Wangurri clan elder and Uniting Church leader George Dayngumbu died peacefully in his Galiwin’ku home at Elcho Island in Australia’s northeast Arnhem Land in July 2001. An astute village chairperson and head of the Aboriginal Benefits Trust of the early post-Mission period in the 1970s and 1980s, George quietly guided the 1500-strong community of Galiwin’ku through the great transition from bush to settlement dwelling. Aborigines in northeast and central Arnhem Land (the Yolngu) will remember him not just as a kindly grandfather, generous father and brother, or thoughtful son, but as a leader who helped bring to fruition the promise of the 1957 “Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land,” the controversial and well-documented public declaration of sovereignty by Arnhem Land Aborigines.
Dayngumbu was born at Milingimbi in the early 1930s during the chaotic frontier days when pastoralists, miners, and fishermen competed to dispossess the Yolngu of their land and resources. He was the eldest son of the great Wangurri peacemaker Badangga, who, along with Makarrwola and Birindjawuy, subdued the warring clans of central Arnhem Land and brought to an end a period of outrage and terror—of random and sporadic killings.
An attempt by his father to quell the growing self-doubt and lethargy eating away at Aboriginal lives in the early days of the Mission, the Adjustment Movement validated a new and emerging lifestyle for Yolngu that was to be guided by “timeless” principles, both Aboriginal and Christian. At its most basic level, the Adjustment Movement involved the revelation of certain sacred totem poles, or rangga—a beautiful collection of carved and painted wooden posts relating to the Dreamings of all resident clan groups. The movement signaled Aboriginal custodianship of the land and was symbolic of the fact that the many Yolngu clans at Galiwin’ku would learn to live as one group, not forgetting their pasts but acknowledging the relevance of Christianity as a means of uniting—as equals—all peoples, both black and white.
Creating a pan-Yolngu level of membership in such a community required certain adjustments in belief and practices at the clan level. Their unparalleled religious authority allowed leaders of the Adjustment Movement to announce that they had transformed the Yolngu “Genesis”; the ancient Dreaming (traditional Aboriginal religion) now encompassed Biblical teachings. Badangga and the other leaders found a way for Aborigines to live a non-traditional lifestyle away from their homelands—and gave this new direction the blessing of the ancestors.
And it was the leaders of Dayngumbu’s generation who ensured the realization of the movement’s goals. Yolngu were to enjoy the best of both worlds, the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal. They would have their own school, hospital, and library. Their community would have paved roads, electricity, water taps, and a sewage system. By remaining steadfast to the vision of his father and mentors, Dayngumbu was integral in creating the modern township of Galiwin’ku. Nothing happened—no decision of consequence was made—without the imprint of his deliberate hand.
A few years ago, summing up his life’s work and purpose, Dayngumbu said:
The Wangurri are the chosen people. They were chosen by God to meet the missionaries and bring the message of God to the Yolngu. Badangga instructed me to look after all the other clans and not just think about my own. I would share the message. I am putting this into practice. I am building up the land. I am doing it for all the Yolngu. Badangga taught me many things, but he also said that there was a deeper law still but that I would have to find that one for myself. I have. It is Christianity. When we look into the Bible, we see deeper ideas and we feel the power of the word. God is in all things—in our shadow, in the tree, in the car, in the rangga. He makes his shape to fit anything. He says, ‘It’s me and it has always been me.’ Here at Galiwin’ku the people are tired and confused. I want to be able to show them the good that comes out of this belief. v
George Dayngumbu is survived by his wives Guymun, Rarrkminy, and Gantjitjiwuy, and by his 20 children.