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Mirritji, Jack (1930–?)

PUBLICATION: Jack MirritijiMy People’s Life: An Aboriginal’s Own Story, Milingimbi Literature Centre, 1976, Melbourne

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: 1930

BIRTH PLACE: Japirdijapin or Warngibimirri

FIRST LANGUAGE: Jinang

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Warngibimirri: a place about ten miles from the Arafura homestead in Arnhem Land, where Jack was born. (p.9)
  • Japirdijapin: A camp about eight miles from the Arafura homestead, which belongs to Jack’s ancestors. (p.10) Jack lived at Japirdijapin as a child, and travelled around the area with his mother to visit family members. (p.10)
  • By the time Jack was a teenager [i.e.during World War Two] most people had left Japirdijapin for Milingimbi or Darwin, and so after his father died, Jack’s mother took him to Gartchi creek. (p.49)
  • Arafura homestead: Jack’s father’s relatives lived at the Arafura homestead. They owned wooden canoes, which they used to collect crocodile eggs in the freshwater creeks. (p.14)
  • Ramingining: Jack’s mother’s relatives lived at Ramingining. They owned paperbark canoes, which they used to collect mussels, prawns, tortoises, file snakes and lily roots. (p.14)
  • Milingimbi mission: an Aboriginal mission near Arafura homestead. People from Jack’s clan sometimes travelled to Milingimbi to exchange mats, bags, hooks, spears, woomeras, boomerangs, fire sticks, stones axes, ochres, digging sticks and bark paintings for rations. (p.46) When Jack was a teenager two of his sisters travelled Milingimbi, where they found partners and settled. (p.48) He and his mother later followed, but he stayed at the mission only briefly before leaving for Darwin. (p.55)
  • Darwin: When Jack was fifteen his brother Barayuwa walked to Darwin with a group of Jinang men. (p.48) Jack had never heard of the city before, but when he learnt of it he was eager to follow them. (p.49)
  • Jack’s mother tried to prevent him travelling so far from his family, but he ignored her advice and followed his brothers. (p.55)
  • Oenpelli Mission: Jack and the other Jinang men stopped in Oenpelli mission for five days on their way from Milingimbi to Darwin. (p.58) They had difficulty communicating with the staff because none of the men spoke English. (p.58) After they found a translator, one of the missionaries offered them rations and a place to stay. (p.59)
  • Kulpinya Station: a station about twenty miles from Darwin, where Jack and the other Jinang men camped with Larrakiya men. (p.60) Jack reconnected with his brother, Barayuwa, who was working as a stockman as Kulpinya Station. (p.61)
  • Gartchi Creek: After his father died, Jack moved inland with his mother and uncle to Gartchi Creek. (p.49)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • n/a

EXPERIENCES OF EDUCATION:

  • Jack did not receive a formal Western education, but was educated in a traditional Jinang way.
  • When he was 14 years old Jack’s uncle, who acted as a second father, arranged an initiation ceremony, or bunggul. (p.33) He chose to mark the occasion with a performance of the dog dance or marndayala. (p.33)
  • Jack and the other two boys being initiated were confused when people arrived at the camp and began singing, because the ceremony had been organised in secret. (p.33) They were frightened when three men started throwing spears over their heads, and thought they were going to be murdered. (p.34) The three boys saw their parents crying and started to do the same, until the men silenced them (p.34)
  • The three boys were then given a dilly bag each to wear around their neck. (p.34) Their heads were painted to white clay, a symbol of mourning, to mark the death of a boy and birth of a man. (p.34)
  • The participants in the ceremony then formed a ring around the boys, singing and playing clap sticks and the didgeridoo. (p.34) The boys were seated in a group and dressed in belts made of human hair, and circumcised. (p.34) While the first two boys were circumcised with a razor blade, Jack was cut with a stone spear, which was much more painful. (p.34)
  • After the ceremony the newly initiated boys were taken to those places reserved for men. (p.35)
  • At this time the older men imparted sacred knowledge to Jack. He was taught that Jinang stories and myths were incontestable. (p.31)
  • When Jack reunited with his brother at Kulpinya Station, Barayuwa advised him to study English at the Bagot School in Darwin so that he could get a job on a station. (p.62)
  • By coincidence, Jack got a lift into Darwin with the Superintendent of the Bagot School. (p.64) He found the school to be a perplexing new environment. (P.64)
  • Through sign language, the teacher at the school communicated to Jack that he was too old to attend Bagot School. (p.64) He was taken to the camp where he soon fell into despair and decided to return to Kulpinya. (p.64)
  • When he reached the station, Barayuwa told Jack that he would need to find a job if he was too old for school. (p.65)

EXPERIENCES OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • After Jack returned to Kulpinya from Darwin, his brother Barayuwa arranged for him to start working on the station. (p.65)
  • Jack’s brother and his new boss gave him stockman’s clothing and shoes, which were too big and very uncomfortable. (p.66)
  • Soon after Jack began his first droving job: by bringing cattle up from the southern part of the station. (p.66)

EXPERIENCES OF RELIGION:

