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Bieundurry Jimmy (1938–1985)

by Steve Hawke

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Bieundurry Jimmy (1938?-1985), Aboriginal leader, was born probably in 1938, near Lake Gregory, East Kimberley, Western Australia, son of Walmajarri (Walmatjarri) parents. As a child, Jimmy lived in a completely traditional way. He was among the last of the Walmajarri to come out of the desert regions into the cattle-station country of the Kimberley in the 1950s. While a young man he attended school at Fitzroy Crossing and learned to read. There, on 3 June 1967 at the People’s Church, he married Olive Bent, a Bunuba woman who was to become a qualified translator and Bieundurry’s partner in activism and leadership.

A committed Christian, Bieundurry studied at the United Aborigines Mission’s Gnowangerup Bible Training Institute, and became a lay preacher at Fitzroy Crossing. He was politicised during the upheaval that followed the granting in 1968 of award wages to Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry, as his people were evicted or, when owners and managers refused to pay the award, walked off the cattle stations on which they had lived and worked. In the early 1970s up to two thousand displaced people were camped in appalling conditions at Fitzroy Crossing. By 1977 Bieundurry was employed by Community Health Services at Looma. He was an inaugural member (1977-81) of the National Aboriginal Conference, representing the West Kimberley, and a member (1978-80) of the Aboriginal Lands Trust. In 1978 he became a founding co-chairman of the Kimberley Land Council. Unlike its Northern Territory counterparts, the KLC was a non-statutory organisation. In its early years it was effectively supported by Bieundurry, from his NAC-resourced office at Derby.

In 1979 Bieundurry became involved in the conflict between the Yungngora (Yangngara) community of Noonkanbah station on the one hand, and, on the other, the Western Australian government and Amax Exploration (Australia) over plans to drill an exploratory oil well on sacred ground. Throughout the dispute he was a significant and eloquent advocate for the Aboriginal position. In 1980 he attended a World Council of Churches consultation on racism at Noordwijkerhout, the Netherlands, and was a member of the NAC delegation that took the Noonkanbah case to the sub-commission on prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities, United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva, Switzerland. He was appointed a founding member (1980-84) of the Aboriginal Development Commission.

Whether he was `out bush’ in the Kimberley, or in Canberra, or overseas, Bieundurry’s charisma was evident. With a preacher’s eloquence and passion, though not in the fire and brimstone vein, he was quiet but persuasive with a calm intensity. There was at times a tension between his twin roles of lay preacher and political leader. In the aftermath of the Noonkanbah dispute, he felt `burnt out’ and somewhat disillusioned. He largely withdrew from his political and leadership positions, and devoted considerable efforts to setting up an outstation at Jalyirr, in the desert country. Survived by his wife, and their three daughters and two sons, he died of ischaemic heart disease on 1 June 1985, ninety kilometres south-west of Billiluna station. His funeral, one of the largest ever seen in the Kimberley region, was held at Wangkatjunka. He was buried in Christmas Creek cemetery, near Fitzroy Crossing.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Hawke and M. Gallagher, Noonkanbah (1989)
  • Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Annual Report, 1977-78
  • Kimberley Land Council, Newsletter, Jan 1979, p 2
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Steve Hawke, 'Bieundurry Jimmy (1938–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/bieundurry-jimmy-12208/text21889, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012