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Peret Arkwookerum (1924–1978)

by John Von Sturmer

This article was published:

Peret Arkwookerum (1924-1978), Aboriginal dancer, was born in 1924 on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, in his mother's country, centred on Hersey Creek; his father's land lay north of Edward River. Peret's principal totem was possum and his dialect Kugu-Mu'inh, one of several in the Kugu-Nganychara group. While still a boy, he was a renowned hunter: his peers recalled that, as children, 'we would always follow him; we couldn't go hungry'. As a young man, Arkwookerum achieved the highest ceremonial status and became one of a select coterie known as the Aurukun mission's 'field bosses'. Its members organized ceremonies, instructed the young and provided leadership in all spheres. Though Arkwookerum's knowledge of traditions was encyclopaedic, he was by no means bound by them, and confidently introduced new features into dancing and ceremonial life.

To many, he was the most brilliant dancer in Cape York Peninsula and one of the finest in Australia. His dancing radiated power and commitment, and his performances at Aurukun vitalized his people. Arkwookerum created a series of songs and dances relating to the brolga that were to be accepted in ritual. Somewhat shy and retiring, he remained in his own locality until 1971 when he was taken to visit Cairns. Next year he went to Fiji to dance at the first South Pacific Festival of Arts. He gave public performances in Darwin, at the Aboriginal Arts Board seminar in Canberra in 1973 and on tour with the Queensland Festival of Arts in 1974. His honest explanation was, 'I am dancing for my land'.

His 'country' was his abiding concern. Despite his close kin being split between the Edward River and Aurukun, Arkwookerum had battled for a land claim in the Edward River Aboriginal Reserve for many years. His difficulties were legion, ranging from the issue of legal status, inadequate finance and broken agreements to problems of transport, lack of support from authorities and even instructions to leave the reserve. Peret was intelligent, thoughtful and sceptical by disposition: 'Silly people' was his only comment on European perceptions that he was a terrorizing 'master sorcerer'. In 1977 he travelled to Canberra to talk to officials about his land claims. By the late 1970s, with aid from the Federal government, he was moving steadily towards his objective—an outstation at a coastal site in his mother's country, with permanent drinking water and the possibility of access by aircraft.

An associate member (1977) of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, Arkwookerum appeared in two films, Dances at Aurukun (1964), made under the auspices of the institute, and Lockhart Festival (1974). He undertook the task of systematically identifying birds from his region and, while in Brisbane in early 1972, explained Kugu-Mu'inh kin terminology. Survived by his wife Tallah, two daughters and three sons, he died on 8 August 1978 at South Kendall River outstation. In the post-burial ceremonies, to the sound of one of Peret's brolga songs, the spirit was sent off to an underwater sandbank at the mouth of Christmas Creek. Next day the camp was smoked and his possessions distributed or destroyed.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, no 11, Mar 1979.

Citation details

John Von Sturmer, 'Arkwookerum, Peret (1924–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia


8 August, 1978 (aged ~ 54)
South Kendall River outstation, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.