Winner of the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Award
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Click here to download 'Losing Arnhem Land', an Appendix to Gumbuli of Ngukurr.
Two stories overlap and interweave in this biography of Gumbuli of Ngukurr. One is of a remarkable Aboriginal elder, Michael Gumbuli Wurramara, whose early life was spent on remote islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. As a teenager, he moved to the historic Roper River Mission, which became known as Ngukurr when the government took over its control. Gumbuli was one of the community leaders who fought hard to achieve local decision-making at this time of dramatic change.
Later he became the first Aboriginal Anglican priest in the Northern Territory and for over 30 years, leader of the Arnhem Land Anglicans and ‘architect’ of the Kriol Bible Translation Project. He faced many of the challenging issues arising from traditional Aboriginal ways meeting Western culture and the Christian faith.
The second story describes the Ngukurr community in the second half of the twentieth century, as it seeks to achieve a mix of ancient and modern cultures. Along the way, issues arise such as health, employment, economics, welfare, Stolen Generation, polygamy, alcohol and Aboriginal spirituality. The plea of ‘Why don’t you ask us?’ seems to fall on deaf ears in each generation.
Extremely readable and thought-provoking, this work is based on extensive interviews, observation and archival research. It challenges many assumptions about the relationships between government, missions and Aborigines. A collection of photographs, many of historical importance, accompanies the text.
In this centenary year of the surrender of the Northern Territory from South Australia to the Commonwealth, we reflect on those 100 years and the 50,000 years of stories of Aboriginal people. Gumbuli of Ngukurr is one of those inspiring stories. An incredible man and outstanding leader for Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt and Gulf country region, his is a story to be shared by all Australians.
The Hon Malarndirri McCarthy, Member for Arnhem, Northern Territory.
Murray Seiffert’s book Gumbuli: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land was launched by professor Barry McGaw at Bishopscourt on October 6th. Prof McGaw is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the Board of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.
Launching Gumbuli he said, “At one level, it is a biography of a remarkable Christian leader. It is not a hagiography, in the sense of a biography that idealises or idolises its subjects. We learn of Gumbuli’s weaknesses as well as his strengths and of his struggles as well as his successes. It is also a rich story of engagement of the Aboriginal community of east Arnhem Land with Europeans, and most particularly Christian missionaries.’
Tell us a bit about you.
Some of my early learnings about Aboriginal people centred around my home country, Victoria's Western District. This was once described as a 'field of murder', referring to the way settlers treated the original inhabitants. I came to see their situation as being like the Old Testament character Job: 'Even when I cry out, "Violence!" I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.'
I have long been passionate about issues of social justice and the situation of Australia's Indigenous people. Sadly, over 200 years of writing in Australia has created few biographies of Aboriginal people, and hardly any of people living in Aboriginal communities. The so-called 'history wars' showed me that writing about these issues needed to be 'evidence-based'. Fortunately my training as a social scientist gave me the skills for careful, high-quality research and a commitment to using accessible language.
I have known the Rev'd Canon Michael Gumbuli Wurramara for about 20 years and been visiting Ngukurr for about 15 years.
What inspired you to write this book?
Quite simply, Gumbuli is an inspiring character! For a start, he regularly uses four different languages and understands many others. The challenge was to document the richness of his life and his achievements, all of them in a world quite foreign to most Australians. Gumbuli has lived his whole life in communities which non-aborigines must seek permission to enter, so there was a danger that few people would encounter his wisdom, and that following generations of his people might only be left with disconnected anecdotes.
A guiding light was the conviction that knowledge brings understanding and understanding leads to compassion. And if there is anything Australia needs, it is an increase in the compassion and respect between its settlers and its First Peoples.
Tell us what the book is about.
This book is really the story of a man who has been a leader of his own people and spent much of his time pleading their cause with Europeans. He has had to interpret cultures in both directions. But it is also the story of mission and aboriginal culture in remote communities.
