Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land
by Murray Seiffert (Acorn Press $45.00)
reviewed by Barry McGaw
At one level, this book is a biography of a remarkable Indigenous Christian leader. It is not a hagiography, in the sense of a biography that idealises or idolises its subjects. We learn of the weaknesses as well as the strengths and of the struggles as well as the successes of Michael Gumbuli Wurramara, who was usually known as Gumbuli.
It is also a rich story of engagement of the Aboriginal community of east Arnhem Land with Europeans, and most particularly Christian missionaries.
It draws on substantial documentary records and interviews but is honest about the strength of evidence on which its interpretations and conclusions are drawn. The word ‘probably’ is used 171 times, excluding its use in quotations of the words of others. ‘Presumably’ is used 28 times and there are other similar forms of expression.
I need to say first something of the perspective from which I come to this book. I am not an historian or an anthropologist. I have not had any involvement with Aboriginal communities or any substantial engagement with Aboriginal leaders other than some in education.
I cannot judge the accuracy of the book or review it in any deep way in the light of other work on the interaction of Aboriginal and European communities or the development and roles of Aboriginal Christians.
What I can do is give a view on how well the book introduces the reader to Gumbuli and the contexts in which he lived and worked. On that count, my view of the book is very positive.
Dr Seiffert’s research in education involved the use of case studies. His biography of Gumbuli illustrates powerfully the value of close investigation of the particular. The general gives us rich understandings of broad trends, general conditions. The particular can offer exceptions that help us see complexities that can be lost in the general. It can give us a more nuanced understanding. Seiffert cites historical research that claims that missionaries thought it best to isolate Aboriginal children from their families but points out that Gumbuli said that he could easily go from the school to the camp and that he spent most late afternoons and evenings with his family.
While avoiding simple dichotomies such as ‘stolen or protected’, Seiffert does not avoid or gloss over the negatives. He reports that Bishop Henry Newton wrote in 1918 that ‘The tendency of the half-caste is to sink to the level of Aborigines,’ and pressed for a separate settlement in which half-caste children could be isolated. He describes as well how the establishment of Roper River Mission was a response to atrocities committed by settlers.
In setting the context of Gumbuli’s early years, Seiffert provides an interesting discussion of the long trading contact of east Arnhem Land with Macassars that shaped their initial contact with Europeans. He provides a good description of life on Groote Eylandt at the time Gumbuli was growing up there, including a very helpful discussion of polygamy.
Seiffert carefully and sensitively handles Gumbuli’s spiritual development, beginning particularly with his relocation to Roper River in 1951 on a holiday but staying on. He was already a Christian but now found a community in which there were many Aboriginal Christians. He was baptised there in 1952 and the next day confirmed by Archbishop Mowll from Sydney who was visiting as President of CMS.
There is a helpful discussion of the significance and meaning of the continuation of Aboriginal ceremonies among Aboriginal Christians. Seiffert writes of finding God-given merit in the old ways, which should not be discarded without good reason.
A pleasant surprise was to learn of the role of Festo Kivengere, evangelist and Bishop from Uganda. I knew of his first visit to Australia when I had just begun at university but did not know that he had spent a year in Australia much of it with CMS missions in Arnhem Land. I did not know of his second visit in 1970, perhaps because I was living in the US at the time, or that Gumbali was one of three Aboriginal Christians who subsequently visited Tanzania.
In the Northern Territory there were delays in any ordination of Aborigines with unreasonable conditions imposed in terms of lengthy trial periods. Gumbuli had recommended local responsibilities and training and mentoring prior to formal training at Nungalinya College. This gave a role to local identification of Christian leaders as part of the process. Change came with the appointment of Ken Mason as Bishop of the Northern Territory and Gumbuli was ordained a priest in 1973 and became Rector of St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Ngukurr (formerly Roper River).
The book details Gumbuli’s ongoing professional development, his work in the church and his involvement with major social changes, including self-determination and a growing role for Aboriginal leadership in the Church. In 2000 he became a Canon of the Cathedral in Darwin. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2010, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia ‘For service to the Anglican Church of Australia through a range of pastoral care and advisory roles, as a supporter of the production of the Kriol Bible, and to the community of Ngukurr.’
Seiffert reminds us that Desmond Tutu said “God did not call me to be a pastor to black people. God called me to be a pastor of [all] his children.” He tells us that Gumbuli said “To minister to people you need to be an ‘in-between’ person, able to bridge two cultures”.
The book is well written and well edited and it is timely. It is certainly informative and it is also uplifting. It is a book in which the author displays a deep respect for his subject, indeed a deep friendship.
Professor Barry McGaw is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. He is a member of St Michael’s Anglican Church, North Carlton.