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McKenna, Clancy (1909–1979)

by R. H. W. Reece

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Clancy McKenna (1909-1979), Aboriginal activist, was born about 24 September 1909, probably at Meentheena station, north-east of Nullagine, Western Australia, son of Maurice McKenna, an Irish-born station manager, and Nyamalangu ('Nellie'). She and her husband Frank Djungunbuna belonged to the Nyamal people and worked on the property. Maurice evicted the family at gunpoint when Clancy was about 3 years old. He was raised by his mother on Coongan, Bungalow and other stations in the Marble Bar area.

McKenna became an itinerant contractor, building fences and sinking wells in the Pilbara region. According to custom, he was allocated a Ngarla wife, Uni, twenty years his senior. Tall and powerfully built, he was outspoken in his relations with White employers. In the early 1940s he met Don McLeod, a contractor from Meekatharra, who was determined to improve conditions for Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Pilbara. With McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin, McLeod sought a minimum wage of 30 shillings per week and planned a mass withdrawal of labour on 1 May 1946. In the week of the industrial action, the magistrate at Port Hedland found McKenna guilty of inciting natives to strike and sentenced him to three months hard labour. Bin Bin was arrested and imprisoned for a similar offence. McLeod was also arrested, but won an appeal.

Undeterred, McKenna and Bin Bin organized some 800 strikers who decided in August not to return to work, despite the offer of better wages and conditions. When McLeod was again arrested, McKenna led a mass march on the Port Hedland police station. The initial wave of strikes lasted until late 1948. Meanwhile, McKenna helped to establish a co-operative which collected pearl-shell, hunted kangaroos and feral goats for their skins, and dry-panned for minerals. At the district registrar's office, Port Hedland, on 18 August 1950 he married Topsy Dougall (d.1975), a 27-year-old domestic servant. He subsequently joined McLeod in various mining ventures of the 'Pindan mob' and supplemented his income by station work. By 1960, when the mob split, McKenna had abandoned his support for McLeod. He worked at Mundabullanga station, and with the Nyamal co-operative set up by Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coppin at Wadangine. Although he had found it demeaning to apply for what was called a 'dog licence', he was granted a certificate of citizenship in 1954. After his son Roy contracted pneumonia, the family moved to Port Hedland where McKenna worked on the wharves. When Topsy and Clancy eventually parted, his life consisted of a 'tedious roundabout of station work, contracting, drinking, gaol and unemployment'.

A 'Law-man' among the Nyamal, McKenna had a special ability to interpret and explain Aboriginal culture to Europeans. At the same time, he suffered the slur of being a 'half-caste' and a 'mudamuda', accused of being 'a whitefella today and a blackfella tomorrow'. His unfulfilled ambition was to be a lawyer in the White man's system. His life story, told to Kingsley Palmer, was published as Somewhere Between Black and White (Melbourne, 1978). McKenna died of acute bacterial endocarditis on 20 August 1979 at Wine Tree Camp, Marble Bar, and was buried in Port Hedland cemetery; he was survived by at least three of his children.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Brown, The Black Eureka (Syd, 1976)
  • R. M. and C. H. Berndt (eds), Aborigines of the West (Perth, 1979)
  • D. W. McLeod, How the West was Lost (Perth, 1984)
  • S. Morgan, Wanamurraganya (Fremantle, 1989)
  • West Australian, 3, 18 May 1946
  • J. M. Wilson, Authority and Leadership in a 'New Style' Australian Aboriginal Community (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1961)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'McKenna, Clancy (1909–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mckenna-clancy-10984/text19527, accessed 19 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012