The story begins with a little boy on a tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria whose family move to the Groote Eylandt mission. As a teenager, he paddles a canoe to the Roper River Mission in Arnhem Land and this becomes his new home. There he works on small coastal boats and learns motor mechanics on the job. Gradually he joins the leadership group at the end of the 'Mission era' and becomes a key person negotiating with the government officials who take control of the mission.
Soon after, the older women of the community recommend that he become the minister of their church. As an adult, he undertakes training for this task, becoming the first Aboriginal Anglican priest in the Northern Territory, and only the second ever. This leads to him being the leader of all Arnhem Land Anglicans. We see him working through many issues of cultural and religious difference.
However, Gumbuli's life cannot be understood without an understanding of the changing world of Arnhem Land, so the book explores the life of the community, now known as Ngukurr. We see decades of attempts at self-determination, only to be frustrated by Europeans who stand in the way; a recurring theme is 'Why don't you ask us?'
Who do you think will find this book the most useful?
The first readers of Gumbuli of Ngukurr have been people interested in the lives of contemporary Aboriginal people in remote communities. Some readers will want an accurate picture of the origins of current Indigenous issues. Many of the issues at the centre of the Federal Government's 'Intervention' have their origin in the 1960s and 1970s which can be seen in this detailed case-study, based on extensive archival research. Other people will want to explore the intersection of Aboriginal culture and religion with Western economics and religion.
What keeps you busy when you're not writing?
When I am not writing, I enjoy fine woodwork, making things like jewellery boxes. My rural childhood left me with a love of both gardening and the Australian bush. Having been born in Geelong, I had no choice but to follow the Cats. Nowadays I am learning to be grandfather to five little boys and one girl! Like many others, I deplore the way that Aboriginal people continue to be exploited by Europeans, including many authors. Thus all royalties for Gumbuli of Ngukurr are returned to that community.
5 January 2012
A great man, and an inspiring Aboriginal Christian story
Like many Christians, I am sure, my education in Aboriginal Christianity began with reading One Blood, by John Harris, a magnificent history, thorough and reasonable.
Until then, I was tempted to believe the secular mythology that missionaries corrupted Aboriginals, stole their culture and their land, and enforced the government’s assimilation policy, including removing children from parents. While there are some difficult parts to the story, missionaries seemed to do far more good than bad.
A new history of the Roper River Mission, now known as Ngukurr, and its most famous leader the Reverend Canon Michael Gumbuli AM, is a welcome corrective to false stories. It is a celebration of the introduction of Christianity to Groote Eylandt and its surrounds in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and the role Europeans played in protecting Aboriginals from much of the harmful impacts of white settlement.
Gumbuli was born on Bickerton Island, near Groote Eylandt, in 1935. By that time there were already missions established on Groote Eylandt and the nearest towns of Rose River (Numbulwar) and Roper River. At first the missions were focused on caring for the mixed-caste children, resulting from often violent encounters with Chinese and European settlers attracted by gold mining and farming in the area.
The coast was also regularly visited by Indonesian fishermen from Macassar, and the Aboriginals had already had contact with European explorers, including Matthew Flinders in 1803. Hence there was significant contact with external groups before the arrival of the missionaries. Once Australia had been discovered, change to culture and lifestyle was inevitable.
Significantly, the founding CMS missionaries included three Europeans and three Aboriginals. The motivation for the mission from Bishop Newton was to get the children of mixed descent, especially the girls, away from the ‘meddling whites’ of the Roper River district, and those passing through.
The presence of Aboriginal missionaries was a key to the success of the endeavour, since they could vouch for the educational and health care benefits of moving to the mission. Leprosy, in particular, was a scourge amongst the Aboriginal people. There were also issues of smallpox, respiratory diseases, malaria and hearing problems from untreated inner ear infections. Child and maternal health problems were also treated at the missions.
