Gwoja Tjungurrayi: the man behind the image

Such were the stories of Jimmy as told by tourism image-makers. We might well ask, however, how do these relate to the life lived by the man whose images were captured by Holmes and Dunstan. This question is not easily answered. Vivien Johnson’s work with Jimmy’s — or more correctly Gwoja Tjungurrayi’s — adoptive son, the well-known Western Desert artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, provides a helpful starting point.[75] The following biographical sketch of Tjungurrayi’s life has been compiled from many tiny morsels of information gleaned from a broad range of published, archival and oral sources.

Displacement and massacre

Tjungurrayi was born into a Warlpiri-Anmatyerre descent group a decade before pastoralists began to ‘lease’ vast runs of his ancestral country, take possession of scarce water supplies, and develop herds that depleted native vegetation and drove away native game. The timing and location of Tjungurrayi’s birth remain unclear.[76] Most probably he was born during the 1890s at or near a large rockhole soakage known as Ngarlu to Anmatyerre, or Red Hill to English speakers.[77] Even though this was in Anmatyerre country, Tjungurrayi had a Warlpiri skin name and strong affiliations with Warlpiri country. He therefore had crossover connections with Warlpiri and Anmatyerre clans and country.[78]

His birthplace lies at the heart of Tjungurrayi’s ancestral estate, approximately 200 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. The latter ranges from Central Mount Wedge in the south, through Napperby to Coniston in the north-east, and north-west through Mount Denison to just above Yuendumu (Fig 5.14).[79] This inheritance was based on a Tjungurrayi/Tjapaltjarri patrilineal system that incorporated Tjungurrayi into a richly interwoven system of custodianship. This spiritual, economic and social system bestowed upon him a range of custodial rights and ritual obligations with 28 sites in the region, each of which was associated with historical or mythological events and travels of the Tjukurrpa, or ‘Dreaming’.[80]

Tjungurrayi’s Ancestral Estate.

Figure 5.14. Tjungurrayi’s Ancestral Estate.

Based on Carto Tech Services, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Estate, Art Gallery of South Australia, and Vivien Johnson (2003: 21-2), redrawn by G.Hunt.

The usual form of address in Western Desert society is by skin name, or one of eight kinship subsection names.[81] Gwoja’s skin name of ‘Tjungurrayi’ was determined by the names of his parents. It in turn determined the skin(s) he should marry and those of his children. His given name of ‘Gwoja’ was an old orthography and an Arrernte word for ‘water’.[82] This was possibly because Tjungurrayi’s personal ‘totem’[83] was the water spirit and his principal sacred site was Watulpunya, a water Tjukurrpa site near Central Mount Wedge.

During the late nineteenth century, however, pastoralists increasingly encroached upon, and pastoral leases began to re-territorialise Tjungurrayi’s ancestral country (Fig 5.15). This fuelled animosities between the two groups of people. The 1920s drought intensified competition between cattle, pastoralists and Anmatyerre for precious supplies of water and food. This sometimes led to violent relationships. Accounts differ about the murder of the white dingo trapper Frederick Brooks at Brooks’ Soak or Yurrkuru in 1928 by a local Aboriginal man known as ‘Bull frog’. It is now generally accepted that a punitive expedition comprising many local pastoralists,[84] authorised by the local government resident[85] and led by Mounted Constable Murray, resulted in the massacre of many Aboriginal men, women and children near Coniston. This was one of many skirmishes when Warlpiri-Anmatyerre were shot while resisting arrest[86] and scenes of death now called ‘the killing times’.[87] All this contributed to the decimation and migration of Anmatyerre-Warlpiri groups.[88]

Pastoral Holdings re-territorialise Ancestral Country.

Figure 5.15. Pastoral Holdings re-territorialise Ancestral Country.

Based on Carto Tech Services, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Estate, Art Gallery of South Australia, and Vivien Johnson (2003: 36), redrawn by G.Hunt.

