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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'