February 2018

Arts & Letters

Alexis Wright’s ‘Tracker’

By Frank Bongiorno
A raw account of Aboriginal politics through the stories of ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth

“Tracker” Tilmouth did not mince words. People he disliked were “thick as pig shit on a cold day” or “oxygen thieves”. A hopeless bureaucrat “would fuck up Christmas Day”. The Labor Party wanted “pet niggers” who were “allowed to mow the lawns” but “not allowed up on the verandah”.

Tilmouth was hostile to the Howard government’s Intervention and the Labor Party’s continuation of it. He addressed Labor’s Indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, as “Genocide Jenny”. He could be acerbic about other Indigenous leaders, too. Negotiators who gave too much away were “breast-plate niggers” or “corn-feds”. Of Patrick Dodson he said that whites loved “nothing better than hugging a big bloke that has got a big white beard”. The man was “a mobile wailing wall”.

Tilmouth responded to a lecture by Noel Pearson by walking halfway down the aisle to ask, “And what would you know about native title, Pearson?” He then turned around and left. Pearson’s great gift to the Aboriginal community, according to Tilmouth, was truancy officers. Tracker had a different method: a big and ugly cousin would threaten to bash the parents if they didn’t send their kids to school. Worked like a charm and was cheap as chips.

Alexis Wright’s new book, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth (Giramondo; $39.95), is based on a collection of oral testimonies from Tilmouth and many of those who knew him. A long way from orthodox biography, it is a method that has also been used recently in a book on another Indigenous activist, Kevin Cook. Wright, author of the award-winning novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book, makes a strong case for her approach in terms of the importance of stories to Indigenous society, as well as to Tracker’s own methods. Tilmouth was a man who worked through conversation and yarn more than with paper and pen, and this is a book about the place of the story in Indigenous culture and politics as much as it is about Tracker himself.

Tilmouth, who died aged 62 in 2015 after a long battle with cancer, was a member of the Stolen Generations. He would sometimes joke that he was actually given away, but the wounds ran deeper than he pretended. He could not bring himself to attend the Apology in 2008.

He was taken at the age of four from his father in Alice Springs. The fairer children were sent south; the darker ones, such as Tracker and his two younger brothers, went north-east of Darwin to Croker Island Mission. Lois Bartram, a loving and inspirational nursing sister and house mother, aroused his political awareness when she read her charges Cry, the Beloved Country by the South African novelist Alan Paton and stories of the United States civil rights movement.

Tracker, “loveable, likeable and naughty”, with his good looks and “piercing green eyes”, was an Eastern Arrernte man who also had Afghan and European heritage. He was a protégé of Charles Perkins. Bob Beadman, Tilmouth’s boss in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Alice Springs, told him on one celebrated occasion “that he was a pain in the bloody arse” who would be written off by others as “a joker”. Tilmouth responded by going off and getting himself a degree, studying natural resources management at Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide. He subsequently brought an expertise in both science and economics to the Central Land Council and the many other institutions and projects that became his life’s work.

Tilmouth belonged to that generation of Aboriginal leaders who have given much thought and energy to the problem of what happens once land has been handed over to traditional owners. “Where now, brown cow?” Tilmouth was fond of asking. In his case, the question became how the land could be “enjoyed”, how it could be turned into an economic asset for Indigenous people.

Claims for a treaty would need to rest on economics, for the Aboriginal economy would provide Indigenous people with essential resources in their dealings with the whites. Royalties and welfare might get you a new Toyota, but they would not in themselves sustain an economy. He saw a place for the cattle industry as well as for mining, and he played a key role in negotiating some early and widely admired agreements with companies that provided employment for Indigenous people. But mining is a hard life: was it a long-term solution for Indigenous people? And what happened when the mine ran out? His answer was horticulture. As Danny Schwartz, a businessman and friend of Tracker, points out, whereas Gary Foley went to China and Michael Mansell to Libya, Tilmouth headed for Israel to study the kibbutzim. He was deeply impressed by the lessons the Israeli experience might offer for turning the Australian outback into a food bowl.

