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Utemorrah, Daisy Gawoon (1922–1994)

by Mary Anne Jebb

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Daisy Gawoon Utemorrah (1922–1994), author, poet, and community leader, was born on 14 January 1922 near Kunmunya, a Presbyterian mission settlement in the north-western Kimberley, Western Australia, which was located on the traditional lands of the Worrorra people. Her mother was a Ngarinyin woman named Polly Unman and her father Harry, who died when Daisy was an infant, was a Wunambal man. Harry’s brother, Pompey Goolaloowarra, who was one of the first people to come to the mission and work for the missionaries in about 1913, raised Daisy. She was a traditional owner of country called Gooral that includes parts of the Prince Regent River, the coast of St George Basin, the Mitchell Plateau, and Mount Trafalgar, and was born into the Jungun moiety of her society, represented and expressed by the owlet-nightjar.

Under the liberal superintendence of Rev. J. R. B. Love, Daisy was one of the children at Kunmunya who was taught to write in both the English and Worrorra languages, as well as being shown by her family how to live from her country according to Wandjina-Wunggurr law and religion. She was a Girl Guide and, with Elkin Umbagai, a teaching assistant at the school. In 1936 she married her promised husband, Mickey Bangalba, in the mission church. She was widowed in around 1950 and, in 1956, moved with her community to live on the outskirts of Derby on the Mowanjum reserve, where she remained active in community affairs and the church. At Mowanjum she married the Wunambal man Laurie Utemorrah.

Ever since childhood, Utemorrah had dreamed that one day she would write down the stories she had learned from her elders and those derived from her life experiences. An early example of her writing was the unpublished poem ‘Cyclone Tracy’ (1976), in which she questioned the intentions of a caring yet hurtful God, articulated in the personality of the cyclone that destroyed Darwin in December 1974. A fluent speaker of Wunambal, Ngarinyin, and Worrorra, she had a gift for communicating her culture to her own community and sensitively translating her languages and stories into English for a wider audience. She believed that storytelling and writing allowed her to tell non-Aboriginal people about the richness of her history and culture: ‘I fight with words for my people’ (Arden 1994, 19). Easily reconciling her beliefs in the Christian God and the Wandjina creators of her land and community, she wrote that ‘God in Heaven and the Wandjina in the cave are the same’; ‘Jesus was a Wandjina’ (Arden 1994 19). Her poems and prose have been published internationally and are included in numerous anthologies. Do Not Go Around the Edges (1990), her most successful book, told of her childhood at Kunmunya and won the Australian Multicultural Children’s Literature Award for junior fiction in 1992.

A tall woman with an imposing physical presence, Utemorrah had a caring and cheerful character. She was renowned for her role as a teacher to younger generations at Mowanjum and at regional schools, and she worked over decades with scholars, writers, film-makers, and researchers to document her languages and share her ideas and culture. In 1969 she was a foundation member of the Mowanjum Dance Group and was part of a public performance in Perth in 1971. In 1977 and 1982 she participated in ground-breaking diabetes research in which, for weeks at a time, she and other elders ate only bush foods to demonstrate the benefits and impact of a traditional diet on their health. She was a recognised elder of the Wunambal people and in 1991 was the principal litigant in a High Court of Australia challenge to reclaim their land; the claim was later resubmitted to the Federal Court of Australia following passage of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. After suffering a stroke, in her final years she moved to Kalumburu where she died on 1 February 1994. She was survived by her husband and son; a daughter had predeceased her. Although she was not able to testify in her land claim, her evidence was preserved for use in future hearings. The Federal Court recognised that native title continued over her Wandjina-Wungurr lands in 2004. In 2018 the Broome-based Magabala Books, the publisher of many of her books, named in her honour a new award to encourage Indigenous authors of children’s literature.

Select Bibliography

  • Arden, Harvey. Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia. New York: Harper Collins, 1994
  • Blundell, Valda, Kim Doohan, Daniel Vachon, Malcolm Allbrook, Mary Anne Jebb, and Joh Bornman. Barddabardda Wondjennangordee: We’re Telling All of You: The Creation, History and People of Dambeemangaddee Country. Derby, WA: Dambinangari Aboriginal Corporation, 2017
  • Jebb, Mary Anne ed. Mowanjum 50 Years: Community History. Derby, WA: Mowanjum Aboriginal Community and Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation, 2008
  • MacFarlane, Helen. ‘Land Fight Came Too Late for Activist.’ Australian, 11 February 1994, 11
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Utemorrah, Daisy. Do Not Go Around the Edges. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 1990
  • Visions of Mowanjum: Aboriginal Writings from the Kimberley. Adelaide: Rigby, 1980

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary Anne Jebb, 'Utemorrah, Daisy Gawoon (1922–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/utemorrah-daisy-gawoon-27726/text35404, accessed 19 December 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012