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The indomitable friendship of Reg and Jan

Celebrating friendships which testify to a love of Aboriginal culture, heritage, environment, and a passion of a shared future

Today we explore Working Together with long-term working relationships.

We tell the stories of Jan Whyte and Reg Dodd: and Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi and Alice Pink. 

Jan’s long-term, deep friendship with Arabunna Elder, Reg Dodd (Senior South Australian of the Year 2018-2019), has been profoundly enriching for them both and seeded great achievements by the Arabunna People. Their work together, through cultural immersion tours of Country, profoundly expanded non-Indigenous understandings of Indigenous knowledge nationally.

Their friendship shares much with the friendship between Walpiri man, Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi, and Olive Pink at Alice Springs. 

These friendships testify to the achievements that come from a shared love of Aboriginal culture, heritage and environment, along with the shared passion to communicate and pass on knowledge to leave a legacy of shared future.

Jan and Reg

Jan is a spritely 75 year old non-Indigenous woman, who spends the greater part of each year on Country with the Arabunna People. During the extreme heat of summer, Jan returns to Melbourne to be with her own family.

Arabunna country is located west of Lake Eyre, north of Marree, the small outback town at the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. Maree is a focal town for the Arabunna People with its decorated Arabunna Centre and heritage museum.

Jan works for the Arabunna People without payment. Her home is an old caravan under a rough tin shelter beside a scraggy tree. It is close next door, via an unfenced path, to the home of Reg Dodd and his late wife, Gladys.

Jan’s Caravan, Lyn Hovey, 2008, oil on canvas: Image by courtesy of the artist. 

About Reg

Reg Dodd gently but powerfully draws visitors into the spirit of his Country and his ancestors. His knowledge of his People, their needs and paths to the future is passionate, lifelong, first class and entirely selfless.

In those whitefellas he meets, he utterly changes their understanding of Australia and the ancient history of this land. He demonstrates excellence in multiple areas – the passing of knowledge to his People, the giving of stories and understandings about his People to whitefellas and lifelong advocacy for his People as a superior negotiator and strategist.  He is a fabulous musician and a magnificent photographic artist with multiple successful exhibitions. He is also a deep and loyal family man.

Reg will quietly converse, in a dry creek bed drawing pictures with a stick in the soft sand, transforming lives. Hardened city lawyers, boys from troubled homes, grieving women, artists needing inspiration, university students needing purpose, international visitors, bushfire victims seeking refuge, the old and the young alike. And, this is just his influence on the whitefellas who spend a week or so with him on country.

His work with his own People is immense. He has been actively involved over decades in the quality and programs of the Marree Aboriginal school, the local Progress Association and in ensuring ongoing supply of high-quality food, medical and aviation services onto his remote outback Country. His quiet role among his People in steering them through school and careers, away from social problems and into a safe loving life is immeasurable. He has literally journeyed days and days, weeks upon weeks, thousands upon thousands of kilometers, long flights back and fro across Australia to serve on boards, trusts, government enquiries and the like to ensure his People are represented and served at the highest levels. He is known to Ministers, Federal and State, for decades past as his People’s leader and servant.

He speaks eye to eye with the highest and the lowest people in the land. With a strength of character second to none, but a deep gentle soft humanity, his word is his bond: and he is such a hard worker.

He is a fierce advocate for change in Australia, not just to improve the situation for his People or Indigenous People, but for all Australians.

About Jan

Of mid height, with short trimmed hair and a practical voice and demeanour, Jan’s relationship with Reg is a deeply loving platonic friendship of immense mutual trust, loyalty and joy.

Jan was born in Melbourne one of 2 children of Harry and Ida Walker. Her Mother was an active communist and Jan’s early happy memories were of the summer camps at Yarra Junction, near Warburton. Her mother was strongly active in her local community and relied upon by many for individual and personal support at times of need. Her father worked in a textile mill. Jan was raised with a deep, strong commitment to community duty and an ethic of working to contribute to creating a better society and removing injustice. There is no materialism to Jan. From her youth, she became active in Friends of the Earth and forged a passionate concern about uranium mining. She married and for a number of years operated a motor cycle business with her husband. The marriage came to an end and Jan found herself as a single mother in Gippsland. She relocated to Melbourne where she educated and raised her daughter and son, both of whom now have successful careers and families of their own.

