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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Willie Gordon (1957–)

PUBLICATION: Willie Gordon, Guurrbi: My Family and Other Stories, Guurrbi Tours, 2012, Cooktown

SEX: Male


BIRTH PLACE: Hopevale, Queensland

LANGUAGES SPOKEN: English, Guugu Yimithirr


  • Cooktown: the modern town of Cooktown is built on a site of Captain Cook’s landing in 1770. (p.31) In Guugu Yimithirr, the area was known as Gungardie, because of the abundance of gun-gaar, or white crystal quartz. (p.31) Gungardie was a neutral area where clans could come and collect stones for ceremonial use. (p.31)
  • Willie’s ancestral land extends from the south of Cooktown to Princess Charlotte Bay. (p.4) After the influx of settlers and miners in the late 1800s, his grandparents Charlie and Minnie worked for a range of employers in Cooktown. (p.4)
  • Spring Hill: An outstation of the Cape Bedford Mission, which was located close to the current site of the Cooktown airport. (p.4) Tulo Gordon lived in a bark hut at the Spring Hill outstation until he was nine years old. (p.4) The administration of the outstation was liberal, relative to the Mission proper. (p.4)
  • Cape Bedford Mission: A Lutheran Mission where most of the Guugu Yimithirr people lived after the colonisation of Cape York. Willie’s father Tulo was taken to the Cape Bedford Mission in the late 1920s. (p.5) It was run by a German missionary, Pastor Schwarz: a disciplinarian who forbad many traditional activities. (pp.4-5) Schwarz controlled the Guugu Yimithirr’s daily lives until the Second World War, when he was put under house arrest in Brisbane. (p.5)
  • Woorabinda: The Guugu Yimithirr were sent to an Aboriginal Reserve in Woorabinda, near Rockhampton, while Pastor Schwarz was under house arrest in Brisbane during the Second World War. (p.5) During this time they were relatively free to engage in pre-colonial practices. (p.5)
  • Hopevale: The Guugu Yimithirr men, including Willie’s father Tulo, built the modern town of Hopevale when they returned from Woorabinda after the War. (p.5) The Lutheran church remained in control of the town until 1986, when it was handed back to the Indigenous owners. (p.5)
  • Lizard Island: Every year the Guugu Yimdthirr people travelled to Lizard Island, or Jiigurru, to collect essential oils from the sand goanna. (p.29) Conflict arose in 1881 when they found a woman and her servants living on their island, which was forbidden in Aboriginal law. (p.30)
  • The Guugu Yimdthirr proceeded to murder one of the servants, and the rest of the party died trying to escape by sea on an iron tank. (p.30)


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  • From a young age Willie was educated about the stories, art and daily practices of the Nugal people by his father Tulo. (p.5)
  • Willie believes that formal, Western education is also essential for Aboriginal people today. He acknowledges many social problems in Aboriginal communities, but also stresses the success of Indigenous people in the Australian mainstream. (p.37)
  • Willie believes that these persistent social problems can only be overcome through bi-cultural education. (p.37)


  • When Willie was an infant he and the other Guugu Yimithirr children hunted for bush foods. (p.21)
  • Later in life he started his own business: taking guided tours to the rock art near the Birth Site where his grandfather was born. (p.36)


  • Unlike in earlier times, most of the Guugu Yimithirr living on the Cape Bedford Mission were married in a church and buried in a cemetery. (p.14) Willie’s grandfather was an exception, because the Lutheran considered him a “Camp Bama” rather than a Christian. (p.14)
  • Willie still holds many traditional religious beliefs, including an attachment to his totem animal – the Hobby Falcon. (p.15)


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  • Willie once owned six guns and hunted regularly. (p.21)
  • He and many other Hopevale residents forfeited their guns in 1996, when the Government initiated the Buy-Back Scheme in response to the Port Arthur massacre. Before that time, he owned six guns and went hunting often. (p. 21)
  • Shortly after the colonisation of Cape York, the Guugu Yimithirr people were forbidden to be in Cooktown at night. Every evening the police forced Willie’s grandparents over Boundary Street onto the Burrgirrku Reserve. (p.4)


