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

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Wandjuk Djuakan Marika (1927–1987)

PUBLICATION: Wandjuk Marika, Wandjuk Marika: Life Story, as told to Jennifer Isaacs, University of Queensland Press, 1995, Brisbane

Sex: Male

Birth date: 1927

Birth place: Dhambaliya (Northern Territory)

First Language: Yolngu

Significant localities:

  • Yalanbara  (Sunrise Beach): A sacred ancestral land, or Wanarr madayin, for the Dhuwa peoples of eastern Arnhem Land. (p.20) Wandjuk’s father first took him to Yalanbara when he was five years old, to show him where the ancestral creators had landed on the beach. (p.21) Mawalan entrusted his son with the duty of caring for Yalanbara after his death. (p.22)
    Now I am looking after the sacred things and the sacred land and many more.” (p.22)
  • Dhalingbuy (Arnhem Bay): When Wandjuk was seven his father took him to Arnhem Bay, which is the Wangurri’s tribes land. (p.24) Today, the area hosts an outstation and an airstrip, but at the time there was nothing but scrubland. (p.24)
  • When Wandjuk was 18, he stayed with his mother’s relatives at Arnhem Bay for eighteen months and underwent initiation. (p.39)
  • Yirrkala Mission: A Methodist Mission commenced in 1935 on the Dhuwa’s ancestral land. After his initiation, Wandjuk started hunting crocodiles that he sold for skins at the Yirrkala Mission. (p.46) When he ran out of food he killed a mission cow, and was punished with six months of labouring. Rather than accept this sentence, Wandjuk’s father took him to Bremer Island for a year. (p.47) Later control of Yirrkala was handed back to the Indigenous residents. 
  • As a traditional owner of the area, Wandjuk played an important role in ceremonies at Yirrkala. (p.152)
  • Bremer Island: At the end of the Second World War Wandjuk spent a year living on Bremer Island, after being ‘naughty’ – killing a cow at the Yirrkala Mission. The missionary sentenced him to six months of labour, but his father took him to Bremer Island for twelve months instead. (p.47)
  • Darwin: When he was 19, Wandjuk walked from Yirrkala to Darwin with nine other boys. (p.55) They spent three months there before returning to Yirrkala by boat. (p.56) Wandjuk returned to Darwin for treatment after being injured in a feud at Yirrkala. (p.83)
  • Port Keats: Wandjuk travelled from Darwin to Port Keats with the Welfare Branch to collect Aboriginal art. (p.84)
  • Sydney: Wandjuk first travelled to Sydney in 1969 to attend the Royal Easter Show. (p.104) He spent two weeks at the show, painting alongside the son of Albert Namatjira. (p.114) Wandjuk spent time in Sydney from then on, for art exhibitions and work with the Aboriginal Arts Board.
  • Canberra: Wandjuk visited Parliament House in Canberra to see his father’s walking stick, which was part of a Land Rights display. (p.109)
  • Cooper Pedy: Wandjuk spent three weeks in Cooper Pedy, working on the film The Green Ants Dreaming. (p.139)
  • Lake Condah: An ancient lake in western Victoria, which Wandjuk visited with archaeologist Peter Coutts. (p.145)


  • Russia: Wandjuk travelled to Moscow in 1973 as a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board of Australia. (p.117)
    • “That was my first out from Australia. I see the different country and mix with white society.” (p.117)
  • New Guinea: Wandjuk travelled to New Guinea in 1974 with the Aboriginal Arts Board of Austraila. (p.118)
  • United State: Wandjuk flew to Albuquerque in New Mexico for an exhibition. (p.121) He also travelled to Hollywood to perform in the film The Right Stuff. (p.139)
  • Nigeria: Wandjuk travelled to Africa to participate in a Festival of the Arts for black countries. (p.121)
  • New Zealand: Wandjuk flew to New Zealand in 1976 to participate in the Pacific Festival. (p.121)


