Tracker Tilmouth was a member of the Stolen Generation – his older, lighter-skinned siblings were taken away from their parents and sent to white families in the south, while he and two younger brothers were taken away to a mission more than a thousand kilometres further north. Tracker’s ties to both northern and central Aboriginal communities stayed with him his whole life, and were one of these reasons he became such an influential figure in the struggle for Aboriginal civil rights.
Tracker’s life story would always be a rich and fascinating one. But the author, Alexis Wright (for my money one of Australia’s best authors of fiction and non-fiction alike) felt that a traditional Western-style biography would do a disservice to Tracker’s memory. Instead, she created a type of oral history that wends its way through a man’s life thematically rather than linearly. The result is a sprawling, discursive, collaborative portrait of a man told by dozens of people, including Tracker himself. Stories and events and brought up, dropped halfway through, and then reappear later to be retold by a different person from a different perspective.
Not everyone in the book agrees with Tracker’s approach or his ideas. Some of them don’t even seem to particularly like him. But they all respect his passion and drive. Tracker spent his whole life working on the ground for Aboriginal people all across Australia, dealing with issues from housing to healthcare, legal aid to land rights. He also worked extensively with political parties of all stripes. Tracker and many other contributors to the book take care to point out that the Aboriginal people are many nations under the rule of a foreign government – thinking of them as a left- or right-wing “cause” is just another method of disenfranchisement.
At a time when the Australian government continues to reject the idea of indigenous voice in parliament, stories of men like Tracker Tilmouth are more important than ever.