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Milerum (1869–1941)

by Norman B. Tindale

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Milerum (1869?-1941), shearer and Aboriginal ethnologist, also known as Clarence Long, was born about 1869 at Junggurumbar, Younghusband Peninsula, South Australia, son of Puningeri of the Karagarindjeri clan, Tanganekald tribe, Djerimangap moiety. His mother was Lakwunami, of the Potaruwutj tribe from the Keilira region. Wiantalan was his child name and korowale, the white-faced heron, his totem. He grew to be a man of classic Murrayian physical type.

His intensely conservative grandparents had avoided encroaching white settlers, especially after the murders of passengers on the ship Maria in 1839. They lived in the wilder swamp and mallee karst country east of the Coorong. Milerum's parents continued as hunters and gatherers till 1875, when his father became an ox-driver for William Barnett; Milerum accompanied Puningeri, transporting wool to Portland, Victoria, and learned to talk with the last of the Bunganditj people of the Beachport area. He was 6 before he saw white folk and was given his first clothes so that he could play with little Mary Jane Barnett, at a Rosetown house now preserved as a national treasure. Later he was picker-up during shearing at the McCourt family's Woakwine station.

Both before and after initiation at about 14, as a red-ochred youth, his parents taught him much of their history and tradition so that in effect he became the final repository of the details of their culture. Although unschooled, at Woakwine Milerum learned to speak English well, becoming favoured employee there. In 1914 he was champion blade shearer of the South-East; he visited the district annually for shearing well into the 1930s. About 1925 Milerum is said to have organized the last ceremonial gathering held by Aboriginal survivors at Point McLeay.

Milerum's first marriage was to Kuleinji, also known as Lydia Thomson. In 1931, recently widowed from his second wife Polly Beck of the Ngaralta tribe from the Murray Bridge area, he was living at Point McLeay mission on Lake Alexandrina with his four children. Here he met the present author, son of Mary Jane Barnett; the subsequent ten-year friendship was perhaps strengthened by Milerum's discovery of this association. Although reticent, when he realized that phonetic transcriptions made possible proper recording of his words and sayings, he began to communicate his parents' previously unrecorded languages.

Each year after shearing, Milerum went to Adelaide for the summer and camped in the sandhills at Fulham. He visited the South Australian Museum and, under a shady grape-vine on the Old Military Barracks' porch, he made baskets and wooden weapons, which were sought as treasures by museums far and wide. Imparting his knowledge was his pleasure; and in conversation he recalled ever more detail of the songs he sang and the stories he told in his two principal languages. He also widened his remembrance of the speech of others. All was recorded by the museum officers. Many a passing university teacher and student stopped to learn from him.

Milerum's infant name Wiantalan provided a first lead in pronouncing one aspect of Australian and Tasmanian speech; for the 't' sound was only understood when an amused Jarildekald tribesman told museum staff, 'Stick your tongue out man!'. Thus the interdental series of sounds was discovered by white Australians, enabling tribal languages to be better transcribed.

Milerum planned and enacted for films a record of his people; many of his songs, recorded on wax cylinders and flat discs, have been studied by musicians, including Harold Davies. He guided H. K. Fry and the author over parts of his country, giving names, places, and the limits of the clans, and recollecting events and traditions. He became an anthropologist in his own right, seeking verification of data from old Aborigines.

In 1941 Milerum entered Royal Adelaide Hospital fearing that his illness was due to long-dead men of the Ngaralta, who had resented his marriage, exerting magic to 'bruise' him and cause his death. He died of coronary vascular disease on 21 February. A non-smoker and non-drinker, he was a model for any Australian. Leslie Wilkie's portrait is in the South Australian Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • N. B. Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (Berkeley, California, USA, 1974)
  • Aboriginal Quarterly, 1, no 2, Apr-June 1968.

Citation details

Norman B. Tindale, 'Milerum (1869–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/milerum-7572/text13217, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012