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Dr Murray Garde

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.

Murray Garde

Dr Murray Garde

Research Fellow

Research School of Humanities

Australian National University


The forbidden gaze: The 1948 Wubarr ceremony performed for the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL)

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In 1948 the Arnhem Land Expedition commissioned the performance in Oenpelli of a Wubarr ceremony which at the time was the premier regional secret totemic cult ceremony of Western Arnhem Land. The resulting archived documentation consists of film footage, audio recordings with voice-over commentaries and some objects of material culture. The return of this film and audio to the few remaining senior ceremonial custodians of Wubarr ceremonial knowledge in western Arnhem Land over the past two years and the examination of documentation by the Expedition team in relation to the 1948 performance reveal the disparate understandings Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups had of the ceremony's significance. In this paper I place the Wubarr ceremony performed in 1948 in its cultural context, at least those aspects of it open for discussion in the public domain, and attempt to examine the tangled cross-cultural politics of non-Aboriginal involvement in secret Aboriginal religious ceremonies in Western Arnhem Land. This contextualisation is based on a number of interviews conducted in the local vernacular (Bininj Kunwok) with the remaining senior custodians of Wubarr ceremonial knowledge.


Murray Garde is currently an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. From 1988 through to 1999 he lived in the north-central Arnhem Land community of Maningrida and also on outstations in the Liverpool and Mann rivers districts of Western Arnhem Land. During this time he first worked as a visiting homeland centre teacher and then as curator of the Djómi Museum in Maningrida, and cultural research officer for the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation. He enjoyed close friendships with the Kuninjku people who lived on outstations at the eastern margins of the Arnhem Land Plateau, and it was these people who first introduced him to some of the great regional cult ceremonies of the area in the tradition of those witnessed by members of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition.

In 1993 Murray instituted a rock art documentation project which focused on recording the cultural significance of rock art for the traditional Aboriginal owners in the Mann and Liverpool rivers districts. Much of this work also allowed him to study the dialects of Bininj Kunwok spoken across western Arnhem Land and, eventually, he became fluent enough to work as an interpreter in legal, medical and cultural contexts.

Since 1999 he has been working as a consultant for a variety of Aboriginal organisations in Western Arnhem Land, and has undertaken extensive cultural site survey and community development work as well as research into traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. His doctoral research was on the cultural context of person reference and conversation analysis in the Bininj Kunwok language. His publications cover an eclectic range of subjects including linguistic anthropology, traditional Aboriginal music, rock art studies, Aboriginal health, Arnhem Land history, Aboriginal art, and Indigenous ecological knowledge.

He is presently compiling dictionaries of the Bininj Kunwok dialect chain, and language teaching materials for use in language maintenance programs. Murray spends periods of each Top End dry season at the land management community of Kabulwarnamyo on the Arnhem Land plateau, where he participates in the annual trans-plateau walk that follows the traditional trading routes and Aboriginal walking tracks of the Arnhem Land Plateau. His work at Kabulwarnamyo involves collaboration with the ethnographic filmmaker Kim McKenzie, which has resulted in a series of cultural documentaries, including Fragments of the Owl's Egg (2005), The Language of Land (2006), and Fire in the Land of Honey (2009).

Note: The views expressed in speakers' abstracts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Museum of Australia.