Mermaids, defined as having the upper body of a human woman and the tail of a fish, are perhaps best known through the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Little Mermaid. But mermaid stories are to be found all around the globe in more than a dozen cultures from the Near East, Europe, Africa, North America through to Asia. To that list, you can add Aboriginal Australia. In Western Arnhem Land there are two names that are used for these water spirit women — Yawkyawk and Ngalkunburriyaymi. There are mermaids in a general sense and there are particular mermaid spirits that may live at a particular sacred site or be the principal totem of creator being for certain clans. Yawkyawk spirits were a repeated theme for master painter Peter Marralwanga. The word Yawkyawk is also used to refer to the larval and nymph forms of insects like dragonflies and also to girls on the cusp of womanhood.
Europeans seem also to have drawn a similar semantic link with nymphs referring to insect larvae and young women. The linking concept here is metamorphosis — girls changing physically to become women, Yawkyawk larvae changing physically to emerge from the water as dragonflies, mayflies and other insects. There are linked mermaid metaphors — long water grasses or algal masses waving in a stream may be the hair of Yawkyawk. In some stories the Yawkyawk are daughters of the great female creator and rainbow serpent Yingarna. They are said to live in caves and under ledges beside pools of water and may come out on the bank at night. As in European stories, some clever men have been said to have taken Yawkyawk as wives, but as in stories from other cultures the Yawkyawk eventually returns to her family underwater. Wikipedia says the first mermaid stories originated in Assyria about 1000BC. Aboriginal Australians may indeed have been dreaming of mermaids for a lot longer.

28 September was the 142nd anniversary of the birth of the indigenous genius whose portrait appears on our $50 note. See an Australian Geographic story about this extraordinary polymath at:
In May this year Tracey Strugnall showed Jan and I the beautiful church at Raukkan, once Point McLeay Mission, also on the $50 note. David Unaipon preached here and this was where he was buried.
I found this biography for David Unaipon, by Philip Jones which was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Unaipon, David (1872–1967)
by Philip Jones
David Unaipon (1872-1967), preacher, author and inventor, was born on 28 September 1872 at the Point McLeay Mission, South Australia, fourth of nine children of James Ngunaitponi, evangelist, and his wife Nymbulda, both Yaraldi speakers from the lower Murray River region. James was the Congregational mission’s first Aboriginal convert. David attended the mission school from the age of 7. In 1885 he left to become a servant to C. B. Young who encouraged his interest in philosophy, science and music. Back at Point McLeay from 1890, Unaipon read widely, played the organ and learned bootmaking at the mission. A non-smoker and teetotaller, he grew frustrated at the lack of work for educated Aborigines at mission settlements and in the late 1890s took a job as storeman for an Adelaide bootmaker before returning to assist as book-keeper in the Point McLeay store. On 4 January 1902 at Point McLeay he married a Tangani woman from the Coorong, Katherine Carter, née Sumner, a servant.

By 1909 Unaipon had developed and patented a modified handpiece for shearing. He was obsessed with discovering the secret of perpetual motion. In 1914 his repetition of predictions by others about the development of polarized light and helicopter flight were publicized, building his reputation as a ‘black genius’ and ‘Australia’s Leonardo’. Between 1909 and 1944 Unaipon made patent applications for nine other inventions, including a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device, but the patents lapsed.

His fame, urbanity, fastidious manner of speech and Aboriginal identity confounded current stereotypes: Unaipon embodied the potential—in White terms—for Aboriginal advancement. His lectures for the Anglican Church stressed improvement: ‘Look at me and you will see what the Bible can do’, and his rhetorical skills were shared by other Point McLeay Aborigines.

In 1912 Unaipon led a deputation urging government control of Point McLeay Mission; next year he gave evidence to the royal commission into Aboriginal issues and became a subscription collector for the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association. For fifty years he travelled south-eastern Australia, combining this work with lectures and sermons in churches and cathedrals of different denominations. In addresses to schools and learned societies he spoke on Aboriginal legends and customs, and about his people’s future. He also demonstrated his inventions, but his public requests for financial support provoked the disapproval of the mission authorities. His wife (d.1928) stayed at home; their marriage was not happy.

From the early 1920s Unaipon studied Aboriginal mythology and compiled his versions of legends; he was influenced by the classics and by his researches into Egyptology at the South Australian Museum. The A.F.A. funded publication of Hungarrda (1927), Kinie Ger—The Native Cat (1928) and Native Legends (1929). Unaipon sold these and other booklets while employed by the A.F.A. His articles, beginning on 2 August 1924 in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, were written in a prose that showed the influence of Milton and Bunyan; they pre-dated the work of other Aboriginal writers by over thirty years. Unaipon published poetry in the 1930s and more legends in the 1950s and 1960s. Gathered before 1930, the legends are in his surviving manuscript in the Mitchell Library: they were commissioned and published by William Ramsay Smith, without acknowledgment, as Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (London, 1930). Unaipon also wrote ‘My Life Story’ and ‘Leaves of Memory’ (A.F.A. Annual Reports, 1951 and 1953).

In the 1920s and 1930s he influenced government Aboriginal policy. Assisted by friends like Rev. John Sexton, Dr Herbert Basedow, Sir George Murray and Dr Charles Duguid, Unaipon remained relatively free from the official restraints usually placed on Aborigines. In 1926 he appeared before another royal commission into the treatment of Aborigines. That year he also advocated a model Aboriginal state in an attempt to provide a separate territory for Aborigines in central and northern Australia; his involvement in the movement may have contributed to his arrest in November on vagrancy charges.

