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Umbagai, Elkin (1921–1980)

by Valda J. Blundell and Mary Anne Jebb

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Elkin Umbagai (1921-1980), Aboriginal leader, was born on 19 February 1921 at the Presbyterian Mission to the Aborigines at Kunmunya, Western Australia, daughter of Aboriginal parents Ernest Nyimandooma and his wife Ruby Marutja. Nyimandooma had walked to the mission from Prince Regent River about 1912; Marutja came from the Glenelg River region. Elkin's name was an Anglicized version of the Worora word for a type of shell, nyalikanya.

Rev. J. R. B. Love and his wife, who were at Kunmunya in 1927-40, had a profound impact on Elkin and her people. Elkin's mother became the Loves' house-worker and her father helped Love to translate parts of the Bible into Worora. Her parents mediated between Aborigines and missionaries, and informed Europeans about the Wororas' language and culture. Educated at the mission school, Elkin was reputed to be the first Australian to receive the interpreter's badge of the Girl Guides Association for being able to read and write in an indigenous language and English. She corresponded with Love after he left Kunmunya. As a young woman she was married according to traditional custom. When her husband died she was married successively to two others, both of whom also died. In the late 1940s she became Sambo Umbagai's wife; they were to have seven children between 1951 and 1965. On 4 February 1969, Elkin and Sam Umbagai married in a Christian ceremony at the Mowanjum Presbyterian Church.

After Kunmunya had closed in 1956, the Umbagai family and others established the Mowanjum Aboriginal community 6 miles (9.6 km) from the township of Derby, outside their traditional country. Teaching in the local school and working at the Native Hospital, Elkin Umbagai helped to formulate a vision for the community, embracing employment, housing and schooling. Later she expressed her disappointment that her plans did not eventuate. The Mowanjum people continued to struggle for respect and respectability.

Elkin Umbagai's storytelling and writing skills were renowned: she instructed researchers in the fields of linguistics, anthropology and archaeology; she prepared historical notes for Maisie McKenzie's history of the mission, Road to Mowanjum (Sydney, 1969); and she collected material for Visions of Mowanjum (Adelaide, 1980) and Peter Lucich's collection, Children's Stories from the Worora (Canberra, 1969). Deeply spiritual, she believed that Christianity and her own laws and customs could be intertwined; she took advantage of opportunities to travel with Christian groups. She was fascinated by changing technology and new ideas that might improve her people's way of life. In 1967 she was made Kimberley 'grandmother of the year'. Suffering from diabetes mellitus, she died of cerebrovascular haemorrhage on 24 January 1980 at Derby and was buried with Uniting Church forms in the local cemetery. Her husband, and their five daughters and two sons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKenzie, The Road to Mowanjum (Syd, 1969)
  • D. Popham (ed), Reflections (Perth, 1978)
  • Visions of Mowanjum (Adel, 1980)
  • West Australian, 1 Dec 1978, 25 Jan 1980
  • J. R. B. Love papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Presbyterian Church of Australia, Board of Missions, correspondence to Rev. C. Mathew, MSS 1893, box 1 (2502), 5/10/1943 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Valda J. Blundell and Mary Anne Jebb, 'Umbagai, Elkin (1921–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/umbagai-elkin-11899/text21313, accessed 19 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012