Explanations also differ for Tjungurrayi’s experiences during the ‘killing times’. One claimed his father was taken prisoner by Constable Murray, escaped and fled with his family to the Arltunga region east of Alice Springs.[89] Another described Tjungurrayi ‘worm[ing] his way out from among the dead and dying’ at Yurrkuru to ‘narrowly escape death from a hail of rifle fire poured at him by whites’.[90] Clifford Possum’s oral account of his father’s capture and evasion records that a mounted policeman arrested and chained him up before ‘carry him ‘round to show’m every soakage. They leave him … tied up on a tree, big chain … they put leg chain too … Then everybody go out and shoot all the people … They come back and see him — nothing! This chain he broke’m with a big rock and he take off … to mine …’.[91] We know from official inquiries that Tjungurrayi was not the perpetrator of the killing. It is possible that this oral account describes Tjungurrayi being transferred to Alice Springs for questioning. It documents that Tjungurrayi escaped the killings, fled to the Arltunga region and avoided capture.[92] Tjungurrayi was therefore a survivor of a traumatic ’killing time’ that decimated Anmatyerre-Warlpiri clans and a man violently displaced from his ancestral country.

Tjungurrayi’s real encounters with ‘trail blazers’ were sharply different to those attributed to him by travel writers. Walkabout’s representation of him as a marauding foe was totally misrepresentative of his lived experience as a violated, seemingly non-offensive, dispossessed Warlpiri-Anmatyerre man.

Survival and adjustment

An Alice Springs newspaperman, Alan Wauchope, marvelled at Tjungurrayi’s ability to ‘bury’ this traumatic experience ‘deeply within himself’, and work ‘amicably and well for whites’.[93] Tjungurrayi’s behaviour may suggest he decided selective cooperation rather than retaliation would help to ensure his survival and ongoing presence in Warlpiri-Anmatyerre lands. Fragmentary comments reveal Tjungurrayi ‘proved himself’ as a good worker in three fledgling industries between the 1920s and 1950s.

It is not apparent if Holmes knew Tjungurrayi was a miner when they met. Tjungurrayi worked for several years in the Arltunga goldfields and the eastern Harts Range mica mines,[94] earning a reputation as a hard worker and ‘good miner’.[95]

After this period of asylum in distant Alyawerre country, Tjungurrayi spent most of his life working for pastoralists within or near his ancestral country, including at Napperby,[96] Hamilton Downs[97] and Mount Wedge stations.[98] During the mid-1930s, Tjungurrayi settled on Napperby station,[99] joined an extended family group, and met and married Long Rose Nangala in the late 1930s. His wife was a widowed Warlpiri woman, a mother of three children and an adoptive mother to two more who were orphaned during the ‘killing times’.[100] Through his marriage, Tjungurrayi became the adoptive father of four sons and one daughter ranging from three to ten years old.

He then worked a hard and dangerous life as a stockman and station hand for twenty years, mustering, branding and driving cattle, sinking bores and helping pastoralists develop their cattle leases into vast empires. Aboriginal men like Tjungurrayi played an essential role in the development of the Central Australian cattle industry. They were a cheap source of labour, being paid primarily ‘in kind’ or with essential goods that were necessary for their survival rather than cash wages.[101] For long hours of hard toil he received a yearly issue of cotton working clothes, a weekly ration of flour, tea and sugar and occasional pieces of butchered bullock.

The pattern of Tjungurrayi’s life as a working family man during the cattle season, and a traditional custodian who fulfilled his ritual obligations during the off-season, came to an abrupt halt shortly after his marriage. His family was involuntarily ‘centralised’ into a new government reserve at Jay Creek in Northern Arrernte country, after a change to the system of governance for Aboriginal people. Tjungurrayi’s son Clifford Possum likened this enforced upheaval of people from every station and soakage to the ‘mustering’ of cattle and ‘imprisonment’ by VC Hall, the patrol officer with ‘Native Welfare’.[102] Tjungurrayi had to readjust once more to dramatically changed conditions to provide for his family and maintain connections to Warlpiri-Anmatyerre country.

He took advantage of new opportunities at Jay Creek, by adapting his traditional skills and knowledge to the needs of the tourism industry, and engaging in the cash economy. Scientists and tourists passed through Jay Creek en route to Hermannsburg mission and its resident pastor, FW Albrecht, encouraged Aborigines to make artefacts for sale to tourists.[103] This included a range of plaques, coat hangers and carvings. Albrecht also hired camels and supplied Aboriginal camelmen as guides.[104] Tjungurrayi carved and sold wooden artefacts to tourists.[105]

Clifford Possum has recorded that his father created a niche for himself as a guide for ‘Aboriginal enthusiasts’ even before the family moved to Jay Creek. He remembered people like TGH Strehlow[106] asking his father to guide him after hearing of his ‘encyclopedic knowledge’ of his ‘Dreaming’ country. He described his father ‘working as a show’m-round-countries’, being asked to explain ‘what this one [Dreaming] mean?’, and ‘show’m round every … place’ including Mt Wedge so people could ‘take picture’.[107]

‘A mark of respect’.

