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An era ends with passing of Aboriginal leader Murabuda

OBITUARY  |  John Harris

Thursday 11 February 2016

**Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story contains images of deceased persons. The photo has been used with permission of the family.** 

An era has ended with the passing of a great Aboriginal leader and lifelong Christian, Murabuda Wurramarrba, who died on Groote Eylandt on November 19, 2015. Strong-willed until the very end, he had refused what was, to him, the indignity of kidney dialysis. He would have turned 82 in January.

I mourn his passing. He was my Aboriginal brother and with him dies a little of my own past. But I know he is in the care of our God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he loved and tried to serve all his life, both as a Christian and as a traditional Aboriginal man.

Murabuda’s family, the Wurramarrba clan, brought me back to Groote Eylandt to conduct his funeral. A traditional Christian burial was merged with Aboriginal forms of grieving accompanied by didjeridoo playing and and the ancient rhythms of clapping sticks.

Murabuda’s father, “Old Charlie” Galiawa has become a Groote Eylandt legend. Born in 1890, he had seen and known the Macassans, the fishermen-traders who came annually to the North Australian coasts for hundreds of years before the European discovery of Australia. In 1921, Old Charlie was one of those remarkable Groote Eylandt men who welcomed the first Christian missionaries. He helped to establish the CMS (Church Missionary Society) Mission at Emerald River, the historic place the Groote Eylandters now call “Old Mission”. Old Charlie brought his family to live beside the mission, one of the first Christian families. There at the Emerald River Mission, his son, Murabuda, was born in 1934.

He was a traditional man with a burning passion for assisting his people to cope in a complex world.

Murabuda was a little 6-year-old boy when I was born, one of the lively children in the tiny Emerald River Mission school. As soon as my mother was able to resume teaching the children, I was cared for by Dijidi Wurragwagwa, Old Charlie’s young wife. Every day Dijidi took me to Old Charlie’s camp. There he called me his son and gave me my Aboriginal name. Thus Murabuda became my elder brother.

Murabuda making spears in the men's shed

Murabuda making spears in the men’s shed

When Old Charlie died in 1978, Murabuda became the head of his Wurramarrba clan and one of the senior elders of Groote Eylandt. He was powerful but gentle, a traditional man with a burning passion for assisting his people to cope in a complex world without losing their pride in their Aboriginality, without losing their identity in the land God had given them, the land to which they belonged and in which their identity had its roots.

As a modern leader he was single-handedly responsible for much that is good in his community. He was always willing to accommodate modern changes as long as Aboriginal people’s dignity was respected, as long as they always had an equal place at the negotiating table. When the Gemco mining company (a BHP subsidiary) came to exploit Groote Eylandt’s manganese deposits, Murabuda was always the one they could look to for advice and honest negotiation.

Murabuda believed in direct action. When the young people of Groote Eylandt became addicted to the deadly poison of petrol-sniffing, Murabuda single-handedly broke the fatal cycle, taking the boys away to survive on an isolated island by fishing and hunting.

When the young people of Groote Eylandt became addicted to the deadly poison of petrol-sniffing, Murabuda single-handedly broke the fatal cycle.

In his own old age he helped found Groote Eylandt’s version of a men’s shed where he was still making spears and art until only a few weeks before his death.

A strong father figure who led by example, Murabuda raised his children to be like him. An exceptional Groote Eylandt family, they have followed his example of personal integrity and public service. Murabuda’s eldest son Tony Wurramarrba is chairman of the Groote Eylandt Land Council. Tony accompanied Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce on an overseas tour of Indigenous communities including Native Canadians. He was recently awarded the Order of Australia.

Murabuda never lost the Christian faith of his childhood at the mission. He read the Bible and applied its teachings to his life.The sad reality, however, is that the institutional church did not always understand Murabuda.

Murabuda and several other strong, talented and dedicated young Groote Eylandt men reached young manhood in the 1950s.

The church should have nurtured them, encouraged their leadership potential and ordained them as church leaders. Insightful missionaries proposed that they be trained and ordained. The conservative wider church, however, placed impossible hurdles in their way, insisting on at least seven years of absence from their communities in order to complete high school and theological degrees in Sydney and undertake urban parish experience prior to ordination. So nothing happened.

Then, unfortunately, in the 1950s and ’60s throughout the Northern Territory, Christian Missions accepted government funding to become agents of community development and social change. Christian missions became managers of Aboriginal communities. Mission priorities changed.

It was not that missions departed from the gospel – they did not, but this new and complex responsibility as community managers dissipated the mission energies and clouded their message. The new role changed mission focus and inevitably gave the wrong impression.

A small band of faithful Christians, led mostly by dedicated women, tries to maintain a Christian witness in a community wounded by addiction.

But, as Murabuda himself once said to me, “An Aboriginal man can be a Christian without becoming like a white man. We know what Jesus taught and what things in our culture Jesus would ask us to change. But the Bible does not tell us that Christians must live like white people. Is white culture really the way Jesus asks us to live? I don’t look at white culture and see Jesus there. Aboriginal Christians can make their own choices.”

If Murabuda and the other strong young Christian men of Groote Eylandt had been encouraged in the 1950s and ’60s to nurture and lead a distinctively Aboriginal church, true to the gospel but true also to the way God calls Aboriginal people to live, Groote Eylandt would be a different place today. Instead, his generation found ways to serve outside of the church. An opportunity was lost.

The challenges now are great. A small band of faithful Christians, led mostly by dedicated women, tries to maintain a Christian witness in a community wounded by addiction, violence and the death of too many young people.
Murabuda’s funeral was like a parable of the man himself. Bible readings were in English, Anindilyakwa and Wubuy. We all knew Murabuda was with God and I preached on John 3:16 and the promise of eternal life.

Murabuda’s body was carried in the back of a 4-wheel drive vehicle from the church to the cemetery. As the priest, I walked in front of the vehicle. In front of me, ceremony men walked with clapping sticks and didjeridoo, playing the same didjeridoo which they had played at Gallipoli at the Anzac centenary. Walking through the smoke from the fires lit all along the dusty road, it took us an hour to reach the graveside.

There the coffin passed through the hands of every man before it was received into the hands of six men standing down in the grave itself. Sprinkling earth onto the coffin, I spoke the timeless words in two languages, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

At that moment, Murabuda’s son, Tony Wurramarrba, reached out and dropped his Order of Australia onto his father’s coffin.

“He was the better man,” he said. “He taught me all I know and he deserves it more than I do.”

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