Don McLeod – radical activist for Aboriginal justice in the Pilbara, Western Australia

Don McLeod (1908-1999) was an unassuming prospector, miner and general handyman in the north-west of Western Australia when in 1937 he encountered the Aboriginal peoples of the Pilbara. He broke the legal and cultural taboos of the times to step over the racial dividing line and assist an ill Aboriginal man. This encounter led to him transforming into an activist for Aboriginal justice for the rest of his life. He assisted the pastoral workers of the Pilbara to organise the first major Aboriginal strike for better wages and conditions. He then abandoned his own career and joined the strikers, working for them until he died at the age of 90. The strikers appointed him their advisor on matters to do with the Western economy and he assisted them to maintain their group of about 800 people through alluvial mining so that they would not be forced to return to the pastoral industry. Financial independence gave them political power and the means to buy their own pastoral station so that they could recover their country. When McLeod died he was a pauper. He suffered ill health and relentless opposition from his own kind but gained satisfaction when the strikers achieved the autonomy they lost under colonisation. In this seminar I look at how McLeod gained cultural authority with the strikers, the tough conditions under which they worked, and some of his greatest ideas that revolutionised the Pilbara and brought a small level of justice for the Aboriginal people.

About the speaker

Jan Richardson recently completed a PhD at Monash, undertaking research for a biography of Don McLeod. She and her husband Stan Davey (now deceased) worked with Don McLeod and the strikers in 1968/1969. At the strikers' request, they taught English literacy to the adults in their mining camps after a hard day's work. Stan and Jan were trained by McLeod and the strikers to act for Aboriginal autonomy in a political environment hostile to this concept. They lived in and worked for Aboriginal communities in remote areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory for 15 years. Jan then taught Aboriginal adults at the Northern Territory University's Centre for Aboriginal and Islander Studies (now ACIKE). She is a CDU Northern Institute Honorary Fellow at NARU, turning her thesis into a book, the first biography of Don McLeod.