It is with great sadness that the family of Yami Lester announce the passing of Yami Lester (Poppa Yami), Yankunytjatjara leader and Elder, Land Rights and anti-nuclear campaigner on 21 July 2017, age 75.Yami was born in the early 1940s at Walkinytjanu Creek (Wal-kin-jahnu) an outstation on Granite Downs Station in the far north of South Australia.
When the atomic bomb went off at Emu Field (the first test on the mainland), Yami was about ten years of age and through life would re-tell with clarity and sadness of his family being blanketed in the toxic fallout and the sickness and death that followed.
As a stockman and skilled horseman, Yami spent his early years working on pastoral properties across South Australia until losing his eyesight as a teenager and later becoming completely blind – the consequence of dust from the nuclear bomb.
He was a member of the Aboriginal Advancement League, was drawn to social work assisting families in need with health and education during work with the United Mission and was instrumental, together with the late Reverend Jim Downing, in the establishment of the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs and the Pitjantjatjara Land Council. As a professional interpreter and cultural broker he worked in the law courts making sure the voice of Anangu was understood.
Yami made it his life’s work to campaign locally, nationally and internationally for the clean-up of Maralinga following the Nuclear Atomic Bomb testing by the British in the 1950s and 60s, for a Royal Commission and for compensation for destruction and contamination of country and the dispossession of Anangu. It was hard work rewarded with the extensive remediation of country as well as financial compensation for Maralinga Tjarutja peoples.
For several decades, supported by his children, he continued a relentless campaign against nuclear weapons as well as plans for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia. Earlier this year he welcomed the decision by the Australian Government to offer a Gold Card for health care for those affected by radiation fallout at Maralinga but reminded us it was too little too late.
Yami was a staunch land rights campaigner active in the handback of Anangu Pitjantjatjara (APY Lands) in far north South Australia to traditional owners as inalienable freehold title, as well as the monumental return of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to traditional owners in 1985. He retired to his traditional lands at Walatina Station near Marla in the State’s far north, which will be his final resting place.
Yami’s story is depicted in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1981 he received an OAM for his service in the field of Aboriginal Welfare and has a published autobiography. His warmth, kindness, generosity and resolve inspired so many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and as Tjamu (grandfather) and Katja (Great grandfather) he will be forever remembered by his loved ones, his extended family, community and by so many.
Yami leaves an incredible legacy of better global understanding of the devastation of nuclear bombs and for the ongoing battle for recognition of the consequence of them on the rights and interests of Anangu.
Memories of the man and his contribution will remain forever in the hearts of so many people, especially Bronya, Lucy and his children Leroy, Rosemary and Karina who have followed in his footsteps as interpreters and protectors of country and his twelve grandchildren (Lionel, Lachlan, Tahlia, Kieran, Kiah Robbie, Carlin, Leesha, Jessica, Joshua, William and Larissa and two great grandchildren (Lucy-May and Levi). Rest in Peace Dad and poppa.