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Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 19: 1991–1995 (A–Z)


UNDERWOOD, ERICA REID (1907–1992), psychologist, broadcaster, education administrator and community worker, was born on 25 June 1907 at Albany, Western Australia, second child of Queensland-born William Jenkins Chandler, teacher, and his Scottish-born wife Jessie Reid, née Clough. She attended country schools and Highgate State School, Perth. Despite contracting typhoid fever in 1919, she won a scholarship next year to Perth Modern School, where she studied literature, languages, and history, and, ‘fascinated by the uniqueness of individual personalities, decided to become a psychologist’ (Lawson 1999, 96).

In order to finance her studies, Chandler spent two years (1925–26) as a school monitor while enrolled part-time at the University of Western Australia (UWA) (BA, 1929; Dip Ed, 1930). She became a full-time student in 1927 and took psychology subjects offered by the faculty of arts, the only training in the discipline then available in Western Australia. Although she obtained a cadetship at the State Psychological Clinic, she was not offered a position, due to government budgetary constraints. She completed her diploma of education and taught at Collie (1930–33) and in Perth at Claremont (1933–34). On 23 June 1934 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, she married Eric John Underwood [q.v.16] (1905–1980), an agricultural scientist.

The Underwoods had two sons and two daughters and, as the children became more independent, Erica accompanied her husband on trips abroad and found new fields of endeavour. In 1948 she was one of three women appointed as members of the children’s courts in Perth, Fremantle, and Midland Junction; they advised the magistrate on a range of matters including child custody and maintenance. On a trip with her husband to the United States of America in 1957, she visited children’s courts and studied juvenile delinquency. She found that Australian rehabilitation programs compared favourably with those in America.

In the 1940s Underwood had begun working in radio, assisting her friend Catherine King with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Women’s Session, on which she gave talks and occasionally relieved as presenter. She and King were well known and valued by women throughout Western Australia, as a result of their broadcasting and visits to country areas. Underwood also tutored in psychology at UWA and lectured on juvenile delinquency; this work gained her membership of the British Psychological Society.

In 1974 Underwood was the first woman appointed to the council of the Western Australian Institute of Technology (later Curtin University), becoming the first woman deputy chairman (1977–82). She served on numerous committees of the council, and was a director of the institute’s theatre company and a founder (1976) of its community radio station, 6NR. The institute awarded her an honorary doctorate of technology in 1981, the first woman to be so distinguished. She had been appointed MBE (1977) for her community work, which included membership (1973–81) of the Western Australian Arts Council.

Underwood spoke out on behalf of working wives. Addressing a Rotary luncheon in Perth in 1964, she advocated retraining, part-time work and ‘some acknowledgement of home duties’ by employers. She drew attention to the irony of society’s blessing married women for undertaking voluntary work while not approving of working wives, and she noted that research in many countries had ‘produced no evidence that working mothers affected family relationships’ (West Australian 1964, 22).

Erica Underwood was petite, with a neat, upright figure, hazel eyes, and a beautiful olive complexion. To the end of her life, she was proud of that fact that she looked younger than her age. She continued to work until her death and took an active part in the lives of her fifteen grandchildren. She believed that genuine satisfaction in life ‘comes from feeling that you are a useful person. Everyone needs to find her own feeling of identity and worth’ (Lawson 1999, 96). Survived by her children, she died on 1 February 1992 at Shenton Park and was cremated. Curtin University established Erica Underwood House in her honour.

Farmers’ Weekly. ‘Another Voice at the Mike.’ 21 February 1957, 20; James, Dawn. ‘This Trip to America Was Spent in Court.’ Australian Women’s Weekly (Western Australian edition), 12 February 1958, page number not known. Copy of article held on ADB file; Lawson, Jill. ‘Erica Underwood.’ In Material Women ’99: Quilts That Tell Stories, edited by Katie Hill and Margaret Ross, 96. Perth: Curtin University of Technology, 1999; Lawson, Jill. Personal communication; Reporter (Curtin University). ‘Obituary Dr Erica Underwood.’ March 1992, 12; West Australian. ‘Special Terms Urged for Working Wives.’ 31 October 1964, 22.