  • Wandjuk’s early education consisted mainly of learning to survive in the bush, learning from experience and from the instruction of Yolngu elders.
    “Even when I went to school they did not tell me what the Balandas were like, of what the white civilised life was like. I don’t know anything about it as a little boy; just walk around learn about Yolngu culture, learn about Yolngu life, where to go, how to find, how to hunt and which is the certain place. Which is my own land, where is the different moiety, where that land is.” (p.14)
  • As a young man Wandjuk went through extensive ceremonial training. This began at the age of seven, when his father took him to Dhalingbuy or Arnhem Bay. (p.39)
  • Wandjuk continued his education independently by taking bush trips alone. (p.55) At the age of sixteen, he and nine other boys took 26 days to walk from Yirrkala to Darwin. (p.55)
  • Wandjuk returned to Dhalinjbuy with his mother’s relatives when he was eighteen to undergo initiation, or Gunapipi. He spent eighteen months in training with other young men before his parents returned. (p.39)
  • Wandjuk’s maternal uncle also taught him the English alphabet. (p.75) His education in literacy continued with the help of the Yirrkala missionaries: Mr and Mrs Chaseling, and Mrs Thornhill. (p.75)


  • From an early age, Wandjuk hunted and gathered food and water with his family. (p.23)
  • After learning to speak English, Wandjuk had opportunities for employment in the white world. At sixteen years of age, after returning from Darwin, he began to assist the anthropologist Ronald Berndt with his research. (p.56) He later became the first teaching assistant for the missionaries, and translated the bible in Yolngu. (p.57)
  • During the Second World War, Wandjuk worked as a coastguard with anthropologist Donald Thomson; keeping watch in case of Japanese invasion. (p.59) Wandjuk and his friend travelled to Bremer Island during their holidays, where they witnessed a plane crash. They rescued the pilot; but only after he assured them he was American and not Japanese. (pp.66-67)
  • In 1943 Wandjuk was enlisted to help the Royal Australia Air Force build an airstrip near Yirrkala. (p.71) At the same time the troops searched for – and found – bauxite, however Wandjuk was unaware of their intentions at the time. (p.71) 
  • When the War ended the Air Force tried to encourage Wandjuk to return to Sydney with them, but his father prevented him from abandoning his ceremonial duties. (p.72)
  • Wandjuk worked with white Australians again in 1950, when BHP began prospecting for bauxite. (p.72) He and the Aboriginal residents drilled holes by hand. This was tiring work, which left them with blisters of their hands. (p.72)
  • Following the missionary’s advice, Wandjuk and his family then travelled back to Arnhem Bay to hunt for crocodiles. (p.46, 73)
  • Wandjuk’s father taught him how to catch the crocodiles while they were on the bank minding their eggs, and kill them using a three-pronged spear. (p.46) They then sold the skins to the Yirrkala missionary. (p.46)
  • In 1950, hunger drove Wandjuk to kill a cow that belonged to the Yirrkala mission, and he was punished with six months of labour. (p.47) To avoid this sentence, Wandjuk and his father moved to Bremer Island to hunt turtles. (p.47)
  • When he returned to the mainland Wandjuk continued to hunt and gather turtles, clams, sea cucumbers and pearls. He traded what he collected for tobacco, which served as the currency at Yirrkala. (p.51, 73)
  • In 1953 Wandjuk worked alongside the Welfare Branch, travelling from Darwin to Port Keats to collect Aboriginal art. (p.84) His cross-cultural communication skill continued to grow in the 1960s, as he travelled around Australia with the World Council of Churches. (p.109)
  • In the 1970s, Wandjuk employed these intercultural skills in Australia’s first successful Land Rights claim. In 1977 the government gave Wandjuk and the Yolngu back their homelands near Yirrkala. (p.105)
  • Wandjuk was also recognised as a significant Aboriginal artist in the 1970s.  His father, Mawalan, had taught him to paint on bark when he was very young. In the 1960s, a representative of the Art Gallery of New South Wales had travelled to Yirrkala, and collected some of their paintings to display in Sydney. (p.110)
  • In 1973, Wandjuk was appointed a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board, in the the Australia Council. (p.117) Wandjuk was Chairman of the Board for five years from 1975. (p.108)
  • In  1974, Wandjuk discovered a tea towel featuring one of his sacred designs. He was so upset that the manufacturers had used the image without his consent that he gave up painting for many years. (p.118)
  • When his will to paint returned, Wandjuk had his first solo exhibition at the Hogarth Gallery in Sydney in 1982. (p.121) He used the $15,000 from sales to buy a Four Wheel Drive, so that he and his family could move to an outstation to avoid the drinking at Yirrkala. (p.124)
  • As well as painting, Wandjuk also starred in a number of films. (p.139) In the 1970s he worked with Ian Dunlop and Film Australia to make a film about his father: Memory of Mawalan. (p.139)
  • He also starred in the film Green Ants Dreaming, shot in Cooper Pedy, and The Right Stuff, shot in Hollywood. (p.139)
  • While Wandjuk held important roles in the white world, his first priority was his commitments in Yirrkala. As a traditional owner, he played a central role in funerals. The ceremonies often had to be delayed so that Wandjuk had time to return from his travels. (p.152)


