Extraordinary life of Aboriginal inventor honoured | Pacific Beat

Extraordinary life of Aboriginal inventor honoured

Extraordinary life of Aboriginal inventor honoured

Updated 5 October 2012, 13:00 AEST

Indigenous South Australian David Unaipon was recently honoured as the subject of Google's main search page.

Mr Unaipon's image is widely recognised in Australia for being featured on the 50-dollar bill.

Born on a Christian mission in 1872, Mr Unaipon became a leading advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people.

He was also a keen inventor -- creating the modern mechanical hand piece for shearing and experimenting with the flight of boomerangs to predict the invention of helicopter flight.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts

Speaker: Professor Peter Buckskin, David Unaipon College in South Australia

BUCKSKIN: His name was used in a number of areas and ways in Australia, one is a literature award under his name, but as an annual award for Indigenous writers and, of course, the University of South Australia has used David Unaipon's name to name its indigenous school for some years since the 70s and we were pleased to do that, because David as you've mentioned was an inventor, he was a writer, he was a prominent spokesperson for his people of his time and he was a real advocate for I suppose reconciliation before it became common discussion in Australia.

COUTTS: Well, the mechanical hand piece that I mentioned for shearing which changed the motion of the blades from circular to straight. He actually invented that, but financially didn't get the benefits?

BUCKSKIN: No, he did, and I suppose it was just through nature of Aboriginal people in that particular time that they didn't benefit from full citizenship opportunities that were afforded other Australians, but David lived in an Aboriginal community that was established where Aboriginal people were removed from their say traditional lands and placed into these communities and there are a number of these communities in South Australia and you mentioned one at Point McLeay, Aboriginal mission which is now called Ralcon, an Aboriginal name for that community.

And David lived there for all of his life. He also wrote a lot during his time and published a number of books also which he really didn't benefit from either, but we benefited from them in terms of manuscripts that he had written about life. He worked with anthropologists to talk about his people, the Ngarrindjeri community. He wrote a book "Myths and Legends of Aboriginal Australians" way before, early in the 1930s. So he really was a person that was a scholar in terms of the way he examined his people and the way he thought we should be fitting into the Australian community.

COUTTS: Clearly made outstanding contributions in so many different areas, David Unaipon. Is that the correct pronunciation, Unaipon?

BUCKSKIN: Yes, Unaipon.

COUTTS: Yes, thank you. Including experimenting with the flight of boomerangs and later predicted the invention of the helicopter flight?

BUCKSKIN: Yeah, he was quite an interesting person. He certainly did talk about flight by using the boomerang and again, he wrote about those things. He drew pictures about the possibility of that flight, but again really didn't benefit from it their drawings and writings that he did and just really left for other people to do further work on.

COUTTS: And David Unaipon was also a writer as you've clearly indicated and the first Aboriginal writer to publish in English, but again, like the shears, didn't come to a good end. He was plagiarised?

BUCKSKIN: Well that's right, and I think it's again the nature of the time. Aboriginal people sort of at the time I don't think enjoyed the full rights of citizenship and therefore in terms of his writings and his influences, other people clearly had the opportunity to use them in ways which he probably wouldn't have understood that the people were using them because of the very nature of where he lived, which was on a community. He really didn't live out in the mainstream community. He was very passionate around a whole range of things, such as the issue you talked about the helicopter in terms of perpetual motion. He was pretty obsessed with that and he spent most of his life writing about that, and so he continued that thinking over many, many years and I suppose other people who knew of his interest in that area were able to access his work and build upon it without sometimes his knowledge.

COUTTS: And he also wrote Aboriginal stories published in book "Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals".

BUCKSKIN: Yes, he did.

COUTTS: Was that in modern day succession down to the Dreamtime series that we as kids also read?

BUCKSKIN: I don't know particularly about that particular piece of work, but yeah, he wrote factual work around his people, but he also wrote other fictional pieces of work for people to enjoy.

COUTTS: Alright, again my opening question, why is so little known about him and will that change now, do we think?

BUCKSKIN: I think more and more people are getting to know him. I mean most people are now as I said he's been celebrated by the Literacy Award or Literature Award named after him. He's getting I think there's a play in Melbourne, where someone is doing a play on the people on our currency notes and David is certainly one of the people that this particular play talks about and we think that's a really good thing. I mean people who are now at university, are further getting to know more about David and his work and his contribution to the state of South Australia and we think that that's a good thing. But I suppose not many people know many things about people on the back of our currency unfortunately and that goes to the way that I think we're teaching Australian history in our schools. And so David certainly needs to be someone that is taught about and shared, because he certainly was a contributor. He was the intellect and that's why the University of S.A. uses his name, because he was an inventor, he was writer, he was in a sense an academic and we'd hope that the scholarly work that we do and the research that we do mirrors the effort and the quality of work that David turned his head to when he was alive and participating as a writer and inventor in the 1900s.

COUTTS: Do we know what the influences were on David? I mean what prompted him? He sounds like a really driven man?

BUCKSKIN: Yes, well his father. He is the fourth child of around about nine children and his father was quite religious. He's father as an Aboriginal man, and again they were brought up on a mission, an Aboriginal Community Mission, and so his father was a real contributor to that community life and to the life of the wider community of the Lower Murray region where they lived, and it was really keen for Aboriginal people to be participating in the Australian society of that time. And you've got to remember this was around the early, late 1800's and early 1900's and so Aboriginal people still had a long way to go in terms of I suppose the wider Australian community, accepting Aboriginal people as citizens and contributors to the Australian community.

As I said, most of the people of that time who were moved off their ancestral lands onto these Aboriginal communities, so the British settler could take the land and use the land. I mean as I said, he was born in a time that this state wasn't established and the Constitution wasn't even in place until a number of years later. So David had quite extraordinary terms of his father ensuring that the children and he and his brothers that did a lot of the good work and that you're hearing about based on the teachings of their father who was that Christian person.

So he had a strong influence in terms of having a strong family, a strong sense of community and a strong sense of wanting to help his people become more accepted and participate in a sense of the Australian community.


Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.