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Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen (1896–1975)

by Tom Gara

This article was published:

Robert Mckenzie Wanganeen (1896-1975), Aboriginal community leader, was born on 23 February 1896 at Point Pearce Mission Station, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, fifth of ten children of Aboriginal parents Robert Wanganeen, labourer, and his wife Susan, née Hughes. Young Robert's grandfather James Wanganeen, a Maraura man from the Upper Murray, had been sent to the Poonindie Mission Station, near Port Lincoln, in the early 1850s after attending the Native School Establishment in Adelaide. Robert senior was born at Poonindie in 1868 but, as a youth, had moved to Point Pearce where he met and married in 1886 Susan, a Narrunga woman.

Educated at the Point Pearce mission school, young Robert was, like his father, keen on sport; during the 1920s and 1930s he was captain and coach of the local Australian Rules football team and also a skilful cricketer. He lived with Dulcie Lena Sansbury who bore him a son in 1920. In 1922, at the age of 17, Dulcie died of tuberculosis. On 7 January 1924 at the Methodist manse at nearby Maitland, Wanganeen married Dulcie's cousin, 17-year-old Doreen Violet Sansbury (d.1944), an Adnyamathanha woman from the Flinders Ranges. They were to have eleven children. By the 1930s he was a respected community leader and spokesman, known as 'the chief' by the residents of Point Pearce. In 1933 he was elected president of the local branch of the newly formed Australian Aborigines' Union which lobbied the South Australian government for improved conditions at the station, and advocated land grants for Aboriginal people so that they could become independent of government rations and assistance.

Frustrated by the continuing lack of opportunities at the mission, Wanganeen organized in the 1940s and 1950s a number of petitions seeking improved wages and conditions for the residents. When members of the Aborigines Protection Board visited Point Pearce in 1953-54, he acted as spokesman, debating publicly with (Sir) John Cleland, the board's deputy-chairman, on the need for higher wages and better medical and educational facilities, and an end to inequalities in social service payments for Aboriginal people. In 1958 Wanganeen and Percy Rigney, a Ngarrindjeri man from the Point McLeay mission, were invited to address the anthropological section at the Adelaide meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the annual report of the Aborigines' Friends' Association, both spoke eloquently on the problems then confronting Aboriginal people and were commended by the delegates for their valuable contribution.

Survived by four sons and two daughters, Wanganeen died on 13 December 1975 in Adelaide and was buried in Point Pearce cemetery. He was greatly respected by the wider non-Aboriginal community as well as by his Aboriginal relations and friends; his funeral was one of the largest seen on Yorke Peninsula to that time.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Kartinyeri, The Wanganeen Family Genealogy (Adel, 1985)
  • Aborigines' Friends' Association, Annual Report, 1958, p 9
  • Aborigines Department, correspondence files, 1941-55 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Tom Gara, 'Wanganeen, Robert Mckenzie (1896–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 February, 1896
Point Pearce, South Australia, Australia


13 December, 1975 (aged 79)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.