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Coomindah, Mary Ann (c. 1865–1929)

by Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mary Ann,

Mary Ann,

Queenslander, 29 September 1917, p 21

Mary Ann Coomindah (c. 1865–1929), gdanja (herbalist), healer, and domestic servant, also known as Maghroolara (the Singer), was born in the Diamantina River region of the Kirrenderri (Channel Country), south-west Queensland, in the mid- to late 1860s. She was descended from Karuwali and Mithaka peoples. Like her tribal brother Moses Yoolpee/Mack, she worked for the family of William and Laura Duncan on their pastoral station, Mooraberrie, in the first decades of the twentieth century and features prominently in the memoirs of their eldest daughter Alice Duncan (later Duncan-Kemp), who grew up in her care. Nearly all that is known about her comes from Duncan-Kemp’s writings.

Selected and trained in domestic service by Laura Duncan, Mary Ann joined the Duncan household in 1899, a few months before their first child was born, and helped to look after the four Duncan children. After William’s death in 1907, Mary Ann became even more vital to the family’s domestic routine. According to Mithaka oral tradition, she probably breast-fed the Duncan children, becoming a second mother to them.

Recognising Alice Duncan’s strong interest in learning Mithaka lore, Mary Ann welcomed her into the Mithaka world, guiding her education along with other Mithaka teachers—Moses Yoolpee, Maggie (Moses’s wife), Bogie (Mary Ann’s husband), Wooragai (Chookie), and Mahlbibi (Judy Woody), a powerful medicine woman. Mahlbibi and Mary Ann ‘stood in the relationship of godmother, or yeembu’ (Duncan-Kemp 1968, 55) to Alice. On one occasion, Mary Ann took Alice to a flat-topped hill where her Mithaka teachers had gathered to perform a naming ceremony. Inscribing Alice’s forehead with ochre, they gave her the name Pinningarra (the Leaf Spirit). Mary Ann presented Alice with a small thin spear made of acacia, pointed at both ends.

Mary Ann taught Alice and her siblings ‘the lore of her tribe and the whispered language of nature’ (Duncan-Kemp 1961, 209). She took them and Mithaka children out bush on fishing expeditions and on barefoot rambles, sharing her knowledge of plants and animals, the rhythms of nature, and the meanings of signs and certain ceremonies. Depending on the season, Mithaka walking parties would head out early and late, seed gathering, digging up mootchery (yams), harvesting sweet gum, looking for green frogs after rain, or gathering truffles, honey ants, and wild oranges. For Mary Ann, who carried a mung-kora (dilly bag) of woven grass or reeds slung across her back, every flowering plant or shrub was a date in a vast calendar. When the waters were high, she would take the children digging for loongeera (worms) and then cook their freshly caught fish wrapped in clay or green bauhinia bark in the coals of a small fire. The Duncan children were expected to keep up with their black playmates and Mary Ann grumbled at their clumsy efforts. She taught them how to make bird-traps and fish-hooks as well as how to plait a goanna snare out of horsehair. For physical training, she made them run up and down the sandhills, carrying small loads on their heads, or through creeks and dry stony ranges.

One day Mary Ann took the Duncan children on a long ramble. By early afternoon they were nearly ten miles (16 km) south-west of the homestead when a wind sprang up and a heavy haze obscured the sun. Mary Ann smelled the air and knew that there was a fire to the north and so quickly turned her charges towards Teeta Lake, just over a mile (2 km) away. They were overtaken by animals scurrying towards safety and were soon joined by Aboriginal families hurrying to the same sanctuary. Running through the reed beds, they arrived at the lake just ahead of the fire front. Mary Ann shepherded the children into the deeper part of the lake where only their heads were above the water and, as the heat intensified, shielded them from the radiation and falling ash with pieces of wet bark and sacking; when that was not enough, she used her own body. After the fire had swept past and the wind dropped, she tested the heat of the ground before leading the children home through the burnt country. She suffered second-degree burns on her body, but her charges were unharmed.

Although Mary Ann spent most of her day in household service, she remained active in Mithaka affairs, especially as confidante and guide to young Mithaka women and as a gdanja. She was gentle and had a keen sense of humour. In later life, she could be found sitting alone, smoking an old, battered pipe with eyes half closed and pale lips moving, holding communion with the land and her ancestors. She died in January 1929 at Betoota. Her husband Bogie, champion hunter and tracker who was then totally blind, died seven months later. Mount Mary in the Diamantina National Park is said to be named after her. Mithaka knowledge taught to Duncan-Kemp by Mary Ann and Moses proved significant in the 2015 native title determination for the Mithaka people and has been helpful in interpreting a rich and enduring archaeological landscape of village settlement sites, aquaculture, food and water storage practices, trade networks and extensive stone quarries.

 

Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan consulted Mithaka descendants in researching and writing this article. Tom Griffiths is of Welsh and Cornish descent and was born on Woiwurrung Country. Jayne Regan is of Irish descent and was born on Dharawal Country.

Select Bibliography

  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Our Channel Country: Man and Nature in South-west Queensland. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Our Sandhill Country: Nature and Man in South-Western Queensland. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1933
  • Duncan-Kemp, Alice. Where Strange Gods Call. Brisbane: W. R. Smith & Paterson, 1968
  • Duncan-Kemp, Dawn. Those Bloody Duncans: A History of Mooraberrie, 1860–1998. Brisbane: Boolarong Press, 2020
  • Griffiths, Tom. ‘Alice Duncan-Kemp (Pinningarra) and the History of the Frontier.’ In Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve, edited by Libby Robin, Chris Dickman, and Mandy Martin, 24–43. Collingwood, Vic.: CSIRO Publishing, 2010
  • Steinhauer, Yvette. ‘A.M. Duncan-Kemp: Her Life and Work.’ Journal of Australian Studies 25, no. 67 (2001): 37–43
  • Watson, Pamela Lukin. Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends: How Pastoralists Gained Karuwali Lands. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998

Citation details

Tom Griffiths and Jayne Regan, 'Coomindah, Mary Ann (c. 1865–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/coomindah-mary-ann-32134/text39705, accessed 1 February 2023.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Mary Ann,

Mary Ann,

Queenslander, 29 September 1917, p 21

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