Figure 5.16. ‘A mark of respect’.

Harney 1957, cover.

References in Strehlow’s diary[108] and Albrecht’s biography[109] suggest Tjungurrayi may have accompanied them through Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Alyawerre country during the 1930s. Unfortunately Albrecht did not name the men who accompanied him to Central Mount Wedge in 1936, but historian Dick Kimber suggests it may have been Tjungurrayi who guided him.[110] We know from diaries that Tjungurrayi was a regular visitor at Strehlow’s field camp near Arltunga in 1935. It is probable Tjungurrayi assisted Strehlow during the period when he witnessed many ‘totemic acts’ and ‘made himself’ professionally.[111]

A range of leading scholars and writers sought out Tjungurrayi during the next two decades to gain access to his ‘unsurpassed’ knowledge of Warlpiri-Anmatyerre country.[112] This included Charles Mountford and Bill Harney. Both these men featured images of Tjungurrayi on the covers of their publications as a mark of their respect and gratitude for his guidance and generosity in sharing his ancestral knowledge (Fig 5.16).[113] Mountford has identified the men who guided him as ‘possess[ing] great dignity’, ‘proven integrity’ and ‘profound philosophical knowledge’.[114]

Transmission of knowledge to the next generation

Working within the pastoralist and tourism industries enabled Tjungurrayi to fulfil a personal compulsion. He was one of the few living keepers of ‘totemic’ sites and caretakers for the ‘Dead-fella Dreaming’ upon whom the responsibility to pass on knowledge to future generations weighed heavily. His life was largely dominated by the drive to pass on the Law in its perfect form.[115]

After the ‘absorption’ policy was adopted in 1937 and whilst assimilative institutions were discrediting Aboriginal practices, knowledge and authority, Tjungurrayi sought to transmit ancestral knowledge to the next generation. Johnson acknowledges the crucial role Tjungurrayi played in the education of his sons in ‘totemic landscapes’ and ‘Dreamings’. She describes Tjungurrayi telling stories to his sons around the evening campfire about his daily travels with anthropologists and recounting the names and ‘Dreamings’ associated with his ‘totemic landscape’. Johnson explains that his job as a ‘show’m round countries’ enabled him to pass on his knowledge of country and Law to his sons, and demonstrate to them how they could earn respect from settler society for competence in their own culture.[116] This had significant implications for the revival of desert culture after three of Tjungurrayi’s sons became leading figures in the Western Desert art movement which defied assimilative forces and adapted the visual language of Warlpiri-Anmatyerre culture to new expressive forms (Fig 5.17).[117]

Tjungurrayi’s real response to colonial development was dramatically different to that portrayed by travel writers. Stories in Walkabout identifying him as a dysfunctional inhibiter of development were grossly misrepresentative of his lived experience. Tjungurrayi repeatedly adapted to changed circumstances. He broke down cultural barriers by firstly developing a reputation as a hard and effective worker in three industries, and secondly building respectful working relations with non-Indigenous knowledge-makers to promote a more realistic understanding of Aboriginality.

Unwanted celebrity?

Whilst Tjungurrayi lived his complex life, Holmes continued his unrestricted and uninformed use of his photographs. This situation changed abruptly in the early 1950s however, after Holmes was instrumental in having one of his portraits mass-produced on a stamp and Tjungurrayi was inadvertently catapulted into an international symbol of Australian Aboriginality.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri with daughters, Gabriella and Michelle (left to right).

Figure 5.17. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri with daughters, Gabriella and Michelle (left to right).

Photograph: Peter Los 1989, (reproduced with permission from Los and Johnson 2003: 143).

On 14 August 1950, the postal authorities released two ‘definitive’ Australian stamps featuring a stylised image of Tjungurrayi. They were in circulation for 16 years until 1966. This resulted in the sale and worldwide dissemination of 99 million portraits of Tjungurrayi. Newspaperman Alan Wauchope marvelled at the response to the stamps by international philatelists.[118] For example, Malcolm MacGregor[119] was determined to ‘hunt’ down and gain an autographed stamp from the unnamed man whose head adorned the latest addition to his vast stamp collection. He enlisted Holmes in his search.