Jan’s story[1]

Reg helps me out and I help him out. It is always nice to have a good friend. It’s hard to define. We have been friends for more than 20 years, with no really serious disagreement. The friendship is valuable for me because it gives me acceptance into the community. It is always valuable to be a valued member of a community and my friendship with Reg does that.

I think it a long-lasting friendship because we are both caring people: and we are both ‘people’ people. It took a couple of years to firmly establish the friendship and longer with Reg’s wife, Gladys. Aboriginal people don’t trust white people. Once that uncertainty about trusting broke away, we had a lot of things in common – the way we thought about the world and politically. But Reg differs from me – he thinks you get justice from the law, but I can see the difference between justice and the law.

At the start, it was hard because a lot of people viewed me with suspicion. Some people think that a white woman should not be at the Aboriginal Centre. They asked Reg ‘why are you working with a white woman?’. But, if people are considered to be equal, it should not matter. I am not trying to get an advantage. You can’t be isolated to that degree. You should be working with other people to achieve your goals.

Probably white people didn’t understand it either early on. They could not work why I would be there. Aboriginal people don’t have white friends. Once they got used to seeing me, that changed eventually.

I don’t think there are a lot of people like me, who have broken through into a close friendship that me and Reg have – and that I had with Gladys. White people might work for Aboriginal people, but they don’t always achieve a deep close friendship.

The Tours

Reg Dodd leads tours from Marree to Lake Eyre

We talked about maybe doing tourism. I had to work hard on it, but what we did was worth working hard to achieve. Being connected to the tours and trying to help the community to do things for themselves is major for me.

The Arabunna have a good sense of humour and are good to be with. They do get a lot of fun out of life. I enjoy being part of the community and doing the tours. I love how my relationship with Reg helps facilitate him and his People getting in with other people and, from his stories, to see their enlightenment.

At Finnis Mission Station. 2016. Reg rhs, Jan (with flynet) 3rd from right, Reg’s son, Garran, lhs: Source: Hubert Algie

Olive Pink[i]                  

Walpiri man Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi worked together with a non-Indigenous woman, Olive Pink, for more than 20 years.  They selected and created a conservation reservation of ~20ha on the eastern bank of the Todd River to be set aside permanently as a flora reservation. The land chosen lay south of Tharrarletneme (Annie Meyers Hill), a sacred site being the location of one of the Ntyarlke caterpillars, Ntyarlke Tyaneme.  In 1956, this Australian Arid Regions Flora Reserve was gazetted.  Olive lived on the reserve for nearly 20 years, until her death in 1975.  

 Olive Pink Source: HERE

Information on Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi was difficult for us to uncover. Olive was a Tasmanian born in 1884 who became a botanical artist. Over the years, she lived remotely with the Arrente People at Alice Springs and then the Walpiri in the Tanami Desert teaching English and other skills

Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi : HERE

By working together as companions and friends, Johnny Jambijimba Yannarilyi and Olive Pink successfully overcame the challenges of minimal operational funding and harsh drought conditions, converting what began as unoccupied land grazed by feral goats, rabbits and cattle into a precious botanical reserve containing over 300 Central Australian species and which today stands as an outback conservation treasure.

Let’s Work Together for Shared Future

These Working Together friendships show the whole as greater than its parts.  Each one of these friends complements the strengthens of the other.  They all achieved a shared future about matters for which they were passionate.  These friendships achieved significant cultural heritage conservation and environmental protection, as well as the communication and passing of knowledge.  They must inspire all Australians.  As Jan says:

We need to keep at it, to persevere.

We non-Indigenous people are the ones who have to work a bit harder’.


[1] Telephone interview by Dr Leonie Kelleher with Jan Whyte on 8 July 2019, written text confirmed 9 July 2019.

[i]  Marcus, Julie, 2001, The Indomitable Miss Pink: A Life in Anthropology, University of New South Wale Press,  Ward, Gillian, 2018, Olive Pink Artist Activist and Gardener: A Life in Flowers, Hardie Grant Publishing, Richmond, https://wildlife.lowecol.com.au/blog/property-profile-opbg/,accessed 100719.

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