Eulogy for Jakamarra Nelson

This is the eulogy for Jakamarra Nelson delivered by his grandchildren Ernestine Williams and Moses Nelson at his funeral in Alice Springs on May 24, 2021.

We are here to say goodbye to an extraordinary person and to celebrate his life.

Jakamarra was generous with his knowledge, time and friendship. He made everyone he met feel special and inspired.

There were so many issues and involvements he had a hand in. He had a deep love of his family, his community, the Warlpiri Nation and people in general.  His quiet manner conveyed authority and commanded deep respect.

To the end he was unstoppable and put others before himself. He was in it for the long haul and never stopped fighting for Aboriginal rights and the Warlpiri nation. He was a peacemaker and ambassador.  He was a statesman and a true warrior.

Jakamarra was born in 1944 at Mt Doreen station.  He was the 11th of 12 children for Hitler Jupurrula.  Jupurrula had four wives, Nellie Napanangka was Jakamarra’s mother.  The family moved to Yuendumu when Jakamarra was small so the children could go to school.

This began a long journey – there were huge changes in his lifetime. 

As a small child Jakamarra walked from Yuendumu to Alice Springs with his family, following his father who was taken in chains by police, walking behind camels. 

Towards the end of his life Jakamarra was doing video meetings over the internet – even in hospital. He did all this with grace and humility. 

As a child he was friends with the Fleming family. Tom Fleming helped his education after school hours. Jakamarra said he developed his command of English from Father Fleming, as he called him.

He became close friends with Adrian Fleming – there are three generations of his offspring named Adrian.

Jakamarra loved his family with great warmth.  Jakamarra married twice. He had three children with his first wife, Candy, and one with Lynette his second wife.  There are five grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.  

Over the years, when his brothers and sisters passed away, he helped grow up their kids.  He was the patriarch of a very large family who loved him dearly.

It was unusual to see Jakamarra alone. He was always surrounded by family and people drawn to his friendly way.  He was actively engaged with family and, if he couldn’t give what they needed, he made sure the right people were able to assist.  He encouraged and enjoyed them, and growled at them when needed.

He loved little kids. When he was sick his great grandchildren brought a sparkle to his eyes.

In his early years he was a mechanic and welded the gates at Four Mile stockyards, still standing.

Later he went to Darwin for teacher training and to Tranby Cooperative College in Sydney where he met Aboriginal people from all over Australia. Many of these contacts continued throughout his life. 

Jakamarra taught in schools in Darwin, Amoonguna and Yuendumu.  This was even before citizenship.

Education was important to him and he encouraged his family to become educated.  He was an educator all his life, for Yapa and Kardiya.  His house always had books, magazines and newspapers. Learning to read seemed to happen by itself in his family.

He was an interpreter who spoke eight languages.  His skills were in demand, especially in his early years.  He was able to greet and talk with people in their own language, a skill that impressed his grandchildren.

As a teenager he was engaged in Warlpiri ceremonial activities with the senior men.  During this time senior men asked him to use “whitefella” education to benefit Warlpiri people and culture. 

He took this seriously and often felt the weight of this.

Jakamarra knew his country well, he knew his dreamings well, especially possum and kangaroo.  The Jardiwarnpa ceremony was very important to him.  He learned how to sing the songs from the older Jakamarras.

All his life he loved the ceremonies important to Warlpiri life.  He was deeply committed to ceremony and culture. He led many ceremonies and was respected by those he guided.

He was a good hunter and taught younger family how to hunt and prepare kangaroo properly.  The young ones were nervous about not doing things properly and getting growled at. They sometimes waited till it was darker so Jakamarra couldn’t see clearly what they were doing.

Jakamarra was comfortable in both Yapa and Kardiya worlds.  He had friendships in both worlds.  He wanted his grandchildren to have the same confidence and ensured they had broad experiences and were good communicators. He was a supporter of bi-lingual education at Yuendumu.

From early adulthood Jakamarra helped academics document the Warlpiri world. 

