Yidumduma Bill Harney: Bush Professor


Bill-and-PMBill and PM, Yidumduma Bill Harney with the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard with his Gorrondolmi painting at the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food, University of Sydney, 2013,
(Photo credit: Jayne Ion | )   

Yidumduma Bill Harney: Bush Professor

This retrospective exhibition celebrates a life’s work and remarkable journey of Wardaman elder Yidumduma Bill Harney. He is a charismatic storyteller and artist and the only remaining living custodian of the collective memory, laws and history of his people. Harney’s knowledge has been described by anthropologists as ‘encyclopedic in nature’, and his artwork is one way that he shares this intimate understanding with the world.



Yidumduma Bill Harney was born at Brandy Bottle Creek on Willeroo Station in the early 1930’s. His mother was a Wardaman woman, Ludi Yibuluyma, and his father William Edward (Bill) Harney, a stockman, storyteller and writer.

Harney grew up with his mother and his Aboriginal stepfather, Joe Jomornji, learning the way of the Wardaman people including bush foods, tool making, hunting, fishing, culture, language and stories.

“Well, from the beginning, I was born in the bush and growing up in the bush. First was the blackfella way. I was grown up with the story, right through ‘til the time I moved into the European Camp. Now today I put the Aboriginal lifestyle and European lifestyle together, and I know both laws,” said Harney (Interview with Margie West 2015).

He escaped being one of the stolen generation by his mother covering his skin in black plum and hiding in a remote area so that patrol officers could not find him. Unfortunately, his sister was not so lucky and was taken by the Aborigines Welfare Board.

Later in life Harney became a skilled horseman and cattleman, spending much of his working life on stations in the Katherine region. He also tried his hand at various other occupations, taking jobs as a saddler, windmill man, croc shooter and fencer in locations across the Territory.

In 1962 Harney married Ida, his promised wife in the traditional way, and then followed it up with a ceremony at the Catholic Church in Katherine. They had two children before Ida died in 1979. Harney later married his second wife, Dixie, and had another son.

In 1987 Harney was involved in the documentary The Land of the Lightning Brothers made by Film Australia, which helped him realize the interest the outside world had in Indigenous culture. After meeting with Wardaman elders, Harney set up a tourism business conducting guided tours to Wardaman sites. Something he still does today.

Harney has been the subject of many documentaries and has been co-author on a number of books including his autobiography Born Under the Paperbark Tree (1996) and Dark Sparklers (2003) about astrology and Wardaman star knowledge.

Harney has also extensively travelled in his pursuit of sharing his knowledge with the world. He has performed the traditional music and stories of his people at venues including Sydney Opera House, Darwin Festival, Sacred Music Festival California, and other universities and festivals around the USA.

While he grew up painting, Harney didn’t formally enter the art world until the late 1980s. Since then, he has been a finalist in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Telstra Art Awards eleven times. His works are held at the National Gallery of Australia, Federal Parliament, the Northern Territory Parliament, Bond University and the University of Sydney.

Today, Yidumduma Bill Harney is the last fully initiated elder and custodian of his people. He is an ambassador for Indigenous issues, including land rights and supporting troubled Aboriginal youth. He lives on Menngen Station, the site of the Innesvale pastoral lease, which was granted to the Traditional Owners in 1999.

Harney is also an active member of the local community, with a position on the board of the Northern Land Council, Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre, Katherine West Health Board, Gregory National Park and the Katherine Water Committee.

For over 25 years Harney has mentored Paul Taylor and in 2004 they started the Yubulyawan Dreaming Project, capturing hundreds of hours of footage about a range of topics on Wardaman culture, art and knowledge so that it may be preserved for generations to come.

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