  • Wandjuk learnt about Yolngu religious stories and traditions from his father Mawalan. When he was five years old, his father took him to the sacred beach at Yalangbara. (p.21) Mawalan showed Wandjuk where the creation ancestors, the Djankawu, arrived on their canoes after a forty day journey. (pp.21, 33) The Djankawu, a brother and two sisters, stayed at Yalangbara for one year. (p.32)
  • When the wet season arrived, Djankawu followed a storm cloud west to Arnhem Bay. (p.33) They camped at a place called Gomininybuy for a month, before following the storm cloud again to Gambuka. There they created a sacred tree from their walking stick. (p.34)
  • From there the creation ancestors travelled to Gurunda, where they camped and planted more sacred objects. (p.35) The Djankawu then left Gurunda and followed the storm cloud to Bilirri hills, before moving on to Bokinya. (p.35)
  • As they travelled, the Djankawu created and named all living things, including the tribes of peoples. (p.35)
  • After learning English, Wandjuk helped the missionaries translate the Bible into Yolngu. (p.75) He never considered himself a Christian, but believed that some of the Methodists beliefs were compatible with his own. (p.77)
  • Wandjuk also believed that Christianity had had a harmonious influence on Yolngu society. (p.79)
  • In the 1960s Wandjuk travelled around Australia with the World Council of Churches. (p.109) Despite his good relationship with the Yirrkala Methodists, Wandjuk and his father objected to the more orthodox form of Christianity embraced by some Elcho Islanders, which rejected Yolngu teachings. (p.81)
    “Some other people, my tribe or my family or another group of people, they been destroy and threw everything away and become a Christian – still some of them are Christian. But they always come and ask me exactly the same as they used to ask my father to show them, to guide them and to hold the culture so that they can hold their culture, and law and ceremony.” (p.82)


  • The Royal Flying Doctor: Wandjuk travelled with the Royal Flying Doctor from Yirrkala to Darwin for medical treatment after he was injured in fight. (p.83)
  • The Art Gallery of New South Wales: Wandjuk and his father had artworks on display at the Galley from 1963, when Tony Tuckson and Mrs Tuckson, Dr Stuart Scougall and Dorothy Bennett visited them in Yirrkala. (p.113)
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS): Wandjuk and his father featured in an AIATSIS documentary about life in Yirrkala in the early 1970s. (p.113)
  • Australian Council for the Arts: Wandjuk was appointed a member of the Australian Council for the Arts in 1970. (p.117) The ACFTA ceased to exist when the Australian government created the Australia Council. He later became the Chairman of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Art Board. (p.117)
  • Hogarth Gallery: Wandjuk had his first solo exhibition at the Hogarth Gallery in Sydney in 1982. (p.124)


  • Wandjuk recalls that, when he first visited Darwin as a young man, the Yolngu hid in the bush to drink because they weren’t permitted in pubs. (p.132)


  • In the case of injury or illness, Wandjuk used both Western and traditional techniques. When he fell out of a tree as a child and injured his back, his mother treated him with heated pandanus nuts wrapped in paperback. (p.128) Throughout his life, he self-medicated by eating the eyes of an octopus, or malarrami. (p.128)
  • After he was injured in a fight with another Yolngu man at Yirrkala, the Royal Flying Doctor flew Wandjuk to Darwin for treatment. He was released from Darwin Hospital after three week, but suffered permanent nerve damage to his right hand. (p.83)