In 1928-29 he assisted the Bleakley inquiry into Aboriginal welfare. By then the best-known Aborigine in Australia, Unaipon was accepted as his people’s spokesman. His skill in manipulating members of the press—who invariably described him as a full-blood Aborigine—lent authenticity to his statements at a time when governments were concerned with the so-called ‘half-caste problem’. In 1934 he urged the Commonwealth to take over Aboriginal affairs and proposed that South Australia’s chief protector of Aborigines be replaced by an independent board. Educated Aboriginal men from Point McLeay and Point Pearce supported him, among them Mark Wilson; their view that the Aborigines’ transition to European society should be facilitated through education was supported by the A.F.A. and was later expressed in the Commonwealth’s assimilation policy. Unaipon’s preference for gradual change was highlighted by his disagreement with the New South Wales branch of the Australian Aborigines’ League over its National Day of Mourning on Australia Day, 1938.

In 1953 Unaipon received a Coronation medal. He continued to travel on foot in Adelaide and country centres, where he was often refused accommodation because of his race, and was still preaching at 87. In his nineties he worked on his inventions at Point McLeay, convinced that he was close to discovering the secret of perpetual motion. Survived by a son, he died at Tailem Bend Hospital on 7 February 1967 and was buried in Point McLeay cemetery.

Portraits of Unaipon by S. Wickes and Leslie Wilkie are in the South Australian Museum. In 1988 the national David Unaipon award for Aboriginal writers was instituted and an annual Unaipon lecture was established in Adelaide.

Select Bibliography
G. Rowe, Sketches of Outstanding Aborigines (Adel, 1955)
J. Horner, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom (Syd, 1974)
G. Jenkin, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri (Adel, 1979)
L. A. Murray (comp), The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (Melb, 1986)
A. Markus, Blood From a Stone (Syd, 1988)
A. Shoemaker, Black Words, White Page (Brisb, 1989)
Bible in the World, 1 Aug 1911
Southerly, 39, Sept 1979, p 334
Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Apr 1907, 27 Apr 1914, 9 Nov 1936, 9 Feb 1967
Observer (Adelaide), 10 Oct 1925
Register (Adelaide), 14 July 1926
News (Adelaide), 22 July 1959
Aborigines’ Friends’ Association Annual Report, 1964 and records (State Library of South Australia).
Related Entries in NCB Sitesview family tree
Unaipon, James (father)
Citation details
Philip Jones, ‘Unaipon, David (1872–1967)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 September 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

The Australasian darter, Anhinga Novaehollandiae is a handsome hunter of fish found through Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia.
This one was photographed from the boat on Gagadju Yellow Waters Cruise in Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory. The boat takes visitors up close to a huge range of birds, water buffalo and saltwater crocodiles.
Our trip was made all the better by the terrific informed commentary by traditional landowner Mandy Muir.
Yellow Waters Cruise is owned by the local Aboriginal people and won the Qantas award for best major tour in 2012. A well-deserved award.

You won’t find Yilingkirrkkirr anywhere other than in the rugged sandstone massif of Kakadu and Western Arnhem Land. Yilingkirrkirr is the name for this handsome and elusive bird in the languages of Kundedjnjenghmi and Gundjeihmi. The scientific name is Amytornis woodwardi and the common name is the White Throated Grasswren.
Yiilingkirrkkirr is listed as a vulnerable species by the Northern Territory Government. It’s not travelling as well as its close relative the Black Grasswren from Western Australia but much better than the Carpentarian Grasswren, to the south-east. The Carpentarian Grasswren is listed as endangered with less than 2000 breeding pairs.
The fall of Yilingkirrkkirr to vulnerable status is believed to be associated with a decline in Aboriginal customary fire management practices brought on as Aboriginal people were drawn off their rugged homelands from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century. Since about 1970 Aboriginal people have been returning to re-establish themselves on the remote Arnhem Land Plateau. They began re-instituting customary burning patterns from the late 1990s and have been very successful in reducing the huge late dry season wildfires that impacted so badly on Yilingkirrkkirr.
The Aboriginal rangers of Warddeken Land Management are delivering the recommendations for conservation of Yilingkirrkkirr: implementing a fire management program that maintains or enhances habitat quality across the range of this species and establishing a monitoring program for at least representative populations.
The return to customary indigenous fire management means longer intervals between fires in critical habitat and smaller, patchier fires which provide habitat with variations from recently burned to long unburned.
Yilingkirrkkirr seems to be surviving the effects of predation by feral cats on the plateau. Feral cats are believed to be a major cause of a catastrophic decline in the population of small native mammals across North Australia. Yilingkirrkkirr nests in the midst of thick and spiky spinifex tussocks and cats probably find it easier to hunt small native mice, lizards and insects.
photo by petercookedarwin

The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was the first European to see this spectacular grasshopper from the Arnhem Plateau, recording it in his journal of 1845. It became known as Leichhardt’s grasshopper but it didn’t really need a new name as the Kundedjnjenghmi and Gundjeihmi speaking Aboriginal people of West Arnhem Land had been calling it Alyurr for many thousands of years. Alyurr is associated with Namarrkon, the lightning spirit responsible for the intense electrical storms just before the wet season in November. Alyurr is the child of Namarrkon. It hatches from eggs underground early in the dry season and is a resplendently coloured adult by November. Alyurr is a fussy eater and depends on the aromatic and oily plateau plant pityrodia, hatching at the base of the plant and moving upwards through seven stages, or instars. Alyurr has a scientific name — Petasida ephippigera.
If you are interested in the creatures of North Australia and how indigenous people there classify and name them, check out linguist Murray Garde’s online resource

And for lots more information about language in the Deep North and Western Arnhem Land in particular, try the Bininj Gunwok blog: