Last year we received word from one of our Native Advisory Council members—Kevin “Dookie” O’Loughlin in Adelaide, South Australia—that he had received the Order of Australia Medal for his work with Reconciliation and Cultural Tourism. This year he sent a short report on his medal together with a recent article on my great friend, Pitjantjatjara tracker Jimmy James. Uncle Jimmy was a recipient of the O.A.M. in 1983. Though Uncle Jimmy passed away in 1993, his fame in Australia as a tracker is legendary... and may even be growing. As both Dookie and Uncle Jimmy played pivotal roles in the formation of The Tracking Project, I wanted to take this opportunity to honor them both.
From 1978 until 1983, I had a position as a part-time music teacher and counselor at the Aboriginal Community College (now known as Tauondi, Inc.) in Adelaide. The College was a unique initiative of the South Australian Aboriginal community to provide educational opportunities for a wide range of Aboriginal adults who might otherwise have no access to education. Based on principles of self-esteem, cultural identity, Aboriginality and self-management, the College served as a gathering place for urban, rural and tribal Aboriginal people, not just from the state of South Australia, but from all over Australia.
The older tribal men, especially a man from the Walmadjeri people of the Kimberleys who was known as Michelangelo because of his painting abilities, took a liking to me and began to teach me many things, including how to blow the didjeridu, how to make fire and many other bush skills. For many years, I was immersed in the study of everything Aboriginal and my teachers were Aboriginal people from every part of Australia.
At the College, we were constantly searching for effective programs and teachings which would enhance the selfesteem of our students. It was apparent that Aboriginal people needed a strong foundation of pride in their own culture, and even though the term “Lost Generation” had not yet been coined, it was also apparent that many Aborigines had been denied the teachings of their own culture.
When Dookie came to the College as a student in 1980, he and I became good friends. Not long after he began his studies, a teaching position in the Aboriginal Studies and Teaching Resource Unit (ASTRU) opened up and Dookie was successful in getting the job. I was often found in the resource unit with Dookie and our friend Mike Gray, studying artifacts, paintings, books and other materials.
In early 1981, I returned to the United States to make the final plans for a poetry tour I had conceived and coordinated with poet Gary Snyder, which we called Poems of Land and Life. The tour was scheduled for September/October 1981. While in the US, a friend took me to participate in one of Tom Brown, Jr.’s introductory tracking classes in New Jersey. To my surprise (and Tom’s), I was a “natural” at all the skills, from the concrete survival skills of shelter building and firemaking to the more esoteric skills of tracking and nature awareness. Tom was constantly asking, “How did you do that?” And I began to realize just how much the old tribal men at the College had been grooming my mind.
Suddenly I realized that tracking, in its broadest sense, was what I had been looking for as the sword to cut through the Gordian knot of problems confronting many of the students at the College. I could hardly wait to get back to Australia to share my ideas with the elders.
Poems of Land and Life was extremely successful in bringing attention to the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia. And when the tour was over, I went to Dookie, shared my ideas on tracking and asked him if there were any trackers in South Australia. I remember Dookie laughing and saying that one of the best trackers in Australia lived right up the road.
Together, Dookie and I went to Gerard Mission to meet Uncle Jimmy. Though he was sad we were not taking him on a tracking case, Uncle agreed to come to the College and demonstrate his skills. And when he did come, the effect on the students was positive and immediate. In Uncle Jimmy James, they were able to see all the positive cultural values that are intrinsic to the Aboriginal people.
Uncle Jimmy and I became great friends and over the next years, we shared many adventures. His daughter, Alice, would often join us. At the time, I was about 29 years old and he was about 72, so he called me “Old Fella” and I called him “Young Fella.” Though Uncle never claimed to be my“teacher,” I was always learning something new—how to gather wood for boomerangs from the mulga trees, how to shape “come-back” boomerangs, how Pitjantjatjara youth learn to mimic animal tracks with different parts of their hand, even how to speak with different animals. Several times we visited an old tracking friend of his—Daniel Moodoo— and I would listen to the two of them relating past adventures.
When I left Australia in early 1984, Uncle Jimmy came to the airport to see me off. I was able to visit with him once more in 1987 and we maintained contact through Alice and his nephew, Bluey Roberts, until the time he passed away. Space does not allow me to tell any more of this remarkable tracker, but the article that follows touches on many of the highpoints in Uncle Jimmy’s life. He was a remarkable bloke and I have tried to do the best I could to share his inspiration with our students. Anyone who has ever been out with The Tracking Project has probably heard an Uncle Jimmy story or two.
To my friends Dookie, whose dedication to Aboriginal culture has touched so many thousands of people, and Uncle Jimmy, whose gift for tracking helped to elevate the art of tracking around the world, I send my deepest appreciation.
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