The missions had a good relationship with the surrounding Aboriginal communities, and there was interdependence in the area of food. This recognition of the significance of hunting skills to everyone’s survival meant that there was a commitment to assisting school children to maintain native skills with regular opportunities to ‘go bush’.
Gumbuli came to the missions as a young boy, going to school. Around that time there was much fighting amongst the Aboriginals, usually over women. The Aboriginal culture supported an arrangement of polygamy and promise agreements, with pre-pubescent girls promised to older men, to care for them in their old age. This left a lack of females available for the younger men. The arrival of the missions, in particular, their habit of schooling females, reduced some of these pressures in Aboriginal society.
A painting in St Matthews church at Roper River celebrates the coming of a time of greater peace, with the arrival of the missionaries.
To author Murray Seiffert’s credit, he quotes a range of views in this book, and utilises historical documents, as well as drawing on comprehensive and detailed interviews with eyewitnesses. Seiffert himself has had significant contact with the missions, especially during his time as Academic Dean of Nungalinya College, Darwin.
His main focus is the story of Gumbuli, but he spends much time on the contextual issues including the intersection between Christianity and ceremonial rites, the response of the missions to the government’s assimilation program, and the encouragement by the missions of Aboriginal self-determination and land rights.
Gumbuli emerges as an important leader of his people. His contact with the missions is a catalyst for, not just a deep faith, but also discovery of gifts, mentoring, and opportunities to lead. As a young man he travelled by canoe from the mission at Groote Eylandt, to Roper River. There he encountered adult Aboriginals who had been Christians for all or most of their lives.
He made his own decision to follow Christ at an Easter Sunday invitation as a teenager. He then worked at the mission in various mechanical and labourer roles. He met and matched with Dixie, a local woman, and they developed a strong relationship of mutual support and encouragement.
One significant development at this time was the licensing of elders, Barnabas Roberts and his son Silas, as lay preachers, leading church services.
The development of Aboriginal leadership through the missions was considerable, especially in the 1960s, with Silas and Gerry Blitner becoming leaders of the Northern Land Council. A key aspect of this leadership development was the excellent education at the missions, and also the refusal to blindly submit to government policy. For example, in the 1950s CMS insisted that the policy of assimilation (the attempt to force Aboriginals to leave their own culture and take on European culture) must be voluntary rather than forced.
Gumbuli emerged as the most important church leader in Arnhem Land and was the first Aboriginal to be ordained, in 1973. He regularly represented the Aboriginal perspective at synod, and gatherings of Bishops. Amongst his own people he was revered, and often requested to intervene in disputes. He led the fight to restrict alcohol on the missions after they had been taken into government control, and energised the community during difficult times of unemployment, housing shortages and petrol sniffing. It was during this time that Roper River was renamed Ngukurr.
He is gifted at preaching and healing, and was also instrumental in the translation and production of the Kriol Bible, an indication of his commitment to the Word. At the launching of the Holi Baibul in May 2007, the first copy of the complete Bible was presented to Gumbuli.
Gumbuli is now an old man, but still respected for his wisdom in the community. While not uncritical of the missionaries, he does appreciate them, and is recorded as having said:
‘Who brought this Word?’ holding up his Bible. ‘Who brought clothes? Who brought medicines? Who teaches? Not ordinary man, not Government worker. Missionary brought these first. Missionary told us of the love of God. Praise God for the Missionary! Praise God, He changed my life!’
Seiffert has compiled a very thorough biography, and a balanced historical account of the missions. Perhaps there could have been a more skilful weaving of the two stories, with more flow, and less repetition. However, it remains very readable, and it is essential that these stories are documented and remembered.
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Product Categories: Biography, History & Indigenous Issues
Simon Carey Holt was interviewed by Rachael Kohn on Sunday 8 December for her program The Spirit of Things on ABC’s Radio National. If you would like to listen to the interview, follow this link: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/food-for-body-and-soul/5131102.
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