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Jack Nyibayarri Bohemia (c. 1903–1994)

by Malcolm Allbrook, Stephen Kinnane and Bruce Till

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Jack Nyibayarri Bohemia (c. 1903–1994), stockman, police tracker, and Gooniyandi cultural leader, was born around 1903 at Mingalkala (Old Bohemia Downs station), near Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, son of a Kija/Ngarinyin stockman from Flora Valley station and his Gooniyandi wife, whose names are no longer remembered. Official records of his birth year vary between 1896 and 1905, but he was most likely born around 1903 and his birthdate, 1 July, was one commonly ascribed to Aboriginal people at that time. The sacred waterhole at Bulka, the place his father dreamed him, was his country, ‘my dreaming place’ (Bohemia and McGregor 1995, 17). Observing the practices of his father and the other old people, Jack learned to ride a horse, but did not start work until he was ‘given a headband, signifying that I had reached manhood’ (Bohemia and McGregor 1995, 18). His father died after a riding accident when he was young, and his mother remarried the man who ‘grew me up to manhood’ (Bohemia and McGregor 1995, 18). He was brought up in Gooniyandi law, culture, and language, and was fluent in Bunuba, Jaru, Walmajarri, and Kimberley Kriol.

The provisions of the Aborigines Act 1905 and its successor laws severely restricted the freedoms of Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia. Most Kimberley Aboriginal people were legally tied to stations but received no wages. Furthermore, during the first half of twentieth century the region was in the throes of persistent conflict and often bloodshed, as pastoralists were establishing their stations and seeking to displace and subjugate traditional owners who were trying to maintain autonomy over their land and way of life.

Working as a stockman, Bohemia was employed in all aspects of stock work at Bohemia Downs. He undertook several long droves, including to Broome and Derby, and to Katherine in the Northern Territory. An expert stockman, he taught many of his countrymen the skills of working with cattle and became head stockman, a position of responsibility that entailed supervising other Aboriginal stock workers. During this period he married Joe Dimeye’s older sister, whose name was not recorded, and with her had three daughters and a son. It is not known what happened to her after their marriage.

In 1922 Bohemia was first used as a tracker. Since the early days of the colony trackers had been a vital, but unpaid, adjunct to police work in Western Australia. They were valued for their bush craft, knowledge of country, and horse skills, as well as their ability to interpret and provide information on Aboriginal communities and families. The work was often dangerous and, although they were not permitted to arrest people or use firearms, they were frequently ordered to do so. Trackers were used by police to ‘do their “dirty work”’ because they fell into a legal ‘grey area’ and could not be held legally responsible (Owen 2016, 170).

Bohemia was recruited by Constable Flinders of the Halls Creek police in the manhunt for ‘Banjo,’ a Walmajarri man and countryman of Bohemia’s, who had been accused of murdering two Europeans, Tim O’Sullivan and Joseph Condren, and stealing firearms from Billiluna station in the south-east Kimberley. Oral history ties the police search for Banjo to a massacre of men, women, and children near Sturt Creek. Research into the Sturt Creek massacre suggests that the second police party led by Constable Cooney may have been responsible for the massacre. Despite the lack of evidence, an inquest concluded that Banjo had wilfully murdered the Europeans, and that he had later died ‘from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police party in the execution of their duty’ (Kalgoorlie Miner 1922, 4).

The choices available to men such as Bohemia were limited and so, when he wanted to leave Bohemia Downs in 1938 after the death of his mother and conflict with the manager, he reported to the police and requested a transfer to another station. Instead, the sergeant Laurie O’Neill told him that he would henceforth work as a police tracker under his supervision. In 1939 he married Angelina Till, they had a daughter together, Doris, and Jack was a father to his stepdaughters Amy and Emily. They moved, together with his family, from Bohemia Downs station to Fitzroy Crossing. Apart from a short period as head stockman at Leopold Downs and then Brooking Springs stations, Bohemia worked as a tracker until the mid-1970s.

