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David Burrumarra (1917–1994)

by Ian S. McIntosh

This article was published:

David Burrumarra, by Ian McIntosh, n.d.

David Burrumarra, by Ian McIntosh, n.d.

David Burrumarra (1917–1994), Yolngu philosopher, diplomat, and leader, was born in 1917 during the dry season at Wadangayu (Bible Camp), Elcho Island, Northern Territory, son of Ganimburrngu (Lanygarra), and his wife Wanambiwuy, a Brarrngu woman. The people of north-east Arnhem Land call themselves Yolngu; David was a member of the Warramiri clan, his traditional country being The English Company's Islands and Cape Wilberforce. His people had a totemic association with the marine environment, particularly the whale and octopus emblems. Burrumarra had received his name from his mother’s mother; in its sacred meaning it refers to the skeleton of the large white-tailed stingray. Warramiri tradition is characterised by a wealth of narratives relating to the presence of foreign visitors, in particular Sama-Bajau (Sea Gypsies), and Macassan trepangers from Sulawesi.

Following the death of his father, Burrumarra spent a period at the newly established (1923) Methodist settlement at Milingimbi, before working as a shell cleaner and deckhand aboard the Japanese pearling vessel Tubumaro in the vicinity of Mooroonga Island. During travels with the Methodist missionary Wilbur Chaseling to locate a new site to service the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land, he encountered clan leaders who had been at his initiation, including Mawulan of the Rirratjingu clan, and Mungurrawuy of the Gumatj clan. The place they met, Yirrkala, became the site of a new mission in 1935; Burrumarra worked there for Rev. Clyde Toft as a domestic servant and kitchen hand, and with the Fijian missionary Kolinio Saukuru. He later spent a year as a diver with the trepanger and beachcomber Frederick Gray at Caledon Bay. Burrumarra’s first wife was Clara, a Mara woman from Roper River, who had been taken to Yirrkala by trepang fishermen; she died in about 1946. During World War II, he supervised Yolngu workers constructing the Royal Australian Air Force Base, Gove, in 1943, and was also involved in postal deliveries and coastal surveillance between Yirrkala, Milingimbi, and Elcho Island.

Chosen by his family to learn about non-Aboriginal ways, Burrumarra had made an effort since his youth to increase his knowledge of the outside world. He became a mediator between his people and others. In 1946, at the request of his cousin, the Wangurri leader Batangga, he relocated to Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, where he was employed as the community liaison officer. This was a duty for which he was well qualified, being fluent in eight Yolngu languages as well as English. He owned a typewriter and, for a small fee, would prepare correspondence for community members. The first Yolngu teaching assistant at the school, he also supervised correspondence lessons. He travelled extensively with the aviator missionary Harold Shepherdson, helping to establish outstations, delivering vital supplies, and conducting church services. During this period he married Lawuk of the Galpu clan.

In the 1950s Burrumarra was elected as the first village council secretary at Elcho Island. As a senior member of the community, he promoted the coexistence of Yolngu ceremony and law with the church: ‘We believed in both ways’ (McIntosh 1994, 14), he said of this time. Developing a close affiliation with noted Australian field researchers, including Ronald and Catherine Berndt, Donald Thomson, and John Mulvaney, he considered himself to be Australia’s first Aboriginal anthropologist.

With Batangga and Walalipa, then leaders of the Yolngu community at Elcho Island, in 1957 Burrumarra was an instigator of the ‘Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land,’ in which madayin (sacred wooden symbols) of various Yolngu Dreamings were publicly revealed for the first time. Contentious amongst some Yolngu, this was an unprecedented attempt to reconcile Yolngu and Christian beliefs, unify Yolngu people, and affirm their sovereignty over their lands and waters. Following amendment of the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1962 extending the right to vote to Indigenous Australians, he traversed the nation encouraging people to enrol. He was a member (1974–76) of the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (from 1989 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) and in later life remained active in its conference and seminar program.

In January 1978 Burrumarra, by then chairman of the Elcho Island Yolngu Council and Mala (Clan) Leaders Association, was appointed MBE. He invited the governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen, to Elcho Island to invest him with the award, insisting that visiting dignitaries dress in sacred Warramiri whale and lightning caftans designed by him especially for the event. In response to Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s call for a government treaty (or compact) with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, in 1988 he designed a flag on which Warramiri and Australian symbols indicated a partnership in law between the first peoples and the newcomers. The flag, painted on board, was placed on permanent display at the University of New South Wales law school. It was his wish that similar Aboriginal paintings hang in all Federal and State government buildings where decisions were made about Aboriginal and Islander lands and seas.

Burrumarra’s diplomacy had four aspirations: that Aboriginal people would control their own affairs; that Yolngu and Christian beliefs would be reconciled; that Australia would recognise Yolngu land and sea rights; and that Yolngu be as wealthy as other Australians. A tall, stately figure, and an unforgettable, often eccentric personality, he transfixed visitors to Elcho Island with his vision and charisma. Sporting a pith helmet, he would parade around his community, peering into the crowds with binoculars, his loudspeaker blaring, or wear military costume, displaying his medals. A great conversationalist and orator, he said that his skills came ‘from above. They fall like leaves from the tree of paradise’ (McIntosh 1994, ix). Warm with those he liked but dismissive of those who displeased him, he strongly believed that Aboriginal people and Europeans had to share the country, and that all needed to learn ‘to follow the laws of the country’ (McIntosh 1994, vii).

Burrumarra died on 13 October 1994 at Elcho Island; he was predeceased by his wife and survived by four sons and three daughters from his second marriage. During his funeral, and in his honour, Yolngu leaders released a comprehensive plan for the national recognition of Yolngu rights to the Arafura Sea, known locally as Manbuyna ga Rulyapa. One of his sons, Terry Yumbulul, achieved fame as an artist.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Blair, Sandy, and Nicholas Hall. ‘Travelling the “Malay Road”: Recognising the Heritage Significance of the Macassan Maritime Trade Route.’ In Macassan History and Heritage: Journeys, Encounters and Influences, edited by Marshall Clark and Sally K. May, 205–25. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2013
  • McIntosh, Ian. Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Dreaming: Warramiri Yolngu and the Quest for Equality. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000
  • McIntosh, Ian. ‘Eccentric Leader of Black Reconciliation.’ Australian, 21 October 1994, 12
  • McIntosh, Ian. The Whale and the Cross: Conversations with David Burrumarra MBE. Darwin: Historical Society of the Northern Territory, 1994
  • Rothwell, Nicholas. ‘Indigenous Leader David Burrumarra Was a Man of Words.’ Australian, 8 August 2015
  • Williams, Don. ‘David Burrumarra, MBE.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2 (1994): 121–22

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Ian S. McIntosh, 'Burrumarra, David (1917–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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