  • Jack’s family subscribed to traditional Jinang religious beliefs. When he wouldn’t go to bed as a child, his father would often warn him that the merri (devil) would take him. (p.13)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • n/a

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • n/a

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • n/a

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Mother: After Jack’s father died, his mother married her first husband’s brother and together they moved to Gartchi Creek. (p.49)
  • Father (not step-father, father’s brother): Jack’s father took him hunting and taught him how to throw a wooden spear with hooks on it called a madjalunngu. (p.12, 15)
  • One day when they were hunting for geese, Jack’s father warned him about leeches in the water. (p.15) He ignored his advice, and soon found himself covered in leeches. (p.15)
  • Jack’s father saved his son from the water, removed the leeches with the smoke from a paperbark fire, and carried him home (p.15) He did not get angry, but was upset for his son. (p.16)
  • Jack’s father died when he was fourteen. At the time of his death, Jack and his brother Barayuwa were out hunting kangaroo. (p.46) When they returned their grandmother lied to them by saying their father had gone to Milingimbi. (p.46)
  • When they learnt the truth, Barayuwa became angry and threw a spear at the group of people gathered around his father’s body. (p.46) They did not become angry, even though he injured a woman, but embraced Barayuwa. Jack and Barayuwa joined the group in self-harming, to mourn their loss. (p.47)
  • The next day Jack’s grandfather people, the Wulaki clan, arrived at the camp, having learnt from a messenger about the death. (p.47) The Wulaki accused Jack’s people, the Jinang, of not caring enough for his father, and a fight broke out between the clans. (p.47)
  • After the fight the Wulaki and Jinang people reconciled, and they mourned together for five days. (p.48) Jack’s father’s body was kept at the campsite during this time, and painted in ochre before it was buried. (p.48) After the burial, the ceremony continued for another five days, and then the Wulaki people returned to their country. (p.48)
  • Jack and his sibling greatly missed their father, and hoped he would visit them again in spirit form. (p.48)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARTNERS:

  • n/a

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • n/a

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • Uncle: nine months before Mirritji was born, his stepfather killed a water goanna. That night he was visited by a water goanna in his sleep, who claimed to be Mirritji’s spirit animal. (p.9) He awoke to warn Mirritji’s mother that she was pregnant, and nine months late she gave birth. (p.9)
  • Grandmother: Jack’s grandmother Meji cut the umbilical cord when he was born, and carried him around in her dilly bag for the first two months of life. (p.9)
  • Meji was proud when he and his brother Barayuwa caught a kangaroo when Jack was fourteen, because it meant he had become independent. (p.46) When the boys looked to share the meat with their parents, Meji told them they had travelled to Milingimbi, when in fact their father had died. (p.46)
  • Larratjpi: a girl from the Jinang tribe. When she was fourteen years old Larratjpi followed Jack on a hunting expedition. (p.25) When he returned her to the camp, Larratjpi’s parent became angry because they thought Jack had stolen their daughter. (p.28)
  • Barayuwa: Jack’s older brother. (p.43) Jack recalls a hunting trip with Barayuwa, when they disguised themselves by covering their bodies with wet sand. (p.43) Jack killed a kangaroo by hitting it with a shovel nosed spear, which flew close to Barayuwa’s head and caused him to chastise his younger brother. (p.44) The brother then carried the kangaroo to the river and cooked it in a coal pit. (p.45)
  • When they returned to the camp Jack and Barayuwa learnt of their father’s death. (p.46) Barayuwa became very angry and threw a spear at the group of people surrounding the body, and wounded a woman. (p.46)
  • After their father’s death Barayuwa travelled to Darwin with a group of Jinang men. (p.60) Several years later, when Jack was himself travelling to Darwin, he learnt of a stockman named Ronnie Barayuwa who lived on Kulpinya Station. (p.60) Jack learnt that the man had been given the name Ronnie by the white stockman, but he still doubted that he was his brother. (p.60)
  • Eventually, after questioning Barayuwa (through an interpreter) about the names of his kin, Jack and the stockman confirmed that they were brothers; Barayuwa had forgotten not only his native tongue but, to a degree, his very identity as a kinsman and countryman of certain people that he had not seen for many years. (p.61)
  • Jimmy Burnyila: A man from Croker Island who Jack met while he was unemployed in Darwin. (p.69) Jack travelled back to Croker Island with Jimmy in search of work. (p.69)
  • Jimmy’s father gave him new clothes when he arrived home. He looked very handsome and impressed the Mauranga women. (p.70)
  • Jimmy Walker: a man of Aboriginal descent who managed the sawmill on Croker Islander. (p.69) Jack worked for Jimmy at the Ngiyinbalu mill for about a year and a half. (p.70)

PREOCCUPATIONS:

