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David Unaipon

David Ngunaitponi
David Unaipon (Anglicisation)
David Unaipon in the late 1920s
Born 28 September 1872
Point McLeay Mission
Died 7 February 1967(1967-02-07) (aged 94)
Tailem Bend, South Australia
Nationality Australian
(Warrawaldie Lakalinyeri of the Ngarrindjeri)
Education Raukkan mission school
Spouse(s) Katherine Carter (nee Sumner)
Parent(s) Mother: Nymbulda?[1]
Father: James Ngunaitponi

David Unaipon (born David Ngunaitponi) (28 September 1872 – 7 February 1967) was a well-known Indigenous Australian[2] of the Ngarrindjeri people, a preacher, inventor and writer. Unaipon's contribution to Australian society helped to break many Indigenous Australian stereotypes, and he is featured on the Australian $50 note in commemoration.


  • Biography 1
    • Inventor 1.1
    • Writer and lecturer 1.2
    • Other 1.3
    • Legacy and tributes 1.4
    • Fifty-dollar note 1.5
  • Works 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6


Born at the Point McLeay Mission on the banks of Lake Alexandrina in the Coorong region of South Australia, Unaipon was the fourth of nine children of James and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi. Unaipon began his education at the age of seven at the Point McLeay Mission School and soon became known for his intelligence, with the former secretary of the Aborigines' Friends' Association stating in 1887: "I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of."[3]

Unaipon left school at 13 to work as a servant for C.B. Young in

  • Biographical notes by Bangarra Dance Theatre choreographer Frances Rings
  • David and James Unaipon at Unaipon School, University of South Australia
  • The David Unaipon Award at University of Queensland Press
  • Legendary Tales Digital Art Exhibition
  • David Unaipon online collection - State Library of NSW
  • Radio documentary On the shore of a strange land: David Unaipon
  • Jones, Philip (1990). "Unaipon, David (1872 - 1967)".  

External links

  1. ^  
    The only primary source for the name Nymbulda is Ronald Berndt names her as Nymberindjeri with Nymbulda being her father's first wife, and there was also another of that name married to another relative. It can not be ruled out that she was known by both names. Indigenous tradition required that after a death, the deceased persons name could no longer be used and those with the same name would take a new name.
  2. ^ Graham Jenkin, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri, The Story of the Lower Murray lakes Tribes,(1979)1985 Rigby reprint p.185
  3. ^ Jenkin, p. 185.
  4. ^ David Unaipon Preacher, Inventor, Musician & Writer History Trust of South Australia
  5. ^ a b c Unaipon, David (1872 - 1967) Australian Dictionary of Biography
  6. ^ a b Unaipon, David (1872 - 1967) Webjournals
  7. ^ a b Jenkin, pp. 234-236
  8. ^ "On the shore of a strange land: David Unaipon".  
  9. ^ "The man on our $50, David Unaipon, was born on this day".  
  10. ^ Gale (1997), p. 41.
  11. ^ Miller, Ben. , Vol. 6.AltitudeConfusing Epistemologies: Whiteness, Mimicry and Assimilation in David Unaipon's 'Confusion of Tongue'.
  12. ^ Unaipon, D. (2006) Legendary Tales of the Australian AboriginesISBN 0-522-85246-7.
  13. ^ The Times of London, "Australian Aboriginal At Lev.eé", 24 June 1936, p. 15.
  14. ^ Attwood & Markus, pp. 86-88.
  15. ^ "Tindale Tribes-Portaulun". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 8 December 2010. 
  16. ^ David Unaipon claimed Portaulun was the name of the language spoken by his people and that the lakinyeri name was Waruwaldi
  17. ^ "The man on our $50, David Unaipon, was born on this day".  
  18. ^ Whitehorn, Zane "The legacy of David Unaipon", Indigenous Newslines, March–May 2010, p. 16.
  19. ^ "Rookie writer Amy Barker joins literati". The Australian. Retrieved 16 October 2009. 
  20. ^ The David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research
  21. ^ "Unaipon Avenue". ACT Planning and Land Authority. Retrieved 11 November 2010. 
  22. ^ "The man on our $50, David Unaipon, was born on this day".  
  23. ^ "Family wants compo for $50 note image", Larine Statham, AAP, 27 November 2008, appearing at, accessed 28 November 2008.


  • Attwood B. & Markus, A. (2004) Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League, Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra. ISBN 0 85575 459 1.
  • Gale, M. (1997) Dhanum Djorra'wuy Dhawu: A history of writing in Aboriginal languages, Aboriginal Research Institute, Underdale, South Australia. ISBN 0-86803-182-8.
  • Jenkin, G. (1979). Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri, Rigby. ISBN 0-7270-1112-X


See also

  • David Unaipon; Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84905-9.


