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Yoolpee, Moses (c. 1865–1940)

by Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan

This article was published online in 2022

Moses, c. 1920s

Moses, c. 1920s

Photo courtesy Lorraine McKellar

Moses Yoolpee (c. 1865–1940), Karuwali–Mithaka elder and stockman, also known as Moses Mack and Balyah Budgeree, was born at Farrar’s Creek in the Diamantina River region of the Kirrenderri (Channel Country), south-west Queensland, in the mid- to late 1860s, though possibly earlier. His mother died soon after his birth and his father, Moonie Budella, was killed in a fight at the same time; hence Moses was brought up by his mother’s brothers and their wives and received training from tribal elders.

Despite living almost half his life before the turn of the century, nearly all that is known about Moses is drawn from twentieth-century sources. He worked for the family of William and Laura Duncan on their pastoral station, Mooraberrie, during the early decades of the twentieth century and features prominently in the memoirs of their eldest daughter, Alice Duncan (later Duncan-Kemp), who grew up in his care. She wrote several books recalling her childhood on Mooraberrie. Whereas official sources offer a grim accounting of sickness, sexual exploitation, rationing, and removals, Duncan-Kemp’s memoirs testify also to the vigorous cultural life of Aboriginal peoples on and around Mooraberrie into the first decades of the twentieth century.

Moses’s birth coincided with the first permanent white colonisation of the Queensland Channel Country, initiated by John Costello and Patrick Durack and their families in 1868. By 1875 most of the Diamantina channels were leased, and by the early 1880s almost all of the Kirrenderri had been parcelled and claimed for stock. This pastoral invasion disrupted Aboriginal peoples’ access to food and water, introduced them to deadly new diseases, and sparked a period of fierce frontier violence in the region. During this time, massacres of Aboriginal people, perpetrated by white pastoralists and the Native Police, took place across Karuwali and Mithaka lands.

In the late-1870s, amid this violence, disruption, and trauma, Moses, then aged around ten, was taken south by a pastoralist, probably John ‘Jack’ Mack, to his family’s 36,000-acre sheep station, Berry Bank, about 90 miles (150 km) west of Melbourne, Victoria. As was common at the time, he took the family name, becoming Moses Mack. The Mack family educated their sons for periods at Scotch College, Melbourne, and it is possible that Moses also attended the school, although there is no official record of his enrolment. Attendance at the school was certainly part of his later storytelling, recorded by Duncan-Kemp and others. He recalled spending time in Melbourne, where he had a bank account, wrote and cashed cheques, and acquired impressive proficiency in English, speaking it (when he chose to) with a carefully clipped drawing-room accent. An expert linguist and brilliant mimic, he enjoyed quoting scripture, knew some Latin, sang hymns, and relished conversational play.

Moses may have resided at Berry Bank for as long as two decades. He recalled living in Victoria when the Kelly Gang was captured and during the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, indicating that he remained with the Mack family at least until 1887. At some point during the 1890s, he decided to return to his Country. He made the nearly one-thousand-mile (1,600 km) journey on foot, perhaps taking months or even years, stopping to work along the way. One elderly female employer in New South Wales was apparently so taken by him that she proposed marriage, an invitation he declined.

By the late 1890s, Moses was back in the heart of the Kirrenderri and by 1902 was working as a gardener on the cattle station Morney Plains and as a stockman at Mooraberrie. The most violent phase of frontier conflict in south-west Queensland had occurred during his absence. By the time of his return, white pastoral ascendancy had been enforced and Aboriginal peoples were being removed by government to missions. But some Mithaka, Karuwali, and other peoples of the Kirrenderri stayed on their Country and maintained a vigorous cultural life by becoming indispensable workers on pastoral stations. Mooraberrie, in particular, became a place of sanctuary for refugees in a landscape of revolution. Since the early 1890s, the management and then ownership of Mooraberrie by William and Laura Duncan had created a rare sympathetic environment for cross-cultural respect and learning.

Moses spent the majority of the next four decades living and working on Kirrenderri cattle stations, especially Mooraberrie, Morney Plains, and Mount Leonard. He also worked for the Birdsville police, likely out of the Betoota station as a tracker or translator (c. 1923—30). Alongside these jobs, he maintained his traditional responsibilities in Aboriginal culture and law. ‘My country, miss,’ he declared to Alice Duncan with a sweeping gesture of his arm, ‘mine’ (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 219). He was a key figure in regional Aboriginal politics and ceremonial life and in relations between Mithaka peoples and local white people. However, his Western education, which granted him some acceptance within settler society, was regarded with suspicion by some of his own people. For example, he had to be careful when visiting the Georgina and Mulligan rivers where his closeness with white people was fiercely resented.

When out on Country, mustering, or looking after the Duncan children, Moses would check fish and game traps and attend to ritual responsibilities, which he described as paying ‘our respects to our Dreamtime people’ (Duncan-Kemp 1968, 272). He spoke practically every dialect from Farrar’s Creek to the Mulligan River, could lip-read at a distance, and was a popular campfire storyteller. A leader of trading parties to distant places, including to Bunya festivals a thousand kilometres to the east (a role inherited from his grandfather, Moogie Wahn), he also shepherded Mooraberrie through the dangerous politics of the Kooroongoora, a cultural revival and resistance movement that swept through Aboriginal communities of the region in 1912–18. Duncan-Kemp recalled: ‘We came to regard Moses as something of an oracle and he certainly regarded himself as such’ (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 221).

