Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Maurice Jupurrurla Luther (c. 1945–1985)

by David Nash

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Maurice Luther, by Barbara Spencer, 1983

Maurice Luther, by Barbara Spencer, 1983

Aboriginal Cultural Foundation

Maurice Jupurrurla Luther (c. 1945–1985), schoolteacher and Warlpiri community leader, was born into the Warnayaka group in the early to mid-1940s on Warlpiri country in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territory, son of Yirdiparnta Napaljarri, later known as May, and her husband Jajirdi Jakamarra. His skin name was Jupurrurla. Among his siblings were Teddy (Morrison) Jupurrula, Molly Napurrula, and Daisy. He related that when he was around eight years old his family travelled west to The Granites mining area, where he encountered kardiya (white people) for the first time. Luther recalled being frightened: ‘I thought their skin was turned inside out!’ (1984, 11). From there, the family walked to Yuendumu Native Settlement, where his father died. His mother’s second husband, Jumbo (Sambo) Jakamarra, later known as Sambo No. 1, was employed by Frank McGarry at The Granites, so the family returned there, only to be moved back to Yuendumu by the Native Affairs Branch in around 1953. ‘We walked back from Yuendumu three times—my family were taken back to Yuendumu … We walked back to Granites and then taken back on a truck’ (Luther 1984, 11).

At Yuendumu Maurice attended school, learning to read and write in English and receiving Christian religious instruction from the resident missionary, Rev. Tom Fleming. His schooling ceased in 1958 when he was in a group taken north to Hooker Creek Native Settlement. He went through tribal initiation the next year. Recognising this as an important part of his education, he stated: ‘In that time I not only learned the white man’s way, but I also learned my corroborees. I got to know that point of my life, my religion, my dances and my songs’ (Luther 1984, 13). After working for a couple of years on cattle stations and droving, he performed various jobs at the settlement during 1961 and 1962, in the garage, carpentry shop, and office, and as a handyman. The superintendent used to:

Line up the people in the morning, like in an army camp … We were nothing to him, we just had to obey. We were just like toy soldiers on a table he could play around with … But still, all this rough treatment was education for me. I saw it and I learned from it, the white man’s way! (Luther 1984, 12—13)

 In 1963 Maurice helped to open a kiosk and participated in the formation of the community’s cooperative store. That year he was one of twenty Aboriginal people from across the Northern Territory selected for six weeks intensive teacher training in Darwin. For the next thirteen years he worked as a teaching assistant at the Hooker Creek school. By 1968 he had a wife, Agnes Napanangka Donelly, and had adopted Luther as his surname in admiration of the African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior. He later took a second wife, Maureen Napanangka, who predeceased him.

Luther’s interest in bilingual literacy and bilingual education extended to religious instruction. He had been baptised on 1 October 1964 by Rev. Jim Kime who, with Luther, composed the first Warlpiri hymn for the occasion. Later he worked with the linguist Lothar Jagst to translate the Bible into Warlpiri, with Jagst and Paddy Patrick Jangala to devise a practical orthography for Warlpiri, and with Jerry Jangala to dictate the Warlpiri text for eight school readers. When bilingual education was introduced by the Whitlam government in the early 1970s, Luther was its mainstay at the Hooker Creek school. The first ‘Christian corroboree’ took place at the community in late 1977. Around this time Luther depicted the Easter story in Warlpiri motifs on a shield. Jagst had died suddenly in 1976 and, having worked closely with him, Luther felt the loss keenly. In this period his church involvement waned; by the late 1970s he no longer attended church, but he was not antagonistic to its activities. One morning in about 1983 he translated Chapter Five of the Gospel of St Mark into Warlpiri.

In 1961 Luther had joined the village council. He remained involved in local politics throughout the next two decades, and increasingly became involved in national affairs as well. In 1970 he was one of twelve men on Hooker Creek’s first elected council. He became community advisor in 1973 and, from 1974 to 1979, executive officer. Visiting representatives of government or other bodies would call on him at the council office on arrival at Hooker Creek, as would locals who wanted something approved or advice or mediation. He had been sworn in as a justice of the peace in 1975. The next year he was one of four people appointed to the Hiatt committee of inquiry into the role of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, as tensions rose between its elected Indigenous members (who wanted policy-making powers) and the government (which considered it just an advisory body). The inquiry held public meetings in all States from May to July and resulted in the NACC being replaced by the National Aboriginal Conference, which ultimately faced the same challenges. Luther was awarded the Queen’s silver jubilee medal in 1977 and was appointed MBE the following year.

