It wasn’t unexpected but that didn’t make it any easier to take.
Just a few days ago I learnt the very, very sad news that Alf Neal OAM … the 100 year old Yarrabah indigenous elder and a driving force behind the 1967 referendum that resulted in Indigenous peoples historic recognition in Australia’s Constitution … died peacefully and with dignity surrounded by his family.
Just over six weeks ago I saw Alf … affectionally known as ‘Popeye’ … for the very last time. It was on the balcony of his seafront home opposite the site of the old ‘tree of knowledge’ in Yarrabah.
I had arranged for News journalist and friend Michael Madigan to meet and talk to Alf about his amazing life and the current ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ campaign.
I had made images of Alf during the week late last year when he wracked up one hundred fascinating years and was feted with a centenary celebration in his indigenous community. Michael came up from Brisbane to put the words together to accompany Alf’s images. The story and pics ran in The Sunday Mail on April 23rd … a ‘hero’ shot on page 3 (“100 Years & 3 Weeks”) with a link to a large spread of words and more Alf pics from my archives on pages 20 and 21. If you can find it, Alf’s story (link here but needs a subscription) as penned by Michael is really epic.
I have known and photographed Alf for a couple of decades and it was sad to see him so bodily frail … but even so it was obvious that his brain was still sharp despite his difficulties in communication. Son Percy did an admirable job translating and relaying Alf’s thoughts for Michaels notes. At one stage when I was focused on Alf’s face from a distance he broke into a grin of recognition as he saw me … a magical moment for me personally.
Long an advocate and fighter for indigenous rights, Alf was born in the early 1920’s on his beloved country at Ngarrabullgan (Mount Mulligan) west of Cairns. Moved to the indigenous community of Yarrabah, he was baptised at the age of 2 and grew up in dormitories. His earliest memories were of learning white man law alongside the traditions of aboriginal lore.
Alf grew to be a prominent indigenous leader and a major driving force in the decades long fight for the 1967 referendumwhich resulted in Indigenous peoples historic recognition in Australia’s Constitution. For his efforts, in 2019 the former bush lawyer, cane cutter and baker was awarded the ‘Medal of the Order of Australia’ (OAM) for ‘Service to the Aboriginal community, particularly the 1967 Referendum Campaign’.
I’ve made images of Alf many times over the decades as he voiced his opinion on many issues relating to the lives of Australia’s aboriginal and islander population. Sadly that voice is now silent. A tragedy that he won’t be around to see (hopefully) a ‘Yes’ vote in the “Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ referendum later this year.
The family have given permission for this image to be used. My condolences to the Neal family, to Yarrabah and the aboriginal community in general. Alf was majestic and a delight and will be greatly missed.
Image – Alf on his balcony just a few weeks ago. © Brian Cassey.