An Inspirational Leader: Mary June “Tookie” (Kelly) Pappin, Mutthi Mutthi elder, 21-6-1950 – 21-1-2022

Mary Pappin was a woman who inspired so many people. This Director’s Blog provides a chance to honour her contributions.

For me personally, Mary Pappin shaped so many years of my life and work. I find it hard to believe she’s gone from this present world. So much energy, fire and drive. A figure of authority and wisdom. The first time I met Mary was on an archaeological dig that she was supervising in the Willandra Lakes region. It was 2006, and she was wary – no doubt of another white academic certain to cause strife. She was even more sceptical of the camera crew that I brought with me, warning us off in no uncertain terms, saying she didn’t want another negative news story about her people. Once introduced by someone Mary trusted, however, she quickly switched into teaching mode, patiently sharing her knowledge and time.

Nonetheless, when academics interested in her people’s deep past infuriated her, she’d express this with furious theatricality. She objected to people referring to her ancestors as ‘the bones’, as ‘evidence’ or objects. And she became angry when the academics bickered with each other over dates. Yet she also made all visitors to her ancestral Country feel at home. That we were welcome on her Country. She was warm, kind and affectionate to so many researchers, treating them like part of her extended family.

On my third visit to Willandra Lakes, Mary expressed great satisfaction that I’d brought along my teenage daughter. When I added that she was mainly just sleeping in my car, she said it didn’t matter, for she would be imbued with the significance of her Country and she would know something of how very important this place is. ‘Even if she only gets a little bit now, it will stay with her as she grows older and she can share the message.’

Mary saw herself as part of a quick-changing line of successive generations – one that was indeed of short duration in the context of her own people’s long history of tens of thousands of years in this place. She saw her presence and actions on behalf of Country as primarily about passing on knowledge to the coming generations.

Mary sought education and job opportunities for the younger generation, and she welcomed opportunities to share her knowledge with the wider public. She participated in many interviews for libraries and websites. Articulate, smart, she always had something punchy and memorable to say. In the documentary Message from Mungo, Mary’s words provided a crystal clear message. She was political, fierce, canny, highly intelligent and eloquent. A powerful orator. She made her opinions felt and insisted on being heard. In recent months, she spoke out against plans to rebury the ancient Mungo remains in anonymous secret sites. Mary renewed her long efforts for a Keeping Place for which she and the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngaampa and Barkintji elders had lobbied so hard over for decades.

Mary was a visionary, carrying on the determined work of her revered mother Alice Kelly, plus of so many impressive generations past. She epitomized courage.

Mary continued the Mungo/Willandra Lakes story – one of powerful women leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, including that of her mother Alice Kelly and archaeologist Isabel McBryde. Mary Pappin’s children have also made their mark – as National Parks managers and researchers, as cultural knowledge holders and custodians.

The last time I saw Mary was in early 2021. We met up in an old woolshed at the Buronga Botanical gardens, in order to show her the results of the Mungo map that we had all been working on with Kim Mahood and our Research Centre.

L-R Daniel Kelly, Mary Pappin and Ann McGrath, Magenta Wool Shed, Australian Inland Botanic Gardens, Buronga, 5 March 2021

Take a look at that photo. Mary understood visuals; she commanded the camera. Willandra Lakes, burial place of Lady Mungo, who she so admired and wished to protect, is in clear view.

Mary’s hand connects with the map of Country. It gestures towards Balranald, a special place for the Kelly family. And the place where she was to pass away.

A generation is starting to leave us, but the young ones have been well taught. They are coming through. And thanks for the courage and strength of women like Mary Pappin, they have a wonderful legacy to work with.


We offer our sincere condolences to her husband Darryl (Joe) and her children Darryl, Jason, Gary, Bernadette, Verna, Mary and Douglas.

A funeral was held at St Dympnas Catholic Church Swan Hill and a burial was held on Tuesday, February 1st 2022 at the Balranald Aboriginal Cemetery, where her mother Alice is also buried.