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  • Thulu (Tulo): Willie’s father was born on the Spring Hill outstation in 1922. (p.4) Relative to his brothers, who lived on the primary site at Cape Bedford, Tulo had the freedom to explore the country and learn from his father. (pp.5-6)
  • This education was cut short when Tulo was taken to Cape Bedford in the late 1920s. (p.5) His access to his parents was limited, and practicing traditional culture was prohibited. (p.5) It was not until the Second World War, when the Guugu Yimithirr were sent to Woorabinda, and their missionary was put under house arrest in Brisbane, that Tulo was able to express this knowledge again. (p.5)
  • After the War Tulo returned to Cape York with the other Guugu Yimithirr. He helped rebuild the Lutheran Church, and concealed his traditional teachings. (p.5)
  • Tulo often took Willie with him on hunting trips; teaching him about their country and traditional culture. (p.5)
  • Tulo was also a painter, and Willie includes many of his artworks in his book. Willie recalls the story of the frill-necked lizard, the Bunyjul, who features in many local fables. (p.17) According to Tulo, the lizard had two sisters: the two blackbirds. (p.18) On one occasion, when he was hunting with his sisters, the frill necked lizard climbed a tree to collect honey. (p.19) The blackbirds threw up their yirrbi, or grass skirt, so that their brother could soak it in honey for them. (p.20) But instead of sharing with his sisters, the frill necked lizard sucked the yirrbi and got it caught in his throat. (p.20)
  • When Tulo died he was buried in the Hopevale cemetery. (p.14)
  • Mother: As a child, Willie lived with his mother. According to Guugu Yimithirr custom, her job was to gather bush food and care for children. (p.6) When Willie reached puberty he was sent to live with his second parents, and he was forbidden to makes demands of his first parents. (p.7)


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  • Willie’s daughter thinks that traditional respect relationships are “hooey”. (p.13) However, whenever he visits their house, his son-in-law still leaves the room in accordance with these codes of conduct. (p.13)


  • Wunbuu (Charlie) and Minnie: Willie’s paternal grandfather and his wife Minnie were some of the last Guugu Yimithirr people to remain on their traditional land after the arrival of gold miners and settlers in the late 1800s. (p.4)
  • Early in life, Charlie and Minnie worked for white people around Cooktown on a casual basis. (p.4) In the evening they were driven from town, to join the ‘fringe-dwellers’ to the other side of Boundary Street. (p.4)
  • By the time they had Willie’s father, Charlie and Minnie were living at the Spring Hill: an outstation of the Cape Bedford Lutheran Mission. (p.4)
  • Pastor Schwarz: The German missionary who ran the Cape Bedford Mission until the Second World War. (p.5) Schwarz forbad the Guugu Yimithirr from engaging in traditional practices and forced them to convert to Lutheranism. (p.5)


