Reading 8B: David Unaipon

David Unaipon 1872-1967

David Unaipon was a gifted Ngarrindjeri man born at the Point McLeay (Raukkan) /lission, SA. He attended the mission school until 1885, then worked as a servant for -r-er family that encouraged his interest in philosophy, science and music, returning to the mission in 1890, where he continued to read widely, practise music and learn practical skills for employment. He married in 1902.

Unaipon was known as 'Australia's Leonardo' because of his intellectual capacity and inventions, which included a modified handpiece for shearing and nine other patents. Becoming a prominent Aboriginal voice in state and Commonwealth politics, he appeared as his people's spokesperson before government commissions and inquiries into the treatment of Aborigines, arguing throughout his life that Aboriginal people should be extended the benefits of education and Christianity.

From the early 1920s, Unaipon studied western mythology and began to compile his own people's myths and legends. He wrote for the Sydney Daily Telegraph from 1924 and, with the assistance of the Aborigines' Friends Association, began publishing his collected myths from 1927. His Native Legends (1929) is considered to be the first book authored by an Aboriginal person. Without Unaipon's permission, publisher Angus & Robertson onsold the copyright to his stories to William Ramsay Smith, who published Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines in London without acknowledging their original author.

Unaipon continued to travel widely, speaking and lecturing in schools and churches on traditional Aboriginal legends and contemporary Aboriginal affairs. He received a Coronation medal in 1953. Returning to Point McLeay Mission, he worked on inventions and his lifelong quest for the key to perpetual motion.

Since 1988, the David UnaiponAward, an annual literary competition, has honoured his memory with a prize for an unpublished manuscript by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander author. Unaipon's portrait appeared on the Australian $50 note in 1995. His manuscript of Aboriginal legends was edited and published as Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines (2001), adopting his original title and finally acknowledging his authorship.

Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literautre
Edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter
Allen and Unwin, 2008


Aborigines, Their Traditions and Customs: Where Did They Come From?

[ .... ] Since coming to Australia thousands of years ago, there has been probably little or no change in the habits and the customs of my people. They have kept the balance of Nature; for centuries they have neither advanced nor retrogressed. Our tribal laws and customs are fixed and unchangeable. Generation after generation has gone through the same rigid tribal training.

Every race has had its great traditional leader and law-giver who has given the race its first moral training, as well as its social and tribal customs. Narroondarie was our great traditional leader. The laws of Narroondarie are taught to the children in their infancy. The hunting-grounds were given out to the different families and tribes by Narroondarie. The boundaries of the tribal hunting-grounds have been kept the same from remotest time. Whilst the children of the tribes are hearing from their elders all the traditions and legends of our race, they are learning all the knowledge and skill of bush craft and hunting, as well as undergoing the three great tests or initiations, to Kornmund (full manhood) and Meemund (full womanhood), which is generally completed at the age of eighteen.

The first test is to overcome the appetite, by doing a two-day walk or hunt without food, and then to be brought suddenly before a fire, on which is cooking some choice kangaroo steak or other native delicacy. The next test is to overcome pain. The young boys and girls submit to having their noses pierced, their bodies marked, and to lying down upon hot embers, thinly covered with boughs. The third test is to overcome fear. The young people are told fearful and hair-raising stories about ghosts and the Muldarpi (Evil Spirit or devil devil). After all this, they are put to sleep in a lonely place or near the burial places of the tribe. During the night the elders, made hideous with white clay and bark head-dresses, appear, making weird noises. Those who show no signs of having had a disturbed night are then admitted as fully initiated members of the tribe.

No youth or maiden is allowed to marry until he, or she, has passed through these tests. The marriage is talked over first by all the old members of the tribe, and it is always the uncle of the young man who finally selects the wife. The uncle on the mother's side is the most important relative. The actual marriage ceremony takes place during the time of festivals. The husband does not look or speak at his mother-in-law, although he is husband in name to all his sisters-in law. Under native conditions, the sex-laws are very strict.

A fully developed Aboriginal has, in his own way, a vast amount of know ledge. Although it may not be strictly scientific learning, still it is a very exact knowledge, and his powers of physical observation are developed to the utmost. For instance, an Aboriginal living under primitive life knows the habits and the anatomy and the haunts of every animal in the bush. He knows all the birds, their habits, and even their love, or mating, notes. He knows the approach of the different seasons of the year from various signs, as well as from the positions of the stars in the heavens. He has developed the art of tracking the human footprint to the highest degree. There is a whole science in footprints. Footprints are the same evidence to a bush native as fingerprints are in a court of law.

