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Mumbler, Percy (1907–1991)

by Jodie Stewart

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Percy Mumbler (1907-1991), Aboriginal elder and activist, was born on 20 July 1907 at the Aboriginal Station, Wallaga Lake, New South Wales, son of Biamanga (Jack Mumbler), from the Delegate area of the Monaro, and Gunnal (Rose Carpenter), from the lower Shoalhaven. Biamanga was an elder and leader of the local Aboriginal community. In an act of colonialist misrecognition, in 1912 white authorities bestowed on him a brass breast-plate and declared him king of the Wallaga Lake tribe. Of greater importance to Biamanga’s own people was the authority vested in him to preside at the initiation of young Aboriginal men. In his childhood Percy moved with his family back and forth between Wallaga Lake and Roseby Park, near Nowra. He and his siblings were under constant threat of removal and institutionalisation.

As a young man Mumbler was a member of the Wallaga Bush Leaf Band that performed at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and toured southern New South Wales and Victoria. Employed mainly on bean- and pea-picking, he travelled extensively on the south coast, linking up with other itinerant Aboriginal workers and their families. In the 1950s Mumbler met and befriended poet and author Roland Robinson (1926-1995) who collected and ‘translated’ many of Mumbler’s oral stories and accounts of Aboriginal life on the south coast. Mumbler’s texts appeared in several of Robinson’s published works and were circulated widely through national publications such as the Bulletin, school anthologies and in performances by Robinson himself (Healy, 1997, 53).

Mumbler began to campaign for better housing and living conditions, and for education and health reforms. In the late 1960s he collaborated with John Hatton and others to have disused cottages from the Snowy Mountains scheme relocated to accommodate Aboriginal people on Shoalhaven Shire Council land at Browns Flat, south of Nowra. He also helped to restructure the South Coast Aboriginal Legal Service at Nowra; a passionate advocate of individual civil rights for Aboriginal people, he actively supported the service well into his old age.

A branch member of Pastor Frank Roberts’s Land and Rights Council, Mumbler joined other activists in pushing for Aboriginal communities to secure ownership of their land, in opposition to the formation (1973) of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Trust, which was given title to all remaining reserves. He played a prominent role when the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council was formed in 1977. With his ability to inspire and unify people, he delivered a clear message: ‘This is our land and we want the rights to our land so we can go where we want and get what we want’ (Chittick and Fox 1997, 177-78).

In February 1979 the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly upon Aborigines conducted its first public meeting, at the Wallaga Lake reserve. Mumbler used this platform to voice his concerns over two interrelated topics: the threat to sacred sites on Mumbulla (or Biamanga) Mountain from logging, and the community’s land claim around Wallaga Lake. He emphasised the importance of land ownership to the spiritual and cultural well-being of his people. In 1984 Wallaga Lake became the first Aboriginal community in the State to receive title to what remained of its traditional lands. That year the State government gazetted 7,500 hectares of land at Mumbulla Mountain as Biamanga Aboriginal Place.

One of ‘the most revered, respected and loved’ Aboriginal people on the State’s south coast, Mumbler was endowed with many endearing personal qualities, among them warmth, humour, and charm; as Lee Chittick recalled, ‘everyone sort of bubbled to see him’ (Chittick and Fox 1997, 1, 85). Mumbler acquired the nickname ‘Bing’ for his penchant for Bing Crosby songs, and he was remembered as an adroit and animated vocalist. Late in his life, he married Isabelle Perry, becoming a step-father and mentor to her six children.

Throughout his long life Mumbler maintained an intimate connection to the land for which he so actively fought. He was a skilled hunter, fisherman, and practitioner of traditional bushcrafts, and he kept up many of the time-honoured spiritual and cultural beliefs of his people, firmly interwoven with his Christian faith. Through language, story, and song, he imparted much traditional knowledge. He played golf and fossicked obsessively for gold, hoping for a find that would enrich his people (he had no interest in personal wealth). After residing for six years at the Shoalhaven Nursing Home, Bomaderry, he died there on 17 June 1991 and was buried at Nowra cemetery. As an influential spiritual and cultural leader to the Yuin people, Mumbler left an enduring legacy of strength, determination, and cultural survival.

Select Bibliography

  • Chittick, Lee, and Terry Fox. Travelling with Percy: A South Coast Journey. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997
  • Feary, Sue. ‘Indigenous Australians and Forests.’ In Australian and New Zealand Forest Histories: No. 1: Short Overviews, edited by John Dargavel, 9-17. Kingston, ACT: Australian Forest History Society Inc., 2005
  • Healy, Chris. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • McKenna, Mark. Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jodie Stewart, 'Mumbler, Percy (1907–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mumbler-percy-16228/text28165, accessed 24 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012