Yami Lester

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Yami Lester

James Yami Lester OAM (1941 – 21 July 2017) was a Yankunytjatjara man, an Indigenous person of northern South Australia. Lester, who survived nuclear testing in outback Australia, is best known as an anti-nuclear and indigenous rights advocate.

Maralinga nuclear testing[edit]

Lester was born at Walytjatjata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of South Australia in 1941.[1]

In the 1950s, while still a young boy, he was blinded by a "black mist" from the south.[2]

After the mist passed, his family's camp experienced sudden deaths, outbreaks of skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea and temporary and permanent blindness. Yami has said that some of the people were so weak they could not get down to the nearby waterhole and skim the black scum off the water which came from the black cloud, and actually died of thirst. It is generally accepted that this black mist was fallout from British nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Junction which were taking place at that time.[3]

His most significant contribution to the rights of Aboriginal people was helping gain recognition for the atomic tests at Maralinga and an acknowledgement for the 1800 Aboriginal people affected.[4][5]

His actions helped lead to the McClelland Royal Commission in 1985, which found significant radiation hazards still existed at the Maralinga test sites. Recommendations included group compensation for the Maralinga Tjarutja people and an extensive, long-term cleanup operation to restore the land.

Other activism[edit]

As a young man, he joined the Aboriginal Advancement League in Adelaide, but he wanted to take more direct action, in the manner of Charles Perkins, probably the most prominent Indigenous activist at that time.

He began work for the United Mission, in Alice Springs, as a welfare worker and interpreter for the courts. He later became involved in the Institute of Aboriginal Development which was concerned with Aboriginal education and language. Lester took a great interest in cross-cultural issues and programs.

After a position administering business affairs for the Mimili community, Lester worked with the Pitjantjatjara Land Council on Aboriginal lands rights issues with the South Australian Government. He worked as an organiser and interpreter assisting the handover of freehold title to the Anangu people in 1981, which came about as a result of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act, (SA).

Personal life[edit]

Lester had three children: Rosemary, Leroy and Karina, a translator and activist.[6]

He retired to his traditional home at Walatina Station near Marla in the far north of South Australia. He died on 21 July 2017 in Alice Springs at the age of 75.[7] The prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull paid tribute to Lester describing him as "one of the most significant Aboriginal leaders our country has known".[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "CONDOLENCES Lester, Mr Kunmanara, OAM". Parliament of Australia. Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  2. ^ Brain, Caddie (27 September 2011). "55 years since Maralinga atomic bombs". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC Rural. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  3. ^ Lester, Yami (2000). Yami : the autobiography of Yami Lester (2nd ed.). Alice Springs, Australia: Jukurrpa Books. ISBN 1-86465-025-7.
  4. ^ Blanco, Claudianna (10 May 2017). "'60 years too late': Yami Lester on gold card for Indigenous people victim of nuclear tests". SBS. NITV. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  5. ^ Confier, Dan (9 May 2017). "Federal budget 2017: Aboriginal man blind after nuclear tests applauds improved health care". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC News. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  6. ^ "Karina Lester weighs-in on SA nuclear dump referendum". SBS. NITV. 15 November 2016. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  7. ^ Yami Lester: Aboriginal activist, elder and nuclear campaigner dies aged 75 ABC News, 22 July 2017. Retrieved 22 July 2017.