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Mack, Pinkie

Pinkie Mack, 1943

Pinkie Mack, 1943

South Australian Museum

Pinkie Mack was in her early nineties when she performed a corroboree in front of more than 8000 people with a group of twenty-one male dancers from Raukkan (Point McLeay Mission). It was 1951, and the occasion was a re-enactment of British explorer Charles Sturt’s arrival at Goolwa, on the western shores of Lake Alexandrina, 120 years earlier. Mack was a renowned song woman with deep cultural knowledge, much of it passed down from her mother, Queen Louisa Karpeny (1821–1921), known as Ngewatainindjeri, who had witnessed Sturt’s arrival in the lands of the Ngarrindjeri nation in 1831.

Mack was born Katipelvild at Marrunggung, where, according to her cousin Albert Karloan, ‘the people’ had moved from nearby Brinkley Homestead, where the Murray flows into Lake Alexandrina in Yaraldi-speaking country, when it was in flood, probably around May 1859. Marrunggung was downstream from Brinkley and East Wellington, where her biological father, George Mason, was the Sub-Protector of Aborigines. According to his obituary, in 1876, Mason was believed to be the son of an Essex Yeoman who served in the British Army, whose records show the only George Mason enlisted before 1839, was in a Scottish Highlander regiment from 1815 to about 1829, serving overseas in the Napoleonic Wars, before he resigned his commission to work in a London counting house. According to Mason’s own evidence, he arrived in Adelaide in 1839 and immediately thereafter Wellington, where he become fluent in Ngarrindjeri. Louisa Karpeny and George Mason had two children, George Karpeny Puwang and Katipelvild Margaret Karpeny, known as “Pinkie” for her fair skin. Pinkie lived at Brinkley as a young girl, where Mason and his English wife educated their own as well as Ngarrindjeri children. The Ngarrdindjeri desire for an independent life was supported by Mason, which conflicted with the proselytising aims of Raukkan Mission at Point McLeay, on the other side of Lake Alexandrina, whose founder, George Taplin, challenged many Ngarrindjeri cultural practices, as did his son when he succeeded him. (Both Mason and Taplin gave evidence before a Parliamentary Inquiry with Raukkan Mission’s questionable practices eventually the subject of another government inquiry.)  A member of the Piltindjeri clan, Pinkie acknowledged Tilpini Yakapeni (a variation of Karpeny) as her father. About the onset of puberty, which coincided with Mason’s house burning down in 1867; she and three sisters went to live in Tilpini’s camp where she learnt a range of songs and ceremonies.

Pinkie Katipelvild Karpeny married, aged about 16 years, to Telwara (Djelwara) John Mack (c. 1840–1918), in his middle years, a Yakamuldah man whose country was upriver, east of Mildura, near Kalkine (Culcairn Station). When she married, in about 1876, the year George Mason died, Pinkie related that she participated in a ceremony with two songs from the Wiimbaio people from up the Darling about Nurelli (Nguril).  Pinkie kept the name Mack for the remainder of her life. This was seen as a signifier of the upriver knowledge of songs, ceremonies and designs she had acquired over a period of at least nine years before Pinkie and John Mack had four sons, either up-river or back on the Lower Lakes. Their first child was Albert (born c.1885/1886); then David (1887–1911), who died from consumption as a young man; Miller, born at Murray Bridge (1891–1919), who saw service on the Western Front in 1916–17 but died of tuberculosis on his return; and Arthur (1895–96), who died from meningitis as a baby.  A daughter Rose Mack was born in 1891, and another, Edith Mack was born c.1895.

Among the patangi (dancing) songs, related by Mack to the anthropologist Catherine Berndt, was one composed by Pinkie’s husband John Mack that referred to upriver people coming down the Murray to meet the Ngarrindjeri. Another patangi song, composed by Minduk Jack of the Yakamuldak (near Wentworth), was about watching Europeans arrive by steamer with a buggy, identified by Mack as the buggy belonging to the Chaffey Brothers, to establish Mildura, which dates the composition about 1890. Other categories of songs, Pekeri songs, for instance, were identified by their clan tunes and comprised an even beat by women on folded skin drums or beating sticks. Mack’s pekeri songs included the pelican (rorika) song to help cure sickness, as well as “Nganawi Ruwi,” a lament to take the Ngarrindjeri back to their country. Mack also recorded many tunggari songs, which convey different ideas, sometimes about specific historical events and phenomena.