He knows the track of every individual member of the tribe. There is as much difference and individuality in footprints as in fingerprints. Of course, it will be readily understood that the Aboriginal language and customs vary a great deal according to the nature of the country the tribes are living in, although there is a great common understanding running through us all. Our legends and traditions are all the same tales, or myths, told slightly differently, with local colouring, etc. [ ... ] There is not the slightest hint in any of our traditions that there were any other previous inhabitants in Australia.

The greatest time of the year, to my people, is the Par bar rarrie (springtime). It is then that all the great traditional corroborees take place. All our sacred traditions are then chanted and told.

All the stars and constellations in the heavens, the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Orion's Belt, the Magellan Cloud, ete., have a meaning. There are legends connected with them all. We call the heavens the Wyerriewarr and the ruler of the heavens Nebalee.

From time immemorial we have understood the subtle art of hypnotic suggestion. Our medicine men (the Mooncumbulli) have used charms, etc. to drive out pain.

It will be seen from the foregoing account, and from other sources, that my race, living under native and tribal conditions, has a very strict and efficacious code of laws that keeps the race pure. It is only when the Aborigines come in contact with white civilisation that they leave their tribal laws, and take nothing in place of these old and well-established customs. It is then that disease and deterioration set in.



Voice of the Great Spirit

It is interesting to learn how all races of men have wrestled with the problem of good and evil. The Australian Aborigines have a greater and deeper sense of morality and religion than is generally known. From a very early age the mothers and the old men of the tribe instruct the children by means of tales and stories. This is one of the many stories that is handed down from generation to generation by my people.

In the beginning, the Great Spirit spoke directly everyday to his people. The tribes could not see the Great Spirit but they could hear his voice, and they assembled early every morning to hear him. Gradually, however, the tribes grew weary of listening to the Great Spirit and they said one to the other: 'Oh, 1 am tired of this listening to a voice 1 cannot see; so let us go and enjoy ourselves by making our own corroborees.'

The Great Spirit was grieved when he heard this, and as the tribes did not assemble to hear him but went and enjoyed themselves at the corroborees, the Great Spirit said: 'I must give the people a sign that they will understand.'

He sent his servant Narroondarie to call all the tribes together again once more. Narroondarie did so, saying: 'The Great Spirit will not speak again to you but he wishes to give you a sign.'

All the tribes came to the meeting. When every one was seated on the ground, Narroondarie asked them all to be very silent. Suddenly a terrific rending noise was heard. Now, Narroondarie had so placed all the tribes that the meeting was being held around a large gum tree. The tribes looked and saw this huge tree being slowly split open by some invisible force. Also, down out of the sky came an enormous Thalung (tongue), which disappeared into the middle of the gum tree, and the tree closed up again.

After this wonderful performance N arroondarie said to the tribes: 'You may go away now to your hunting and corroborees.'

Away went the tribes to enjoy themselves. After a long time some of them began to grow weary of pleasure and longed to hear again the Great Spirit. They asked Narroondarie if he would call upon the Great Spirit to speak to them again.

Narroondarie answered: 'No, the Great Spirit will never speak to you again.'

The tribes went to the sacred burial grounds to ask the dead to help them but the dead did not answer. Then they asked the great Naboolea [ ... ], who lives in the Milky Way, if he would help them but still there was no answer and the tribes at last cried aloud with sorrow and regret. They cut their bodies with sharp stones and painted themselves white. They began to fear that they would never get in touch again with the Great Spirit.

The tribes finally appealed to Wy young gurrie, the wise old blackfellow who lives in the South Cross. He told them to gather about the big gum tree again.When all were there,Wy young gurrie asked: 'Did you not see theThalung go into this tree?'

'Yes,' answered the tribes. 'Well,' said Wy young gurrie, 'take that as a sign that the Thalung of the Great Spirit is in all things.'

Thus it is today that the Aborigines know that the Great Spirit is in all things and speaks through every form of Nature. Thalung speaks through the voice of the wind; he rides on the storm; he speaks out from the thunder. Thalung is everywhere, and manifests through the colour of the bush, the birds, the flowers, the fish, the streams; in fact, everything that the Aboriginal sees, hears, tastes, and feels-there is Thalung.