• Yolŋu actor David Dalaithngu, who defined Indigenous Australians in movies for half a century, has died aged 68. (AAP Image/Terry Trewin)Source: AAP Image/Terry Trewin
The young boy from the bush who became a star has been remembered as a 'beautiful human being' who inspired generations of First Nations people.
Sarah Collard, Nadine Silva, Guy McLean

30 Nov 2021 - 8:32 PM  UPDATED 30 Nov 2021 - 8:35 PM

When Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika first met Mr Dalaithngu in 1984 there was an instant connection.

“[He said] You must be my son, I know you… Your features look like my father,” Mr Marika told NITV News.

“He just knew me through his spirituality, connected to me."

The Yolŋu men forged a treasured friendship since then with Mr Marika in awe of how the late actor was able to showcase his culture to the world.

“When he danced, twisted, shook his chest with that power and movement, it’s something special,” he said.

“We all have that same movement, but he was the first one to show it on the screen.” 

“The young boy from the bush became a star to the whole of Australia and whole Arnhem land.”

Mr Marika has joined thousands from across the world to pay tribute to the highly-esteemed dancer, actor, singer, painter and storyteller from Ramingining, who passed away on Monday after battling lung cancer. 

His storied career spanned five decades, putting in numerous memorable performances in a range of iconic films.

“I call him the Black Superman, he could do everything... such a beautiful human being," said John Paul Janke, host of NITV's The Point.

“At that time [1970's], a lot of Aboriginal characters were still being played by non-Indigenous people in blackface, so really he broke the mould.

Brindle Films co-founder Trisha Morton-Thomas told NITV she was mesmerised watching him as 'Fingerbone Bill' in 1976's Storm Boy as a child.

“David Dalaithngu was the first Aboriginal face I saw on Australian screen,” the Anmatyerr woman said.

“Seeing him own the screen allowed me to dream that I could one day follow in his footsteps.”

He opened the doors for First Nations people in the film industry, according to Bunya Productions producer Penny Smallacombe.

“I know my career would not exist if it weren’t for him and others, that stepped onto our screens and inspired us to be in this industry. An industry that hasn’t always been inviting,” the Maramanindj woman said.

“He has made our ability to be on-screen possible.”

Dr Romaine Moreton, First Nations Director of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, said Mr Dalaithngu united Indigenous people.

“David Dalaithngu had a way of moving across the screen that exuded confidence, commanding the gaze of the camera, collapsing distance into an intimacy; an intimacy that would ultimately unite us as First Nations audience,” Ms Moreton told NITV.

Bangara Dance Theatre Artistic Director Stephen Page said the "great artist" will continue to inspire other Indigenous artists for decades.

Mr Dalaithngu was also remembered among the corridors of power in the nation's capital, where he was awarded the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

“David is the most recognisable Aboriginal man in the world. He took Aboriginal culture mainstream and global and, for this, his contribution to raising the profile of our people and Australia cannot be overstated,” said Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt. 

Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said Australia, and the world, is mourning an icon.

“He had this ability to break down barriers without really trying,” Ms McCarthy said.

“I think he could teach more about his cultural background and the background of first Nations people simply by being himself.”

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