Eagle and Crow: Andrew Spencer Japaljarri



 Above: Japaljarri discussing the Eagle and Crow story with Dr Marcus Tabart. See below for the story of this painting about a man’s life.


25 September 1954 – 8 December 2015


An Appreciation of his Life and Work by Dr Craig San Roque


Dr San Roque has added a postscript today, 9 December 2015. See below.

You can tell the truth of a man by the lines he follows, by the tracks. I have been tracking Japaljarri Spencer for 25 years. He followed a strong line. There are four of those lines to note in this appreciation of him, written just five hours after he passed away in Alice Springs from kidney and heart failure. More lines might emerge as more people speak to his achievements.
Japaljarri was determined to work with the Law: Aboriginal cultural law and Australian law. This was a main line in his work. He plaited these two lines together from 1993, when he became an Aboriginal Community Police Officer. He should have been a superintendent.
In incident after incident he was an instrument of reconciliation between cultural law and police law. He negotiated, advocated, interpreted and translated the meaning of law both ways and he took action fearlessly and intelligently.
p2280-Spencer-&-RobertsonI have seen him disarm a man in a dangerous state of mind in a town camp. The weapon was removed and Japaljarri went back to settle the man’s derangement. I saw him face down an angry (and famous man) in a bush community, a man armed with spears who was intent on mayhem. Over several days the matter was gradually settled and the famous man returned to painting.
Right: Japaljarri in uniform at Yuendumu with Eddie Robertson, NT’s Senior Australian of 2015.
I have driven a vehicle quietly, with Japaljarri talking soothingly in language with a man in the back suffering from depression and terrible fear. And later, in the same vehicle, so as not to draw attention to anything out of the ordinary, he counselled a 12 year old who had suffered unspeakable trauma. Days later Japaljarri explained to me, in Indigenous healer (ngangkari) terms, the deep seated causes and effects of the boy’s distress.
I have witnessed Japaljarri diplomatically negotiating a very complicated matter between police, the family of an offender and the family of a victim in order to settle a matter according to Indigenous law, yet mindful of the obligations and responsibilities of Northern Territory law. I have witnessed him, in uniform, in the company of senior Warlpiri and Pintubi men and Correctional Services officers, working their way through the conceptual problems in the reconciliation between the two laws. Law was Japaljarri Spencer’s line.
A second line is the line of care, Kanyinjaku. It was Japaljarri Spencer and Christine Franks who in the mid-1980s, in Yuendumu, started up a petrol sniffing prevention program that gradually became HALT ( Healthy Aboriginal Life Team). HALT set the way of working inter-culturally (two ways) in authentic partnership.
Two-way partnership between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal professionals is now the ‘best practice’ methodology . The ‘two ways’ working method was won through blood sweat and tears. Local indigenous substance misuse and youth development projects, such as the Mt Theo Warlpiri Youth Development program follow on in that track.
It was within HALT that Japaljarri began, with his family, to make the thoughtful, powerful paintings and story lines that showed, from an Indigenous way of thinking, the patterns and hard truths of Family Breakdown, Sad Boys are Sniffing, Thinking About Young People and, more recently Eagle and Crow – on the matter of a man taking responsibility for governing his own mind and his violent behaviours.
The 2014 Jungarai Wanu ngangkari /healing story has been influential in primary health care, suicide prevention and mental health. In truth Spencer was a barefoot doctor, a ngangkari who turned his attention to the social ills of our time and place and took pragmatic actions to work a cure.
In this he was a true partner of his vigorous second wife, Marlene Nampijimpa Ross/Spencer who with Sarah Brown and Smithy Zimram succeeded, against all the odds, in getting a Dialysis Unit up and running in remote Kintore.

Above: Japaljarri’s Thinking about Young PeopleIn the middle, people are sitting, looking at the present situation. They are sitting in a dust-storm, yellow dust in their eyes. They see people sick, they see women injured, children lonely, men in prison; they see graveyards. They see life and spirit wasting away. Culture has changed to grog culture. Japaljarri says, “Please get this dust out of your eyes. Think.” On the right is a new circle pattern, asking “What holds the future together for Aboriginal people – for you ?”