Pinkie Mack’s second marriage, to Nginmelindjeri Philip Sumner (1864–1921), resulted in at least two sons — Benjamin Philip (1903–06), who died of whooping cough, and Hurtle John (born 1908) — and four daughters: Laura Isabella (born 1906), Ellen (born 1909), Wilhelmina/ Willamena (born 1911) and Nita Louisa (born 1913). Later Pinkie lived with a younger man, Alfred Cameron junior (born 1890) but, there was no issue. Nearly all her children from Sumner were born at Point McLeay, except Benjamin at Mason’s Rock (near Mason’s Crossing, East Wellington), Laura at Wellington and Hurtle at Woods Point.  Following on from delivering her last child in her early 50s and her activities as a mother; by her early sixties, Pinkie Mack was a practising mid-wife, and would eventually attend the births of seventy-two babies. Records show that most women in her care quickly recuperated, with Mack and attendants wrapping the newborn in fur and assisting in the mother’s recovery.

Like her mother, Mack was a key informant for the South Australian Museum. In 1933–34, camped at Wellington, she was among those who began mapping Yaraldi clan and place names with Norman Tindale, an ethnologist with the museum. Mack delineated Yaraldi country as the eastern side of the Lower Murray — from Murray Bridge, upstream of Tagalang (Tailem Bend), downriver through Wellington to Marrunggung and onto Lake Alexandrina, crossing into Lake Albert — as well as all the clan areas along the Coorong, on the Fleurieu Peninsula and at Encounter Bay. In 1935 and 1938, Mack and a cousin, Albert Karloan, a member of the Manangki clan, related Yaraldi fishing stories and clan associations and place names.  According to Tindale, Pinkie Mack knew “more songs than any other Jaralde [Yaraldi].” Despite elaborations and melodic improvisations by other singers since then, her essential song texts, tempos and rhythms have endured, suggesting links to the deep as well as the historical past. “Pata Winema,” a song about gathering cockles at Goolwa, was sung by women at men’s initiation ceremonies — including the ceremony for Karloan, who recorded the song.

Mortuary rites and showing respect for the dead were fundamental aspects of Ngarrindjeri culture. In the early 1940s Mack and Karloan condemned the archaeological excavation of burial mounds and camp sites on Kangaroo Island. It was believed that Ku-Ka-Kungarr, as it was known, was a step on the way to the land of the dead. Many burial sites were remembered there, including those of mass interment during the smallpox epidemic. Mack also had experience in preparing mortuary rituals with red ochre, smoking platforms and specially prepared large oval mats. She was a talented weaver, and a large mortuary mat she wove for the Berndts in 1943 is now held at the South Australian Museum. Right up until the 1940s, she would row across the water to Tagalang (Tailem Bend) to sell her weaving to passengers on the steamers. Her weaving continued a family tradition of passing on to younger generations the loops and patterns evident in her mother’s work. Louisa Karpeny’s iconic bags, baskets and large circular mats, seen in a 1915 photograph, were reminiscent of the circular mats described by Charles Sturt in 1833 and by artist George Angus in 1844. Mack passed on these weaving skills to her daughter Ellen Brown (nee Sumner, 1905–79), to Ellen’s daughter, Daisy Rankine (born 1936), and then to Daisy’s daughter Ellen Trevorrow (born 1955), continuing a distinguished line of weavers.

Mack’s cultural knowledge was also embedded in her hunting and skinning skills, as well as dancing for pleasure and in women’s initiation ceremonies. Like other Ngarrindjeri men and women, she knew how to prepare a pelican skin by salting, nailing and stretching it to dry. But she did not claim to represent all Ngarrindjeri women’s cultural knowledge, nor women’s rituals specific to other clans. The Berndts described Mack as a “gregarious… most likeable, affectionate and energetic person” and “a memorable collaborator.”

For Pinkie Mack, her family recalls, the 1951 performance must have been a moment of mixed emotions, of sorrow and sadness, mourning the loss of land and ceremony as well as affirming her cultural heritage. Sturt’s arrival in 1831 had led to much dispossession. As Pinkie Mack sang in Yaraldi, chanted, beat the rhythm and danced, she was giving public expression to her authority as a song woman and cultural custodian. It was her last corroboree: a profound statement about the continuation of her clan’s knowledge and the ever-present state of deep and recent history; and a provocative statement that cultural knowledge, song and dance practice still ran through the land, directly in the face of Sturt’s landing at Goolwa.

Further reading

  • A World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia, by Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt with John E. Stanton, Melbourne University Press, 1993
  • Ngarrindjeri Nation: Genealogies of Ngarrindjeri Families, by Doreen Kartinyeri, Wakefield Press, 2006
  • Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World That Is, Was, and Will Be, by Diane Bell, Spinifex, 1998, 2014

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 31 August 2020

Citation details

'Mack, Pinkie ', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 September 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Pinkie Mack, 1943

Pinkie Mack, 1943

South Australian Museum

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Katipelvild
  • Karpenny, Pinkie
  • Sumner, Pinkie