Woman Ungunmerr-Baumann, Miriam Rose (1950 - )

Daly River, Northern Territory, Australia
Aboriginal activist, Aboriginal artist, Artist and Educator

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in the bush near Daly River in 1950, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann is a member of the Ngangiwumirr language group and speaks four other local languages. Despite never attending secondary school, she became the Northern Territory's first Indigenous school teacher and the principal of St Francis Xavier school in her home community. A committed Christian (she was baptized in the Catholic Church at age 15) Ungunmerr-Baumann is admired throughout the Territory for the leadership and commitment she has shown, promoting education within Aboriginal communities and ensuring that Aboriginal people have the opportunity to become qualified teachers and manage their own schools. In 1998, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, for her services to Aboriginal education and art. In 2002 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Northern Territory University in recognition of her leadership and example in the fields of Aboriginal education and the visual arts, and for her contribution to the general community in the Northern Territory. In 2004 she was appointed to the now defunct Federal Government advisory body, the National Indigenous Council.

At the age of five Ungunmerr-Baumann was placed in the care of her Aunt Nellie and Uncle Attawoomba Joe, a legendary police tracker. She moved with her aunt and uncle to live at police stations at Adelaide River, Pine Creek and Mataranka, where she attended government primary schools. She was a diligent student, she says, because the other police she lived with would take no nonsense when she tried to skip class. While receiving a formal education, she also learned traditional ways through following her uncle Joe around. This combination in her formative years, building skills that enabled her to read books and the land helped her to 'feel comfortable walking in two worlds' (NAIDOC week).

After finishing primary school, Ungunmerr-Baumann was employed as a domestic servant to a school teacher living near Daly River. After finishing her chores one day, she sat down to read a book and was discovered by the teacher on her return home. 'She got a surprise', says Ungunmerr-Baumann, and the teacher asked her to read a paragraph, and then the whole page. '"Right", she said, "you're going to be my assistant teacher." And that's where everything started' (NAIDOC week). An assistant teacher's course, a bridging course and a degree from Deakin University followed. In 1975, she returned to Daly River as the Territory's first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher. She has continued to work for post graduate qualifications; a Bachelor of Education (1993) and a Masters of Education in 1999. She was appointed principal at St. Francis Xavier School at Daly River in 1993.

As well as being a committed and innovative leading educator, Ungunmerr-Baumann is a talented and accomplished artist who was an early experimenter with combining traditional techniques with western acrylics. She used art as a means of encouraging children to express themselves. Her skills in this area led to her being employed by the Curriculum and Research Centre in Darwin as an advisory teacher of art in 1977 and a Commonwealth Government secondment to Victoria to enable her to work with art teachers in that state.

Ungunmerr-Baumann was active in her community in other ways in the 1970s and 80s. She was involved in the preliminary research and planning that led to the establishment of two Aboriginal women's resource centres, one in Darwin and one at Daly River. She also served for several years as the President of the Nauiya Community Government Council, an Aboriginal organisation that operated the leasing arrangements for the Daly River community, which included arrangements for community housing, health services and crisis accommodation. When she was appointed president in 1982 she was the first woman to hold the position and was criticised for 'not knowing her proper place as a woman' (Bicentennial N.T.). A report on community services for remote and isolated women concluded that she was an extremely effective president, nonetheless, with the Daly River services noted to be some of the best. Many women told the research team that this was largely due to the efforts of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann.

Ungunmerr-Baumann is dedicated to maintaining the cultural independence of her people, an issue that she has taken up in her professional, community and creative life for over forty years. In 1991 she explained a painting she exhibited in the following way:

The painting symbolizes the need for me to assist my people to retain their culture while gaining the education which gives us, as culturally bound Aboriginal people, the knowledge and power to live our cultural lives within the western world. All the sections of this painting meld together to make me whole - I cannot do without any of them if I am to remain a whole person (The Power In Me).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, Aborigianl primary school teacher, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals], 2058363; National Library of Australia. Details

Published Resources


  • Lea, Teresa and the United Nations Association of Australia, Northern Territory Division, Status of Women Committee, Bicentennial N.T. women's project '48-88' : Northern Territory women's register, U.N.A.A. Status of Women Committee (N.T.), Darwin, Northern Territory, 1988. Details

Book Sections

  • Ungumnerr-Baumann, Miriam Rose, 'Indigenous Pedagogy', in Bin-Sallik, Mary Ann (ed.), Aboriginal Women by Degrees: Their Stories of the Journey towards Academic Achievement, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 2000, pp. 166 - 176. Details

Journal Articles

  • Ungunmerr, Miriam-Rose, 'The power in me', Ngoonjook, vol. 6, 1991, pp. 1-3. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

NAIDOC Week Unsung Hero - Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann
1 July 2011
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)