Tjungurrayi, however, had other ideas. Thus began a four-year stamp saga in Walkabout during which Tjungurrayi’s name and personal circumstances were first revealed to tourists.

‘The most publicised [A]boriginal in Australia’.

Figure 5.18. ‘The most publicised [A]boriginal in Australia’.

Walkabout, September 1950, cover and p. 9.

One month after the stamp release, Holmes re-ran Tjungurrayi’s photograph on the cover (Fig 5.18) and advised tourists he was trying to locate Jimmy and send him a gift to commemorate his appearance on a stamp. Holmes also outlined the details of their first and only meeting, recounted his first impressions of the statuesque Aboriginal man, provided a biographical sketch and attributed a personalised identity to Jimmy. With lasting echoes of Pickering, Holmes described ‘Jimmy’ as a ‘fine…specimen of [A]boriginal manhood … [t]all and lithe, with a particularly well-developed torso, broad forehead, strong features and the superb carriage of the unspoiled primitive native’.[120] The article identified him as a ‘member of the Wailbri [sic] tribe’ with a ‘group name of Djungarai’ [sic] (Tjungurrayi), and an anglicised name of ‘One Pound Jimmy’. Holmes also referred to Jimmy’s terrifying ordeal in the Coniston Massacre, typifying him as a living ‘reminder of a black page in the history of native affairs’ rather than a remnant of a ‘vanishing race’. Given the governance orientation of this biography, it is probable Les Penhall, the local patrol officer responsible for the location of Jimmy, was the source of this information.

Holmes also asserted a form of intellectual ownership over Jimmy by advising readers ANTA was the copyright holder of his images. The issue of legal right became a burning one after Holmes and Walkabout subscribers discovered ‘One Pound Jimmy’ statues were being made, sold and displayed without ANTA’s approval,[121] and publications failed to acknowledge ANTA’s role in the discovery and promotion of ‘its’ Aboriginal celebrity.[122]

Holmes kept tourists updated on the status of the hunt for Jimmy and MacGregor’s stamp collecting quest. A triumphant article finally announced ‘One Pound Jimmy‘ had been ‘located’. Its details must have surprised readers familiar with former representations of him. Holmes advised tourists that Jimmy was ‘nowadays’ a gardener on a cattle station, a husband and a father. He illustrated this article with a cropped version of a fresh photograph taken by Penhall of a much older Jimmy standing naked in a pose reminiscent of the one used to portray him as the classical native warrior (Fig 5.19).[123] An uncropped copy of this photograph has recently been found in the Smithsonian archives in Washington DC. It suggests Penhall may have asked Jimmy to strip to the waist for the photograph to assist tourist recognition and comparison with the stamp portrait (Fig 5.20). Despite the reference to Jimmy’s work on a cattle station, it is clear Holmes reworked this photograph for publication, removing any evidence of Jimmy’s clothing and engagement with contemporary pastoral life (Fig 5.19). Further, whilst Holmes used Jimmy’s international celebrity as the basis for his observation that ‘One Pound Jimmy’ had finally ‘emerged from the Stone-Age’ into modernity, his cropping of the image accentuated his nudity and scarification — or ‘primitive’ qualities — and reinvigorated the eighteenth century conventions embodied in Dunstan’s original images.

(L): Cropped image of ‘One Pound Jimmy’.

Figure 5.19. (L): Cropped image of ‘One Pound Jimmy’.

Walkabout, December 1951.

Figure 5.20. (R): Uncropped photograph taken by Penhall and sent to MacGregor by Holmes.

Smithsonian Institution, 1951-4.

The themes of game hunting, specimen collection and conquest permeated an article by the stamp collector Malcolm MacGregor.[124] He identified himself as a ‘hunter of big game’ who collected signatures of living ‘notables’ holding ‘positions of power and authority’ and some ‘unusual items’. The American philatelist explained his decision to include ‘One Pound Jimmy’ was due to his ‘magnificent’ physical appearance rather than his honourable deeds. MacGregor stressed the difficulty of his hunt, acknowledged Jimmy’s attempts to avoid him and identified his quarry as a ‘wary native’ who had suspected there was ‘trouble afoot’, decided he ‘wanted nothing of it’ and ‘gone bush’. Further, he applauded those who helped him ‘secure’ his autographed stamp, expressing admiration for Holmes’ ‘discovery’ and Penhall’s capture of Jimmy. Holmes illustrated this article with a photograph of MacGregor’s prized new collectible: a thumb-printed set of ‘One Pound Jimmy’ stamps (Fig 5.21). This quest however, inadvertently set in chain a series of events that led to Walkabout’s production of a new way of seeing Tjungurrayi and Aboriginality.

