BOOKS Big-pic­ture Man

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Frank Bon­giorno on Alexis Wright’s ‘Tracker’

“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.

Roy­al­ties and wel­fare might get you a new Toy­ota, but they would not in them­selves sus­tain an econ­omy.

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.

Even ad­mir­ers thought that this highly in­tel­li­gent man of ideas had far too many of them.

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.

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