  • Mum: Wandjuk’s mother was the daughter of a woman from Western Arnhem Land. (p.31) When he was about five years old, she taught him how to collect foods from the bush. (p.21) She also taught him about her totem and creation, and prepared Wandjuk for his initiation ceremony. (p.22)
  • Mawalan Marika: Wandjuk’s father held a high position within their clan, possessed spiritual and cultural knowledge, and had important ceremonial duties. (p.41)
  • Mawalan passed this information onto his son by taking him on journeys to sacred sites, and teaching him to hunt and paint. (p.22)
  • When he was about five years old, Mawalan took Wandjuk to the beach at Yalangbara and taught him how to find fresh water and fish. (p.21) He also showed his son the place where the creation ancestors Djankawau had landed and lived on the sacred beach. (p.21)
  • At the age of fifteen Wandjuk’s father taught him how to hunt turtle. (p.31)
  • Mawalan also taught his son how to play the yidaki, or didgeridoo. (p.36)
  • Wandjuk also learned from his father how to paint the stories of their ancestors. (p.110-113)
  • Mawalan passed away in 1967. (p.33) It took Wandjuk two years to recover from his grief. (p.164) He then took over many of Mawalan ceremonial duties. (p.36)


  • Wandjuk was promised his first wife, Gotjirnu, when he was eight years old. She was a relative from the Wurrapa clan of Echo Island. The match was appropriate according to the Yolngu marriage system because they were of different moieties, and were not too closely related. (p.91) Wandjuk and Gotjirnu married when he was nineteen and she was sixteen. (p.158)
  • Wandjuk was promised more wives from the same family, but he chose only one: his first wives’ fifteen-year-old sister. (p.91)
  • His second wife had difficulty adjusting to her new life, until Wandjuk took her to the bush and they got to know each other properly. (p.158)
  • Later in life Wandjuk was offered a third wife from the Gumatj tribe. (p.91) After a year of marriage his third wife eloped with a man from Elcho Island, while Wandjuk was away for an art exhibition. (p.92)
  • As well as his two wives, Wandjuk enjoyed the company of many women – or miyalk – while travelling in Australia and abroad. (pp.148-149) He recalls encounters with women in Russia and New Zealand. (p.148) 
  • In 1977 Wandjuk fell in love with a white woman named Jenny Home. (p. 92) In 1980 he bought her to Yirrkala and taught her about Yolngu customs. (p.92) Wandjuk’s siblings accepted Jenny, but his first two wives became jealous. (p.92)
  • Jenny stayed in Yirrkala and helped the community to obtain grants and establish the school and art centre. (pp.95-96) Later Jenny became a teacher at the Yirrkala School. (p.164)
  • Wandjuk’s first wives gradually came to accept his new partner, after the birth of Jenny’s first child. (p.97) He also stopped having casual relationships while travelling. (p.149)
    “I meet Jenny Home. She is the strong woman, always help me but yaka, I’m not talking or looking other miyalk.” (p.149)


  • Wandjuk had five children with his first wife: four girls, Warrangilna, Helen, Rarriwuy and Wayalwana, and one boy, Wuyula. (p.160) Gotjirnu and Wandjuk’s children are all married with children. (p.160)
  • With his second wife Wandjuk had six children: five boys, Malawan, Marrirrwuy, Napandala, Yalarrma and Gomili, and one girl, Bakili. (p.160) All of their sons are single, and their daughter had five children. (p.161)
  • Wandjuk also has a daughter with Jenny Homes, who he describes as “the princess Mayatili.” (p.148) He points out that Mayatili speaks three languages – two Yolngu languages and English – and this will help her move between two worlds. (p.164)
  • Wandjuk also adopted a daughter, Lucille Dhawunyilnyil, from the Rirratjingu clan (p.160) and had a child with a New Zealand woman he met while travelling as the chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board. (p.148)
  • Wandjuk ensured all his children learned about Yolngu rituals and ceremonies. (pp.161-168)
  • Wandjuk was deeply saddened when he lost three children: two girls and one boy. (p.164)


