Two researchers have discovered that David Unaipon, honoured today with his image on the back of Australia's fifty-dollar note, was paid just pounds 150 for 29 pieces of writing by a Sydney publishing house, Angus and Robertson. One scion of the company, George Robertson, wrote to Ramsay Smith, then Australia's chief medical officer, that "quite a charming book can be made of them".
The resulting work, published in 1925 but still available and republished as recently as 1996, by Tiger Imprint under the title, Aborigine, is estimated to be as much as 90 per cent unaltered from Unaipon's original manuscript.
Readers will be able to judge for themselves next year when the researchers publish it in its entirety. One of them, Dr Stephen Muecke of the University of Technology in Sydney, said: "It's a story of appropriation. A bit like buying an Aboriginal painting, changing the colours a bit and putting your own name on it."
The episode represents fresh evidence of the way white Australia casually disregarded the continent's first human inhabitants. Unaipon, despite being a friend of Ramsay Smith, never received any credit. The writer's great great-nephew spoke to the Australian newspaper about his grandfather's recollections of "the old chap": "He never elaborated on it, just said it was stolen."
Unaipon is known as the Aboriginal Leonardo and a Renaissance Man. A gifted engineer, he deduced the mechanical principles of helicopter flight, before it became technically possible to create it, from a study of the boomerang.
In a precursor to Australia's "stolen generation", when thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families in the post-war years, he was placed first at a Christian mission, then, singled out as "a bright lad", Dr Muecke said, with a young white family in Adelaide.
Unaipon took their Congregationalist faith for himself, becoming an itinerant preacher when he wasn't inventing. He read classical languages, as well as English literature, being especially fond of Milton and Bunyan. As a result, his prose style is distinctive, a clue to the provenance of Ramsay Smith's manuscript.
Dr Muecke, a professor of cultural studies, said Unaipon would not have sought to establish the stories as his own work anyway. Unlike many, his adoptive family was sufficiently enlightened to allow continuing contact with his own community and Unaipon became a tireless advocate for indigenous Australians to share the benefits of European civilisation, alongside their own.
He was "a little like the Brothers Grimm," Dr Muecke said, collating and compiling what he was delighted to acknowledge as traditional stories for a new audience. The issue with the Ramsay Smith book was not authorship but due credit.
The controversy comes as another Aboriginal author, Roberta Sykes, is struggling to establish the authenticity of her work in the teeth of objections from her own community. The Birriguba Juru-Bindal clan of Townsville, in northern Queensland, has prepared a report complaining that Dr Sykes - an advocate of Aborginal land rights - has been incorrectly portrayed as an Aborigine in the media.
Her current book, Snake Dancer, is the second autobiographical work in which she claims the clan's snake totem as her own. She, too, was brought up by a white family - a single mother in her case, who told her "many stories" about her origins, the most frequent of which was that her father was a black US serviceman. The clan now says local indigenous people remember her childhood as having taken place quite separately from that of her Aboriginal contemporaries.
It underlines a growing tension in Australia over who is entitled to tell what story as his or her own. The belief that one is Aboriginal, and an acceptance as such by society at large, has often proved enough.
But the economic stakes of being Aboriginal have now risen. Ken Dalton, an activist from Queensland who advises on land claims, said that if he were making a claim himself, he would have to "jump through hoops", establishing first of all that he was Aboriginal. He would then have to prove physical connection with the land as well as his clan's historical association with it.Reuse content