Joe Neparrnga Gumbula

Dr Gumbula with his family receiving his honorary Doctor of Music degree at the University of Sydney in 2007 (source : Aaron Corn)

Joe Neparrnga Gumbula (1954-2015) is the key interviewee in the Washington sequence of Etched in Bone. Born on the island of Milingimbi, he moved to Galiwin’ku (also known as Elcho Island) in 1971 where he had a varied career, including a period as a policeman. Gumbula was an outstanding cross-cultural educator and renowned musician. He sang with the band Soft Sands, which performed rock music in Yolngu languages. The Soft Sands video of ‘Djiliwirri’, a celebration of the paper bark swamps of his beloved homeland, appears twice in Etched in Bone. Gumbula was also a master singer of Manikay, one of the key song traditions of north-east Arnhem Land. A dedicated researcher and scholar, he collaborated on numerous university-based research projects and became a respected academic in his own right. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney and became a Research Fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. As seen in the film, he led the delegation of elders that went to Washington in 2010 to repatriate the human remains stolen by the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition. This involved a ceremony in which he sang the spirits of the ancestors out of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr Gumbula appears in the film with the consent of his close descendants.

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