  • Ronald Berndt: An anthropology professor who Wandjuk worked with when he was a young man. (p.56)
  • Donald Thomson: An anthropology professor who recruited Wandjuk and his father as coastguards during the Second World War. (p.61) 
    “Dr Donald Thomson walk strong. It was dry season. Sometime he would wearing hat, I still remember this. Yes, he took out the map, he took it out and crawling like Yolngu and some he’s walking up the hill, mountain and down, and sometime he slip and fall over and my father used to help and he also had a big dog called “Daga”, like a lion, big huge.” (p.61)
  • Mr Chaseling: A missionary who, along with his wife, taught Wandjuk how to read and write. (p.75)
  • Mrs Thornhill: A teacher who continued Wandjuk’s education in English, and later made him a teacher’s assistant. (p.75)
  • Jenny Isaacs: Wandjuk met Jenny in 1971, while she was working as a secretary for Dr Coombs at the Department of Aboriginal affairs. (p.103) She returned to Yirrkala and was Wandjuk’s family. He gave Jenny’s children Yolngu names: Yalangbara, Gurdunda and Lindirritj. (p.97)
  • In the 1980s Jenny transcribed Wandjuk’s life story, which was published after his death in 1987. (p.11)
  • Frank Purcell, John Little and A. E. Woodward: Lawyers who worked with Wandjuk on the first land rights campaign. (p.104)
  • Tony Tuckson, Dr Scougall and Dorothy Bennett: Art collectors who came to Yirrkala in 1963 to collect painting for the Art Galley of New South Wales. (p.113)
  • Keith Namatjira: Wandjuk spent two weeks painting alongside Keith Namatjira, the son of famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1969. (p.114)


  • Yolngu Culture:  Wandjuk describes the beliefs and practices of the Yirritja and Dhuwa people. Wandjuk’s clan Rirratjingu belongs to the Dhuwa moiety; its totem is the lindirritj, or rainbow lorikeet. (p.42)
  • The Dhuwa women use feathers of the rainbow lorikeets, which have been collected by other clans, to make ceremonial objects like dilly bags. (p.42) Other important animals for the Dhuwa people are the black goanna, or djanda, the plains turkey, or buwata, and echidna. (p.44)
    “Land is land, but there are different parts. Aboriginal people are different people, they have the names, the totems and the land owners. Yes, from the beginning to end, every different tribe have a different knowledge and there is the story about how we become involved with each other, become relatives – by totem.” (p.17)
  • Wandjuk also recalls the remedies that the Yolngu used to treat illness. (p127) To treat backache, the Yolngu massage the patient’s body with pandanus nuts heated by the fire and wrapped in paperbark. (p.127) They also ate the eyes of the octopus from the Wessel Island, which they believed gave them strength. (p.128)
    “Balanda can make any medicine for a body. For headache for anyone, Yolngu and Balanda who have sickness on their heart aching or suffering from any illness. But the Yolngu can find some medicine from the bush and work on it. Some Yolngu have mind medicine, and also there is the magic, because the magic is come from the land, not from tree or bush (they have medicine not magic).” (p.130)
  • Colonial encounters: Growing up in the bush near the Yirrkala mission, Wandjuk new little about the settler-colonial world.
  • Wandjuk first saw money when he found some pennies on the beach as a child. He showed the Yirrkala missionary, who explained to him the purpose of money. (p.53)
  • Wandjuk’s early experiences with white Australians were largely negative. He recalls a massacre that occurred in 1932, after Yolngu men murdered a group of Japanese sailors in retaliation for their treatment of Aboriginal women. (p.49)
  • Wandjuk knowledge of the non-Aboriginal world grew after he learned English and started travelling. While he experienced some racism, he also met many trustworthy white people. (p.17)
  • Social Problems: Wandjuk recalls that, when he first visited Darwin as a young man, the Yolngu hid in the bush to drink because they weren’t permitted in pubs. (p.132) Alcohol played an increasingly prominent role in Yolngu life, especially amongst young men, after it became legal for Aboriginal people to drink. (p.134)
  • Wandjuk emphasises the detrimental effects of alcohol and digital media on these men; leading them to neglect their families and forget about Yolngu traditions. (p.134)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Wandjuk Marika told his life story to Jennifer Isaacs.

  • “I’m writing and I’m speaking from my own language but at the same time I’m translate to English – from my heart and from my mind – what I know about my life story.” (p.13)

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18. [View Article]

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Marika, Wandjuk Djuakan (1927–1987)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 June 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Bremer Island, Northern Territory, Australia


15 June, 1987 (aged ~ 60)
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

blood poisoning

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.

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