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Coffey, Essie (1942 - 1998)



Essie Coffey was born Essieina Goodgabah in 1942 near Goodoonga in Northern NSW.
Of the Murawarri people of north-western NSW and southern Queensland, Mrs Coffey was christened Essieina — "flower of the honey tree" — but was better known as the Bush Queen of Brewarrina.

Her father, Donald Goodgabah, a Murrawarri elder, took his young family to raise in the bush, which provided Essie with her love of the land and her strong and proud sense of identity. She spent her early life travelling from station to station with her family, working at ringbarking, fencing, woodcutting, droving and breaking in wild horses.

After marrying, she settled on the banks of the Barwon River in Bre-warrina in the mid-1950s with her husband Albert "Doc" Coffey, raising eight children and adopting ten more. Living on the reserve, Mrs Coffey became a tireless worker and campaigner for her people.
In the 1960s Mrs Coffey, Tombo Winters and Steve Gordon, established the Aboriginal Movement in Brewarrina. She had a very clear vision for Aboriginal communities and was instrumental in establishing and working with other significant organisations which advanced basic living conditions and protected

In the 1960s and ’70s she worked in the health and legal service fields and went on to be appointed to the NSW Lands Trust and the NSW Advisory Council. She also supervised the Community Development Employment Project in Brewarrina, was a member of the Wakamurra ATSIC Regional Council, co-founder of the Aboriginal Heritage and Culture Museum of Brewarrina, and served on the first National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. She was also a member and co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service.

In 1988 she presented Queen Elizabeth with a copy of her film, My Survival as an Aboriginal, at the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra. The film, which was made in 1978 and won national and international recognition, documents the effect of dispossession, the chronic depression, alcoholism, deaths in custody and poverty that was so much a part of life for Aboriginal people.

In 1993 a sequel followed, My Life as I Live It, which also received national acclaim. Mrs Coffey was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1985, after refusing an MBE. She had said she was "an Australian and not a member of the British Empire".

[Gary Foley]