Tilmouth was a natural politician, and an expert in negotiating cultural boundaries and mediating between diverse groups – both black and white. He was good at taking over a meeting, working a room, adapting his message to different audiences, and turning an abstract idea into a concrete image, an evocative story or a memorable one-liner. Was the Native Title Act a stallion, he wondered, or a donkey? A lousy idea for a project was a jumbo jet parked on a community airstrip. People recalled these things long afterwards.

He had a phenomenal memory. And like successful politicians in all lands and ages, he did not like to lose. But he also had an informality and charisma that attracted others and made them want to help him in his schemes. He formed relationships across the political divide: Laurie Brereton, Martin Ferguson, Bill Heffernan and Bob Katter were friends and admirers. He seemed to get on well enough with Bronwyn Bishop, too, in a knockabout kind of way, offering on one occasion to “go halves” with her “in a coloured kid”. Tilmouth’s colleagues were usually left open-mouthed at this kind of thing, but he seemed to get away with it.

Until 1998, at any rate. His name was in the mix for Labor Party preselection when a Senate vacancy for the Northern Territory arose, but those in the party opposed to his nomination, such as the outgoing senator, Bob Collins, circulated scuttlebutt to his detriment.

This might have been for the best. It is hard to imagine Tilmouth as a successful politician in an age of careful image management, when every word you utter, in public or private, might later be used against you. He was certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility, having too strong a taste for the smart wisecrack made to the wrong person at the wrong time. When the woman who was selected for the Senate vacancy, Trish Crossin, turned up at a funeral in a green dress with yellow sleeves, Tracker called her a “wheelie bin”.

Wright has transformed these testimonies into a narrative with immense skill. But this total reliance on oral history has its problems. The reader’s only way of assessing any claim made by an eyewitness is against statements of the others. We do gain multiple and occasionally clashing perspectives that remind us of the complexity of the life being examined, but there is inevitable repetition. People sometimes disagree – not in itself a problem – but aside from a brief introduction there is no authorial voice to help us interpret the contradictions in this material. For instance, one interviewee thought of Tilmouth as “mentally resilient”, another recalled him as “really fragile”. Some considered him as bold as brass, but another felt that he lacked confidence. Tracker’s famous sense of humour was an asset, some said, disarming opposition and reducing tension. Others suggested that it embarrassed and alienated people, leading them to think that he should not be taken seriously.

The book is inevitably circumspect in places. Wright was a friend of Tracker, and the book is explicitly presented as a tribute. Tracker also hints at the difficulty of advancing judgements about Tilmouth’s contribution and significance so soon after his death. All the same, it is not hagiographical. “What was he like? He was mad,” one colleague declared, and he was not alone in this assessment. But “Tracker’s madness gave him sanity”, concluded Doug Turner, an Indigenous scientist and academic.

Tilmouth was an expert in navigating the brutal complexity of Indigenous politics. Still, many found him frustrating and difficult to work with. Even admirers thought that this highly intelligent man of ideas had far too many of them. Tilmouth, moreover, was a big-picture man – a visionary – who left it to others to fill in the details. This could breed resentment when he moved on to his next project, leaving someone else to cope with the last. People could not keep up; too many of his plans were harebrained, a waste of his own and others’ time. Sean Bowden, a lawyer and friend, thought of him as “a sort of flamboyant, frontier-style entrepreneur”. Many of Tilmouth’s ideas and impulses do indeed seem to belong to an old pioneering tradition of considering the North as Australia’s final frontier, a rich kingdom of unrealised promise.

The closing paragraph of the book, in which Tilmouth places himself in his “mob” and the Honey Ant Dreaming of his people’s country, is a passage of astonishing power. Tracker, while overly long at 600 pages, is a significant account of modern Aboriginal politics that manages to convey a memorable personal presence.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at the Australian National University and chair of the social sciences editorial board of ANU Press. He has published books with Melbourne University Press, Black Inc., Monash University Publishing and University of New South Wales Press.

Tracker Timouth and Greg Crough, Northern Territory Aboriginal Constitutional Convention, Tennant Creek, 1993, CLC Archive

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