David Unaipon……..do you know who he is?

If you live in Australia, do you know that you’re probably carrying a famous Aboriginal man in your wallet?

David Unaipon (1872 – 1967) was a Ngarrindjeri man, a preacher, inventor and writer.

Among his patents was a helicopter design based on the principle of a boomerang.

The front of Australia’s 50-dollar note, first issued on 4 October 1995, features David Unaipon along with drawings from one of his inventions, and an extract from the original manuscript of his book Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, for which he is known as the first Aboriginal author.

Before the redesign in 2018, the 50-dollar note showed a couple standing in front of Raukkan Church. They are Milerum “Clarence” Long (about 1869-1941) and Polly Beck who were living in the Raukkan community (Unaipon’s birthplace) in the Coorong area, southeast of Adelaide, in the late 19th century.

They are the great-grandfather and great-grandmother of Aboriginal footballer Michael O’Loughlin.

Milerum was the last initiated member of the local native tribe. He was highly respected and played a huge role in the recording of history of the native people of the Coorong area.

The illustration is based on a photograph provided to the designer by Jean and Henry Rankine from Point McLeay.

When the Reserve Bank of Australia issued the newly redesigned $50 banknote in October 2018, Westpac delivered a batch of banknotes to a branch in the small town of Tailem Bend, on the Murray River in South Australia, where David Unaipon died in 1967.

The new $50 banknote shows shields from Unaipon’s Ngarrindjeri nation which depict particular clan groups, lands and waters, and represent the kind of traditional technologies from which Unaipon drew inspiration for his own inventions.

It depicts two types of shields used for defence against spears. The rounder of the two was made from the bark of the red gum tree, the slimmer shield from wood beneath the bark. Both were decorated with ochres, white pipeclay and carvings.

The banknote also includes references to a spiritual and cultural practice Unaipon wrote about, the Ngarrindjeri peoples’ spiritual connection to all living things (called Miwi).

That connection, or sixth sense, is located in the pit of the stomach and symbolised with an exchange of naval cords.

The banknote includes two such cords painted by Yarraldi Aboriginal artist Muriel Van Der Byl.

David Unaipon fact file

Nation Ngarrindjeri, South Australia
Born 28 September 1872, Raukkan community, South Australia
Died 7 February 1967, Tailem Bend, South Australia
Famous for Inventions, writing
Family Partner: Katherine Carter (married 1902), father: James Unaipon, mother: Nymbulda Ngunaitponi. ‘Uniapon’ is an Anglicisation of Ngunaitponi.
Education Point McLeay Mission School (renamed Raukkan in 1982)
Inventions Improved hand tool for sheep shearing (1909), helicopter, based on the principle of the boomerang (1914)
Publications Articles entitled Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs (Sydney Daily Telegraph, 2 August 1924), The Story of the Mungingee (The Home magazine, February 1925), booklet Native Legends (1929). Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines was only published in 2001 under Unaipon’s name, but never during his lifetime.
Awards Coronation Medal (1953), FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers (posthumously in 1985)