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Oberdoo, Jacob (Minyjun) (1920–1989)

by John Bucknall

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Jacob Oberdoo (Minyjun) (c.1920-1989), Aboriginal community leader, was born early in the 1920s near Christmas Pool, in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia, second son of Pilikayi Likiya, a Nyangumarta man, and his first wife Kajayingu, members of the family group Ngulalu. About 1930 the family moved out of the desert on to Warrawagine station and then on to Mount Edgar, where Minyjun’s father was employed to hunt kangaroos. Minyjun and a younger brother became stockmen on ten shillings a week plus family rations. In a protest over working conditions and pay, they joined other Aborigines in walking off some twenty Pilbara stations on or about 1 May 1946. Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin led the strike, advised and supported by Don McLeod. Camping near Moolyella, Minyjun and his family began yandying for tin. In August they joined a larger gathering of strikers at Port Hedland. Minyjun was arrested and gaoled twice for his involvement. About this time he married Rosie, according to custom.

The strike rapidly developed into a social movement, aimed at removing the injustices embedded in the Aborigines Act of 1905 and the Native Administration Act of 1936. The strikers set up a co-operative to work mines in the region; in 1955 it was reorganised as Pindan Pty Ltd. Minyjun (known as Jacob) Oberdoo became a respected gang boss at a number of mining sites and also a noted lawman. Late in the 1950s a dispute over the management of Pindan and its resources developed between allies of Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coppin, two coastal Nyamal men, and a group of predominantly Nyangumarta and Warnman people, led by Oberdoo, who remained loyal to McLeod.

More fundamental issues related to the degree to which group members observed their responsibilities under customary law. Oberdoo rejected the more relaxed attitude of mainly coastal people to issues such as wrong-side marriage and other aspects of traditional social behaviour. He was fiercely anti-mission and suspicious of the motives underlying the Department of Native Welfare’s covert support for the opposing faction and its role in establishing a new mission at La Grange. In 1959-60 Oberdoo played a major adversarial role at meetings and, when Pindan split in 1960, he led about two hundred supporters in a shift to Roebourne. Helped again by McLeod, the members of the new community founded their own mining company, Nomads Pty Ltd. The writer Patsy Adam-Smith was impressed by their dignity, resilience and strong sense of social cohesion, despite the difficult working conditions. She described Oberdoo as handsome, with ‘an impressive physique’, considerable charm and a dry sense of humour.

In 1972 Nomads bought and settled on the Strelley pastoral lease, about 50 kms east of Port Hedland. That year Oberdoo was awarded the British Empire Medal but declined it. As a senior lawman and community leader, he advocated the right of Aborigines to retain use of their traditional law. In 1976 Nomads established an Aboriginal independent school in the area. Oberdoo supported the introduction of the vernacular literacy programs in Nyangumarta and Manjiljarra; he also encouraged the school to develop appropriate and sustainable forms of community involvement in education.

The group acquired a number of additional pastoral leases east of Strelley. Oberdoo helped to set up several outstation communities with the twin goals of re-establishing links to country and of encouraging young people to leave Port Hedland, where they were leading dysfunctional lives. On Christmas Day 1982 he fulfilled a long-held desire to return to his country and moved, with a small group, to Dunns Soak (Punmu), on the eastern shore of Lake Dora. He died of myocardial infarction on 27 October 1989 at Coongan station and was buried in Warralong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Brown, The Black Eureka (1976)
  • R. & C. Berndt (eds), Aborigines of the West (1979)
  • P. Adam-Smith, Outback Heroes (1981)
  • D. McLeod, How the West was Lost (1984)
  • West Australian, 15 Jan 1972, p 1
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Bucknall, 'Oberdoo, Jacob (Minyjun) (1920–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/oberdoo-jacob-minyjun-15386/text26593, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012