Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri

Aboriginal land-rights activist

Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri, stockman and land-rights activist: born Newcastle Waters, Northern Territory c1922; married (six sons, two daughters); died Newcastle Waters 4 May 2006.

Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri was a key figure in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory of Australia. He was the last surviving member of the first full council of the Northern Land Council; Dixon's evidence in the 1977 claim he launched for his own ancestral lands at Murranji set the standard for many subsequent land claims. His ability to make very complex information about the travels of the ancestral dreamings comprehensible was second to none. His charm seduced Land Commissioners, lawyers and anthropologists for decades.

Dixon's kudjika is a 440-verse song that details the travels and travails of the first goanna (walanja). It was recorded in the 1990s; and perhaps Dixon's most important achievement was - at a time when Australian Aboriginals were being forcibly and bloodily deracinated - to uphold the law by successfully passing his song on to his sons.

He was regularly called upon to provide ceremonial services to far-flung clan groups, and he was employed extensively by anthropologists working on sacred sites clearances, and for advice on the complexities of Aboriginal genealogy. He was also consulted by his fellow "ceremony men", because of his unrivalled knowledge of songs, dances, body designs and ceremonial forms.

Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri was born circa 1922 at Newcastle Waters, Northern Territory. At that time the cattle station was owned and managed by Roy Edwards (he later sold it to Kerry Packer), who named his boreholes for cricketers, and his blacks for racehorses. Hence, Pharlap, and his sons Todman, Shannon and Bernborough - all Australian equine champions. In his youth, Dixon would work in the stock camp during the dry season, then strip off and head out to his own country at Murranji for "the Wet", in order to perform ceremonies and effect ritual rejuvenation.

During the Second World War, Dixon worked for the army at Camp Elliott, which is strategically located on the "track" between Alice Springs and Darwin. In the 1940s and 1950s he worked as a drover, then as a police tracker and stockman until his retirement in the early 1980s. Dixon was legendary throughout the territory as a horseman and stockman. Well into his seventies he would be asked by cattle stations to find the way into particularly difficult lancewood or bullwaddy country - the very terrain that had defeated the first white explorers in the region.

In 1952, Dixon, together with his wife Lady Dixon Nimarra, signed a petition of "the Newcastle Waters Aboriginals", a miscellaneous group of traditional peoples, which included some of Dixon's own tribe, the Mudburra. The petition - which was almost unprecedented - requested toilet and shower facilities for the men and women, and asked that "our tribe not be dispersed". Many Aboriginals from the Barkly Tablelands were driven out at this time, but the Mudburra remained.

Together with his wife, Dixon raised a large family. All the children were taught their own law and languages. Many have gone on to play prominent roles in education, the arts and the land-rights struggle, while others have had an equally significant impact in the traditional sphere. Angus Dixon (Partukuwarra) is a powerful ngangkari or healer. In common with many Aboriginal people, reeling from the impact of culture clash, Dixon succumbed to an alcohol problem; but he fought and beat "the grog".

Undoubtedly, winning back his own land at Murranji was Dixon's own, most satisfying, achievement. Eighteen hundred square kilometres of almost impenetrable bullwaddy and lancewood, it is bordered to the south by the Tanami Desert, much of which remains unexplored to this day. Ernestine Hill, the chronicler of the Australian outback, called Murranji "the northern rim of nothing". Dixon's land hugs the Murranji Track, a notorious "dry stage" of 150km on the droving route south-east, which was impassable until his own ancestors showed the whites the hidden soaks and billabongs.

In recent years Dixon was able to obtain contracts fencing the land when the Alice Springs to Darwin railway was driven through Murranji. He was able to facilitate the laying of the track over a major sacred site, and his and his family's subsequent work fencing for mining companies allowed them to spend money building up Murranji. Dixon's lasting memorial will be achieved when - hopefully in the not too distant future - there is a working station on his traditional land. Dixon died still planning to get his people out to Murranji, away from the evils of "grog, drugs, city lights and govmin ways".

I never met Pharlap Dixon myself, but witnessed at first hand how powerful his influence was on white Australian friends working in the land-rights field. On a personal note, when I came to write my novel How the Dead Live (2001), and was casting round for a character who could represent the interface between modern and traditional forms of human consciousness, Pharlap came to mind. I wrote the first few drafts of the book with the character named "Pharlap Dixon", always intending to change this before it went to press. In the event, I failed to do so, and despite not being particularly credulous about the supernatural powers of Aboriginal "big men", I was so shocked by my own negligence that I thought it best to consult with intermediaries on the matter.

The word came back that Dixon considered it a breach of the law for such a use to be made of his name; and I duly paid for printed proofs in Australia to be pulped, and the UK reprint changed. I also compensated Dixon himself with Aus$2,000, a new hunting rifle and a set of cooking pots. The novel bombed in Australia.

Whatever complexion you cast on these events is your own affair; for my own part I am in no doubt that Pharlap Dixon Jalyirri was a man who straddled the worlds of "dreaming" and technology with consummate ease. It seems doubtful that we will see his like again. He was buried yesterday, beside his wife, at Marlinja, the very beginning of the Murranji Track.

Will Self