Craig Munro
Under Cover

Black Words, White Page

David Unaipon

Not long after my meeting with the Bicentennial Indigenous director, I went to Adelaide for the 1988 Writers’ Week, where we were launching the hardback edition of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. I also wanted to visit the Ngarrindjeri community at Raukkan, on Lake Alexandrina, near the mouth of the Murray River. I knew how important it would be to consult with David Unaipon’s community and to ask for their permission to name our new award after this pioneering Aboriginal author.

The original Point McLeay Mission had been established at Raukkan in 1859 by the Aborigines’ Friends Association as a refuge for the Ngarrindjeri people of the Lower Lakes and Coorong. However, the land set aside for the mission was not suitable for agriculture, and land clearing by neighbouring farmers severely depleted the hunting and fishing grounds of the Ngarrindjeri. During World War I, the South Australian government took over the mission and ran it as a reserve for sixty years before finally handing it back to the Ngarrindjeri people, who renamed their community ‘Raukkan’ in 1982.

In a rented Toyota Camry, I travelled southeast from Adelaide for a couple of hours to reach the tiny settlement, the last fifty kilometres on powdery gravel roads. My sense of time, and even identity, became strangely disoriented as I drove along the sinuous road through dry, featureless grassland sweeping away to the horizon in every direction. Compared to the city of churches and boulevards I had just left behind, it seemed as remote as the high prairies of Montana. When the lake came into view, it was vast and forbidding, with a raw wind blasting up from the Southern Ocean over the adjacent Coorong — the setting for the film Storm Boy, starring David Gulpilil.

At Raukkan, I met the hospitable Henry and Jean Rankine, my contacts on the community council. Henry and Jean had called the council together in the community’s meeting room, and I spoke of UQP’s vision for the award and outlined the potential benefits for Aboriginal writers and readers. There was discussion about the key provision — guaranteed publication for each year’s winner — and the Elders were unanimous in wanting David Unaipon’s name and his community honoured in this way.

One of nine children of James Ngunaitponi and his wife, Nymbulda, David was born in 1872 at what was then a mission beside the lake. His father had lost an eye in a spear fight on the lower Murray River before converting to Christianity in 1861. James had been one of the first Ngarrindjeri to read and write English, and was instrumental in translating the Gospels into his own language.

David attended the Point McLeay Mission school before working in Adelaide, where his employer encouraged his interest in literature, philosophy, science, and music. Fastidious of speech and an evangelist like his father, David believed in the equivalence of Aboriginal and Christian spirituality, and relished the rich literary style of John Milton and John Bunyan. He was also an inventor. With the help of South Australia’s former Protector of Aborigines, he patented the first modern handpiece for sheep shearing in 1909.

In the mid 1920s, David travelled throughout southern Australia, compiling an extensive volume of Aboriginal legends. These came into the possession of unscrupulous anthropologist William Ramsay Smith, who edited and published them under his own name in 1930 as Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals.

Before leaving the Raukkan community that day, I had my photo taken with Henry and Jean’s extended family, and afterwards threw a football around with one of the boys they’d brought down from a remote northern area of the state where petrol-sniffing was endemic. Henry showed me David Unaipon’s grave, in a cemetery buffeted by the ceaseless wind off the lake. There was no special headstone or memorial — just his name marking the place where his questing spirit had returned to Country. Yet it was very apparent to me that Unaipon’s legacy of cultural achievement had for generations shaped this small, proud community, still clinging tenaciously to the wild southern edge of the continent.