‘Tracker’ Riley’s great-great nephew revisits history with stage performance
Sometimes it’s the smallest details that can reveal the biggest crimes.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of people who have died.
It was a slight oddity in the tufts of grass near an abandoned fire that led one of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal trackers to capture Roy Governor, one of the last bushwhackers in the early 1920s near Mendooran, in central-west NSW .
Indigenous police tracker Alexander ‘Tracker’ Riley worked for the NSW Police Force for 40 years and was based in Dubbo from 1911 to 1950.
The Wiradjuri man is best known for his instinct to find lost people, refugees and to help solve many cases.
Uncle Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley, then a Sergeant, 1943 (Provided: Local Studies Collection, Dubbo Regional Council)
Roy Goewerneur was an expert bushman, who evaded 30 policemen for three months after the massacre of a family and their staff at Breelong.
He attacked the forest in the Pilliga and terrorized settlers over a wide area. That was until Tracker Riley discovered that the Governor had tied pieces of sheepskin to his feet, wool side down, to cover his tracks.
Aboriginal tracker Alexander Riley is said to be the most famous Aboriginal tracker in NSW history. (Provided: NSW Police)
When the police rushed to his hideout, the governor opened fire. Governor fell to the ground with a bullet in his back, which entered his chest and lung. He was revived and initially sentenced to death in the Dubbo High Court, before the sentence was commuted to life.
This was just one of many cases Tracker Riley was key in the solution.
History comes to life
Tracker Riley is the subject of a theater dance production called ‘Tracker’ which was choreographed and co-directed by his great-great-nephew Daniel Riley.
The show opened at the Sydney Festival this month and will tour to Perth and Adelaide.
“‘Tracker’ really built over many years, through numerous connections and this ongoing, I suppose, for lack of a better term, tracking of my identity and how I fit into my Wiradjuri culture and Wiradjuri kinship system there out in western NSW,” Mr Riley said.
‘Tracker’ performers Kaine Sultan-Babij and Tyrel Dulvarie. (Provided by Pedro Greig)
The production weaves together dance, music and text, with an all-First Nations cast to tell the story of the first Indigenous sergeant in the NSW police force.
Mr Riley, a Wiradjuri man, is the first Indigenous artistic director of the Australian Dance Theater since the company was founded in 1965.
“I needed and found that I wanted to tell another story that connected me to my cultural identity and it just felt like the right story to tell,” he said.
“The more I dug into who Uncle Alec was, what he did, the way he served and his cultural power, it just felt timely to tell this story.
“Like my aunts, also the project elders, said, to make sure people don’t forget his name and know the power of this incredible person and icon in our Wiradjuri lore.”
History preserved locally
Local studies officer for Dubbo Regional Council, Simone Taylor is one of many who have helped preserve Tracker Riley’s history.
“Tracker Riley was actually quoted in a newspaper saying that he wasn’t so much interested in solving crimes and arresting people, but he liked finding lost people and that was his main goal,” she said .
Tracker Riley was also known for his role in the capture of Albert Moss, who killed three men near Brummagen Creek at Narromine between 1938 and 1939.
Simone Taylor is the local studies officer at the Dubbo Regional Council. (ABC Western Plains: Zaarkacha Marlan)
That year he was also officially commended for his work which led to the recovery of property to the value of £80, which had been stolen from the Western Stores in Trangie, together with the arrest of the perpetrators responsible for the robbery.
“The tracker Riley was able to track their footprints for three miles before uncovering the buried stolen goods,” Ms Taylor explained.
“Three miles if you think about it, three miles if it’s a little sandy you might see the footprints, but if it’s stony or stony or hard-packed soil, animals may have walked by, or other people may have walked by, so he managed to find them in spite of it all.”
Aunty Kathy Green, Aunty Diane Riley McNaboe, Aunty Shirley Mathews and Aunty Ann Cribb watched Uncle Alec Riley’s story come to life in ‘Tracker’ by Daniel Riley (centre).(Courtesy: Aunty Ann Cribb)The case that Tracker the ‘ haunted’ has most
Tracker Riley’s granddaughter, Aunty Ann Cribb, said it was the case of a missing boy that really stuck with her.
On Christmas Day 1940, Tracker Riley was called to search for Desmond Clark, a two-year-old boy who had gone missing from near his home at Bugaldie in the state’s north-west.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume. Listen Duration: 11 minutes 47 seconds11m Bring Tracker Riley to the stage.
Tracker Riley had ideas of where to look, but the police eventually called off the search.
Aunty Ann revealed her grandfather could not enter the property because he was black.
“My mom said it always haunted him. He was always upset about not being able to go on,” she said.
“It wasn’t the fact that he was black, it was the fact that he couldn’t go save that boy.”
It was almost a year later that Tracker Riley returned to the scene and began looking in the opposite direction, where he eventually found the child’s body in a washout.
A family man
In 1942 Tracker Riley was the first Aboriginal police officer to receive the King’s Fire and Police Services Distinguished Conduct Medal.
But he was also fondly remembered as a family man.
“As a person, he was very gentle, very quietly spoken, very humble and what I would call from that period, especially a true gentleman,” Aunty Ann said.
“He was always very dedicated to his family and the local community.”
Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley was a keen sports person and coached athletics in Dubbo for many years. (Provided: Local Studies Collection, Dubbo Regional Council)
He married Ethel Taylor, an Aboriginal woman from Dubbo, in Wellington in 1910, and together they had eight children.
While working in Dubbo, he lived most of the time on the Talbragar Reserve, north of the town.
Riley was quoted in the Sunday Herald in 1950, before his retirement, as crediting his tracking skills to Aboriginal “men who had wandered into the bush near Condobolin 60 years earlier”.
“We lived at the Mission Station, but I loved hunting with the thoroughbreds. When I was eight years old, they started teaching me how to track,” he said.
Apart from police duties, Tracker Riley was also a keen football player, boxer and a good athlete. He was well respected in the community and coached athletics in Dubbo for many years.
He retired from the force in July 1950, but received no pension for his 40 years of service.
Tracker Riley died at Dubbo on 29 October 1970 and received full police honors at his funeral. (Provided: Local Studies Collection, Dubbo Regional Council)
The legendary tracker is still fondly remembered in Dubbo today.
In June 1997, his granddaughter Kathy Green and the Minister for Roads Carl Scully opened a cycle path along the Macquarie River named in his honour.
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