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Tommy (TG) George (c. 1928–2016)

by Noelene Cole and Roseanne George

This article was published:

Tommy George, Australian Museum, Sydney

Tommy George, Australian Museum, Sydney

Photograph by Noelene Cole

Tommy George (c. 1928–2016), Kuku Thaypan speaker, knowledge holder, and teacher, was born at Agnuwal (18 Mile Lagoon), southern Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, on Kuku Thaypan Country in the late 1920s. His parents were Old George Musgrave (Deafy George), an Awu Alaya man, and Nellie George (Wiyenggonhu), an Olkola woman. He was fluent in his father’s language, Awu Laya, a variant of Kuku Thaypan, and in Olkola (Uw Olkola), his mother’s language, and could also speak the languages of neighbouring cultural groups and English. His Kuku Thaypan name was Mey Apilkull Wungnarmun. Later in life he was known as ‘TG.’

In 1873 the Palmer River goldrush had brought an invasion of thousands of European and Chinese prospectors to southern Cape York Peninsula. For decades thereafter the Aboriginal people of this region resisted colonisation with great courage and tenacity. The Old People Tommy grew up with recalled traumatic memories of the Frontier Wars—‘the wild time’ (Musgrave 1999)—such as having to flee to rock shelters on high escarpments to survive attacks by the Native Mounted Police. In 1897 Old George Musgrave led his people to meet peaceably with Sub-Inspector James Lamond of the Native Mounted Police at Five Mile Creek near Musgrave telegraph station to try to solve the ongoing conflict. Old George Musgrave and other Old People taught Tommy how to track, hunt, and gather bush foods, and how to make artefacts and bush medicines in the traditional way.

Like other Aboriginal people of that time, Tommy’s family eventually joined the cattle station workforce when they were unable to sustain their independent lifestyles on their homelands after years of attacks by the Native Mounted Police. Although virtually unwaged, cattle station jobs enabled workers and their families to stay on Country, adapt to the devastating impacts of colonisation, and achieve some stability in their lives. With their unique environmental knowledge, traditional bush skills, and expertise with animals, station workers such as Tommy George were indispensable to the cattle industry.

Tommy grew up with extended family on stations owned by Fred and Mary Shephard and began fencing, mustering, and other stock work at an early age. The Shephards treated their Aboriginal workers well. Mary taught the children ‘the ABC’ (George 2005). On one occasion, Fred saved Tommy and his older brother George Musgrave from being removed by the police to a distant mission or reserve by concealing them in a mailbag in the homestead storeroom.

When he was in his early twenties, Tommy’s parents arranged his marriage to Laura Banjo, daughter of Bob Banjo and Lena Banjo, according to customary law. She worked with stock at Olive Vale station. Tommy and Laura began their married life on Musgrave station, which was owned by the Shephards. Later, Tommy worked on other stations in south-central Cape York Peninsula. He regularly undertook long and arduous droving expeditions to Mareeba and recalled these as ‘hard’ (George 2005) but happy times. Following the granting of award wages to Aboriginal people in the late 1960s, Tommy and other Aboriginal station workers lost their jobs. He and his family then moved to the Old Reserve beside the Laura River. Aboriginal people had begun camping permanently at this location, which was close to a Rainbow Serpent story place, in the late nineteenth century during the Frontier Wars, around the time that Laura was established as a terminus for the Cooktown–Laura railway. With a reputation as a highly skilled stock worker, Tommy continued to be called on for advice and assistance by local station owners.

Tommy’s Kuku Thaypan identity and marriage to Laura, a traditional owner of Laura, gave him status and responsibilities in the Laura community. A founding member of Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation in the mid-1980s, he led its land and cultural heritage management programs as senior ranger for many years. With his brother George, he was a senior custodian, ranger, and manager of the Quinkan rock art lands of the Laura region, leading tours and producing interpretive materials to educate visitors about the cultural values of Quinkan Country. To keep their culture alive in the community, he and George taught Kuku Thaypan language and cultural lessons at Laura State School. He also collaborated with anthropologists, linguists, and archaeologists to record Awu Laya language, family genealogies, rock art, and other types of cultural heritage.

