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McDermott, George (1895–1972)

by Jonathan Richards

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George McDermott (c.1895-1972), Aboriginal stockman, linguist and collector of traditions, was born near Nockatunga, Queensland, son of Nellie Murray, a Wangkumara woman born in 1880, and a white man named McDermott, who was working as a tank-sinker. Nellie's people came from the Lake Eyre basin in the 'corner country' and their territory included areas around the Wilson River in south-western Queensland. When George's father died, H. M. L. (Edgar) Hughes of Nocundra employed the boy at Nockatunga station. The cook there taught him to read, and he went on droving trips to Cockburn near Broken Hill, New South Wales. He also worked on other stations, including a period as head stockman at Naryilco, near Quilpie, Queensland.

In 1920 George's mother and her husband Larry Gilmore were working for Hughes at Nockatunga station; she remained there until 1954. In the 1920s, however, most of the Wangkumara from Queensland moved to Tibooburra, New South Wales, where, about 1920, George married Ruby Ebsworth. Of the 200 people living at the old camping ground there in the 1930s, about half were Wangkumara. In the late 1930s the Aborigines Protection Board moved them all to Brewarrina in three large trucks. Numbers at the Brewarrina reserve increased further after Angledool station closed. A number of elderly Wangkumara died in the first year, so some people decided to walk back to Tibooburra. They got as far as Wanaaring before a flooded river stopped them. Many Aboriginal people later moved to Bourke and Wilcannia for work.

About 1940 McDermott attended a ceremonial gathering at Innamincka, South Australia, where he went through an initiation ceremony. From Wangkumara elders he learned many songs, stories and traditions and became highly regarded for his knowledge and as a 'clever man'. He later blamed alcohol for his previous loss of language and other cultural knowledge. His expertise was shared with George Dutton and George Harrison when they met to quiz each other about their traditional knowledge. On a trip to Wanaaring, New South Wales, he found his mother living there, and stayed with her until she died in 1959.

Some time in the 1960s, McDermott moved to Bourke, where he lived at the Aboriginal reserve. The linguist Luise Hercus recorded 'language' words from him there in 1968. When another linguist Max Kamien went to Bourke in 1971, he found that four of the six fluent speakers of Aboriginal languages spoke Wangkumara. Kamien recorded Wangkumara vocabulary, songs and myths from McDermott, helping to keep the language alive. Predeceased by his wife, McDermott died on 11 November 1972 at Bourke District Hospital, and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites. His daughter survived him. A Wangkumara dictionary, based on the knowledge of McDermott and others, edited by Carol Robertson, was published in 1985.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Hardy, Lament for the Barkindji (Adel, 1976)
  • M. Kamien, The Dark People of Bourke (Canb, 1978)
  • D. Horton (ed), The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, vol 2 (Canb, 1994)
  • Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 14, no 3, Aug 1990, p 113
  • L. A. Hercus, Aboriginal Informants for Linguistic Research and Station Scenes and taped interviews with G. McDermott, 1969 (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • M. Kamien, taped interview with G. McDermott (1971, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • A/58553, A/58912, HOM/B58 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Jonathan Richards, 'McDermott, George (1895–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdermott-george-13062/text23623, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012