  • Jinang culture: Jack recalls the traditional practices of the Marrungu people of the Jinang tribe. (p.10) During the dry season the Jinang people travelled to the coast looking for water, and during the wet season they settled in one place. (p.13) They protected themselves from the sun, rain and mosquitoes by building bush shelters out of stringy bark and paperbark. (p.11) The Jinang people also abstracted water from a paperbark trees using a digging stick. (p.19)
  • Following Jinang tradition, Jack’s father took him on hunting trips and taught him to throw a spear to catch goannas, bandicoots, rats and blue-tongued lizards. Sometimes, when the ground was soaked by rain, they made camp in a tree. (p.11)
  • Jack also recalls that the Jinang people collected various types of bush food, including bulbs, lily roots, blood potatoes, yam, fruits and grapes. (p.13) Jack’s favourite foods were gampila, a dark blue fruit that tastes like wine, and the sweet eggs of honeybees. (p.17) Jinang people also ate brown ants beds, white clay, mangrove tree worms and wild honey, which was diluted with water dew because it was very strong and sour. (pp.17-18, 19)
  • The Jinang society was divided into two intermarrying moieties: the Dhuwa and Yirritja. (p.31) Jack recounts the story of how the daughters of the King Brown snake, the Wagilak sisters named Michilangawuy and Bulwaliir, brought these moieties into being. (p.20)
  • According to the legend, the Wagilak sisters left their homeland to find partners because they didn’t want to marry someone of the Dhuwa moiety. When they couldn’t find anyone suitable they formed a new moiety named the Yirritja. (p.30)
  • Soon after a giant serpent that lived under the ground ate the two sisters and their baby son, and then spat them out in remorse. (p.29)
  • The members of these moieties have their own totems: the Yirritja people’s totem in as Jabiru bird, and the Dhuwa people’s totem is a Brolga. (p.36) According to the traditional marriage laws, members of the Yirritja moiety must only marry people of the Dhuwa moiety. (p. 36)
  • Jack also recalls the traditional Jinang means of dispute resolution. (p.41) In the case of a murder, the victim’s family often sought revenge by sorcery. They collected items belong to the attacker, sealed them inside a hollow log with wax, and then cast the log out to sea. (p.41) Soon after the murderer would become ill and die. (p.41) Other means of revenge was through “poison songs” and hypnotism. (p.42)
  • Jack also describes the Jinang rituals and myths surrounding birth, initiation, and death (p.31)
  • When a Jinang person died they are mourned with a ceremony worshipping their totem animal. (p.50) The deceased was then either buried in the ground, or wrapped in paper bark and placed in the branches of a tree. (p.50) After a few months, when the flesh had fallen of the bones, the body was placed in a hollow wooden bone-pole called a bardurru. (p.50) Jack notes that the white people or balanda initially abhorred this practice and tried to prevent it, but they have since become more accepting of Indigenous difference. (p.52)
  • When a baby died, Jinang people preferred to keep their bones than bury them. (p.51) Jack recalls helping a Jinang man named Dick Miwirri fake the burial of his son, so that the white superintendent at the settlement would not suspect he had kept the body in a suitcase. (p.51) The superintendent tried to recover the body when he learnt the truth, but soon gave up because the old man who was guarding it threatened to spear him. (p.51) From then on, Dick carried his son’s body with him at all times. (p.51)
  • Jack also tells of witchdoctors who snuck up on their victims and stabbed them in the back with bone-knives, and then consumed the body. (p.54)
  • Jack witnessed cannibalism only once, while on route to Darwin. He and his Jinang travelling companions encountered a group of Walamungu and Gulalay men who, after some initial hostility, invited them to camp. (p.56) That night around the campfire the Walamunga and Gulalay men cooked and ate the body parts of a young Dhuwa girl. (p.56)
  • Colonial Encounters: Jack recalls Aboriginal people’s interactions with both Western and non-Western colonists and traders. He relays a story told to him by others about when the Maringa people from the island of Walada encountered Indonesians, or Macassan people, before the Second World War. (p.21) The Maringa people gave the Indonesians food and water, and in return the Indonesians showed them how to make better canoes and gave them tobacco, billycans and alcohol. (p.22) After this exchange, the Maringas people became drunk and angry with the Indonesians for taking their women and using their string. A fight started and many people were killed or taken prisoner. (p.22)
  • Jack recalls another fight that broke out when a Ganalbingu man from the Goyder River stole a woman from the Wagilak tribe. (p.37) The groups met at the Arafura Homestead, and many people were killed, including the Wagilak leader. (p.37) Some days after the battle the man’s son, Gunmuk, returned to the scene of the fight to bury his father’s body. (p.37)
  • Gunmuk then travelled to the Milingimbi mission and reported the death to the police in Darwin. (p.38) Three officers were sent to Milingimbi to track down the Ganalbingu brothers who had killed the Wagilak leader. (p.38) The men were found and taken prisoner, having been led to believe they would be treated fairly. (p.38)
  • In fact, after handcuffing the Ganalbingu brothers, the police tied body parts of their victim’s body around their neck. (p.39) When they stopped to camp the policemen told the brothers to eat the body, which was rotten and salty. (p.39)
  • The prisoners were then sent to goal in Darwin. (p.39) Jack believes that Aboriginal people learned from such incidents that traditional means of dispute resolution were no longer acceptable. (p.39)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Written by Jack Mirritji. ‘A variety of people encouraged him in this by editing the stories only so far as to make them comprehensible to a European reader.’ (p.7)

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Mirritji, Jack (1930–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mirritji-jack-17815/text29399, accessed 23 September 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012