A key consultant in Aboriginal land claims, including the Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park land claim in the early 1990s, Tommy contributed his knowledge of languages, law, and custom, land–people connections, stories, story places, birthplaces, and cemeteries to support the return of Aboriginal lands to his people. With George and their friend Victor Steffensen, he delivered workshops on traditional practices of land care and fire management throughout Cape York Peninsula and further afield. In 2004, in association with the Kuku Thaypan Traditional Knowledge Recording Project, he travelled to the Australian Museum in Sydney to provide cultural information on Kuku Thaypan materials held in the Walter Roth ethnographic collection. Onlookers were amazed at his ability to ‘pick something up and describe where it was from, how it was made, who used it and what role in played in everyday life’ (Torres News 2004, 18).

In 2005 Tommy was awarded an honorary doctorate by James Cook University for his contributions to land care, cultural transmission, rock art conservation, and public education. From around 2010, he and his son Thomas George, a former police officer, led the Laura community in a lengthy campaign against the granting of large-scale mining leases that threatened Laura rock art. Following that campaign, the community achieved National Heritage Listing for Quinkan Country in 2018.

Tommy George passed away on 26 July 2016 in Cooktown, several days before his son Thomas. They were buried on the same day in Laura cemetery. Tommy’s wife Laura had died in 2009. Their daughter Roseanne George and grandson Gene Ross joined the board of directors of Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation, maintaining Tommy’s legacy of deep commitment to and engagement with community and Country.

 

Roseanne George is the daughter of Tommy George and Laura Banjo George. She was born on Country in Laura, continues to live there, and is an Elder and native title holder of Kuku-Warra and Kuku Thaypan lands.

Noelene Cole has worked with Roseanne George and other members of the George and Banjo families in cultural heritage recording on Kuku Thaypan and Kuku-Warra lands for many years. She now lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands in Canberra.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Cole, Noelene. ‘Battle Camp to Boralga: A Local Study of Colonial War on Cape York Peninsula, 1873–1894.’ Aboriginal History 28 (2004): 156–89
  • Cole, Noelene, and Alice Buhrich. ‘Endangered Rock Art: Forty Years of Cultural Heritage Management in the Quinkan Region, Cape York Peninsula.’ Australian Archaeology 75 (2012): 66–77
  • George, Tommy. Interview by the author, 2005. Transcript
  • George, Tommy, George Musgrave, and the Ang-Gnarra Rangers. Our Country, Our Art, Our Quinkans. Laura, Qld: Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation, 1995
  • May, Dawn. From Bush to Station: Aboriginal Labour in the North Queensland Pastoral Industry 1861–1897. Townsville, Qld: History Department, James Cook University, 1983
  • Musgrave, George. Interview for Laura Community Oral History Project. 1999. Transcription by N. Cole
  • Personal knowledge of IADB subject
  • Queensland. Land Tribunal. Aboriginal Land Claim to Lakefield National Park. Brisbane: The Tribunal, 1996
  • Steffensen, Victor. Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Richmond, Vic.: Hardie Grant, 2020
  • Torres News (Thursday Island). ‘Project Awakens Museum Treasures.’ 1 December 2004, 18

Additional Resources

Citation details

Noelene Cole and Roseanne George, 'George, Tommy (TG) (c. 1928–2016)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/george-tommy-tg-33366/text41688, published online 2024, accessed online 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Tommy George, Australian Museum, Sydney

Tommy George, Australian Museum, Sydney

Photograph by Noelene Cole

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mey Apilkull Wungnarmun
Birth

c. 1928
Agnuwal, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia

Death

26 July, 2016 (aged ~ 88)
Cooktown, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lung)

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.

Occupation
Key Organisations