‘Latest addition to MacGregor’s stamp collection’.

Figure 5.21. ‘Latest addition to MacGregor’s stamp collection’.

Walkabout, September 1950.




[75] Johnson 1994, 2002, 2003.

[76] By the time Johnson completed her 2003 book, she had learnt additional information about Clifford Possum’s life and family. This publication corrected an earlier assumption made by Johnson that Tjungurrayi was Clifford Possum’s biological father. It is unclear whether Clifford Possum was referring to his biological or adoptive father when he stated his ‘father’ was born at Ngarlu in 1895. See Johnson 1994: 42-4; Art Gallery of South Australia 2003: 5; and revisions in Johnson 2003: 34 and 212. Personal communication, Vivien Johnson, Sydney, 3 March 2006. For another less likely suggestion relating to Tjungurrayi’s birth see Amadio and Kimber 1988: 66.

[77] Tjungurrayi’s authority in land and law knowledge for this country suggests he had a birth connection to it.

[78] Personal communication, Dick Kimber and Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 8 March 2004.

[79] Johnson 1994, 2002, 2003.

[80] ‘Dreaming’ is a variation on the term ‘dreamtime’ which was coined by Frank Gillen in 1894, introduced into the British anthropological canon by Baldwin Spencer in 1896 and popularised by Australian writer Langloh Parker in 1904. See Wolfe 1991.

[81] Johnson 2003: 16.

[82] Personal communication, Dick Kimber and Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 8 March 2004.

[83] The term ‘totemic’ was first used in North America to explain the connection Native Americans had with their land. See Schoolcraft 1847: 79. The word was first transmitted to Australia and used to explain Aboriginal relationships with their ancestral land in Spencer 1904.

[84] Kreczmanski and Stanislawska-Birnberg 2002: 13-14.

[85] Henson 1992: 38.

[86] Hill 2002: 153.

[87] Sullivan 2002.

[88] Amadio and Kimber 1988: 59-63.

[89] Loos 1996.

[90] Wauchope 1965.

[91] Johnson 2003: 34.

[92] Personal communication, Dick Kimber and Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 8 March 2004.

[93] Wauchope 1965.

[94] Personal communication, Dick Kimber and Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 8 March 2004.

[95] Amadio and Kimber 1988: 66.

[96] Loos 1996; Amadio and Kimber 1988: 66.

[97] Wauchope 1965; Loos 1996; Johnson 2003: 35.

[98] Amadio and Kimber 1988: 66; Harney 1952; Mountford 1956.

[99] Loos 1996.

[100] Long Rose Nangala was the mother of Clifford Upamburra (Possum) Tjapaltjarri, Immanuel Rutjinana Tjapaltjarri and Lily Tjapaltjarri and adoptive mother to Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri.

[101] Anthony 2004: 129.

[102] Johnson 1994: 19.

[103] Isaacs 2000: 31.

[104] Henson 1992: 78.

[105] Loos 1996.

[106] The then newly graduated linguist TGH Strehlow was an avid collector of Aboriginal sacred songs and artefacts.

[107] Johnson 1994: 16-17.

[108] Hill 2002: 168-70; personal communication, Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 19 March 2004.

[109] Henson 1992: 101.

[110] Personal communication, Dick Kimber and Michael Cawthorn, Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, 8 March 2004.

[111] Hill 2002:149-50.

[112] Amadio and Kimber 1988: 66; Loos 1996.

[113] Harney 1957: cover; Roberts and Mountford 1973: cover.

[114] Mountford 1967: 1.

[115] Amadio and Kimber 1988: 59-60.

[116] Johnson 2003: 17-18, 28; 2002.

[117] They were Clifford Upamburra (Possum) Tjapaltjarri, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri.

[118] Wauchope 1965.

[119] MacGregor was a senior partner in the New York office of the American public accounting firm Peat, Marwick, Mitchell.

[120] Holmes 1950.

[121] Holmes 1952.

[122] McInnes 1953.

[123] Holmes 1951.

[124] MacGregor 1954.