Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land

Murray Seiffert


Winner of the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Award

Also available as an eBook (eISBN: 9780987132994). To purchase this title as an eBook, follow the instructions on our eBook page. You can also follow these direct links:


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.’

Gumbuli Wurramara: Pioneer Aboriginal Priest
The Melbourne Anglican, May 2014, ‘Heroes of the Faith’ series
by Murray Seiffert

If a hero is ‘a person noted or admired for nobility, courage, outstanding achievements’, then the Reverend Canon Michael Gumbuli Wurramara AM must stand as an Australian hero of the church, a pioneer priest, evangelist and missionary.

Today, Gumbuli enjoys quiet retirement as a venerated elder at Ngukurr in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.  This tranquillity is in marked contrast to the rocky road he has trodden at the intersection of Aboriginal traditions with European values and the Christian faith.

Gumbuli was born in 1935 on Bickerton Island, near Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  At that time, Matthew Flinders was one of the few Europeans to have visited the island. Soon after Gumbuli was born the family moved to Groote Eylandt, residing near the CMS mission.

Gumbuli began living in the mission dormitory, where he learned many skills, including motor mechanics; afternoons were spent at his family’s camp. Gumbuli recalls that in 1944 he first decided to follow Christ as the guide of his life, a genuine first-generation Christian. In 1951, at the age of 14, he migrated to the historic Roper River Mission –now called Ngukurr – paddling a dugout canoe with two others.

While many missionaries influenced Gumbuli, it was the Aboriginal Christians who took the teenager under their wing, in particular Barnabas Roberts, who had experienced the violence of the first European settlers and the arrival of the first missionaries. Initially Gumbuli worked on the mission boat and continued to develop his mechanical skills, especially with diesel engines.

When Gumbuli was in his early thirties, CMS relinquished control of the mission to the government. During this time of great upheaval, Gumbuli was one of the community leaders working hard for autonomy within the community. The skills he developed then were to serve him well in the years ahead.

Gumbuli’s faith was also growing as he took increased responsibility in the church; his potential as a church leader was recognized and a training program developed. He was assisted with services in the church – in English – as well as working with his brother-in-law to lead open-air services at the residential ‘village’, using the local language, which became known as Kriol – his fourth language.

In 1972 the community was without a priest.  Some of the faithful old ladies of the church prevailed upon their bishop, ‘What about Gumbuli? He could be our leader.’ Gumbuli explained it this way: ‘I was chosen by the old people to be the leader and later their minister. I was not chosen by the white people.’ In November 1973, Gumbuli was ordained Deacon, and then Priest.

Gumbuli was the first Aboriginal priest in the Northern Territory. Australia’s first was Patrick Brisbane from Queensland who was ordained in 1970, but died in 1974. Thus, for most of his life, Gumbuli has been Australia’s senior Aboriginal priest, by date of ordination. The next Aboriginal ordination in the Territory did not happen until 1985, so Gumbuli stood alone for a long time.

Gumbuli continued part-time employment as a motor mechanic after his ordination. In fact his ministry was probably never fully sustained by the church.

Arnhem Land has retained much of its traditional Aboriginal religion, culture and family patterns – it is hard to imagine a culture more distant from contemporary Western culture.  This was the environment of Gumbuli’s ministry as a pastor and as a leader of community thought and practice. His life has many lessons for us all.

Christians are familiar with Moses standing with great coura