Tracker, Alexis Wright

Michael Winkler reviews 'Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth' by Alexis Wright

Tracker (2017) is Alexis Wright’s Stella Award winning ‘biography’ of Central Australian Aboriginal activist Tracker Tilmouth (1954-2015). Known during his childhood as Bruce, and officially as Leigh, he should now, I think, as a late Arrente man be called ‘Kwementyaye’ Tilmouth, but I will continue as his friend and biographer Wright does, with ‘Tracker’.

Tracker is a giant of a book, 620 pp, a collage of overlapping interviews and stories, told by Tracker himself with very occasional prompting from Wright, and by his friends and colleagues.


Tracker Tilmouth: My political education began at a very young age when Lois Bartram, the housemother of our cottage on Croker Island Mission, read … to my brother William and me … Cry, the Beloved Country.

I went to Croker when I was three or four years old, with my younger brothers [William and Patrick].

Lois Bartram: I went to Croker in 1956, and Bruce came in 1957. I was twenty-five … I had done general nursing training and mid and infant welfare.

My family and grandparents on both sides lived in Nullawil … in north-western Victoria, and were farmers in the area.

We heard at the beginning of the year that these three brothers were coming but then they didn’t come… I learnt years later when I met the boy’s Aunty Doreen that she and her husband had gone to court to gain custody.

The law that said children could be removed had just been changed. It had been repealed so that they could no longer be removed but the same bureaucrats were still in power, and they got around it by charging the kids with being neglected.

Patrick Tilmouth: Sister Bartram was a good lady. And a tiny lady, she was only tiny. She put the fear of God into all of us.


And so it goes on – these are only excerpts, each ‘story’ is generally two or three pages. The Arrente people are from the area around Alice Springs, but it was policy to send the children far enough that they could have no contact with their families, and so the boys went to Darwin, to the Retta Dixon, a “drafting yard” from whence children were distributed. Their five older half-siblings, “because their skin was fairer they were sent south.”

They were lucky with Lois Bartram, who loved and educated them, took them home with her on holidays (Tracker caused Nullawil’s first race riot during a game of cricket when he refused to be given out); and also with Croker Island where they were free to roam about and catch and ride the local ponies.

Tracker eventually does a bit of high school in Darwin, returns to Alice Springs, spends some years on a cattle station, meets his father, does a lot of hell-raising, begins to be involved with the Central Land Council, gets a degree (in Agricultural Science, I think, though he refers to himself as an economist) at Roseworthy in South Australia, lives and works with communities, particularly around Docker River on the WA border, and finally, with little fanfare, we find him assistant Director and then Director of the CLC. And from there he goes on to Indigenous politics, prawn farming, and advising on Aboriginal economic ventures.

Tracker’s story, which as you can imagine, does not proceed in straight lines, concerns his wide range of contacts through Indigenous, State and National politics, as well as of course all the actors in the Central Land area, and indeed throughout northern Australia; and his core belief that Aboriginals must achieve economic independence, and that all else is just gifts from their white masters.

So you have this assimilation process running at a hundred miles an hour, parallel to the dysfunction of Aboriginal communities. And they have to be kept dysfunctional because you do not want any models to evolve from the Aboriginal community. (p. 424)

Self-governance for Aboriginals is a myth. Property rights are a myth. The land is vested in the Commonwealth Government and indigenous people are permitted to live on it with conditions. Aboriginal bodies are invented, funded, appointed by Government. Government chooses from whom it will take advice – Tracker is very, very angry, and often very funny, about Black intellectuals, about the Dobsons, Marcia Langton, Warren Mundine; White people, failures down south, come to communities as workers, mechanics and end up Administrators; Black bureaucracies, the Northern Land Council in particular, follow the rules, “Stay between the lines”, collect their salaries, their constituency not communities but their paymasters, Government.

Tracker is a lifelong member of the Australian Labor Party, was certain to become a Senator, but was sabotaged, vilified by the man he was to succeed, Bob Collins, who subsequently suicided before he could face charges relating to sex with children. Nevertheless he is adamant that property rights for traditional owners, which logically flowed from Mabo, was hijacked by the Government acting for white interests, first by Paul Keating and then John Howard, that the Native Title Act confers nothing, no right to occupy, just the minimum of royalties from mining, soon squandered on salaries and fleets of white Toyotas.

Tracker led the CLC to buy up cattle properties in the NT, as there was a sunset provision in the Native Title Act which meant that up till a given date Native Title would be automatic on Aboriginal owned properties. His big success was Mistake Creek which has always been profitable, but his dream is horticulture based on the good soils and underground aquifers of much Aboriginal land.

Eventually, another case will make its way to the High Court, the Native Title Act will be thrown out and the original inhabitants will be granted full property rights to all unalienated land.

The next task is to find a model for community ownership. Tracker was greatly attracted to the Israeli Kibbutz Movement, both for their successes in desert agriculture and for their communal governance. The Governments’ policies divide and rule, deliberately causing divisions even within language groups. Abbott, at the time of writing still prime minister, in particular attempting to enforce a ‘white picket fence’, assimilationist, individual ownership model.