  • Guugu Yimithirr culture: Willie is a member of the Nugal clan within the Guugu Yimithirr tribe, whose traditional land extends from south of Cooktown to the Princess Charlotte Bay. (p.4) The Nugal clan are inland people, who identify with the totem of the black cockatoo or Binga ngurraarr. The totem of the coastal Guugu Yimithirr people is the white cockatoo or Binga wandaar. (p.16)
  • Traditionally, the Guugu Yimithirr territory was divided into five estates: one for each of the family groups within the clan. (p.14) While the Nugal family groups were distinct; they shared resources and sacred sites for initiations, births and burials. (p.14)
  • When Willie was born he inherited a bloodline name – Ngamu bungungu – from his father. (p.14) This title indicated his responsibilities within the family and his relatedness to others. (p.15) He also took father’s totem animal: the galin-galin, or Hobby Falcon. (p.15)
  • Willie uses his own family’s experience to explain the complex Guugu Yimithirr family structure. (pp.6-8)
  • As a child Willie and his siblings lived with his birth parents, his Bipa and Ngamu. (p.6) When he reached puberty he had to stop speaking to his sisters, and move to the home of his second mother and father. (p.7)
  • The term Gami referred to the “same side grandparents”: his mother’s mother and father’s father. (p.7) Willie’s Gami helped his Bipa and Ngamu to raise him. (p.7)
  • Willie’s chose his own Guman-ga from amongst his grandparent’s brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. (p.7) He and his Guman—ga often conversed about sensitive subjects, and shared a special “Joking Relationship”. (pp. 7, 11)
  • Willie also had two Mukai, his birth parent’s eldest brother or sister, who ensured he respected his elders. (p.8)
  • His eldest brother, his Yaba, and eldest sister, his Gannhaal, also help discipline him. (p.8)
  • When the Lutherans brought the Guugu Yimithirr to Cape Bedford mission, the shared responsibilities of raising children were placed solely in the parents’ hands. (p.8)
  • Willie believes that this shift is responsible for many of the problems the Guugu Yimithirr encounter today. (p.8)
  • In addition to the kinship system, Willie also details the Guugu Yimithirr marriage arrangements. (p.9) The language group was divided into two moieties. People adopted their father’s moity and it was taboo, or thabul, to marry someone of the same group. (p.9)
  • In earlier times, the mother-in-law struck the groom with a sharp stick during the wedding ceremony. (p.10) Willie explains that this practice ensured he had no sexual attraction for her, as they were often of a similar age. (p.10) This practice was forbidden at Cape Bedford, and the Guugu Yimithirr gradually abandoned the moiety system and held church ceremonies. (p.10)
  • After his own marriage, Willie was prevented from speaking with his parents-in-law and using their names in conversation. (p.12) Even though they were neighbours, Willie had to send his father-in-law a letter if he had something important to communicate. (p.12)
  • Willie also details some of the hunting and gathering practices. Emus – or Burriwi – were an important resource for the Guugu Yimithirr. (p.21) As well as providing meat and eggs, their oil was rubbed on the skins to ease aches and pains.(p.21)
  • By the time Willie was a child, the Guugu Yimidhirr were able to hunt the emu more easily using guns. (p.21) As a result the emu population was depleted. For twenty years, Willie never saw a Burriwi in the region; then very recently he saw two emu near his home. (p.22)
  • As well as extracting oil from Emus, the Guugu Yimithirr found it in goannas, sting-rays and shark. (p.28) They hunted sting-rays and black-finned shark from September to February every year, because this was the time when their livers were full of fish oil. (p.28)
  • Sting rays and sharks live alongside sand goannas on Lizard Island near Cape Bedford. (p.28) According to local legend the sting rays and sharks living on Lizard Island invited the sand goanna to join them, because they shared the same beneficial oils. (p.28)
  • Willie describes the important role of stories in Guugu Yimidhirr culture. (pp.23)
  • He retells the story of how Aboriginal people came to speak different languages. The tribes often gathered together at a sacred lagoon near Cooktown, the Ngurrayin, for a corroboree. (p.23) On one occasion a giant groper, or nhinhini, sprang from the lagoon and swallowed a large number of them. (p.24)
  • The nhinhini then travelled back to the sea through the groundwater with the people in his stomach. (p.24) Two months later he returned to the lagoon at Ngurrayin and spat them out again. (p.24) The people soon discovered that they were speaking different languages, and these differences persisted until today. (p.24)
  • Willie also retells the story of how Mungurru, the Amethyst Python, created the Endeavour River. (p.25) According to the legends, the blackbird, Dyrimadhi, wanted to marry the Scrub Python’s daughter. (p.25) When Mungarru refused, the blackbird retaliated by dropping a rock on the Python’s head. Mungurru created the river as he writhed in pain. (p.26)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Guurrbi: My Family and Other Stories was written by Willie Gordon with Judy Bennett.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Gordon, Willie (1957–)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Hope Vale, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.