Obituary: David Banggal Mowaljarlai

13th January 2014

Kamali Land Council

Obituary: David Banggal Mowaljarlai (b. 1 July 1925, Kunmunya Mission, Western Australia d. 24 September 1997, Derby, Western Australia)

‘That country is our own living body, flesh and blood. How can we be smashing up our own body? Can’t do it’. D.M.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 24 September, David Banggal Mowaljarlai passed away after a heart attack. David was a Ngarinyin man of the Brrejirad (Pink Hibiscus) clan whose traditional country is in the Roe River area of the west Kimberley. David fought an indefatigable battle over forty or more years for the Ngarinyin people to reoccupy and regain title to the country from which so many of his kin had been displaced. Fortunately, the Ngarinyin communities on the pastoral stations provided an ever-present focus for families who had been shifted to Mowanjwn on the edge of Derby in 1956. These networks of families enabled Ngarinyin people to maintain rich associations with their land, and David was the instigator of the Ngarinyin homeland project which saw permanent, self-determining settlements emerge throughout the heart of the traditional lands. David’s astonishing energy and devotion to the welfare of his people, with a particularly sharp focus on the young people of his tribe, led many of us to believe, or at least to nurture the foolish hope that he would always be here amongst us. This despite the fact that he himself always reminded us that the great teachers had ‘only a little time left’. Now that he has gone it is plain that a gaping hole has opened up in our lives.

David was unique in his capacity to speak directly to the hearts not just of his own people but of the white world, which in his lifetime enveloped and often brutally bore down upon him and his people. David took the challenge with characteristic flair and style, relishing the struggle to understand and communicate with a global audience. To this end, he became fluent and literate in four or more languages, transcribing the stories of his own and neighbouring people and translating not just words, but entire concepts into a language which reached the hearts of thousands of people across the world, most recently at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June, 1997. His unique gifts enabled him to negotiate with great energy and humour the deadly minefield of colonial relationships.

Many of these irreplaceable skills were nurtured in his birthplace Kunmunya, under Rev. Mr J.R.B. Love and the guidance of his own elders. Thus, Mowaljarlai appears as a bright spark of life in the earliest work of researchers: Andreas Lornmel in the 1930s and then Elkin, Howard Coate, Arthur Cappell, Lucich, Michael Edols (the list is endless stretching up to the day before his death) shining out as a remarkable human being rather than just an anonymous object of research. Mowaljarlai was linguist, author, storyteller, anthropologist, an extraordinary painter, teacher and preacher, as well as land rights and social justice activist. Mowaljarlai is irreplaceable, an acclaimed but still sadly underestimated representative of the generation which has tried so painfully to make the transition to living in a radically altered world. Mowaljarlai forced his own way into this world and fiercely resisted any attempts to pin him down in one place or to one position. From being the first ambulance driver at Derby hospital serving the injured stockmen on the remote cattle stations, to diesel engineer on the luggers supplying the west Kimberley coast, from travelling his country with an endless procession of supplicant professionals recording the stunning Wandjina paintings and the Ngarinyin landscape which so deeply shaped his being, from his pensioner quarters in Derby in which he raised his young sons, to the halls of overseas universities, bringing home the remains of stolen ancestors and their material culture, Mowaljarlai enjoyed to his last day the challenge of working towards his still elusive goal—his people living back in their home countries with an economically sustainable life.

Only three weeks before his death Mowaljarlai lost one of his young sons in a tragic death in custody. While refusing to be beaten by this loss Mowaljarlai was under great pressure as he watched old people burying their own children, and this never ceased to cause him great distress. Nevertheless, in the last few days he completed a painting of yalgu, images of teenage Wanjina, continued his own investigations into the death of his son, partook in Native Title Tribunal proceedings and worked on clan maps of Ngarinyin countries, all the while maintaining his much admired personal touch of beauty and style. The death of this fine handsome animated man has left us heartbroken —Ngarinyin people now garnal (grieve) for a founding voice of Kamali Land Council, Kimberley Language Resource Centre, Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation, Kimberley Land Council, Gulingi Nungga Corporation, and the list runs on and on …

Mowaljarlai leaves behind a wife, seven children and too many grandchildren to mention by name. He will be mourned across borders and cultures.

Deru genjan darr ngarwan dambun ju muna ling matungnya Unggurr ju guluman bienya narigu nagrunguma yu ngara ngarwanya. (Paddy Neowarra and Laurie Gownaulli, dear companions of 70 years, repeating a favourite turn of phase of Mowaljarlai’s).

When I’m on a high mountain looking out over country my Unggurr (life-force) flows out from inside my body and I fall open with happiness.

Kamali Land Council
Obituary: David Banggal Mowaljarlai
December 1997
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Obituaries
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