralinga Tjarutja people and a long-term clean-up project to restore the uranium-contaminated Tjarutja lands. The clean-up was officially finished in 2000, however, there is still some debate over the area’s safety and the long-term effects of the atomic tests on the Indigenous nuclear survivors.

Lester has never ceased his anti-nuclear activism and is outspoken against any nuclear involvement. He received an Order of Australia and has been vital to the work of the Pitjantjatjara Council, which resulted in the freehold title to traditional owners in South Australia. He has also helped to lead the Institute of Aboriginal Development and worked as a linguist and translator in Alice Springs where he aimed to preserve Indigenous languages.

With that said, Yami Lester was a pioneer of the anti-nuclear movement, and while he is gone, his children continue his legacy, with this daughter Karina recently travelling to New York to participate in UN negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Eleanor Goodbourn