The Aboriginal tracker is a stock character in certain Australian films, employed as set dressing, catalyst, curio. Although fictional trackers have been celebrated on celluloid, few real trackers have been given life within the national memory. Some people may recall Billy Dargin and his role in locating and shooting Ben Hall. Others might think of Dubbo’s Tracker Riley, or Dick-a-Dick, who found the missing Cooper and Duff children near Natimuk in 1864 when they had been given up for dead.
In Pathfinders, Michael Bennett reveals that there were more than one thousand Aboriginal men and women employed as police trackers in New South Wales between 1862 and 1973. Apart from trailing criminals or seeking missing people, trackers were also engaged in cadaver recovery, horse-breaking, station upkeep, grave digging, and rudimentary forensic investigation. The narrow acknowledgment by police of the superiority of Indigenous skills in this setting made tracking ‘one of the few jobs on offer for Aboriginal people in colonial society where traditional knowledge and training gave them a comparative advantage over the invaders’. At its essence, tracking meant ‘knowing how humans and animals modified the land as they moved across it’. The best trackers’ ability to traverse the bush was overlaid with minute attention to detail, psychological insight, and the application of informed guesswork.