A third line in his life and work has to be Spencer’s genius. It is true that he learned to read and write English only slowly, but he could think. He could follow and invent lines of thinking in the most original way, weaving ‘black’ and ‘white’ minds together. He sometimes reminded me of a Socrates. He would size up a situation and come out with the most brilliant and convincing question or image that would lead to a way through an impossible human problem. He could think with both sides of his brain. It is the loss of Japaljarri the thinker, the mentor, that will be a great loss to the culture of central Australia.
Just before 3 o’clock, on the morning of 8 December, Japaljarri was alone with Marlene in the hospital, Room 13, Medical ward, West. He knew that his time was coming. His last words were to his wife and partner, who had been beside him resolutely all through the long night. His last words were ‘Marlene, I love you.’
It is true to say that Japaljarri Spencer is a man who loved and was loved by hundreds perhaps thousands of people throughout the country. His line of love was a strong and honest line. He had friends in all places: former Prime Minister Keating had one of Japaljarri’s paintings on bi-cultural governance, Centrefarm drew on his inspiration, psychiatrists came to consult him, police commissioners treated him with the utmost care and respect. Boys in trouble came for help.
In the Gospel of John the man from Nazareth said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Japaljarri Spencer laid down his life for his family, for his countrymen and for the country. It was an act of love. It brought him much trouble. He gave everything away, money, motor cars, ideas. In return many people troubled him. He was patient with them. He was good humoured. He followed the line of law, the line of care, the line of clear thinking and the line of love. He has left a clear and strong track.
Eagle and Crow by Japaljarri Spencer, 2013: 
This shows the life of a man. Any man.
You see him born into his father’s Jukurrpa, his family all around looking at him, singing. He follows his spirit and his Jukurrpa to bush camp. He becomes a man. The eagle, Walawaru comes. “Come with me – I will show you all your life.”
Eagle lifts him high in the sky. Eagle shows him a strong way for a man living in these times. He shows him how to work the white way and the black way together. Eagle gives him a clear sharp mind. He follows Jukurrpa. His vital spirit, Kurunpa, stays strong and intelligent. He learns many things, he works for people. Jukurrpa, Kurunpa and Mapanpa (power) run inside him. He learns and works in two cultures, English and Indigenous. He keeps his family together. They have a good time.
Karnka Crow is jealous. He calls out. “You come with me, have a good time, plenty of grog, plenty of women. Don’t listen to that eagle.”
The man changes tracks. He looks into Karnka country. “I’ll be ok, Crow won’t suck my blood.”
He sits down in drinking camps. He gets lazy. He gets lost in town. He learns ganja culture, his mind changes, he kills women, he forgets Jukurrpa, Kuranpa slides away, he loses power, he lies down. Karnka sucks his blood. There he is, sick.
Walawaru comes again and lifts him up high. Eagle says, “This is your life. Use your brain. A man can choose. Which way will you go ?”
“I will stick with you”, says the man.
This is the story of any man. This is the parable of Eagle and Crow.
Postscript, 9 December 2015:
This postscript picks up some comments I made on ABC Radio this morning.
Japaljarri Spencer’s ‘Eagle and Crow’ story tells what can be the story of any man, as Japaljarri said. It was also his story. In his younger years, in a drunken rage, he killed a close family member.
He offered himself up, was punished by Aboriginal cultural law and Australian law. Then he made a choice, he used his brain and heart, he changed his life. He chose the path of the Eagle, not the Crow.
It should also be said that in the painting (seen there on the ground between the doctor and Spencer) the central line is marked by the track of Japaljarri’s own Jukurrpa, a ngangkari wana/snake who goes through much pain and scarring, and yet recovers in order to be able to help others – as an indigenous doctor. This is the tradition. In his many conversations with doctors, mental health workers and pastors, Japaljarri made it very clear that he knew he had caused suffering. I heard him speak very frankly (at night) about such private life events and his regret was made clear. But this remorse, this understanding and his feeling for others was the basis of his work.
The choice he made is clearly stated in the Eagle and Crow story. It would be fair to say that in this manner Japaljarri Spencer was also following a Christian way – a way he came to respect. He followed the Warlpiri Jukurrpa and the Christian way, with integrity, as do many of his indigenous contemporaries.