Esteemed in the Aboriginal community for his knowledge of Law and Culture, and by Europeans for his police work, Bohemia operated throughout the Kimberley and became well known. He was involved in a full range of police activities, including tracking and arresting suspected criminals, searching for people lost in the bush, capturing Aboriginal people who had ‘absconded from their employment’ (McGregor 1994, 120) on pastoral stations, and locating Aboriginal people with leprosy to transport them to Bungarun (Derby Leprosarium) for treatment. After he was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1970, he and Angelina travelled to Derby to be presented with the medal by the State governor Sir Douglas Kendrew. Following this recognition, colleagues in the police force arranged for him to be flown to Perth in 1972 where the governor presented Jack and Angelina to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon.

Granted a Commonwealth pension in 1966, Bohemia occupied a shed behind the Fitzroy Crossing police station—decommissioned in the 1970s—until he moved to the nearby Kurnangki community after a flood in the 1982–83 wet season. For many years he continued to undertake tracking duties and interpret at the court of petty sessions, for which he was given a small additional allowance. He wore his uniform with pride, and always sported dark glasses on patrol. Retaining his mental acuity until the last years of his life, he worked with the linguist Bill McGregor to record his knowledge of Gooniyandi language and culture, and his memory of Kimberley history. McGregor recalled his ‘wonderful sense of humour’ and described him as ‘one of the most moral people I have ever met, someone who believed in what he did, and did what he believed in’ (McGregor 1994, 121). In 1994 he suffered a stroke and spent his last days at Numbala Nunga nursing home at Derby, where he passed away on 19 August 1994. Angelina, the son, three daughters of his first marriage, and his stepdaughter Emily had predeceased him. Jack was survived by his daughter Doris, stepdaughter Amy, and many others he had helped to bring up. A full police funeral, attended by hundreds of people, was held at Fitzroy Crossing in September.

Bohemia’s descendants continue to hold positions of leadership in the Fitzroy Crossing, Bayulu, and Gooniyandi communities. His grandchildren and their families established a community at Mingalkala, on Gooniyandi country to continue the family connection to his birthplace. The traditional owners regained title to Bohemia Downs in 1992. A native title claim, which utilised the cultural knowledge of Bohemia and other senior men and women, was determined in favour of the Gooniyandi people by the Federal Court in 2013.

 

The late Bruce Till was a Walmajarri/Gooniyandi man and the subject’s grandson. This article on his japi honours his life and contribution to the advancement of his people.

Steve Kinnane is a Marda Marda man from Mirriwoong country in the East Kimberley and works closely with Fitzroy Valley people.

Malcolm Allbrook lived and worked on Nyikina country in the West Kimberley for many years, but at the time of writing was living on Ngunnawal lands near Canberra.

The authors consulted with Patsy Till Ivy Till, and Rhonda Murphy, Jack Bohemia’s granddaughters, all Walmajarri/Gooniyandi women.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Bohemia, Jack, and Bill McGregor. Nyibayarri: Kimberley Tracker. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1995
  • Kalgoorlie Miner. ‘Hall’s Creek Tragedy.’ 4 November 1922, 4
  • McGregor, William. ‘Obituary.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2 (1994): 120–21
  • Murphy, Rhonda, and the grandchildren of the subject. Personal communication
  • Owen, Chris. ‘Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty’: Policing in the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia, 1882–1905. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2016
  • Sorell, John. ‘Lifesaver of the Bush.’ Herald (Melbourne), 14 July 1970, 2

Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, Stephen Kinnane and Bruce Till, 'Bohemia, Jack Nyibayarri (c. 1903–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bohemia-jack-nyibayarri-32120/text39689, published online 2023, accessed online 30 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Jack Bohemia, 1953

Jack Bohemia, 1953

State Library of Western Australia, 60472619

Life Summary [details]

Birth

c. 1903
Mingalkala, Western Australia, Australia

Death

19 August, 1994 (aged ~ 91)
Derby, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

stroke

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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