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Unmeopa, Sentah Sonny Leo (Santa) (1944–1996)

by Anna Shnukal

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Sentah (Santa) Leo Sonny Unmeopa (1946–1996), Indigenous leader and activist, was born on 12 January 1946 at Mackay, Queensland, youngest of four children of Koostantinoes (Koos) Unmeopa, farm labourer, and his wife Ramina Maraia, formerly Cowley, née Seden. From the Netherlands Timor (Timor Barat, Indonesia), Koos had arrived on Thursday Island, Torres Strait, in 1926 as an indentured seaman in the pearling industry. Maraia was born on Thursday Island. Originally registered as Kassiah, she was adopted by Leo Cowley and his wife Lassmintan, née Seden, following the death of her Indonesian father and Torres Strait Islander-Indonesian mother. Before marrying Koos, she had a daughter, who was also adopted by the Cowleys. In March 1942 during the civilian evacuation of Thursday Island after Japan’s entry into World War II, Koos, Maraia, and their first child travelled to Townsville, Queensland. Their next three children were born on the mainland, including Koostantinoes William (Bill) (1944–2018), who would distinguish himself as a sapper in the Vietnam War. The couple separated in the 1950s and each had another child in a new relationship.

The family having moved to the Mackay district in the mid-1940s, Santa attended Coningsby (1951–53), Victoria Park (1954–57), and Mackay Intermediate (1958–59) State schools. He and Bill were trained as boxers by Doug Moodie of the Waratah Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Club. In 1961 they signed on as divers aboard the trochus lugger Sari Rizah, skippered by the Torres Strait Islander Douglas Pitt Sr. Santa spent a month in the army in 1968 as a national serviceman, before joining the merchant navy. Settling in Brisbane, he was politicised during the mass protests against the suppression of human and civil rights by Premier (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government. He joined the struggle to end injustice against Indigenous people, a cause that would define the remainder of his life.

About 1978 Unmeopa became office manager of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation (National Aboriginal Conference Queensland Area A) for Legal Services. The corporation’s board enrolled him in a management course, his continued employment being conditional on his successfully completing it. He did not, but called a community meeting which dismissed the board and elected a new one that promptly rehired him. During Unmeopa’s tenure, the legal office was dogged by rumours of improper use of corporate credit cards and rental cars, undocumented cash spending, and unapproved travel. The Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba activist Sam Watson succeeded him in the early 1990s. An ‘unauthorised compensation payment of $24,020.50’ to Unmeopa was listed among a number of subsequent allegations of irregular spending by the service (Koch 1995, 3), but in 1996 the registrar of Aboriginal corporations cleared the legal office of any wrongdoing.

Unmeopa had been involved in organising land rights protests coinciding with the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and was said to have been arrested at least once. During the 1980s he periodically closed the legal office and urged the staff to attend sit-ins outside the main city police station. He invited community members to use the premises to campaign for causes such as Indigenous housing, and he leased space to the Revival Mission for Sunday church services by the Fijian pastor Kelevi Roqica. On 29 April 1986 Unmeopa, Ray Robinson, and others occupied the Brisbane office of the Commonwealth government’s Aboriginal Development Commission and were charged with trespass. Asked by the magistrate to identify the police officer who had read out a warning to him, Unmeopa famously replied: ‘I can’t tell which white fellow it was. They all look alike to me’ (Partridge 1986, 3). He was convicted but the finding was later overturned.

In May 1991 in a Brisbane city park, Unmeopa organised a tent sit-in, amid fears that the government’s land rights legislation would not protect sacred sites south of Cairns. Three months later he complained of police treatment of an asthmatic thirteen-year-old boy held in custody for twenty-one hours. He accused Prime Minister Paul Keating of having self-serving political motives for his speech on 10 December 1992 at Redfern Park, Sydney, acknowledging white Australia’s atrocities against Aboriginal people: ‘to get the compassionate vote’ at the next election (Koori Mail 1992, 2).

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission had been established in 1990 as the peak representative body for Indigenous Australians. In the first elections, in November, Unmeopa became a member of ATSIC’s South-East Queensland Indigenous Regional Council but resigned after attending three meetings. Re-elected in 1993, he was appointed to a three-year term (1994–96) as chairperson, the council’s only full-time officer. The council planned and funded projects to improve the social, economic, and cultural lives of its constituents, such as for employment and housing. On 17 June 1996 Unmeopa wrote to the Senate committee considering a bill to amend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989. The proposed legislation would, inter alia, retain the post of ATSIC chairperson as a government appointment rather than an elected position; empower the government to appoint an administrator of ATSIC in cases of fraud or mismanagement; and reduce the size of regional councils. He argued that these measures would take away the self-determination and self-management for which Indigenous people had long struggled.

Five days later, on 22 June 1996, Unmeopa died of myocardial infarction in hospital at Coopers Plains. Following a large Anglican funeral, he was buried in Mount Gravatt cemetery. His partner, Betty McGrady, née Jackson, survived him, as did his four daughters from earlier relationships. He had identified as both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal and, to close friends, as Torres Strait Islander and Timorese. His long-term partners and children and most of his associates were Aboriginal.

A handsome man, 162 centimetres tall, Unmeopa was known in Brisbane as ‘The Jap’ for his Asian appearance. He was also said to look ‘like a Buddha, with a hard fat stomach’ (Lees pers. comm.). The rugby league footballer Joe Kilroy and he were the only Indigenous members of the notorious Black Uhlans Motorcycle Club. Charismatic and a forceful speaker, Unmeopa had an attractive personality, a calm demeanour, a sense of humour, and a kind heart. Former colleagues expressed conflicting views about him. To all, he was an untiring campaigner for Indigenous rights; to some, an inspiring leader, mentor, and hero; to others, a man of his time who, although his heart was in the right place, achieved his aims using unconventional means that would no longer be allowed. His friend Lionel Fogarty composed a poem for him, and a touch football cup named in his honour was first awarded in 2003.

Select Bibliography

  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), ‘Death of ATSIC Chairman.’ 26 June 1996, 5.
  • Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld). ‘Sentah Contributed to Aboriginal Rights.’ 27 July 1996, 5
  • Ferrier, Carole. Personal communication
  • Janke, Terry. Personal communication
  • Koch, Tony. ‘Funds Row Sparks Plea to PM: Audit Splits Aborigines.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 17 April 1995, 3
  • Koori Mail (Lismore, NSW). ‘Brisbane Community Slams Keating Speech.’ 16 December 1992, 2
  • Lees, Adam. Personal communication
  • McGrath, Vic. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. BP4/3, MALAY KOOS
  • National Archives of Australia. BP242/1, Q25356
  • National Archives of Australia. J25, 1967/6281
  • Partridge, Des. ‘Day by Day: Laughter in Court.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 August 1986, 3
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM1097900
  • Saylor, Adelaide. Personal communication
  • Watson, Sam. Personal communication

Citation details

Anna Shnukal, 'Unmeopa, Sentah Sonny Leo (Santa) (1944–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/unmeopa-sentah-sonny-leo-santa-31407/text38860, accessed 26 July 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012