These stories may contain descriptions of childhood trauma and abuse. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of people who may have passed away. If you need help, you can find contact details for some relevant services on our support page.

Aboriginal Australian activist, Ngingali Cullen (1942-2012), was in an institution as a child.

Ngingali Cullen (formerly Audrey Kinnear) was born at Ooldea Soak, a small settlement on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain, an ancient meeting place for Aboriginal people. (The Nullarbor Plan is a semi-arid area that stretches more than 1200 km between Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and the goldfields of Western Australia).

When Ngingali was four years old – she was the youngest of May Cobby’s four children—she was taken from her family and put into the Koonibba Lutheran Mission at Ceduna, more than 777 km west of Adelaide. The Mission was opened in 1901, followed by the Koonibba Children’s Home in 1914 which set up a school for Aboriginal children.

Life at Koonibba, a so-called ‘half-castes’ home, was dormitory based, disciplined, institutionalised, but on a daily basis, ‘reasonably happy’ (Henningham).

Ngingali—or Audrey as she was then known—did well at primary school and was sent to board at Concordia College, a Lutheran private school in Adelaide, for her secondary education.

From Concordia, Ngingali trained as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. When she graduated in 1964, Ngingali went to work in the Port Augusta hospital where she was appalled at the discrimination leveled against Aboriginal people.

That experience, plus the sudden disappearance of May Cobby with whom she had only recently reconnected, politicized Ngingali and she pressed for a coronial inquest “to highlight the lack of police action in the search for an elderly Aboriginal woman” (Henningham).

From then, Ngingali Cullen became an activist to improve conditions for Aboriginal people, especially in remote areas like Port Augusta.

She was instrumental in setting up a centre for Aboriginal women in Port Augusta and established regional health programs in northern South Australia. She was the linchpin for the Aboriginal community in Port Augusta (Henningham).

During the 1990s Ngingali worked in Canberra, developing health policies for Aboriginal people, and working for the Office of Indigenous Affairs.

She was also closely involved in establishing the first ‘Sorry Day’ on May 26, 1998, twelve months after the Bringing Them Home Report—an inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families—was presented to the federal parliament. National Sorry Day is now an annual event.

In 1997 Ngingali’s adopted daughter, Ali, sought out her mother.

…I had repeated her history before I knew my history, because I had relinquished a son at the same age as mother, and hadn’t met him yet – I had to wait until he was eighteen. I met mum and four years later I was playing her role with my son.

I think the other thing that I loved about meeting mum [Ngingali] was that I was encouraged to have close connections with her two sisters, who are also my mothers Aboriginal-way. All of a sudden I had three mothers, and that was a real blessing (Archibald-Binge).


Archibald-Binge, Ella. “Mother’s Day 2016: Until I met mum, I didn’t know who I was.” NITV News, 6 May 2016.

Bond, John. “Champion of healing and Sorry Day. Ningali Cullen. Nurse, Activist 1942-105-12.” The Age, 26 May 2012.

George, Gary. “Koonibba Mission (1901 – 1975).” Find & Connect, 2017.

Seselja, Loui. “Cullen, Ngingali (1942-2012).” The Australian Women’s Register, 2019.

Image available here.