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 courage between God and his people. Gumbuli was often called upon to stand in a similar position. On one hand were the ancient Aboriginal traditions and secrets in which he and his peers had been educated and initiated. On the other was God’s revelation carried by the missionaries. Neither the local people, nor the missionaries looked to traditional European culture as the model for their community. To this day, the people of Ngukurr wish to maintain their Aboriginal identity.

How could the Ngukurr community develop an authentic Aboriginal response to the Christian Gospel? This question frequently arose in both Gumbuli’s personal and public life.

Soon after Gumbuli was ordained, his role as a respected community leader gave rise to a major challenge. One man died as a result of the actions of another. The traditional response was for the men linked to the victim to engage in a ‘ritual spearing’ of the offender. Gumbuli was appointed to the task of ensuring fair play for the ritual event. Sensing trouble the night before, Gumbuli collect all firearms in the town and stored them in the church office!

When he saw that they intended to use deadly shovel-nosed spears, Gumbuli insisted that the spears be a simple shaft, capable of causing severe injury, but less likely to kill. A number of spears met their mark, causing considerable pain, and justice was seen to have been done. Only a respected and wise leader could have achieved this outcome.

A number of matters demonstrate wide gaps between Arnhem Land traditions and orthodox Western thought. One is the explanation of death. Arnhem Land tradition sees death as a spiritual matter, arising from the actions of evil spirits, which in turn were likely to have been activated by some form of human intervention – such as a ‘witch-doctor’, a term often used with ‘whitefellas’.

Thus, death should normally be avenged in some way, possibly by a ritual spearing.  Understandably this presents a serious challenge for the pastor! Gumbuli’s response was usually to explain natural causes of death as clearly as possible, pointing out that retribution was not required.

One of Gumbuli’s triumphs was to steer an accepted path through the process of grieving and funerals. The resolution is that traditional funeral men ‘dance’ the coffin to the church. About ten metres from the church door was seen as the beginning of ‘holy ground’, where Christ was honoured and not challenged. At this place, Gumbuli would take control of the service in the church – which could take two hours or more – continuing until the coffin was returned to the same spot, where the same men took over once again.  The coffin was taken to the cemetery, and Gumbuli or another church elder would undertake the committal.  This resolution allowed traditions to be honoured with dignity, and did not require any compromise of the Gospel.  Some Christians ask that funeral men not be involved in their ceremonies.

Another fundamental issue at the interface of traditional Aboriginal belief and the Christian Gospel arise through the matter of traditional ceremonies where the stories are celebrated and passed on. Here the stories of origins are told, young people initiated, fertility rites pursued and morality taught.  Gumbuli was careful to avoid condemning all ceremonies; he was clear that he thought some were good, such as those that celebrated peace and reconciliation, as well as those that taught acceptable behaviour.

It is not well known that in the mid twentieth century, some of the Christian Aborigines in the Roper River district cleansed ceremonies of practices that were inconsistent with the Gospel, such as the maltreatment of women.

The Gospel expects that the followers of Jesus will examine the culture in which they live, affirming that which is good and rejecting that which is inconsistent with the God’s ways, such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the treatment of the poor and disadvantaged[i]. Time and again, Gumbuli faced this challenge in dealing with many issues that were central to Arnhem Land life as Aborigines increasingly encountered the values and economics of Western society.

He affirmed many aspects of traditional culture and morality, such as the local treatment of wrongdoers, and the moity system as a basis for selecting marriage partners.

One of Gumbuli’s most useful insights arose from assessing issues with a theological dimension. His test is ‘Does this explanation, or this practice, compromise God’s role as Creator?’ If it does, it is probably inconsistent with the Bible and unacceptable to Christians. It seems to be hard for anyone who believes the Bible to reject this test.

Not surprisingly, this view creates difficulties for people who want to take some of the Dreamtime stories literally.[ii]  This leads some Christian Aborigines to eschew ceremonies altogether, others to take part as a sort of re-enactment of traditional gatherings. It takes courage to go against the ceremony men and boycott ceremonies!

This test in an interesting one to apply in the context of life in the suburbs. It challenges the multimillion-dollar astrology industry, and the notion of ‘luck’.

Gumbuli sees life in Christ from a holistic perspective and his teaching reflected this. In comparison, suburban churches often seem to specialize in religious matters.