On 16 August 1975 Luther had been among the contingent of Warlpiri that witnessed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam hand the Daguragu (Wattie Creek) pastoral lease to the Gurindji. The Gurindji are the traditional owners of Hooker Creek and Luther played a key role in negotiations that allowed the Warlpiri to continue to reside there. He was also instrumental in the decision to change the community’s name to Lajamanu, derived from a local Gurindji place name. At a land claim hearing in 1978 he gave evidence that resulted in his patrilineal group being recognised as the traditional owners of land south-east of Lajamanu belonging to Janganpa Jukurrpa (Possum Dreaming). A later hearing of an adjacent claim found Luther to be a traditional owner of Malikijarra Jukurrpa (Two Dogs Dreaming). An original member of the Karlantijpa Aboriginal Land Trusts, he was also foundation chairman of the Lajamanu Aboriginal Land Trust formed in 1980. He was appointed town clerk of the newly formed Lajamanu Community Government Council that year.

A strong promoter of Warlpiri culture and traditions, Luther was central in the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation from the late 1970s, and was one of six appointments to the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board in 1981. He saw himself as a ‘tool to keep our culture strong’ and that is why he had learned Western ways. He explained:

I have to continue to deserve the trust which the old men have placed in me, by ceremonial means, and I also have to keep the young people from moving too far towards white men’s ways—because they must always remain Walpiri tribes—people, keeping themselves strong with traditional ceremony. (quoted in Bennett c. 1981, n.p.)

That July he led a contingent of twelve Warlpiri men from Lajamanu on a tour of the United States of America. The group performed dances in Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco. They were urged to continue their tour but by then were ready to return home. In 1983 he and eleven other Lajamanu men visited Paris with a north-east Arnhem Land group. At the Festival d’Automne à Paris, the Warlpiri men spent several days creating Rock Python Dreaming at Jurntu, a red ochre and white sand painting on the ground, to wide acclaim. A bilingual (French/English) catalogue included a manifesto that explained:

We did not do this … to seek out praise, or honour. We only want the world to accept and respect our culture … We do not want to be venerated as ‘special.’ We just want to be recognised as part of the human race, with our own traditions which we maintain, as we always have … We do not need museums or books to remind us of our traditions. We are forever renewing and recreating those traditions in our ceremonies. (quoted in Johnson c. 1994, 36)

In managing community affairs, Luther strove to balance the requirements of elders and traditional law, the changing modes of younger Warlpiri, the wider Australian society, and the nation state. During the early 1980s he and other traditional owners formed a complex and lucrative agreement with North Flinders Mines Ltd about mining at The Granites. A product of the agreement was the Janganpa Aboriginal Association, the first association formed in the Central Land Council area for the specific purpose of managing royalty income.

A big man physically and socially, with tousled hair and a broad smile, Luther was quietly spoken, patient, and usually gentle. By 1985 he had heart disease, diabetes, and kidney failure. Medical advice counselled a better diet, which was next to impossible at Lajamanu, though in his last weeks the shopkeepers provided him with specially cooked meals. Survived by Agnes and their children Alison Nakamarra Luther (b. 1972) and Dane Jakamarra (b. 1983), and adopted daughter Sophia Nakamarra Donnelly, he died at his Lajamanu residence on 28 September 1985. A large funeral, attended by hundreds of mourners locally and from across the Northern Territory, was held at Lajamanu, and he was buried in Warlpiri country at Jilpirli in an unmarked grave next to Lothar Jagst. He is remembered as a community spokesman ‘who could see things … before they happened, before others did. A big man in many ways’ (Dodson pers. comm.). In the early 2000s an area in the centre of Lajamanu was designated Maurice Jupurrurla Luther Park.


David Nash is an Australian whose ancestors arrived in the nineteenth century from England, Scotland, and Ireland. He grew up in Wiradjuri country. He consulted Luther's family, Warlpiri people, and others in preparing this entry.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Bennett, Lance. Aboriginal Artists of Australia Tour of USA July 1981. [Sydney]: Aboriginal Artists Agency, c. 1981
  • Dodson, Patrick. Personal communication
  • Glowczewski, Barbara. Desert Dreamers: With the Warlpiri People of Australia. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016
  • Johnson, Vivien. Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: A Biographical Dictionary. Roseville East, NSW: Craftsman House, c. 1994
  • Luther, Maurice. ‘Maurice Jupurrula Luther.’ In Stories from Lajamanu, 2nd ed., compiled by Northern Territory Department of Education, 11–18. Darwin: NT Department of Education Curriculum & Assessment Branch, 1984

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Nash, 'Luther, Maurice Jupurrurla (c. 1945–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 30 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Maurice Luther, by Barbara Spencer, 1983

Maurice Luther, by Barbara Spencer, 1983

Aboriginal Cultural Foundation

Life Summary [details]


c. 1945
Tanami Desert, Northern Territory, Australia


28 September, 1985 (aged ~ 40)
Lajamanu, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Key Places