– Craig San Roque



  1. R. I. P Japaljarri.
    A fine man who was well respected by those who had the privilege to have met him.

  2. Japaltjarri, you’ve gone. I wondered why that huge cloud of karnka were on the road yesterday morning on that quiet back road I use. I remember those early times too. Kala.

  3. Thankyou Craig for your beautiful description of a man who devoted his life to service along the lines of love, law, care and thoughtful action. His devotion to his family, people and unity reminded me of a passage (from Baha’u’llah) that I often find helpful when people have moved to the next plane of existence. It seems that a ngangkari of his character will not be able to stop work yet.
    “Thou hast, moreover, asked Me concerning the state of the soul after its separation from the body. Know thou, of a truth, that if the soul of man hath walked in the ways of God, it will, assuredly, return and be gathered to the glory of the Beloved. By the righteousness of God! It shall attain a station such as no pen can depict, or tongue describe. The soul that hath remained faithful to the Cause of God, and stood unwaveringly firm in His Path shall, after his ascension, be possessed of such power that all the worlds which the Almighty hath created can benefit through him. Such a soul provideth, at the bidding of the Ideal King and Divine Educator, the pure leaven that leaveneth the world of being, and furnisheth the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. Consider how meal needeth leaven to be leavened with. Those souls that are the symbols of detachment are the leaven of the world. Meditate on this, and be of the thankful.”

  4. Great tribute by Craig.
    People like Japaljarri Spencer only come along a few times in a generation.

  5. RIP Japaljarri. A strong leader who will always be remembered and respected.

  6. If only ‘two ways’ working method was won through blood sweat and tears.
    Alas there may be the odd ‘win’ but the struggle between the cultures continues as always.
    There are no easy solutions at the interface.
    What was the HALT program really like at the community level rather than the political?
    When Japaljarri was a police auxiliary did he follow his professional mandate and suffer the rage of relatives or did he protect them from justice and suffer the rage of whitefellas?

  7. Rest in Peace, Japaljarri. You were an amazing man with an infectious smile, a great sense of humour and knowledge. You walked as a leader in two worlds.

  8. I met Japaljarri on one of my trips out bush with DCF. He had just received word that some of his paintings were accepted by the National Gallery. He was so humble while still being proud. I liked being in his presence and he let me take a beautiful photo of him laughing with his paintings. A truly great Spirit, the Community will be mourning.

  9. Thanks must be given and a great and deep life and death acknowledged … and comfort for all the hurting hearts of family and friends

  10. Kumunjai Jabaltjarri, Palya Linco. You were a brother, a mentor and a healer. It was an honour to serve with you. You came to my aid on many occasions in Alice Springs, Papunya and Kintore in the ’80s and ’90s. You will always be remembered for the good you did for so many. Rest in Peace.

  11. Thank you Alice Springs News, and thank you Craig San Roque, for such an eloquent tribute to a beautiful man.
    We will remember him always.
    What a way to live, a true role model.
    He lived the life he chose for himself, for his family and for his community.
    Goldie Hawn (not often quoted for her insightful wisdom) says that a lotus grows in the mud. Japaljarri says an eagle launches from the dust. We can still learn so much from everything he has done.
    RIP Japaljarri, much love Marlene and Natasha.

  12. Japaljarri gave me my skin name in 1982. My family became his family over the years we saw each other many times.
    He stayed at my home, I was guest in his home too.
    We went to sites and he shared his Jukurrpa with me. He taught me more and better Warlpiri.
    He was my gracious friend and brother and I am proud that I knew him, and will never forget him.

