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Shirley Foley (1938–2000)

by Louise Martin-Chew

This article was published:

Shirley Foley and Fiona Foley, Sydney, 1988

Shirley Foley and Fiona Foley, Sydney, 1988

family photograph

Shirley Foley (1938–2000), Badtjala (Butchulla) woman and senior traditional owner, was born on 7 December 1938 at Urangan, Hervey Bay, Queensland, youngest of four children of Horace Wondunna, fisherman, and his wife Alma Mitchell, a Gubi Gubi woman from the Childers area. Her great-grandfather, Willy ‘Great’ Wondunna, also known as Coobunya (keeper of cultural knowledge), was headman of the Wondunna clan. He was initiated at the last ceremony held for Badtjala men in 1865. Her grandfather, Frederick Wondunna, married Ethel Reeves, née Gribble, sister of the missionary Ernest Gribble, in 1907. Horace was their eldest child. He died in a fishing accident in 1939, leaving Alma to raise Shirley and her siblings alone. Despite living in poverty, the family maintained its independence and connections with culture on Badtjala country. Shirley was aware of their lands over the water on K’gari (Fraser Island); however, lack of access to a boat and vehicle meant she was not able to travel to the island until she was twenty-one.

Wondunna left Hervey Bay as a young woman, moving from town to town as a seasonal worker. She met Barry Foley (1935–2017), son of Irish and Scottish immigrants, in Perth and they married in 1963; they would have four children: Fiona (b. 1964), Shawn (b. 1965), Mellissa (b. 1966), and Rowan (b. 1968). The couple initially settled at Hervey Bay, but racial vilification prompted them to move to Mount Isa where Shirley found work as a nanny. Seeking a more congenial environment for their children, the family moved to Sydney where they experienced less discrimination because the diversity of the city meant they did not stand out. While working for the Postmaster-General’s Department, Shirley developed award-winning visual learning methods to train staff from different cultural backgrounds.

In 1964 Foley’s uncle Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and aunt Wandi (Olga Miller) published The Legends of Moonie Jarl, which told the stories of the Badtjala people. Although living in a different State, Foley was determined to maintain connection with her country. From the mid-1960s the family spent a month on K’gari each year and Foley and her husband moved back to Hervey Bay in the mid-1980s. Strategic, diplomatic, and determined to secure land on K’gari for her people, Foley found a sympathetic ear in Lin Powell, member for Isis in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and a special lease over a six-hectare site was obtained on 15 March 1990. The lessee was Thoorgine Educational and Culture Centre Aboriginal Corporation and the initial term was twenty years. Foley’s plan was to host birdwatchers, schools, architects, and other students of Badtjala culture on K’gari. At the heart of her vision was a cultural centre that would celebrate Badtjala culture and employ Badtjala people, thereby helping to secure the community’s social and economic future. She chose a sheltered site behind the dunes on the surf side of the island that Barry, along with employed Badtjala men, cleared of lantana. Plans were drawn up for a building to house the cultural centre, but it did not eventuate.

Realising some of Foley’s dream, Thoorgine received grants from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1989 and 1992 enabling a series of cultural exchanges: Badtjala women and men visited Maningrida in the Northern Territory, the women learning to weave and the men experiencing life on an outstation; Pitjantjatjara elders visited K’gari, saw salt water for the first time, made boomerangs, and sang in their language on Badtjala land; and palawa women from Tasmania spent time with Badtjala women, sharing cultural knowledge and exploring vine species from the rainforest at Lake Allom on K’gari. In 1991, when another Aboriginal language group initiated a land claim over the island, Foley, speaking on behalf of the Badtjala people, declared: ‘There is and always has been only one Fraser Island tribe. There is no other tribe and we are protective of our country’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1991, 7). She began researching the history of the island and working with other Badtjala community members to gain legal recognition of their native title rights to K’gari, which the Federal Court of Australia finally granted in 2014.

Appreciating the centrality of language to cultural continuity, Foley introduced Badtjala language programs designed for children into the Hervey Bay community during the early 1990s. In 1994 she was the driving force behind the establishment of the Wondunna Aboriginal Corporation, which undertook the maintenance and revival of languages through the Central Queensland Language Program. A coordinator of the language program by 1995, she created flash cards using images and words as visual teaching tools, and produced Badtjala–English/English–Badtjala Word List (1996), a book that allowed her community to conceptualise the writing of its own history. She had received a National Indigenous Business Economic Conference businesswoman of the year award signed by Charles Perkins in 1993.

Survived by her husband and children, Foley died at Hervey Bay on 23 July 2000 and her ashes were scattered on K’gari. A commemorative bush tucker garden was planted in her honour at Urangan High School in 2008. At a ceremony to mark K’gari’s native title consent determination in 2014, her legacy was invoked by her daughter, the artist and academic Fiona Foley, who described her as ‘the person who [got] Fraser Island back’ before native title. She is remembered as a ‘visionary’ and a ‘tireless advocate for Badtjala people’ (Kembrey 2020, n.p.).


Louise Martin-Chew is of Irish and English descent. She worked closely with Shirley Foley’s daughter Dr Fiona Foley in researching and writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Foley, Fiona. Personal communication
  • Foley, Fiona. Speech at Fraser Island, 24 October 2014. Unpublished typescript. Copy held on IADB file
  • Foley, Rowan. Personal communication
  • Foley, Shirley. Interview by Hilary Boscott, 1993. Transcript. Copy held on IADB file
  • Halse, Christine. A Terribly Wild Man. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002
  • Kembrey, Melanie. ‘Artist Fiona Foley Explores How Opium Was Used to Control Aboriginal Labour.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 2000, n.p
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Tribal Fight for Fraser Island.’ 9 June 1991, 7

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Louise Martin-Chew, 'Foley, Shirley (1938–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 17 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Shirley Foley and Fiona Foley, Sydney, 1988

Shirley Foley and Fiona Foley, Sydney, 1988

family photograph

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wondunna, Shirley

7 December, 1938
Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia


23 July, 2000 (aged 61)
Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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