Unaipon (2004)

Creating Unaipon

what is the inspiration for Unaipon?

David Unaipon was born in 1872 and died in 1967. Most Australians are familiar with Unaipon’s face as the man depicted on the Australian fifty-dollar note, but know little about his extraordinary life as a scientist, inventor, philosopher, writer, story teller and Christian preacher. He was also an advisor to government and an activist who chose to influence the society he lived within through his words, his dialogue, his literature, his scientific contributions, and by the sheer enormity of his efforts to rise to any challenge.

David Unaipon’s father James Unaipon, was one of the first Aboriginal men to embrace Christianity, becoming an active member of the laity and an influential member of the mission community of Point McLeay. In 1871, under the patronage of Scottish missionary George Taplin, he became the first Christian church deacon and his marriage was the first Christian wedding ceremony on the mission. 

Unaipon lived on the Point McLeay mission until he left at the age of thirteen to spend five years in Adelaide in the house of Charles Burny ‘CB’ Young. David was brought to the Young household as a servant, but was also provided the chance to learn about philosophy, science and music. He read Classic literature, studied the great philosophers, learned to speak Latin and Ancient Greek and became skilled at playing Bach on the organ. He showed an insatiable thirst for knowledge which did not diminish till the day he died.

Unaipon lived at a time when the White Australia policy was enacted and implemented, and the general belief was that Indigenous people and their culture were heading for extinction, yet he regarded his Indigenous culture as on the same platform as all the other great cultures of the world. This perspective was both courageous and unique. Unaipon argued that even though Aboriginal people lived very simply, and in harmony with nature rather than in a society that exploited the environment in the name of progress, their culture was just as complex and impressive as any of the other great civilisations of the world.

where does the story come from?

David Unaipon was a Ngarrindjeri man of the Warrawaldi clan, born in 1872 at Point McLeay Mission in South Australia. Unaipon is an Anglicised version of his traditional Potawolin family name, Ngnunaiton. He was the fourth of nine children born to James Unaipon and Nymbulda, a Karatinjeri clanswoman and his early life was spent learning traditional ways of his People.

The Ngarrindjeri are the people of the lower Murray River and the Coorong region, around Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. In the early 1800s the area was visited by many whalers and sealers and at one point was one of the most heavily populated regions in Australia until a smallpox epidemic came down the Murray River and decimated the population.

The land of the Ngarrindjeri is rich in supply of many food sources and the people of this region known for their outstanding cooking, fishing and farming practices. They are also known for their weaving craft, a practice that continues to this day. Baskets, matting and nets were used for multiple purposes and were regarded as superior to the European products that were introduced by Europeans. Many Ngarrindjeri rituals are well documented, including the unique significance of the umbilical cord being sacred to the Ngarrindjeri and appears many of their weavings and paintings. The Nhung e umpie is treated in a way that preserves it for a considerable time. It is then placed with a roll of Emu feathers and the wound round with fibre from the bark of the tree or mallee. The Nhung e umpie symbolises womanhood, generations and relationships – nobility, matriarchy and inheritance.