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Gilbert, Rolly (Mpunywithal) (1901–1990)

by Paul D. Black

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Rolly (Mpunywithal) Gilbert (c.1901-1990), Aboriginal elder, was born near Macaroni station, Normanton, Queensland, son of George Gilbert and his wife Polly. The date of Rolly’s birth is not known but is assumed to be about 1901, as he recalled hearing about World War I as a young man. He took his birthplace to be at a site called Manakorr, close to the mouth of the Gilbert River. Of Kurtjar descent, he was called Mpunywithal, a name that related him to the pelican (mpunyngkuath), one of his `dreamings’, or totems. In the early 1900s the Kurtjar people were coming in from the bush to live and work on cattle stations in the area, and Rolly became a stockman on Macaroni. He was treated harshly by his employer, once being beaten with a chain and on another occasion receiving only a drink of rum as payment for a day’s labour. He spent some time as a police tracker and in the 1970s he was still employed, looking after public grounds at Normanton.

By the 1960s most Indigenous people had moved into the town, with some going out seasonally to work on cattle stations in the district. As a Kurtjar elder, Gilbert spoke out on such issues as Aboriginal housing in Normanton. In the 1970s he was intent on finding some way to help his people return to their own land. Soft-spoken and patient, he relied less on rhetoric than on the truth and justice of his position. In the information he provided for the pamphlet `About Kurtjar Land’ (1980) he described the problems encountered since white settlement in the 1860s. He helped to determine the boundaries of his tribal territory and documented the location of sacred sites, including bora rings and other ceremonial grounds. His efforts paid off when, in December 1982, the Aboriginal Development Commission bought all the shares in Delta Downs Pastoral Co., thereby acquiring the pastoral lease. This provided the Kurtjar people with 4002 km² of land, enabling them to maintain protection of sacred sites and to operate a viable cattle enterprise.

Although barely literate, Gilbert was a natural scholar who had a talent for drawing perceptive conclusions from keen observations. He helped to preserve knowledge of his people’s traditional language and culture and co-operated with linguists and other researchers doing the same. A draft Kurtjar dictionary and an (unpublished) book of Kurtjar stories could not have been completed without his support. Gilbert also provided cultural information in a long interview recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In recognition of his various contributions, he was made an associate-member (1977) and a full member (1989) of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (since 1990 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

Gilbert had married Ruby about 1940 at Delta Downs station. Predeceased by his wife, and survived by his three sons, he died on 30 June 1990 at Normanton and was buried with Anglican rites on Delta Downs.

Select Bibliography

  • Aboriginal Development Commission, Annual Report, 1982-83, p 19
  • Identity, vol 4, no 4, 1981, p 16
  • P. Black, `Rolly Gilbert’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1990, p 99
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Paul D. Black, 'Gilbert, Rolly (Mpunywithal) (1901–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/gilbert-rolly-mpunywithal-12537/text22563, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012