DEBATES – Tuesday 22 November 2016
Mr GUNNER (Chief Minister): Mr Deputy Speaker, tonight I would like to solemnly speak on the passing of a great Territorian, and Aboriginal man of high degree, Dr Gawirrin Gumana AO, who passed away at his homeland Gangan in North East Arnhem Land last Saturday 19 November.
Dr Gumana was a truly inspiring man, whose life history traverses a huge period of change for the Yolngu of East Arnhem Land. Born around 1930, his early childhood coincided with that period of our history marked by his kin assuming their right as traditional owners of land and seas and dealing with newcomers who came to occupy that same space and take resources from Yolngu lands and seas.
He was old enough to know the long history of negotiated exchange with the Makassar traders. He also lived at a time referred to by journalists in Darwin at the time as the period of the black wars of Arnhem Land – the time of a number of violent incidents involving Japanese and Europeans violating Aboriginal law and taking fish and trepang from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
It was also a time of other outrages, including his recollection of a historical massacre of up to 30 of his people around Gangan – his homeland.
Like many people in Arnhem Land at the time, Dr Gumana contracted Hansen’s Disease and as a teenager was sent to the Channel Island Leprosarium for treatment. While this institution has its own dark history, it is also a place where Dr Gumana learnt English and came to understand the things that are important to others, non-Indigenous people. It was here at Channel Island that Dr Gumana also met and married his wife and became interested in Christian beliefs. After nine years at Channel Island he returned to his homeland and lived a life of moral guidance and leadership for his family and wider Yolngu families.
He was a key participant in many moments in our history. In 1963 he was a signatory for the famous Yirrkala bark petitions that lead over time to recognition of Aboriginal land and sea rights. In 1968 his cross-cultural skills led him to be a key interpreter and advisor assisting the Supreme Court in considering the history-making land claims of the Yolngu people. In 1988 he was a contributing artist to the Barunga statement or treaty, presented to Prime Minister Hawke.
Most recently, he was a key witness in the Federal Court consideration of Aboriginal land rights to the inter-tidal zone – the Blue Mud Bay decision.
All these events were key moments in time when Yolngu people sought to help others understand their history and values, and to present a way forward in recognising Aboriginal land and seas rights, their moral and legal obligations as stewards of their ancestral lands.
Dr Gumana was also an accomplished master artist, contributing to the famous Yirrkala church panels awarded the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander award in 2002 and with his work represented in the Australian National Gallery and many other eminent collections here and overseas.
In 1992 he took his participation in the church to a new level, becoming ordained as a minister of the Uniting church. In 2003 his life work was recognised with the award of the Order of Australia. In 2007 he was an awarded an honorary doctorate from the Charles Darwin University in recognition of his scholarly contribution to the Northern Territory community.
While Dr Gumana lived in some violent times, he was a man of peace, goodwill and persuasion. As his friend and work colleague Will Stubbs has said, he unfailingly resisted bullies, but never became one.
A special and lasting legacy will be his lifelong advocacy for homelands living: Yolngu staying on country to fulfil obligations to their land and seas, and to ensure continuity of knowledge and culture among their families. In 2009 he was a strong and loud voice for that movement, publishing a profound statement of the rights of the Yolngu to stay connected to their country.
Dr Gumana was a great Territorian, and I place on the record my respect for him as a man and leader of his Yolngu families. He made a huge contribution to cross cultural understanding and recognition of Yolngu history, values and culture. He was a treasure and I express my deep condolences to his grieving family, friends and Yolngu more generally.
To conclude, I would like to record his own words from his 2009 homelands statement:
I am an Aboriginal from mud, red mud. I am black, I am red, I am yellow. I will not take my people from here to be in other places.
He stayed true to his word to the end.