Allan "Chirpy" Campbell, reported to be a great-nephew of David Unaipon, failed in an attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Reserve Bank of Australia for using an image of Mr Unaipon on the Australian $50 note without the permission of the family. Mr Campbell's argument was that the woman (now deceased) originally consulted by the Reserve Bank was not related to Mr Unaipon.[23]

An Australian $50 note featuring David Unaipon's image.
The background features the Raukkan mission and Unaipon's mechanical shearer.

Fifty-dollar note

21 years after Unaipon's death in 1988, the annual national David Unaipon Award was established for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.[22]

The David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education And Research at the University of South Australia is named after him,[20] as is Unaipon Avenue in the Canberra suburb of Ngunnawal.[21]

An interpretive dance based on Unaipon's life, Unaipon, was performed by the Bangarra Dance Theatre,[18] while the David Unaipon Literary Award is an annual award presented for the best of writing of the year by unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors.[19]

Legacy and tributes

Unaipon was awarded a Coronation medal in 1953 at the age of 81 celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Unaipon was a very influential man during his era considering he was of Aboriginal ethnicity but was often refused accommodation because of his race.[17]

Unaipon returned to his birthplace in his old age, where he worked on inventions and attempted to reveal the secret of perpetual motion. A member of the Portaulun (Waruwaldi) people,[15][16] Unaipon died in the Tailem Bend Hospital on 7 February 1967 and was buried in the Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay) Mission Cemetery.[5] He was survived by a son.

Unaipon's stance on Aboriginal issues put him into conflict with other Aboriginal leaders, including William Cooper of the Australian Aborigines' League, and Unaipon publically criticised the League's "Day of Mourning" held on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, arguing that the protest would only harm Australia's reputation abroad and would cement a negative public opinion of Aboriginals.[14]

In 1936, he was reported to be the first Aboriginal to attend a levée, when he attended the South Australian centenary levée in Adelaide, an event that made international news.[13]

Unaipon was also involved in political issues surrounding Aboriginal affairs and was a keen supporter of Aboriginal self-determination, including working as a researcher and witness for the Bleakley Enquiry into Aboriginal Welfare and lobbied the Australian Government to take over responsibility for Aboriginals from its constituent states. He proposed to the government of South Australia to replace the office of Chief Protector of Aborigines with a responsible board and was arrested for attempting to provide a separate territory for Aboriginals in central and northern Australia.

Unaipon was a recognised authority on ballistics.[7]


Some of Unaipon's traditional Aboriginal stories were published in a 1930 book, Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, under the name of anthropologist William Ramsay Smith.[11] They have recently been republished in their original form, under the author's name, as Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.[12]

Unaipon was the first Aboriginal writer to publish in English,[10] the author of numerous articles in newspapers and magazines, including the Sydney Daily Telegraph, retelling traditional stories and arguing for the rights of Aborigines.

Unaipon was inquisitively religious, believing in an equivalence of traditional Aboriginal and Christian spirituality. His employment with the Aborigines' Friends' Association collecting subscription money allowed him to travel widely. The travel brought him into contact with many intelligent people sympathetic with the cause of Aboriginal rights, and gave him the opportunity to lecture on Aboriginal culture and rights. Although he was much in demand as a public speaker he was often refused accommodation and refreshment due to his race.

Unaipon was the first Aboriginal author to be published after he was commissioned in the early 1920s by the University of Adelaide to assemble a book on Aboriginal legends. From 1924 onwards he also wrote numerous articles for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He published three short booklets of Aboriginal stories in 1927, 1928 and 1929. In this time he wrote on topics covering everything from perpetual motion and helicopter flight to Aboriginal legends and campaigns for Aboriginal rights. [9]

Unaipon was obsessed with correct English and in speaking tended to use classical English rather than that in common usage. His written language followed the style of John Milton and John Bunyan.[6]

Writer and lecturer

Other inventions included a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. He was also known as the Australian Leonardo da Vinci for his mechanical ideas, which included pre World War I drawings for a helicopter design based on the principle of the boomerang and his research into the polarisation of light and also spent much of his life attempting to achieve perpetual motion.[8]

Unaipon took out provisional patents for 19 inventions but was unable to afford to get any of his inventions fully patented. His most successful invention (provisional patent 15 624), a shearing machine that converted curvilineal motion into the straight line movement which is the basis of modern mechanical shears, was introduced without Unaipon receiving any financial return and, apart from a 1910 newspaper report acknowledging him as the inventor, he received no credit.[7]


On 4 January 1902 he married Katherine Carter (née Sumner), a Tangane woman.[5] He was later employed by the Aborigines' Friends' Association as a deputationer, in which role he travelled and preached widely in seeking support for the Point McLeay Mission.[6] Unaipon retired from preaching in 1959 but continued working on his inventions into the 1960s.[5]

in the Point McLeay store. book-keeper In the late 1890s he travelled to Adelaide but found that his colour was a bar to employment in his trade and instead took a job as storeman for an Adelaide bootmaker before returning to work as [4]

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