For Moses, the education of the Duncan girls—Alice (b. 1901), Laura (b. 1903), and Beatrice (b. 1904)—was a sacred charge, especially after the death of their father, William Duncan, in 1907. He became a devoted guide, teacher, and protector of the white children, sometimes accompanying them for weeks on mustering trips where they camped under the stars and learned the mythology of ‘the Sky Country’ (Duncan-Kemp 1949). As well as teaching them bush lore and bushcraft, he admonished them to behave properly according to both European and Aboriginal conventions, either chiding them with the words, ‘It is not done at Uppingham, miss’ (referring to an influential English public school) (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 219), or responding to their undesirable behaviour with stony silence. He taught the young women to ride, fish, shoot, hunt using a throwing stick, and muster, but expected them to be ladylike about it.

A skilled worker in wood and stone, Moses carried his tools of bone, stone, wood, gum, sinew, and string in ‘a neat cigar-shaped wallet called a bahn-bu tucked in his hair belt’ (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 223). Also tucked in his belt was a stout throwing stick, and he wore another bark wallet under his armpit. He lived in a gunyah in the Aboriginal camp on the creek near the Mooraberrie homestead. His wife Maggie Muttamurrie was a domestic servant and stock person who guarded the Duncan sisters ‘closer than a guide dog’ (Duncan-Kemp 1968, x). She died at Betoota in 1923 aged about fifty-one, and Moses lived with Bental (‘Pinto’) from about 1925 until her death at Morney Plains in 1939.

In 1925 Moses was described by a traveller as being ‘as thin as a broomstick’ (Narracoorte Herald 1925, 1). He had deep-set eyes, a heavy brow, and a stern expression, largely due to pitting and scars left by a burning accident. Under his chin was a greying tuft of hair and his mouth was twisted from a scar caused by a spear wound. He possessed a golden voice and his work around the homestead was often ‘threaded with song’ (Duncan-Kemp 2005, 85). His smile was good-humoured. To Duncan-Kemp he ‘seemed ageless’ (Duncan-Kemp 2005, 265).

Moses never relinquished his authority or pride in his own world and was sometimes guarded when it came to discussing ritual and belief with the Duncan children. He explicitly rejected the supposed superiority of European civilisation and education, telling one stockman courteously: ‘We do not want your civilisation, we have a very ancient culture of our own’ (Duncan-Kemp 1968, 281). Towards the end of his life he declined to speak English, perhaps as a silent protest against the tragedy that had overwhelmed his people in his lifetime.

Some confusion exists regarding Moses’s death and burial. Duncan-Kemp and her descendants believed that he died on his own Country and was buried there in a bark shroud with his wallet of tools and a half-finished ‘tjuringa’ (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 22) or sacred object he had been fashioning. However, official sources indicate that Moses Mack died of pancreatic cancer at Longreach Hospital on 13 July 1940, aged about seventy. He was buried at Longreach cemetery. It is not known whether he fathered any children. Moses Cone in the Diamantina National Park is said to be named for him. Mithaka knowledge taught to Duncan-Kemp by Moses, his tribal sister Mary Ann Coomindah, and others proved significant in the 2015 native title determination for the Mithaka people.

 

Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan consulted Mithaka descendants in researching and writing this article. Tom Griffiths is of Welsh and Cornish descent and was born on Woiwurrung Country. Jayne Regan is of Irish descent and was born on Dharawal Country.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Chronicle (Adelaide). ‘Real Life Stories of South Australia.’ 17 June 1937, 16
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Letters to Dr L. P. Winterbotham, 7 August 1948 and 4 February 1949. Correspondence between Alice Duncan-Kemp and the curator of anthropology at the University of Queensland, Dr L. P. Winterbotham, OMFR, Anthropological Society of Queensland. Boxes 2873–82, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Our Channel Country: Man and Nature in South-West Queensland. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Where Strange Gods Call. Brisbane: W. R. Smith & Paterson, 1968
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. People of the Grey Wind: Life with a Stone Age People. Oakey, Qld: D. S. Duncan-Kemp, 2005
  • Duncan-Kemp, Dawn. Those Bloody Duncans: A History of Mooraberrie, 1860–1998. Brisbane: Boolarong Press, 2020
  • Griffiths, Tom. ‘Alice Duncan-Kemp (Pinningarra) and the History of the Frontier.’ In Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve, edited by Libby Robin, Chris Dickman, and Mandy Martin, 24–43. Collingwood, Vic.: CSIRO Publishing, 2010
  • Narracoorte Herald (South Australia). ‘A Trip by Motor Car into the Interior of Australia.’ 19 May 1925, 1
  • Steinhauer, Yvette. ‘A.M. Duncan-Kemp: Her Life and Work.’ Journal of Australian Studies 25, no. 67 (2001): 37–43
  • Watson, Pamela Lukin. Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends: How Pastoralists Gained Karuwali Lands. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan, 'Yoolpee, Moses (c. 1865–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yoolpee-moses-31849/text39318, published online 2022, accessed online 9 February 2023.

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