  13. Tjapaljarri will be greatly missed and be remembered as a wonderful and strong leader, a kind and gentle man who was always concerned about others and an extremely effective and proud policeman.
    Tjapaljarri was an inspiration to many and Jodie and I were honoured to call him our friend and send our thoughts to Marlene and their large family and all others mourning the loss of this great man.

  14. Jabaljarri
    A fine man, a true friend, a father, a husband, a grandfather, a law man, a man of god’s teachings, a kind, gentle and generous man.
    Thank you for sharing your world with mine and our families, thank you for working alongside me, protecting me and caring for our communities.
    Thank you for teaching me patience, generosity, humbleness and your wisdom.
    RIP my dear friend, my thoughts and prayers are with Marlene and your extended family.

  15. Andrew called me from Alice about a month ago and said he was crook and called because he said “heard you were comin back murra hook tjpangardi yilta”. Don’t know what that was about.
    It happens occasionally folks call from Alice out of the blue, not a lot to do. I guess you can leave some country but that red country might not leave you.
    I sent a parcel of choice second hand music addressed to him and Marlene at Kintore but he may not have received it. Anyway a very fine fellow. Andrew’s spirit lives on in the memories we have and deserving of the the high esteem expressed by you lot, some I remember well.

  16. It is with great sadness that I have just read of the passing of Japaljarri. I have always felt very blessed to have worked in partnership with him at Yuendumu in the late 80s.
    He was not only filled with such a generous spirit, but unbelievable patience, wisdom, humour and the ability to see the or delve for the “light” in any situation. It was an honour to have had such a beautiful teacher – learnings I have continued to use in my dealings with all people since.
    Japaljarri carried his family and community responsibilities on a very wide and proud set of shoulders.
    To Marlene and all the family – my love and sympathy are with you.
    Thank you Craig for a fitting tribute.

  17. Thank you Craig. The news came in the morning, a call from Christine Franks, dear friend of both of us.
    Hearing the familiar voice brought immediate foreboding. That evening I sat in the vast concert hall of the Melbourne Arts Centre. The solitary violinist on the wide stage below, in his black Russian jacket, Maxim Vengerov, raised his bow and began to play one of the great masterpieces of European music; many would say a pinnacle of its genius, the Chaconne from the second Partita for unaccompanied violin by J. S. Bach.
    Like the cumulus clouds in a Constable skyscape, the sounds swelled and soared, growing ever more immense in the spiritual power to which the music also offers reverence. In this I could find again the spirit I have known and loved in a great man of Central Australia, a mentor, a guide to profound understandings, and endless source of love.
    Andrew knew no boundaries, at any rate as barriers, whether of place, of time, differences of culture or race; and above all, of kindness in its very deepest sense.
    He had the view of the eagle, both of country and humanity, soaring far above, vast and one.
    Like the paintings at their greatest. And above all else, he was a GOOD MAN, exemplar for us all.

  18. @Jake: the best you could do to answer your question is to ask and listen to those who were there. You are right- there was also public, and even political, promotion of the HALT work beyond the world of the communities we served. It had wide effect in spreading understanding of possibilities of working together in new ways, and which eschewed the need many outsiders engaging with Aboriginal people and communities seemed to have to dominate and take over any course of action. To advance Aboriginal interests and remedy some of the harms which had resulted from the tragic and sorry history of ‘interventions’ by outsiders – both well intended, but careless; and otherwise. In either case, usually based upon presumptions of authority, and, of course, incontestably knowing best what’s good, or right, for others!
    The promotion work also had the purpose of building understanding and respect for the commitment, creativity and capacity for leadership within Aboriginal communities, which better than well equipped their constituents to invent, undertake and drive desirable changes towards futures chosen by themselves. Andrew’s paintings were one of those new inventions for healthy change. Ngapartji ngapartji was a term which tried to describe the new ways of working- more mutuality than exchange and transaction. In any case, I have never known a man who so entirely lacked any need for public attention, let alone acclaim. Yet his leadership was immeasurably more powerful, and wise, than the many whose work is driven by such needs and ambitions. Humility is not always abdication of power.

