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Mondalmi (1910–1969)

by Catherine Berndt

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mondalmi (c.1910-1969) was an Aboriginal woman of the Maung people, ngalangila subsection, born at Wighu, South Goulburn Island, Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Her father Mayjburn (English name Charlie), who helped to collect trepang for 'Macassan' (Indonesian) traders, belonged to the small Manganowal group, whose country was between the Maung and the Yiwadja to the west. Her mother Ngalmiyjalwarn was from the Junction Bay area on the mainland. Mondalmi's second name was Milimili; her nickname was Ngalwububul, abbreviated to Bubu, meaning a short person. She was proud of being one of the saltwater people of the islands and adjacent mainland: 'I'm not a bush woman … My country is on the beach'. They suffered more severely from outside intrusion, over a longer period, than did the people of eastern Arnhem Land; but they retained their language and something of their traditional ways, despite increasing contact also with other Aborigines from adjoining areas. Besides Maung, Mondalmi spoke Yiwadja, Gunbalang and English, and understood Gunwinggu.

As a child, following her first fearful contact with 'white-skinned' strangers, Mondalmi was taken to the Methodist mission station on South Goulburn Island, established in 1916. There she learned to read and write English, sew and make baskets. Although she had been betrothed early to an older man, he agreed to her marriage at Goulburn Island Methodist Church on 27 June 1927 with a Gunwinggu-speaking man from the mainland, Gadawar also known as Ganaraidj (c.1906-1971), English name John, a lay preacher at the mission. In keeping with Maung custom, she kept her own names on marriage. Her seven sons and two daughters were born between 1928 and 1953. She brought up her children carefully in traditional ways to become independent within a co-operative context. But the 'balanda' (European) presence had interrupted the passing on by older people of much traditional knowledge. Mondalmi regretted this: 'They should have taught us these things, so we would know what to do. We can't find out now—they all gone without telling us'. One of her sons 'little Bunug' later went to Kormilda College, near Darwin, and he and a group of other Aboriginal students compiled Djugurba: Tales from the Spirit Time (Canberra, 1974).

On the mission, Mondalmi was a capable and conscientious domestic helper, kindly and patient. She and her husband were of the dependable core-population who must have made the missionaries feel that their efforts were worth-while. Her brother Lazarus Lamilami became an ordained Methodist minister, but he saw this as essentially compatible with Maung religion. The mission was not only a refuge and a buffer: its policy was 'to keep what is best in the Aboriginal culture'. Nevertheless, it was part of the invading society.

Mondalmi was a keen observer and social commentator. From 1947 she tried thoughtfully and critically to teach the author about Maung life and culture, traditional and changing. The wide range that she covered included kinship-terms, relationships and behaviour, family life, myths and stories, relations between people and land, children's songs, hand-sign as well as verbal vocabularies, plant foods and medicines, and more complicated topics such as explanations of religious beliefs and ritual events, especially from women's perspective.

Basically resilient, cheerful and active, by 1964 Mondalmi, unwell, was disillusioned about relations between Aborigines and Europeans. But she kept her confident authority and assurance about her place in the world as a Maung woman. She died of cancer on 23 October 1969 at Goulburn Island and was buried there.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Lamilami, Lamilami Speaks, the Cry Went Up (Syd, 1974)
  • C. Berndt, ‘Mondalmi: One of the Saltwater People’ in I. White et al (eds), Fighters and Singers (Syd, 1985).

Citation details

Catherine Berndt, 'Mondalmi (1910–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mondalmi-7622/text13321, accessed 19 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012