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Kabirriki, Nipper (c. 1910–1987)

by Robert Levitus

This article was published:

Nipper Kabirriki, west Arnhem escarpment, Badmardi clan territory

Nipper Kabirriki, west Arnhem escarpment, Badmardi clan territory

Photo by George Chaloupka

Nipper Kabirriki (c. 1910–1987), pastoral worker and research collaborator, was born in about 1910 in a rock shelter on the western Arnhem Land plateau, Northern Territory, to Nakulidj and Maggie Mengkawindi. He had a sister, Judy Mendarlman, and a brother (from a different mother), George Mingum. Kabirriki’s language was Kundjeyhmi and his early years were spent moving widely around the Alligator Rivers region. His own country, Badmardi clan territory, was centred on Deaf Adder Gorge in the west Arnhem escarpment. During the group’s seasonal round, he learned place names in the order in which they were visited, as lines of travel. Kabirriki understood that he had ‘to go all around, every place’ (pers. comm.) from wet season rock shelters on the plateau to billabongs and swamp pockets along lowland creeks. He and his brother saw the first feral water buffalo come into their country; his brother speared it and they ate the meat.

When Kabirriki started working for non-Indigenous people, he stopped walking around country. He said that ‘whitefellers quietened people down’ (Kabirriki, pers. comm.) with their new disciplines and routines of employment. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he worked for pastoralists, buffalo shooters, builders, miners, and drovers. He recalled that if a white man told him to do something, he did it well. Kabirriki took pride in not having a ‘bad name’ (pers. comm.) and in being regarded as a reliable worker.

Four major uranium deposits were discovered in the Alligator Rivers region between 1969 and 1973. These discoveries instigated a decade of rapid transformation in the region during which Kabirriki achieved recognition among a new generation of non-Indigenous people as a knowledgeable elder. In 1972 he was recruited as a research collaborator by Johan Kamminga for an archaeological survey carried out as part of an Alligator Rivers environmental fact-finding study. They made two trips into Deaf Adder Gorge, which Kabirriki had not visited for many years. Soon after he identified a location at a billabong outside Deaf Adder for the establishment of an outstation, Kolondjorr, which he subsequently referred to as ‘my station’ (Kabirriki, pers. comm.). He then resumed intermittently living near and visiting his country.

Kabirriki’s status as a knowledgeable elder was enhanced by another research relationship. Soon after the first field trip with Kamminga, he began assisting George Chaloupka, a rock art researcher with the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences. With the anthropologist Ian Keen and three other Aboriginal men (Toby Kangele, Jimmy Madjandi, and George Mingum), Kabirriki and Chaloupka documented clan territories and sites over most of what, in 1979, became the first stage of Kakadu National Park. The research resulted in two reports that formed the basis of the first land claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Later Kabirriki acted as a source of information in the Alligator Rivers Stage II land claim (1979–81). In 1981 he accompanied Rhys Jones’s archaeological team when it excavated and surveyed several Kakadu sites. In all these projects he provided names and attributed significance to country, places, and paintings.

On such field trips Kabirriki gave information willingly and abundantly. In part this was knowledge he had retained from his early years of bush living: ‘I know all the story and law from when I was kid. My father and grandfather tell me. I remember any story’ (Kabirriki, pers. comm.). He presented a geography of traditional ownership, indexing place names against patrimoiety, clan, language group, or individuals. If an area had no surviving traditional owners, he might designate a proper successor. He encouraged the dissemination of stories about places as a way of discharging his responsibilities of custodianship, expecting that park rangers and traditional owners would take proper care of Kakadu.

Alongside research documentation projects, Kabirriki willingly presented a traditional cultural persona for popular consumption. He was one of four senior men recruited to show aspects of Aboriginal culture for Stanley Breeden and Belinda Wright’s 1989 book Kakadu: Looking after the Country—the Gagudju Way. A photograph of him adorns the book’s front cover: posed in a bush setting, he sits on a rock, wearing only shorts and a headband, spear over his shoulder, gazing confidently at the camera. He also featured on the front cover of Josephine Flood’s Archaeology of the Dreamtime (1983), sitting naked on a rock ledge.

The contributions of other Aboriginal elders notwithstanding, Kabirriki had a strongly individualistic sense of the importance of his record of fieldwork. The energy he devoted to working with non-Indigenous researchers, and the kudos he claimed from such research, demonstrated his sense of what was to be gained. He understood that, in the era of land rights, knowledge and stories were the basis of personal standing and authority, a potential that could be realised when one had someone to ‘book it down’: ‘George Chaloupka, Ian Keen, Chris Haynes, Rhys Jones, Ian Morris … they got all my word, all my story. They got it in their book. No-one can cheat me now. I gotta win’ (Kabirriki, pers. comm.). His information became an important element in the legal, political, and cultural transformation of the Kakadu area. It facilitated the recognition of Aboriginal land-ownership, inscribed Aboriginal interests into the management plans of the national park, and offered visitors and residents an appreciation of a previously overlooked dimension of the region’s values. For over a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, the partnership between Kabirriki and Chaloupka was probably the most important single conduit for lodging the cultural significance of the Kakadu landscape in the archive and representing it in the public domain.

Kabirriki is not known to have married or to have formed any long-term relationships; however, he claimed paternity of a daughter, the result of relationship with another man’s wife. Survived by his daughter, he died on 24 April 1987 at Djuwarr billabong, Deaf Adder Gorge. He had been visited in his last days by a number of friends, and cared for by Chaloupka and his partner Pina Giuliani. In the first customary mortuary practice to be carried out in the region for some years, his body was left on a raised platform in the gorge, and his bones later lodged among the rocks of his Badmardi estate.

 

Robert Levitus interviewed and did field trips with Nipper Kabirriki during the last several years of his life. This article is based on that work and Levitus’s general research in the Kakadu area.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Chaloupka, George. ‘Appendix 1: The Traditional Movement of a Band of Aboriginals in Kakadu.’ In Kakadu National Park: Education Resources, edited by Tony Stokes, 162–71. Canberra: Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, 1981
  • Gabirrigi, Nipper. ‘Back to My Country.’ In Visitors to Aboriginal Sites: Access, Control and Management, edited by Hilary Sullivan, 59. Canberra: Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, 1984
  • Kabirriki, Nipper. Personal communication
  • Levitus, Robert. ‘From Skills to Stories: Land Rights, Life Histories and the Terms of Engagement.’ In Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen, edited by P. G. Toner, 75–99. Acton, ACT: ANU Press, 2015

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Levitus, 'Kabirriki, Nipper (c. 1910–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kabirriki-nipper-30061/text37301, published first in hardcopy 2021, accessed online 22 September 2021.

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Nipper Kabirriki, west Arnhem escarpment, Badmardi clan territory

Nipper Kabirriki, west Arnhem escarpment, Badmardi clan territory

Photo by George Chaloupka