John Ah Kit, also known as JAK, has been commemorated at a state funeral in Darwin on Wednesday.
First entering NT parliament in 1995, Mr Ah Kit became the Territory’s first Aboriginal cabinet minister when Labor came to power in 2001.
“Jak was a big man with a big vision of a better country, a better Territory,” said the master of ceremonies, ABC broadcaster Charlie King.
“Jak set a model standard for a politician, an iron fist in a paper bark glove … In some ways he was our Aboriginal Gough Whitlam.”
The ABC is using Mr Ah Kit’s full name and image with permission from his family.
Tributes for ‘a real bloke’
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner, who once worked as Mr Ah Kit’s chief of staff, spoke of his authenticity.
“He was smart enough never to let politics totally consume him. That’s why everyone who met him knew they were meeting a real bloke,” Mr Gunner said.
Before entering politics, Mr Ah Kit served as director of the Northern Land Council for seven years.
WA senator Patrick Dodson told the crowd Mr Ah Kit worked during a difficult time for land rights.
“The Northern Territory Land Rights Act, the Commonwealth Act, was under threat … and then there was the promise of national land rights legislation to fight for,” Senator Dodson said.
“Both those causes had Jak shuttling backwards and forward to Canberra to lobby any federal politician he could buttonhole.
“Jak and his cohort were so notorious around the politics of old parliament house that they became known as the flying wedge.”
A long career of advocacy
Mr Ah Kit was fondly remembered for his long career of advocacy for Aboriginal people across the Territory.
“When he stepped into Territory politics, Jawoyn people were never far from his thoughts as he advocated for Aboriginal people from the Arnhem region,” said Lisa Mumbin from the Jawoyn Association.
Ms Mumbin remembered him playing a key part in the 1988 Barunga festival that saw prime minister Bob Hawke announce his support for a treaty.
“He taught us how to negotiate and how to stand up for our rights, and how to stand up for common causes through our humanity,” she said.
Mr Ah Kit was also remembered as a passionate footy fan, and a die-hard supporter of the Darwin Buffaloes.
The Buffaloes team song played as the entrance song to the ceremony.
“He actually made me become a fan of Buffalo. So, I stand here today as a Buffalo supporter, alongside my brother, no matter what,” Ms Mumbin said.
‘I’ve lost my hero’
Mr Ah Kit’s children remembered their father as a loving family man, who they sorely missed.
“I will always be proud to be the son of John Ah Kit. Thank you, Dad for being there for us kids,” Jonathan Ah Kit said.
“Today I’ve lost my hero, mentor and best mate. I love you, Dad. Until we meet again.”
Ngaree Ah Kit, the Member for Karama and Deputy Speaker of the NT Legislative Assembly, said a foundation would be set up in her father’s name.
“He understood very well that everybody is born with a father but not everybody becomes a dad, and so we had a lot of people come and stay with us for a little bit and they became family straight away,” she said.
“We will be establishing a legacy to our father and it will be called the John Ah Kit Foundation.”