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Barunga, Albert (1910–1977)

by Warwick Dix

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Albert Barunga (1910?-1977), Aboriginal community leader, was born probably in 1910 at Kunmunya, near Derby, Western Australia. His father Arai and mother Maudie Kaiimbinya belonged to the Worora tribe, into which Albert was initiated. The family lived as hunter-gatherers. During World War I Arai was accused of murder, arrested and taken away in chains; the charge was found to be false and he was released from prison; he died in 1919. To avoid adoption by his uncle 'Big Charlie', Albert joined Willie Reid, a part-Aboriginal pearler and fisherman, from whom he learned sailing skills and a knowledge of coastal waters. The association ended when Barunga was taken to the Kunmunya Presbyterian Mission.

Because he was too old to attend school, he was taught to ride horses and handle cattle. Following the arrival in 1927 of Rev. J. R. B. Love, Barunga formed a close association with the new missioner and helped to translate the Gospel of St Mark into the Worora language. Albert showed aptitude for learning and became fluent in English. In 1929 he assisted (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith who had been forced to land the Southern Cross on the flats of the Glenelg River estuary. Barunga guided Australian naval vessels on coastal patrols in 1942 and also worked for the Americans in wartime.

After 1945 Kunmunya mission fell into decline. In 1951 the three tribes who lived there decided to move to Wotjulum, near the Cockatoo Island iron-ore mine. Finding this site unsuitable, they shifted five years later to Mowanjum in the vicinity of Derby. Barunga's intended wife Cudiana died shortly after giving birth to their child. On 30 December 1956 he married her sister Barbara Pugjawola at the Presbyterian Mission Church, Mowanjum. With Alan Mungulu, Albert endeavoured to keep the three tribal groups together, and worked to revive and maintain their traditions. 'Whatever he did, he seemed to do well, whether it was riding a horse, spearing a fish, growing tomatoes, sailing a lugger, or telling a story.'

While visiting New Zealand on an adult-education tour in the late 1960s, Barunga was impressed by the evident strength of Maori culture which contrasted with the extensive loss of Aboriginal heritage. In late 1969 he became an enthusiastic member of the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation, established that year to revive traditional dances and crafts; he was later president of its West Kimberley branch. A leading councillor at Mowanjum, he was also active on a range of other State and Federal committees, and emerged as a spokesman for tribal Australia. In 1972 he delivered a paper, 'Sacred Sites and their Protection', to a national seminar organized in Canberra by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Housed in the capital by an anthropologist Professor Derek Freeman, he lobbied ministers for Aboriginal Affairs and advocated 'friendship and harmony between black and white'. He once remarked: 'if everybody asked and talked things over then we could all work together, and live happy together in the world'—words which exemplified the gentle and intelligent temperament for which he was widely esteemed.

Barunga died of a cerebral embolus on 30 August 1977 at Derby and was buried in the local cemetery with the forms of the Uniting Church. His daughter and seven sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKenzie, The Road to Mowanjum (Syd, 1969)
  • Visions of Mowanjum (Adel, 1980)
  • Identity, Oct 1971, p 17
  • Overland, no 101, 1985, p 85
  • The Worora, Albert Barunga and the Rev J. R. B. Love: Edited Conversation Between D. Freeman and Mrs M. Love, Adelaide, 1972 (manuscript, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Western Australia) file on A. Barunga.

Citation details

Warwick Dix, 'Barunga, Albert (1910–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/barunga-albert-9446/text16609, accessed 19 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012