WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name and images of a person who has died.
A mysterious jacket has emerged from the depths of a Canberra archive and with it an enigmatic story about one of the nation’s most unusual award ceremonies.
When Yolgnu leader David Burrumarra was told he was to receive an MBE from then Governor-General Sir Zelman in 1978, he made his demands clear.
Sir Zelman would have to cross the country for the investiture on Galiwin’ku [Elcho Island], off Arnhem Land, and wear a locally-made ceremonial jacket designed by Mr Burrumarra.
The award was ‘in recognition of service to the Aboriginals on Elcho Island’ by Mr Burrumarra, a teacher, philosopher, diplomat, World War II coastwatcher, believer in racial harmony — and fashion designer.
This would be the first visit by a governor-general to the Northern Territory, in the same heady year it was granted self-government.
The jacket has been in the vault of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS] in Canberra.
The collection’s executive director, Ngemba and Murawarri man Leonard Hill, said it was unique among the institute’s 6,000 art items.
“To his credit, Sir Zelman accepted that invitation,” he said.
“David had indicated a strong desire that all visiting dignitaries dress in jackets designed by him.
‘You’re coming on my terms’
Mr Burrumarra’s friend and Elcho Island neighbour of seven years, Dr Ian McIntosh, said the request was in keeping with his personality.
“Everything he did was a statement,” Dr McIntosh said.
“I don’t think it’s ever happened before or since.
“You imagine the Governor-General — the Queen’s representative in Australia — is now wearing an Aboriginal cloth.
“It says, ‘You’re coming here on my terms. We’ve had foreigners here before and they follow our laws. And now we’ve got this colonial government in Canberra and if they’re coming, they’re going to wear my cloth’.
“He was being respected and part of his wish was that everyone have some sort of insight into deeper meanings of Aboriginal beliefs.”
Dr McIntosh, an adjunct anthropology professor at Indiana University, wrote The Whale and the Cross, a biography of Mr Burrumarra, after his death in 1994.
He was also given one of an estimated 16 jackets made on the island. Some are believed to be trench coat or caftan style.
“He was always someone who’d ask questions in preface to answering them,” he said.
“He’d answer a question with a question.
‘We continue to find out more’
Mr Burrumarra had, coincidentally, sat on the council of the precursor to AIATSIS years before the investiture.
Mr Hill said the jacket had been in safe hands with his organisation for almost 40 years and stored in the ‘highest environmental conditions’.
“We want to know as much as we can about the origins of that particular jacket and get to understand some of the provenance issues,” he said.
“We’ve always known the item was there in the collection, but we haven’t always known the full story, and we continue to find out more about this particular item.”
AIATSIS brokers conversations between Aboriginal communities and bodies that may hold artefacts in Australia or abroad, about their return.
“We are certainly open to conversations around some of the material that we have and where its best placed,” Mr Hill said.
An avenue in Gungahlin, ACT, is named after David Burrumarra, although is is spelled Burramarra.