The first, but not the last: Brian Djangirrawuy Gumbula-Garawirrtja

Professor Brian Gumbula
Professor Gumbula on the beach at Ḻuŋgutja, June 26, 2005. Image credit: Aaron Corn

The world’s first Yolŋu Professor passes away in Arnhem Land, aged 60.

Note: Readers are advised that Professor Gumbula and his family have given permission for his full name and images to be used for professional purposes. With respect to Yolŋu law, however, his Yolŋu given name, Djangirrawuy, should not be spoken for one year following his death.

Brian Djangirrawuy Gumbula-Garawirrtja, Yolŋu leader and academic: born December 26, 1962; died September 20, 2023.

Professor Gumbula passed away peacefully at home in Yirrkala, surrounded by his loving family, on September 20, 2023. That same week, eight of his colleagues from the University of Melbourne, including Associate Provost Professor Marcia Langton AO and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Indigenous) Professor Barry Judd, made the long and sad journey with me to Yirrkala to pay him our final respects.

Professor Gumbula joined the University of Melbourne as a Fellow of the Indigenous Knowledge Institute in May 2022 after a long, competitive selection process, culminating in a meeting of the University Appointments and Promotions Committee. That meeting ratified that his rare expertise as a fully trained and experienced Yolŋu ceremonial leader was appropriate to an appointment as a full Professor, the university’s highest academic rank.

Professor Gumbula was a fully trained Yolŋu leader and a key Indigenous knowledge holder from North-east Arnhem Land who wielded extraordinary prowess over the ceremonial performance and direction of his hereditary songs, dances, and designs. He was a caring and generous teacher, who was selected by his elders to become a Yolŋu leader due to his humility and respectfulness, as well as his immense intelligence and aptitude. These were all attributes he had performed admirably in the decade he served the Galiwin’ku community in the Northern Territory Police Force. After retiring in 1996 as a Constable First Class with a commendation for bravery, he was admitted to the Liya-ŋärra’mirri (Wise) and Dalkarramirri (Powerful) rank of Yolŋu ceremonial leaders in 1997.

By 2015, Professor Gumbula was a Dilak (Leader) of the Gupapuyŋu clan alliance, the most senior ceremonial leader of the coastal Birrkili clan within that alliance, and a senior Djuŋgayi (Manager) of regional Gunapipi ceremonies. He was also a leading singer of the Yolŋu manikay tradition of public ceremonial song. I first worked with him in 2005, when we made archival recordings of his various Birrkili Gupapuyŋu manikay series for the coastal homelands of Nikawu, Gitan, Naŋinyburra and Luŋgutja, which are now held, along with a vast array of related photos and other materials, by the Mulka Project in Yirrkala.

Music had been a passion of Professor Gumbula’s since his teens in Galiwin’ku, when he joined the country and gospel band Soft Sands as drummer, alongside his older brothers and other relatives. This band was named by Professor Gumbula’s father for the fine white sands that line the beach on the Birrkili Gupapuyŋu homeland of Luŋgutja. When Soft Sands toured to Regina, Canada, for the World Assembly of First Nations in 1982, it was the very first band from Arnhem Land to travel outside Australia. That feat must not be underestimated. Until 1964, racist legislation had seriously limited freedoms of movement and association for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, and bands such as Soft Sands, which began forming soon after, afforded Professor Gumbula’s generation new ways of travelling and expressing themselves far and wide, not only as Yolŋu citizens of Australia, but as Yolŋu citizens of the world.

Other early passions of Professor Gumbula’s were illustration and painting. His first job outside music was as a professional illustrator of Yolŋu school textbooks produced by Shepherdson College in Galiwin’ku in 1981. He was a prolific creator of traditional Birrkili designs for ceremonial use, but almost never painted for commercial sale, seeing his artistic practice as a primarily spiritual pursuit. His most accessible painting is held by the Australian National Maritime Museum as part of the iconic 1997 Gapu-monuk (Saltwater) exhibition, which petitioned the federal government for formal recognition of Yolŋu sea rights. It depicts the two sacred sandbars that lie between the island and the mainland of Luŋgutja.

Professor Gumbula was not the first Yolŋu intellectual from North-east Arnhem Land to hold academic employment in a university. He was nonetheless the first to hold the title of full Professor. His interest in working with visiting researchers in Arnhem Land began in the early 1990s. The successful academic career of his older wäwa (brother), the late Joe Neparrŋa Gumbula HonDMus, who was the first Yolŋu investigator to lead an Australian Research Council grant project, fanned his own research ambitions. Professor Gumbula and his wife, Renelle Gandjitjiwuy Gondarra, completed the Master of Indigenous Knowledges together at Charles Darwin University in 2012, and they would both go on to lecture in that degree program. Professor Gumbula would later provide formal advice as a Traditional Owner to formulating the Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area Management Plan (2017–2022).