Tracker Tilmouth was a man bursting with ideas, and I have barely touched on them here, bursting with stories, riding racing camels, driving, camping, living in the bush, friends with everyone he met (maybe not Peter Garrett or Jenny Macklin), sitting on Bronwyn Bishop’s lap and asking her if she wanted to make babies (I will never get that out of my head!), driving major negotiations, Jabiluka, Century Zinc, telling the young Marandoo Yanner, a leader in the author’s own country at the bottom of the Gulf, that you don’t say you have sovereignty, you’re not given sovereignty, you take sovereignty, the sovereignty is yours and has 60,000 years of history.

If you’re serious about Reconciliation – and Reconciliation is just a token without Aboriginal property rights – then read this book.

 

Alexis Wright, Tracker, Giramondo, Sydney, 2017

see also:
My post, Tracker Tilmouth on … (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s ‘thoughts’ (here) but – sorry Lisa! – don’t stop after 250 pages. This is a fascinating book from beginning to end. Not just the ‘life’; not just the format, story telling, which Wright has contributors discuss in the last hundred pages; but the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t, why so much of what we nice, liberal whites do is wasted, mired in bureaucracy, or runs headlong into racist government (every NT government) and dickheads like Malcolm ‘take your Statement from the Heart and shove it’ Turnbull; and whatever else you read, read p.499 on the community running Ali Curung Horticulture who kept the minutes of their meetings as an enormous ever-growing dreamtime mural.

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Tracker Tilmouth on …

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NT Aboriginal Constitutional Convention, Tennant Creek, 1993 (Central Lands Council archive)

Self Determination: The last thing [white people] want to do is have Aboriginal people escape. Escape through the fence and go into the paddock where you can dream the unthinkable dream. They were very worried for Aboriginal people, that democracy would break out, rather than guided democracy which we enjoy at the moment. The guided democracy is still in place. And so Aboriginal people do as they are told, when they are told, by whom they are told because they do not have any control over the finances. Anyone who says Aboriginal self-determination, I would say you really want to think about that statement before I hear it again. (p.264)

Negotiating: My main argument is that you cannot go to the table with a begging bowl. If you are going to exercise your rights, and your rights are enshrined in the ownership of land, your rights are also enshrined in the economic power that you bring to the table. You cannot negotiate from a point of, Please be kind to me, I am a coon. That goes nowhere. The only time you negotiate is when you say, Righto! If you don’t listen to me it’s going to cost you. And it is going to cost you a lot more than you thought. It is delaying your project, it is delaying your resource development, it is delaying everything. (p.351)

The Intervention: The minute you saw the Intervention in the Northern Territory you thought this is madness, absolute madness. It had taken so long to get people to start [working on] self-determination, and to understand what self-determination means, and then as soon as they nearly grasp it, [the government] takes it away from them…

Even under Australian government policies of self-determination, self-management was never really happening. It was words. When there is an invasion of land, where there is an invasion of policy, whether it is an invasion of money, you cannot [win]… The minute you rely on somebody else you are gone. You adopt their policies and politics…

So you have this argument that is coming, and it has not stopped coming, and it is that the next boom in the Northern Territory will be gas and oil, and they are going to say, Righto! What have you got to offer and how do we take it off you?

Diminished through the Intervention. Totally sat on our arse. Totally sat on our arse because the Intervention was the worse thing that ever happened. Did we get any arguments from Labor politicians about the Intervention in the Northern Territory? None. (pp. 374-6)

Paul Keating: The agenda [during the negotiations to develop the native title legislation in 1993] … had nothing to do with Aboriginal people and that was day one on native title. What does the government want? Not what do you want, not how do you want it, nothing like that, so [Michael] Mansell, Clarky [Geoff Clark], and those blokes and me were pushed out the door … We were thrown out … never invited to another meeting. It had nothing to do with what Keating could deliver to you. It was about what you could deliver to Keating. Keating saw them coming a mile away. He did them cold. And today the argument that is continuing is about property rights on native title and the delivering of native title was not a discussion for Aboriginal people, it was a discussion by the leaders to deliver the Aboriginal people on a plate to Keating…

So yes, the native title debate was an absolute sellout by Aboriginal people who should have had a lot more understanding of what were the rights of Aboriginal people going forward. We lost all the ground that Faith Bandler and those people gained for us. Lost all the ground that Charlie Perkins gained for us. Lost all of that. (pp. 246-8)

Property rights: This is the disconnect that land councils keep falling over, this question about what role has native title got in relation to the [NT] Land Rights Act? The answer is very simple, the Land Rights Act is the political process by legislation… Native title is a legal decision by the High Court of Australia which supersedes any political process … So there is no need to have the legal debate. It is a question of going down to the High Court and exercising your native title rights….

Native title property rights goes past the Land Rights Act, to where you actually own the land, not the Commonwealth. Whereas under the Land Rights Act the Commonwealth owns the land under a land trust. So there is an argument there that people are really, really scared of pursuing. (pp. 372-6)

Recognition: That is why the Dodsons are wrong about advocating for recognition in the Constitution. It is not our Constitution, it is their Constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sort of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything. (p.407)

 

‘Kwementyaye’ Tilmouth (1954-2015) was an Arrente man, from the country around Alice Springs, and a leading figure in NT and Australian Indigenous politics. The extracts for this post are from the extensive interviews which make up Alexis Wright’s recent, innovative (and Stella Award-winning) biography of him. A review follows.

 

Alexi Wright, Tracker, Giramondo, Sydney, 2017

 

 

 

Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

Carpentaria

Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.

 

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)