Indigenous archives

'Archival records are so powerful': Phyllis Williams

Phyllis Williams is Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement with the National Archives of Australia. On her father’s side, she is Gummulkbun, with ancestral lands in West Arnhem Land, and on her mother’s side, Larrakia Kulumbirrigin, with ancestral lands in Darwin and on the Cox Peninsula. She joined the National Archives in 1996.

Phyllis became an archivist because she wanted to help First Nations peoples searching for connections about themselves. These people may have been removed from their families, as children or teenagers, and haven’t been able to find the connection back.

Rebuilding those connections can change lives. Phyllis wants to be part of that.

It's important for all for all of us, non-aboriginal people as well, to know where we've come from. That's the main thing about being human. We all want to know where we come from and where we fit in.

– Phyllis Williams, 2022

Tracing connection through the Larrakia petition

On 15 October 1972 a group of First Nations peoples from from Kulaluk in the Northern Territory attempted to hand a petition to Princess Margaret during her visit to Darwin. The 3.3-metre-long petition, signed by more than 1,000 First Nations people from around the country, sought land rights and political representation. Those unable to sign their names – such as Dolly Batcho, Phyllis Williams’s great aunt – used a thumbprint.

The group tried to break through a police barricade outside Government House in order to deliver their petition. In the ensuing scuffle, it was torn. Undeterred, they sent the petition to Queen Elizabeth II, and the palace forwarded it to Australian Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck.

In 2013 a facsimile of the petition was presented to the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation. The original remains in the National Archives’ collection.

This story is featured in National Archives's exhibition Disrupt persist invent: Australians in an ever-changing world