  19. A wonderful tribute to a most wonderful man … a healer of the people. Thanks, Craig. Much appreciated.

  20. Andrew called on the phone about five weeks ago. Said “Murra Hook you coming coming back kuwarri yilta”.
    Don’t know where that notion came from. Maybe the recent visit and it happens now and then old friends call me from out of the blue when in Alice Hospital.
    He did not want to say much about himself and its fitting that folks speak so well of him here.
    Anyway I said I would send a parcel of choice 2nd hand and some music for him and Marlene and he asked that it be sent to Kintore but he probably did not get well enough to go back there.

  21. To Marlene and family. Japiltjari will be missed by many. Working with him in Kintore made my work as a Remote areas Parole Officer very much easier. You will be remembered my good friend. Vale my old mate.

  22. A wonderful man, who walked the cultural divide, and made huge contributions to both sides of it. Rest now.

  23. Thank you Craig for such a full and hearty tribute to a great man. And everyone, for your tributes also.
    Thank you Japaljarri. My thoughts are with your family, and the great offering you have made through your life.

  24. There are very few left now like this Japaljarri. My father in law was his older brother.
    Like him he too was a philosopher. So too was my wife’s promised husband. Back then there were many such men and more than a few women.
    In this culture that values the lives and works of its men way above that of its women these men understood that the world of the warrior stands on the foundations supplied by women.
    No man can be a hero without a mother to give him birth and a wife to make him whole, a father, a grandfather and an ancestor, and a couple of sisters to chide him when he is being silly.
    They understood the difference between the spirit and letter of the law. It takes true philosophers to make two utterly different laws, both with terrible dark sides, work sensibly together.
    Socrates is a good example but remember what happened to him. I am confident that there is a new generation of such philosophers, both men and women, who can take off to fly with the Eagles rather than suicide with the Crows but the process is going to be painful.
    There are far too many dedicated to the Crow on the whitefella side as well. Goodbye Lamparra may many more like you come after you.

  25. I am saddened to hear the passing of a gentleman I’ve always looked up to – my condolences to Marlene and family.
    Thank you my big brother for watching over for me whilst working at Kintore.
    You will be remembered for your tireless work, respect and kindness.

  26. I’m sorry to hear that Japaljarri, a wonderful man and leader has passed away. Very sad and a loss to his family and community.
    Hinton, Christine and others, like myself and Mark Abbott, Peter Toyne were able to help out with programs at Yuendumu because the community were welcoming and happy to allow whitefellers, with their crazy ways, to be part of the Walpiri community at Yuendumu.
    They shared their knowledge with us and that was a truly special gift and insight into another world.
    Many of his generation were extraordinary people, as children grew up walking in the bush, now gone. Too young.
    Thinking of Marlene and his relations at Yuendumu, including my niece Adeline – also his niece.

  27. I met Andrew in 1979 at the Yuendumu Sports Weekend. He was the announcer. I had not long arrived in Alice Springs to work for Aboriginal Legal Aid. My initial and abiding impression was of a man who always included his family, his wife, his children, his parents, the extended Spencer family and often spoke of them. Andrew was my main teacher in the ancient wisdom of the Warlpiri nation, of which he was immensely proud.
    In 1985 I returned with my family at a time when we all needed some support. It was Andrew and his first wife Bertha who came up to the legal aid house in Yuendumu before court with open arms and a big smile to care for our baby son. At the end of my days work Bertha would return Dan before the long drive back to Alice Springs. This was the routine for most of the year.
    After a few months the stories started to come back to me. “Jungula was dancing for old Jungari today….he gave him his music sticks.” The Spencer family at Yuendumu were Dan Sultan’s first audience and the hearth around their camp fire his first stage. What a loving appreciative audience they would have been for a 2 year old boy!
    You will always live in our hearts my brother.
    Chris Loorham (Jampajimpa)

  28. Fitting and true Craig and well put Marcus, it was a highlight working with Andrew on and off since 1987 culminating in the collaboration with him, Craig, and Des Rogers on the Eagle and the Crow. What a legacy he has left and the responsibility that goes with it.
    Rob Burdon


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