'I've always been an activist': Jack's all right and he has plenty to say

When Uncle Jack Charles talks people listen.

In part that’s because it can be hard to get a word in edgeways once the self-confessed “loudmouth” is in full flow.

But mostly it’s because of the credibility that comes not only from the veteran Indigenous actor’s successful stage and screen career but also from his many years of homelessness, heroin addiction, thievery and prison time.



Since 2005, having kicked his habit for good, he has wielded that credibility and authority to increasing effect, working with Indigenous prisoners and taking a leading role among his own Boon Wurrung people.


Now a fit and sprightly 75, Charles on Monday received the National Indigenous Arts Awards Red Ochre Award for outstanding lifetime achievement. The other recipient is Tasmanian shell artist Aunty Lola Greeno.

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Charles' acting career spans six decades, from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to the hugely successful autobiographical play Jack Charles V The Crown and more recent TV roles in Cleverman and Wolf Creek.

He modestly calls his award "a testament to my longevity". However, he is also clearly delighted by the recognition, as well as the wider platform it gives him to advocate on behalf of Indigenous communities.

"I've always been an activist even in my addictive days," he says. "But I really knew underneath it that I couldn't be taken seriously because I was talking under the lens of addiction."

For 20 years Charles, a survivor of the Stolen Generation, "wilted under the pulling power of the white powder" until he turned it all around with a healing program called Marumali that he completed in jail.

"It was designed to tweak our consciences, entice us into getting back to basics and to understand our heritage," he says. "It worked."

Charles is receiving his award two years after the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for an agreement between the government and Australia's First Nations and "truth-telling" about Indigenous history. The significance of the timing is not lost on him.

"Treaty is a filthy word in Australia," he says. "Everybody, black and white, has different notions of a treaty. The point is we do have to have a pact. We do have to talk. No one has offered me another way forward. So treaty it is.

"Australia is uniquely and peculiarly racist against Aboriginal people. They are denying Indigenous history. Australia has to go through its own kind of truth and reconciliation commission like all other countries that had wars fought on their lands."


Charles remains frustrated by some in the Indigenous community, who he says have become rich from government programs at the expense of those they were designed to help.

"Being an old thief I cry loudest when I see injustice, corruption and embezzlement," he says. "My job is to show by example. We need honesty and integrity."

Despite all the challenges, he remains positive about future for black and white Australia.

"I'm always hopeful. With addiction you become very much the pessimist but now I'm shot of addiction and seeing things in a new black light, as it were. I've become the great optimist."