photo-icon Opening of Josie Agius Park | image: Catherine Leo

Inspiring South Australian women: Josie Agius

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) - held annually from 27 May to 3 June - is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.

This year's NRW theme, In this together, reminds us that, whether in a crisis or in reconciliation, we are all in this together.

In the article below, we share some insights into just one of many South Australian women who proudly championed reconciliation all their life, seeking to bridge differences by sharing their culture at every opportunity.

Throughout the state's history, South Australia, and indeed Adelaide itself, has produced an ever-growing collection of truly inspirational women - trailblazers across politics, social reform, the arts, food, wine and so much more.

As a tribute to these pioneers, historian Carolyn Collins and journalist Roy Eccleston penned the book Trailblazers - shining a light on the lives of 100 extraordinary South Australian women.

Among them is Josie Agius - a proud Narungga, Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri and Ngadjuri leader who became one of the state's first Aboriginal health workers and dedicated herself to bridging differences through the sharing of her culture.

A lifelong champion of reconciliation, Aunty Josie was recognised with numerous awards including NAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year (1990), the SA Women’s Honour Roll (2009) and the Premier’s NAIDOC award (2014). In 2017, the City of Adelaide acknowledged Josie and her strong support of girl’s netball with the naming of Josie Agius Park / Wikaparntu Wirra (Park 22) in the south-western Adelaide Park Lands and, in December 2019, she was honoured with inclusion in the Suffrage 125 City of Adelaide Honour Roll.

In this extract below from Trailblazers, discover more about Josie’s early days, her love of sport, and her achievements in improving the lives and welfare of Aboriginal people across the state.

(1934–2015) Champion of reconciliation and education

Walking out to the centre of Adelaide Oval on the first day of the 2013 Ashes Test, 79-year-old Aunty Josie Agius cut a tiny figure among the tough men of the warring cricketing nations, but Australian captain Michael Clarke gave her a warm welcome.

‘The captain turned around and said, just quietly, “hello” and gave a little wave. He was really nice,’ she later recalled.

Nerves overcome, the respected Aboriginal elder delivered her traditional Welcome to Country with her trademark cheeky wit and wide smile, cracking jokes that had both teams chuckling and applauding.

Small in stature but big of heart, Aunty Josie was always ready to extend a welcome and to share her culture, regardless of whether she was meeting a child, a governor or an Australian cricket captain. A tireless advocate for her community and a champion of reconciliation, she left a lasting impression on her audiences.

Although born in Wallaroo on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, she spent most of her life on the Lefevre Peninsula, where she could rarely go anywhere without being recognised and greeted by people whose lives she had touched as a teacher, health worker or sports coach.

Josie agius at kurruru youth performing arts hq photo andrew laube the advertiser
photo-icon Andrew Laube - courtesy of The Advertiser

Josie Agius at Kurruru Youth Performing Arts Headquarters, Port Adelaide

But she was equally at ease at Government House, where she was a regular visitor, and at countless Adelaide events, large and small, where she would be called upon to kick off proceedings with the Kaurna Welcome to Country.

One of the state’s first Aboriginal health workers, she later worked in schools, sharing her life story, culture and language with students and teachers alike.

Few and far between were the Aboriginal organisations in the state that Aunty Josie had not been involved in establishing or supporting. She was also a ‘keen and classy netballer’, coaching and organising teams over many years, and was later involved in setting up an Indigenous theatre group.

Aunty Josie was one of five children born to Kate Edwards and Fred Warrior on the Yorke Peninsula at a time when the country was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression. She was proud of her mixed Narungga, Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri and Ngadjuri heritage.

Her early life was punctuated by sorrow. She lost her father to a heart attack when she was three; her brother died at 12 after stepping on a nail while playing in a woolshed; and when she was 16, her much-loved mother passed away.

As a child she moved often. Following her father’s death, her mother took the children to Point Pearce to live with their grandparents while she sought work in Adelaide, sending money for clothes and living expenses. When Josie was 10, the children joined their mother in Adelaide, living in Mile End and attending Thebarton Primary School. Aunty Josie never forgot the ‘shock’ of leaving the security of having all her relatives around to attend a school full of strangers.

When her mother remarried, the family moved to Leigh Creek and later Alice Springs. At 14, she left school and held a series of jobs: as a farmhand in Pine Point, where she learned to milk a cow; at the Franklin Hotel in Adelaide; at the Methodist Ladies’ College; and in aged care.

After her marriage to Fred Agius, the couple spent a few years in Port MacDonnell in the state’s South-East where her two sons, Fred and Raymond, were born. Later, they returned to Adelaide and moved into a house in Taperoo, where she had her daughter Kate.

During the 1970s, Aunty Josie became one of the state’s first Aboriginal health workers, part of a team who developed a cultural framework for how hospitals and community health services delivered services to Aboriginal people. Aunty Josie was responsible for the Port Adelaide area, where the job brought her into contact with Aboriginal people who had recently moved to the city from the reserves and missions.

From 1984 until 1991, after her husband had died, Aunty Josie worked as an Aboriginal education worker at Taperoo Primary School and was later involved in nationwide projects aimed at encouraging Indigenous children to learn their native languages. She played an important part in bridging the culture gap between school staff and Aboriginal students and their families. She introduced Aboriginal Culture Week into the curriculum and made sure the students took part in NAIDOC week activities. She also helped to launch the Port Adelaide-based Kurruru Indigenous Youth Art Centre.

At the age of 61, when others were contemplating retirement, Aunty Josie returned to school to study tourism and the Kaurna language at Tauondi Aboriginal Community College. In 1998, in recognition of her lifelong commitment to education, she was appointed the South Australian Ambassador for Learning.

A resident of Taperoo for 55 years, Aunty Josie was a huge fan of the Port Adelaide Football Club and Port Power. She loved spending time with Indigenous footballers, encouraging them to give back to their communities. It was fitting that her funeral was held at the Alberton Oval, where hundreds gathered to farewell her.

Aunty Josie was a role model, always treating people with compassion, dignity and respect. She championed reconciliation all her life, seeking to bridge differences by sharing her culture at every opportunity. Her message to all: ‘Let’s not forget the past, but let’s not dwell on the past.’

The full story of Josie Agius, and those of 99 other inspiring South Australian women, can be found in the book:
Trailblazers by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston - published through Wakefield Press.

For more information about the City of Adelaide's commitment to Reconciliation, visit this website.