Professor Gumbula’s research contributions through the Indigenous Knowledge Institute and partnership with the Museums and Collections division at the University of Melbourne are far-reaching and leave a legacy of continuing projects that will endure into the future. At the time of his passing, he was engaged in various active research projects. Through his Indigenous Knowledge Institute Fellowship, he was advising the Museums and Collections division on how best to care long-term for Gupapuyŋu and related Yolŋu items across their holdings. He was also working with University of Melbourne colleagues in the School of Biosciences on urgent research into native Australian bees.

In February 2023, just before he fell ill, he collaborated on another new project with University of Melbourne colleagues in fine arts, geography and health sciences, as well as the Mulka Project in Yirrkala and Universitas Hasanuddin in Makassar, Indonesia. This momentous project investigated how his own inherited Gupapuyŋu manikay recount long histories of Yolŋu trade with pre-colonial seafarers from Makassar. After a lifetime of hearing and singing about this old trade network that, before 1907, linked Yolŋu society to the global economy, Professor Gumbula finally stepped foot on the shores of Makassar, where he was welcomed as kin and met his family’s own blood relatives there.

Following this trip, which he shared with Professor Langton, she recalled how “Professor Gumbula had a fascination with the nature of knowledge. He understood the power of knowledge. This enabled him to participate in university life and share his own knowledge traditions with others, confident that his university colleagues supported him in this, so that he could always achieve a high standard of intellectual engagement. A touching moment was the dedication he recited to me for the Indigenous Garden at the Scots College in Sydney, attended by his grandson. He left a reminder for all to see that he regarded knowledge as the great gift of all humanity.”

His dedication read: “From a Yolŋu view, a Gupapuyŋu view, we pass on our knowledge and wisdom to the new generation to come forth. Mayku, the giant paperbark tree, is our dictionary. Its knowledge and wisdom won’t go away but we, a Yolŋu or other person, will go away. By passing on knowledge and wisdom, the future of our children and our children’s children will not be taken away. It will be there for generations to come. With my wife, Renelle, and the parents of my grandson, Jordan Dhamarrandji, I want to give my full gratitude for all the work at the Scots College.”

Professor Gumbula’s life had been punctuated by serious bouts of ill health and he had survived cancer twice already. Yet he drew true strength from the people around him, particularly his devoted wife, Renelle. Professor Gumbula genuinely cared about other people, easily made friends wherever he went, and was generous in encouraging Indigenous people elsewhere in Australia to sustain and share their own rich traditions.

On that final evening we said goodbye to Professor Gumbula, Professor Judd reflected on how he leaves us all with important lessons for how universities can better value and engage with the most dedicated Indigenous knowledge holders. He later explained that “Professor Gumbula has significantly transformed the way that the University of Melbourne works with Indigenous people and their knowledges. He was an important ceremonial leader, English was not his first language, and he lived in one of the remotest parts of Australia from Melbourne. He showed us what is possible when we acknowledge and accept the inherent strength and resilience of remote communities as the primary holders and curators of Australia’s ancient knowledge systems. He pointed us to a future where academics engage with Indigenous knowledge on terms set out by those men and women who hold it in their continuing practices of story, song and ceremony.”

Professor Gumbula’s network of family, friends and colleagues was so broad that, on his passing, songs and prayers were sung and recited for him in eight languages, including five Indigenous languages from across Australia and three foreign languages from abroad. I miss him deeply, as do all who knew and loved him. He is survived by his wife, Renelle, whom he met when they were teenagers, and their six children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

When mourners gathered to farewell Professor Gumbula the day after his passing, Witiyana Marika, his dear friend and a founding member of Yothu Yindi, addressed the crowd. He acknowledged Gumbula’s achievements as a Professor and thanked his assembled University of Melbourne colleagues for supporting him until the end.

“Brian Gumbula was the first Yolŋu Professor,” Witiyana told the crowd, “but he will not be the last.”

The world’s second Yolŋu Professor, the esteemed educator Yalmay Marika-Yunupiŋu, was appointed by the University of Melbourne in April 2023.

By Professor Aaron Corn, Inaugural Director of the Indigenous Knowledge Institute at the University of Melbourne. He first met ProfessorGumbula in 1998.

This first version of this article was published by The Monthly and is republished here with permission.