Bobbie Oliver

UTEMORRAH, DAISY GAWOON (1922–1994), author, poet, and community leader, was born on 14 January 1922 near Kunmunya, a Presbyterian mission settlement in the north-western Kimberley, Western Australia, which was located on the traditional lands of the Worrorra people. Her mother was a Ngarinyin woman named Polly Unman and her father Harry, who died when Daisy was an infant, was a Wunambal man. Harry’s brother, Pompey Goolaloowarra, who was one of the first people to come to the mission and work for the missionaries in about 1913, raised Daisy. She was a traditional owner of country called Gooral that includes parts of the Prince Regent River, the coast of St George Basin, the Mitchell Plateau, and Mount Trafalgar, and was born into the Jungun moiety of her society, represented and expressed by the owlet-nightjar.

Under the liberal superintendence of Rev. J. R. B. Love [q.v.10], Daisy was one of the children at Kunmunya who was taught to write in both the English and Worrorra languages, as well as being shown by her family how to live from her country according to Wandjina-Wunggurr law and religion. She was a Girl Guide and, with Elkin Umbagai [q.v.16], a teaching assistant at the school. In 1936 she married her promised husband, Mickey Bangalba, in the mission church. She was widowed in around 1950 and, in 1956, moved with her community to live on the outskirts of Derby on the Mowanjum reserve, where she remained active in community affairs and the church. At Mowanjum she married the Wunambal man Laurie Utemorrah.

Ever since childhood, Utemorrah had dreamed that one day she would write down the stories she had learned from her elders and those derived from her life experiences. An early example of her writing was the unpublished poem ‘Cyclone Tracy’ (1976), in which she questioned the intentions of a caring yet hurtful God, articulated in the personality of the cyclone that destroyed Darwin in December 1974. A fluent speaker of Wunambal, Ngarinyin, and Worrorra, she had a gift for communicating her culture to her own community and sensitively translating her languages and stories into English for a wider audience. She believed that storytelling and writing allowed her to tell non-Aboriginal people about the richness of her history and culture: ‘I fight with words for my people’ (Arden 1994, 19). Easily reconciling her beliefs in the Christian God and the Wandjina creators of her land and community, she wrote that ‘God in Heaven and the Wandjina in the cave are the same’; ‘Jesus was a Wandjina’ (Arden 1994 19). Her poems and prose have been published internationally and are included in numerous anthologies. Do Not Go Around the Edges (1990), her most successful book, told of her childhood at Kunmunya and won the Australian Multicultural Children’s Literature Award for junior fiction in 1992.

A tall woman with an imposing physical presence, Utemorrah had a caring and cheerful character. She was renowned for her role as a teacher to younger generations at Mowanjum and at regional schools, and she worked over decades with scholars, writers, film-makers, and researchers to document her languages and share her ideas and culture. In 1969 she was a foundation member of the Mowanjum Dance Group and was part of a public performance in Perth in 1971. In 1977 and 1982 she participated in ground-breaking diabetes research in which, for weeks at a time, she and other elders ate only bush foods to demonstrate the benefits and impact of a traditional diet on their health. She was a recognised elder of the Wunambal people and in 1991 was the principal litigant in a High Court of Australia challenge to reclaim their land; the claim was later resubmitted to the Federal Court of Australia following passage of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. After suffering a stroke, in her final years she moved to Kalumburu where she died on 1 February 1994. She was survived by her husband and son; a daughter had predeceased her. Although she was not able to testify in her land claim, her evidence was preserved for use in future hearings. The Federal Court recognised that native title continued over her Wandjina-Wunggurr lands in 2004. In 2018 the Broome-based Magabala Books, the publisher of many of her books, named in her honour a new award to encourage Indigenous authors of children’s literature.

Arden, Harvey. Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia. New York: Harper Collins, 1994; Blundell, Valda, Kim Doohan, Daniel Vachon, Malcolm Allbrook, Mary Anne Jebb, and Joh Bornman. Barddabardda Wondjennangordee: We’re Telling All of You: The Creation, History and People of Dambeemangaddee Country. Derby, WA: Dambinangari Aboriginal Corporation, 2017; Jebb, Mary Anne ed. Mowanjum 50 Years: Community History. Derby, WA: Mowanjum Aboriginal Community and Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation, 2008; MacFarlane, Helen. ‘Land Fight Came Too Late for Activist.’ Australian, 11 February 1994, 11; Personal knowledge of ADB subject; Utemorrah, Daisy. Do Not Go Around the Edges. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 1990; Visions of Mowanjum: Aboriginal Writings from the Kimberley. Adelaide: Rigby, 1980.

Mary Anne Jebb

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