With white clay from a traditional indigenous blessing smeared on her forehead, Peris acknowledged that she lived in a society “where the odds are stacked against Aboriginal people”.
Earlier: Nova Peris hears of discrimination ahead of maiden speech
Peris, who won gold in field hockey at the 1996 Atlanta Games before switching to athletics to win gold in the 200m and 4x100m relay at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, said her sporting achievements were virtually meaningless compared with the struggle of her older relatives to survive.
She said while she had lived the globe-trotting life of an elite athlete, she would “swap all of that in a heartbeat”.
“I would forgo any number of medals to see Aboriginal Australians be free, healthy and participating fully in all that our great country has to offer,” she told the Senate as her voice wavered with emotion.
“It is my dream to see kids from Santa Theresa, from Gunbalanya, and Kalkarindji and the Tiwi Islands all with the same opportunity as the kids from the eastern suburbs of Sydney.”
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Peris’ election to the Senate in the September 7 vote was a rare bright spot for the Australian Labor Party which lost government to conservative leader Tony Abbott in the polls.
Darwin-born-and-raised Peris said while she did not consider herself an expert on ending indigenous disadvantage, she had seen some unscrupulous people attempt to use the misfortune of indigenous people to further their own agendas.
“Should I see this happen I will call it for what it is,” she said.
“It’s racism and I know it’s confronting, but I will not stand by in silence.”
The 42-year-old mother of three, who identifies with indigenous peoples from the East Kimberley, West Kimberley (Broome) and West Arnhem land in the Northern Territory, called for Aboriginal Australians to be recognised in the constitution, a long-standing demand of the community.
“To Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this has always been part of our story of struggle, injustice and heartache,” she said.
Aborigines, the most disadvantaged Australians, are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement.
There are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million, and they suffer disproportionate levels of disease, imprisonment and social problems as well as significantly lower education, employment and life expectancy.