The powerful story of Jandamarra is central to an understanding of the Bunuba people, their intense spiritual connection to the land, and the tragic history of the early days of European colonisation.

Jandamarra was just six years old when the white settlers arrived in his home country between the Oscar and Napier Ranges in the vast Kimberley. By the time he was in his teens, and ready to be initiated into Bunuba manhood, the settlers’ livestock had already degraded much of the land, and the Bunuba people naturally thought that, as the sheep and cattle were consuming their land, they were free to consume the livestock.

The settlers didn’t agree, and ruthlessly punished any Aborigines caught spearing cattle or sheep. At the same time, white law allowed the settlers to press the indigenous people into service on their ever expanding stations. Jandamarra was one of those made to work on Lennard Station, where he developed astonishing skills as a shearer, horseman and rifleman. While working at the station, Jandamarra also became friends with a white man, who later joined the police and became Constable Richardson. Richardson recruited his talented Bunuba friend to become a tracker for the police, and the pair had soon earned a reputation as a formidable team.

Despite his partnership with one of the local constabulary, when Jandamarra was caught spearing cattle, he was, like all Aborigines caught in the same situation, flogged and jailed. However he was soon again back at work with the police, and again teamed with his close mate, Richardson.

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In 1894, the pair were sent on a mission that was to change Jandamarra’s life – and end Richardson’s - and bring a note of bitter tragedy that ultimately led to the formation of the legend of Jandamarra as a “Jalgangurru”, a man of magical powers. The task given to Richardson and “Pigeon”, as Jandamarra was known to him, was to track down and arrest a group of Bunuba people, including several relatives. Among them was Jandamarra’s uncle Ellemarra, a man of power and position, and the very same individual who had helped Jandamarra prepare for initiation into Bunuba manhood.

This was the moment the young man’s loyalties, his strength and spirituality were put to the supreme test. Having caught and chained the group they were pursuing deep in Bunuba Country, Jandamarra and Richardson held the captives at Lillimooloora Station so they could be sent off to prison. As Richardson slept, Ellemarra spoke to Jandamarra’s heart. He reminded him of his responsibilities as a Bunuba man, to his own blood, to his Country and to himself. He presented Jandamarra with a terrible dilemma from which the young man couldn’t possibly emerge a winner – kill his partner and friend Richardson, or be forever cast out from his own people.

It was a brutal decision to make, and one that symbolises the predicament that still faces many Indigenous people across Australia today – turn one’s back on generation upon generation of one’s birthright, culture and spirit to embrace the alien ways of the colonists? Or take a stand, resolve to fight for that into which you’re born and to which you belong, heart and soul.

Jandamarra killed his mate Richardson, set his captives free. He was now an outlaw.

Within a week the group had stolen a cache of weapons and ammunition, and two drovers had been murdered. The colonial officials were outraged, and gave chase to the band of renegades. Just a week or so later, beneath the sacred walls of Windjana Gorge, a mighty battle between the police and the outlawed Bunuba raged for over eight hours. Ellemarra lay dead, but Jandamarra, although wounded, escaped. Vanished.

The enraged police staged reprisal attacks on Bunuba people who had had nothing to do with Jandamarra or his group. Many were slain in shameful massacres.

Jandamarra took the courageous decision to lay down his rifle and take up a different mode of attack – he tormented authorities with his ability to “fly like a bird and disappear like a ghost”. He made lightning raids on official buildings, looting food stores and leaving brazen footprints in the flour.

For three years, he evaded every attempt to capture him, and led the police on a merry dance that made his legend grow. He was truly Jalgangurru.

The people in the area believed that only another Aboriginal with similar powers could ever catch and kill Jandamarra, who fought year in and year out to keep the settlers out of the land around Tunnel Creek, a place “dimarrurru” (sacred) to the Bunuba.

It was an Aboriginal man from the Pilbara a long way south, who finally gunned down Jandamarra. Micki was reputed to share the same sort of mystical powers that helped Jandamarra stay one jump ahead of his many pursuers, and in the deep shadows of Tunnel Creek, in a merciless hail of gunfire the Bunuba freedom fighter was slain.

Today, Jandamarra is remembered as a hero, a freedom fighter. Some people call him “the black Ned Kelly”, because he was an outlaw who symbolises the struggle against a pitiless authority, and even though he was branded an outlaw, he was in fact a champion of and for his people.

It’s only a few generations since Jandamarra walked in Bunuba Country, and the stories of his exploits have been handed down by elders whose parents and relatives walked with him.

Dillon Andrews has heard the stories, and he feels the presence of Jandamarra whenever he walks in his country. When you join Dillon on one of his tours, you will feel the presence and the power of Jandamarra too.

SOURCES: “Rewind” September 2004 ABCTV, featuring Rebe Taylor, Dillon Andrews, June Oscar, Keith Anderson and Michael Cathcart Wikipedia article “Jandamarra”