This ranges from material he recorded with his father and other old men through to work with Warlpiri Media on song lines. 

He had a beautiful speaking voice and narrated many film documentaries. Many publications at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Institute in Canberra include material going right back to his youth.

He was a true leader and diplomat, skilled in conflict resolution. 

From the beginning of Land Rights, Jakamarra was involved.  Early on he went to rallies around Australia, and later regarding the Intervention.

He was involved in land claims in Central Australia.  He worked with Nick Peterson negotiating with government and miners.

In the 1970s he was on the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.   In the 1980s he went to the United Nations in Geneva, with an Aboriginal delegation.  In the nineties he was a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Regional Council.

He was the first Aboriginal Justice of the Peace in the NT.  He worked with the justice system for decades, supporting Warlpiri prisoners. 

Jakamarra was involved in Yuendumu organisations including the Yuendumu Mining Company, Social Club Store, Old People’s Programme, Warlpiri Media, Men’s Museum and repatriation of artefacts.

He was a member of Yuendumu Community Council and served as President.  His skills were called on by many outside people working with Yuendumu.

Jakamarra helped establish organisations such as Congress, Tangentyere, Aboriginal Legal Aid and Central Land Council.

He was a member of the Aboriginal Benefit Trust Account Advisory Committee for many years.

The list of boards and committees is endless. 

He was forever travelling and his house in Yuendumu was first stop for many visitors.  It seemed that people dropped in at any time. He would put his shirt on and respond to their needs.   

He was skilled at troubleshooting and resolving conflict. He was a great listener and negotiator.  He meant a lot to many people.  He often gave people the benefit of the doubt. He was able to see the best in people and encourage their strengths.

All of this was done without an office, desk, phone or vehicle.  And usually without pay.

When he and Lynette lived in a humpy in south camp, there was a red filing cabinet and an old office chair where Jakamarra could be found at the end of the day reading a newspaper or magazine.

Jakamarra was not a total workaholic.  He loved having a yarn and a laugh. He enjoyed to drink and gamble.

Sometimes he would win big at blackjack and cards. He could disappear very quickly with his winnings!

Football was a passion for Jakamarra.  He was a one-eyed Collingwood fan and talked with Collingwood to organise jumpers for Yuendumu Magpies.  As a young man he played football. People say he was a fast and tenacious rover.  He played with the first Yuendumu team and with Wanderers in Darwin.

He played footy for Melanka in Alice Springs, then with Amoonguna which later became Souths.  He stayed involved as a coach and official.  He was even seen umpiring kids’ games at Yuendumu Sports. Jakamarra was a Yuendumu Sports organiser and convener from the start.

Jakamarra was a team player and encouraged people on many projects.  He loved Yuendumu and wanted it to be a strong, independent place for families.  He could have worked anywhere, but his heart was in Yuendumu with the Warlpiri Nation.

We thank everyone who supported Jakamarra throughout his life.  And especially in the last months when he was very sick for the first time in his life. His family are grateful to Purple House and Yuendumu’s Old People’s Programme who helped him to spend his final weeks in Yuendumu.

The love of his family was plain to see during the months of his sickness. 

His wife, daughter, son in law, and grandsons deserve special thanks for their attention to his comfort.

A testament to the life of this wonderful man is that ceremonial objects held in a southern museum were last week returned to Yuendumu after years of negotiations. Jakamarra would be happy to see the men continue with ceremonial life.

We have to say farewell now.

We are grateful for the rich life of this man. 

A ceremonial leader, a community leader, a family patriarch.

He had sharp intelligence, generosity, wisdom and great humour and worked tirelessly for Warlpiri people – and for all Aboriginal people.    

We need to continue the work that he committed his life to.

We must make sure the younger generation continue his legacy, for the benefit of Warlpiri generations to come. 

This is the challenge he has left us.  His life gives us strength to continue and inspiration.

We who loved him are left with huge holes in our lives and in our hearts. 

We are better people for having known Jakamarra. 

This is a massive loss to his family – and for the nation as a whole. 

May he forever rest in peace.