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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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Larry Lanley (1927–1981)

by Paul Memmott

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Larry Lanley (1927-1981), Aboriginal community leader and shire councillor, was born on 10 January 1927 near Burketown, Queensland, said to be the son of Ben Friscon, a hunter with traditional links to the Gregory River.  His mother, Limerick, was a member of the Yilio clan of the upper Nicholson River, part of the Waanyi language group.  From the age of 8 Larry lived at the Presbyterian mission on Mornington Island.  Placed in the boys’ dormitory, he experienced a daily routine of religious instruction, school lessons and garden labour.  During World War II, when the missionaries evacuated the mission, Lanley and other inmates lived with local Lardil and Yangkaal families.  After the war he worked as a stockman and yard-builder at the mission and on cattle stations around the southern part of the Gulf of Carpentaria.  On 15 November 1948 at Mornington Island Mission Lanley married Fanny Sandy, a Ganggalida woman who had also grown up at the mission.

A proficient didgeridoo player, Lanley was a founding member (1973) of the Woomera Aborigine Company (from 1983 Woomera Aboriginal Corporation), which promoted and taught Aboriginal dance, art and culture:  he participated in tours around Australia with the Mornington Island Dancers.  At the island’s state school he helped to introduce elements of the southern Gulf culture; he taught traditional dancing, sacred histories and the manufacture of customary artefacts.  For some years a member (chairman 1980-81) of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, he was also chairman (1976-80) of the Mornington Island community co-operative, Gununamanda Inc. Pty Ltd.  He was a member (1977-81) of the Council for Aboriginal Development.  In 1978, at a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization seminar in Adelaide, he made a stirring speech on the importance of Indigenous land rights and the need to preserve cultures.

Lanley was chairman of the local Aboriginal community council (1976-78) and of the Mornington Shire Council (1978-81), which took over the mission in 1978.  Guiding the community towards self-management and self-sufficiency, he implemented a strong policy of cultural re-vitalisation and established the Muyinda Association of the Wellesley Islands, a council of elders representing traditional landowners, to advise the shire council on cultural issues.  He spearheaded the revival in 1979 on Mornington Island of the male initiation ceremony, suppressed by the missionaries for over fifty years; the ritual was held regularly for the next twenty years.

In the last months of his life Lanley planned an alliance of elders to strengthen law links between the various tribal groups in the Barkly region, and supported a move by the Muyinda Association to retain a set of traditional laws.  He died of myocardial infarction on 22 January 1981 in the Mornington Island hospital and was buried with Uniting Church forms in the local cemetery.  His wife, three sons and four daughters survived him; one son had predeceased him.  The Jagarairee dance festival ground on Mornington Island was named after him, using a mainland word for his totemic identity 'Lightning'.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Memmott and R. Horsman (eds), A Changing Culture, 1991
  • Qld Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Newsletter, Jan-Feb p 2, 1981
  • Cairns Post, 28 January 1981, p 21
  • P. C. Memmott, Lardil Properties of Place (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 1980)
  • P. Memmott and R. Horsman (eds) , A Changing Culture , 1991
  • Cairns Post (Qld) , 28 January 1981 , p 21
  • P. C. Memmott, Lardil Properties of Place (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 1980)

Citation details

Paul Memmott, 'Lanley, Larry (1927–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]


10 January, 1927
Burketown, Queensland, Australia


22 January, 1981 (aged 54)
Mornington Island, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.