Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dorothy Leila Rankine (1932–1993)

by Jennifer K. Newsome

This article was published:

Dorothy Leila Rankine (1932­–1993), Aboriginal musician and community worker, was born on 31 December 1932 at Rose Park, Adelaide, seventh of eight children of Daniel Wilson, of Ngarrindjeri descent, and his wife Rebecca Kumi Wilson, née Harris, who was of Kaurna descent on her mother’s side and Ngarrindjeri on her father’s side. Leila attended school and spent her early adult life in the small community at Point McLeay Mission Station (later Raukkan) on the southern shore of Mungkuli (Lake Alexandrina), in the Coorong region of South Australia. Under the influence of the Salvation Army, music played a significant role in the social and religious life of the mission, shaping her later involvement in music and the arts. She married James William Rankine (d. 1969) at Point McLeay on 22 April 1954, and together they had five children. In 1965 the family moved to Adelaide to provide greater access to educational opportunities for the children.

Having been brought up under the Aborigines Protection Board (1939–62), which exercised supreme authority over Aboriginal people in the State, Rankine was determined to contribute to improvements in the lives and circumstances of her people. In 1966 she was a founding member of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, and, along with other influential women including Ruby Hammond and Gladys Elphick, worked to promote Aboriginal education and advancement.

With her younger sister Veronica Brodie, also an activist and community leader, in 1972 Rankine was an inaugural member of the Adelaide Aboriginal Orchestra. Three years later, the orchestra was one of the founding initiatives in the establishment of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) at the University of Adelaide. The orchestra sought to benefit children living with family, with foster families, or in hostels, and gave them the opportunity to receive training and perform on a variety of instruments. ‘Auntie Leila,’ as she was respectfully and fondly known to the many CASM students who benefited from her wisdom and firm but kind support, was the chairperson of the urban committee of CASM and editor of the centre’s journal Tjungaringanyi from 1976 until her retirement in 1986. During this period she also participated in the development of the Radio University 5UV multimedia resource Music, Music, Music (1978). CASM yielded a number of ground-breaking musical groups including Us Mob and No Fixed Address.

Rankine was involved in numerous organisations, including the Aboriginal Community College, Aboriginal Community Centre, and the Aboriginal Sobriety Group of South Australia Inc. She was a member of the Aborigines Advancement League of South Australia, the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council of the Arts (1974–77), and the Sydney-based Aboriginal Artists Agency (1978–93). She also worked with Aboriginal students at Warriappendi Alternative School, contributed to the educational resources The Kaurna People (1989) and The Ngarrindjeri People (1990) for South Australian secondary schools, and to the book Our Place Our Music (1989), one of the first comprehensive published studies of Aboriginal music. In 1987 she played an important role in founding the Ngarrindjeri cultural centre, Camp Coorong. A poet, actor, cellist, a fine trombonist, and singer, she performed at the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Tahiti in 1985, and told Ngarrindjeri stories for ABC television. She had previously acted in the films Sister, If You Only Knew (1975) and Wrong Side of the Road (1981).

While working at CASM, Rankine had developed diabetes which caused her to become very ill. She died on 15 January 1993 in Adelaide, survived by four daughters and a son, and her ashes were scattered at Panmurung Point on the Coorong, the beloved spiritual place to which she had always wished to return. Following her death Leila’s role as a custodian of her people’s lore and culture came under scrutiny during the long-running and divisive controversy over the construction of a bridge linking Hindmarsh Island in the Coorong with the mainland. Those against the construction of the bridge, including Leila’s sister, gave evidence to the royal commission that construction of the bridge would be detrimental to the secret women’s sites on the island, of which Leila had been a custodian. The bridge was opened in 2001 over the Ngarrindjeri women’s protests but they were partly vindicated in a Federal Court of Australia case (Chapman v Luminis pty Ltd (No 5) 2001) the same year in which the judge accepted that the women were genuine in their beliefs about the importance of the waters, and that they should be protected from development.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Breen, Marcus ed. Our Place Our Music. Aboriginal Music: Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989
  • Gale, Mary-Anne. My Side of the Bridge: The Life Story of Veronica Brodie. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2002
  • Kartinyeri, Doreen. Ngarrindjeri Nation: Genealogies of Ngarrindjeri families. Kent Town SA: Wakefield Press, 2006
  • Mattingley, Christobel, and Ken Hampton, eds. Survival in Our Own Land: 'Aboriginal Experiences' in 'South Australia' since 1836 told by Nungas and others. Melbourne, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1998
  • Rankine, Leila. ‘Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music.’ Pivot: A Journal of South Australian Education 6, no. 2 (1979): 19–20
  • Rankine, Leila. Pelican in Flight: A Collection of Poetry about Childhood Experiences and Adult Knowing of the Coorong and Point McLeay. Mt Barker, SA: Flashback Press, 1993
  • Tjungaringanyi (1975–85). Journal of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). The University of Adelaide
  • Wilson, Jane. Personal communication

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jennifer K. Newsome, 'Rankine, Dorothy Leila (1932–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Leila Rankine, 1986

Leila Rankine, 1986

National Library of Australia, 42113709

Life Summary [details]


31 December, 1932
Rose Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


15 January, 1993 (aged 60)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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