Jimmy James was born in the hot spinifex desert of Central Australia, at his father’s waterhole, west of Ernabella. He survived the harsh, isolated bush existence as a Pitjantjatjara tribesman to become a legend in his own time. There is no formal record of his birth but James always maintained that he was born in 1913. His father was Warlawurru (Eagle-Hawk) and his mother was Kaarnka (Black Crow). The establishment of missions in his tribal lands exposed him to an alternative culture. The Ooldea Mission became his home from late childhood, and camp life on the fringe of white civilization offered a blend of conflicting lifestyles to which James adapted himself.
In December 1945 the Oodnadatta Court’s landmark decision to find the Mount Dare station manager guilty of assault and maltreatment of Aborigines sent shockwaves through the far north and James unwittingly assumed a key role in the affair. He was chained up and mistreated on the station and subsequently wrongfully arrested and gaoled for assault but justice ultimately prevailed. However, the incident contributed to his moving from his homeland.
His association with the South Australian Police began after he helped to establish the Gerard Mission near Berri, in January 1946. On 22nd February 1947 he married Lilian Florence Disher. Coincidentally she was known locally as the unofficial adopted daughter of another Jimmy James, also a tracker. They had four children but one son died soon after birth. Even more tragic is the fact that James outlived his whole family, who all succumbed to alcoholism and the pressures associated with the loss of tribal traditions.
James’ tracking career began formally in 1948 and by the mid-1950s he had proved his worth as a talented tracker of escapees, arsonists, and lost persons. Even landowners came to rely on him to assist in tracking wild dogs or in gathering evidence against suspected poachers. Two famous criminal cases, the ‘Sundown’ and ‘Pine Valley’ murders in 1957 and 1958 respectively, were his most publicized successes of this period. In each case the skills of James and his fellow trackers led to the arrest of the offenders and provided vital evidence to ensure their convictions.
A more personal but equally impressive success came in 1966 when Jimmy James, despite all odds, found nine-year-old Wendy Pfeiffer alive after she had been abducted and assaulted near Mylor. The gold medallion he received in honour of his service in this case forever remained his proudest possession. After a hundred more tasks he was heralded a legend in 1982 for the personal risks he took and the skill he displayed in locating the dangerous escapee James Smith.
His title of ‘Dreamtime Man of Gerard’ reflected his permanent commitment to Aboriginal culture and highlighted his spiritual awareness. As a long-time member of the Gerard Council, he encouraged the teaching of traditional lore to Aboriginal children, narrated stories and taught bush-craft. He was also skilled at making boomerangs and spears. His sense of humour and infectious chuckle were trademarks of the warm and caring ‘Uncle Jimmy’. He received many commendations. The black community singled him out as the inaugural South Australian Aborigine of the Year in 1983 and the white community awarded him the Order of Australia Medal in 1984.
By 1987, after suffering repeated strokes, he found himself confined to a wheelchair, living frugally in modest surroundings at the Salisbury Nursing Home. His spiritual strength carried him quietly to his death on 27th October 1991 and he was buried with his family in the Gerard Reserve Cemetery after a memorial service with a police honour guard. An impressive granite memorial to him stands on the shore of the River Murray at Berri, but Australia will never be able to replace Jimmy James, master of the art of tracking.
Holmes, R., Lost and found: The life of Jimmy James, blacktracker (Tumby Bay: Holmes, 2000).
Jones, M., Tracks (Renmark: Jones, 1989).