26 September 2023

Pathfinders: A history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Michael Bennett, NewSouth, $34.99.

“The word tracker conjures images of the legendary Aboriginal bush experts responsible for bringing criminals to justice and finding people lost in the wild. Michael Bennett’s new book is a very welcome addition. The book charts an important though largely overlooked area of the country’s history. Aboriginal trackers hold a mythical yet obscure presence in the history of the continent…” — Professor John Maynard

There are few Aboriginal icons in White Australia history. From the explorer to the pioneer, the swagman to the drover’s wife, with a few bushrangers for good measure, Europeans play all the leading roles. A rare exception is the redoubtable tracker. With skills passed down over millennia, trackers could trace the movements of people across vast swathes of country. Celebrated as saviours of lost children and disoriented adults, and finders of missing livestock, they were also cursed by robbers on the run.

A historian who has worked in native title, Bennett realised through research the extent to which the NSW Police relied on trackers for their expert skill.

“The saviour of many and cursed by the wayward, trackers live in the collective memory as one of the few examples where colonial society made use of Aboriginal people,” Bennett says. “The reality, of course, is much more colourful and complicated.”

Bennett assiduously weaves back into the nation’s historical narrative of these Aboriginal heroes and heroines.

The skills of trackers were drawn from bush and hunting knowledge held by Aboriginal groups throughout NSW. A good tracker could pick up the smallest change in the landscape and quickly work out in which direction a person or animal was moving. Although trackers are no longer employed by the police, the skills and knowledge are still retained by many Aboriginal people throughout NSW.

In the foreword, we learn Bernadette Riley’s great-grandfather Alec Riley was a tracker. She notes Pathfinders extends the story even further, highlighting not just the phenomenal contribution of Alec Riley to tracking, but the many other Aboriginal men and women who had used their traditional skills to save lives and solve crime.

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