The spirit world of Arnhem Land is alive and active. Threats of invoking the intervention of the spirits are the cause of great fear, although amongst the Christians, the situation is generally different. A key element of Gumbuli’s theology is that the Holy Spirit is the strongest spirit of all, providing total safety. So it is not surprising that a common prayerful song is ‘Come Holy Spirit, I need you’. Likewise, prayers for healing are common in worship services and prayer meetings.

Jesus believed in spirits, teaching about them and taking action. This, in turn, brings a challenge to the average Western reader. The reader of the New Testament who brings an understanding of the spirit world to the Gospels sees that dimension with increased clarity and dimension.

Having glimpsed the centrality of spirits in Aboriginal spirituality, I think that non-Indigenous Australians who try to find Aboriginal spirituality while ignoring the realities of the spirit world must be chasing after the wind! And then there is the modern paradox of halloween!

Gumbuli believes that people should make up their own minds about the issues that they face and that the best way to do this was for people read the Bible in their own language; at Ngukurr this means Kriol. He was the patriarch of the Kriol Bible Translation Project, in which the people of his church worked for decades to translate the whole Bible using a method devised by Gumbuli. Alongside this was a program to teach the reading of Kriol and ways of studying scripture.  The Kriol Holi Baibul will remain a basic foundation of written Kriol, somewhat like the Book of Common Prayer to the English language.

Gumbuli’s independence of thinking led to his support for the ministry and ordination of women in the early 1980s at the same time as some missionaries were saying that traditional Aboriginal elders would not accept it! Gumbuli had already noted that his most faithful and active parishioners were women, and recognized the parallel with the women at the foot of the Cross.

Being the only ordained Aboriginal priest, and then the senior one, meant that Gumbuli needed to both interpret Anglican ways to his people, and to teach bishops and the rest of the church about the ways of Aboriginal Christians. This was often a difficult task: in general, Western Anglicans are not well skilled at reflecting upon their own culture.

Whatever else might be said about Gumbuli, the authenticity of his personal life and faith stands out. His willingness to minister in the most frustrating circumstances reaches back to times when the community was first crippled by alcohol – introduced by government contractors. At the time, the radical union leader Dexter Daniels said that it was only Gumbuli and the Senior Nurse, Sister Edna Brooker, who held the community together.

Gumbuli developed a strong level of trust across southeastern Arnhem Land and was often called upon to bring peace in times of turmoil. Few Australians have made a stronger contribution to reconciliation in their districts than Gumbuli.

I think that it is a sign of a saint that they have a vision of Christ that brings humility and a sense of unworthiness, and this was certainly the case with Gumbuli. An inevitable consequence is caring for people with genuine warmth and passion.

The world is much richer for the life of Canon Gumbuli.  He has shown how it is possible to be 100% Aboriginal and 100% Christian. We live in a time when many Australian Christians seek to understand the ways of Aboriginal people and a good place to start is to study the lives and teachings of Aboriginal Christian elders.[iii]

It is appropriate to let Gumbuli have the last word:

If you want to be a leader you must do your actions the right way, and through love. People are watching you and looking at the way you love them and support them. Your actions must come from deep in your heart.





Dr Murray Seiffert has known Gumbuli for many years and worked closely with him whilst based at Nungalinya College Darwin.

[i] Exodus 20.1-17; Luke 6.31; Matthew 25.31-46.

[ii] Of course ‘Dreamtime’ is not an Aboriginal concept; neither is ‘literally’!

[iii] Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land was written to help Australians gain some understanding of the lives and faith of Aboriginal Christians.  Available at  All royalties go to Ngukurr. Biographies have been written about other Christian leaders, such as Pastor Sir Douglas Nichols, Margaret Tucker, William Cooper, and the Revd Yulki Nunggumajbarr.

Our congratulations to Murray, whose paper, ‘The trauma of the government taking control: Roper River Mission (Ngukurr), Northern Territory’ is featured in the December 2013 issue (Volume 37) of the Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia. Further information about Murray’s article and the journal can be found here.

A guiding light was that knowledge brings understanding and understanding leads to compassion …

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.

Read Joy Sandefur’s review of Gumbuli in the Summer 2013/14 issue of EFAC’s Essentials by downloading a pdf copy here.

Read Professor Barry McGaw’s March 2012 review of Murray Seiffert’s Gumbuli, runner-up in the 2012 Chief Minister’s Northern Territory’s History Book Award.

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.


You may also like…