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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.

David Burrumarra (1917–1994)

by Don Williams

On 13 October 1994, David Burrumarra died at Elcho Island in the Northern Territory. He was a leader whose life and work have had a marked impact on the history of Arnhem Land.

Burrumarra was the senior teaching assistant in the Elcho Island school when I became a teacher there in 1960. He believed in education. The fact that the school had an almost 100 per cent attendance record is testimony to the effectiveness of his liaison with the old and young in his community. But it was a particular kind of education that he wanted. Through education, he saw a means for fulfilling his deep commitment to the development of bilingualism and biculturalism, not only for his own people but also for the whole of Australia. He expected teachers like myself to be learners and he had a profound impact on my own development. This was the Burrumarra I remember—an educator, philosopher and friend. He struggled with the religious, social and political issues confronting his people, and sought to show the way into the future.

Born into the Warramirri clan, Burrumarra received a traditional education. He loved his own country in the English Company Islands and deeply valued its religious significance. The sea and its marine life were sacred, especially the whale and the octopus which were his madayin. Before his death, he was keen to ensure that his sons would be custodians of this heritage. The 'law' was important to him. His knowledge and status were respected by clan leaders, who often conferred with him in the mala (clan) leaders' group that he established. He was pedantic at times, but always knowledgeable. Professors and scholars from several disciplines sought his advice about Aboriginal society and culture during field research in Arnhem Land. The late Ron and Catherine Berndt spent many a long hour with him. From 1974 to 1976 he was a member of the Council of the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and also a member of its Aboriginal Advisory Council from 1975 to 1979. He made several visits to Canberra for meetings.

Burrumarra was also educated in Anglo-Australian language and culture. He initially learnt from missionaries at Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Galiwinku, and later from contact with a wider range of people. For a time he conducted his own school for Aboriginal children and worked alongside other teachers. His spectacles, typewriter and sheaf of papers were symbols of his learning. The greatest symbol came in the form of an MBE, in recognition of his long and distinguished contribution to education.

Not all of Burrumarra's contact with the wider world was pleasant. He knew something of the atrocity of war, as he helped supervise the building of the airstrip at Gove and assisted the navy. He saw the devastating effects of disease, alcohol, gambling, and mining exploitation. Notwithstanding the problems, he saw the possibilities and advocated the economic development of Arnhem Land on terms and conditions that were favourable to his people. He dreamt of a unified Australia and advocated the design of a flag which represented Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal traditions.

In 1957 he and some other clan leaders established a monument at Elcho Island which symbolised the changing world. Several sacred poles (madayin) were brought out into the open and erected along with the Christian symbol of the cross. The monument was an expression of his life experience and meant so much to him.

Burrumarra was an Aboriginal Australian who had a dream for a unified Australian nation in which his Aboriginal heritage had pride of place.

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Citation details

Don Williams, 'Burrumarra, David (1917–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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