EFAC Australia

Book review: Joy Sandefur
Gumbuli of Ngukurr. Aboriginal elder in Arnhem Land. By Murray Seiffert Australian Christian Book of the year 2012. Published by Acorn press. 414pp. ISBN 9780987132925

I warmly commend this biography of Rev Gumbuli Wurramara, AM, of Ngukurr. I first met Gumbuli in 1976 when I went to live at Ngukurr and work in what was to become the Kriol Bible Translation Project. He has remained a significant figure in my life ever since. I was delighted and surprised when he made the trip to Darwin to present me at my ordination as a priest in 2006.

This warmly written biography gives an insight into his life moving from his childhood on remote islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria to his move to Ngukurr in South East Arnhem Land as a young man, his later significant contribution to the Anglican Church in the Northern Territory and his leadership in the community at Ngukurr.

Have you ever wondered how the gospel came to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory? Why were missions established?  Is it true that the missionaries destroyed the local culture and language? What was the reason for the missions to be handed over to the Government? How did the Indigenous churches and clergy emerge? What are the reasons for today’s high unemployment rates, passive welfare, high death rates and other social problems? This carefully researched biography of Gumbuli Wurramara will give you some insight into these issues as the story unfolds.


It is really two stories closely intertwined. The story of Gumbuli’s life and the story of Ngukurr, a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Murray Seifert has brought these two stories together which is an excellent way of telling both stories, as Gumbuli was a significant leader at Ngukurr both in the church and the community.

The story of the Anglican Aboriginal Churches in the Northern Territory cannot be told without including Gumbuli. He was the first Aboriginal person to be ordained as priest in the NT, and only the 2nd Anglican Aboriginal priest in Australia. Gumbuli was the lay church leader before he was ordained. When Bishop Ken Mason made the courageous move to ordain Gumbuli his choice was strongly supported by the people at Ngukurr, The older church women were keen for Gumbuli to be ordained and had in fact suggested it. The men in the church agreed with them. Each of the eight clans at Ngukurr were consulted and supported his ordination. This set a pattern for future ordinations of Aboriginal men and women. They have always been a recognised church leader, endorsed by both the church and the community. Local people were very proud of his ordination and often referred to him as The Reverend Michael Gumbuli.

Gumbuli became the senior Indigenous priest when three Aboriginal men were ordained for Arnhem Land Churches in 1985. Gumbuli’s ministry included much travel as an evangelist and he was in demand to conduct funerals in a number of communities. Gumbuli was often the one who explained the Aboriginal way of doing things to the bishop and others outside of Arnhem Land. He also explained the wider Anglican Church to Aboriginal people. Gumbuli was a strong supporter of women in leadership in the church and strongly respected the older women who had been the first to suggest that he should be ordained. Later when Aboriginal women were ordained from 2005 onwards, I know that Gumbuli personally endorsed and encouraged several women to be ordained. Gumbuli’s leadership role in the Aboriginal churches of Arnhem Land was a strong one and he was highly respected. He was later made a Canon in the Anglican church of the Northern Territory.

Gumbuli also played a key role in the use of the local language in church. He preached and taught in Kriol. He was a strong supporter of the Kriol Bible Translation project. He selected the first Aboriginal members of the Kriol team and encouraged the translation work. He strongly advocated for Aboriginal partnership in the translation work and insisted that they needed the whole bible Kriol. In 2007 when the Kriol bible was dedicated and presented to the people he was  very proud of what had been achieved and encouraged people to use it. He understood the value of reading the bible and preaching in the language the people spoke.

The story starts at Bickerton Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria and tells the story of the contact with outsiders including Europeans before Gumbuli was born. As a young man Gumbuli moved to the Roper River Mission and the story includes why the Roper River Mission was commenced as a haven of safety in 1908. This community is later called Ngukurr. Many of the issues I mentioned at the start are dealt with as the story is told. He marries Dixie and has a large family. Gumbuli was an important leader in the community. Along with others he was a key member of the group that governed the community store. He was part of the community leadership group as they moved from being a mission under the Church Missionary Society to a to a small isolated town in remote Arnhem Land. Gumbuli supported the idea that the local people should have a say in what happened. In fact a lot of the time the local Anglican Church was the only truly self-governing entity in the community.

He was respected by many at Ngukurr for standing against alcohol being brought into the community.  The community had already experienced what it was like to have alcohol freely available. He was aware of the violence and problems that went with the alcohol and wanted his community spared from the consequences of binge drinking, violence, sleepless nights,and frightened women and children who were unable to sleep because of the noise and fear of the violence.

Gumbuli believed the local people should be trained to hold down local jobs. For many years he was the mechanic and also inspected the dirt airstrip every day to declare it safe to use. He led by example as well as by word.

Along the way we learn about the difficulties for the Ngukurr community in moving from mission to government and why the change occurred and how the government and CMS handled this momentous change. How employment went to Europeans instead of locals leaving many without a job. In the course of the story Murray Seiffert covers a large range of things. He discusses issues such as economics, welfare, polygamy, the Stolen Generation. The many difficulties that the local council faced in trying to function as a local council for the community, their interactions with the government and the challenge for the local council of how to handle the things of concern to the local council.

The book also deals with Aboriginal spirituality and traditional religious ceremonies and practices. How Gumbuli had to think through Christian Spirituality and its interface with traditional ceremonial practices. One example of this is seen in his approach to funerals. He worked hard to find a way to respect traditional local ceremonies and mourning rites and the Christian view.
In 2010  the Reverend Canon Michael Gumbuli was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to the Anglican church, supporter of the production of the Kriol Bible and his role in the Ngukurr community. An honour richly deserved. A remarkable man who had done so much for his people and who had lived through extraordinary changes in the life of people in Arnhem Land and exercised wise leadership. It was a pleasure to be there when he received this award.

The last time I saw Gumbuli was in 2011 when we were both present for the ordination at Ngukurr of Rev Carol and Rev Andrew Robertson as priests licensed to his beloved St Matthew’s Church Ngukurr, 38 years after his own ordination. Much of the service was in Kriol. Readings were from the Kriol bible and it was led by his eldest daughter. He had dreamed of this day for many years.

The book is readable, well researched and informative It gives you a glimpse of what it has been like to live in remote Arnhem Land for the last 80 years. It is an inspiring story of an incredible man, an outstanding leader of the Anglican Church, the Ngukurr community and Arnhem Land. It is worth reading.

The Revd Dr Joy Sandefur worked for 25 years in the north of Australian. 17 years with Wycliffe Bible Translators mainly in the Kriol bible translation program.which now has the whole bible. Later Joy returned to the Norther Territory for seven years with the Bush Church Aid Society as a ministry support worker for Aboriginal churches and various roles at Nungalinya College.