Inside Story

Friend or foe? Anthropology’s encounter with Aborigines

Anthropologists might have been implicated in colonial policies and practices, writes Gillian Cowlishaw, but for many decades theirs was the only scholarly discipline that took Indigenous Australians seriously

Gillian Cowlishaw 19 August 2015 5078 words

Rembarrnga children learning to dance at Bulman (2012). Gillian Cowlishaw

An Aboriginal colleague recalls: “When I started at university you would say ‘anthropologist’ and spit on the ground in disgust. But no one explained what anthropology actually was.”

For many Indigenous Australian scholars, and many scholars who identify as postcolonial, anthropologists are the enemy from the colonial past. As culpable as the murderers or mission managers, worse than the politicians and more devious than the overtly racist population, anthropologists are seen as wolves in sheep’s clothing, exploiting Aboriginal knowledge without accepting any mutual obligation. Indigenous historian John Maynard even claimed that Geoffrey Blainey’s book Triumph of the Nomads had “delivered Aboriginal people from the hands of the anthropologists” in 1975.

Anthropology has become the whipping boy targeted by scholars who want to be postcolonial and believe they can bestow on colonialism’s victims their rightful place in a postcolonial world. But the condemnation of anthropology seems bitterly unfair when, for many decades, anthropology was the only scholarly discipline that took Aborigines seriously. Many ethnographers became the trusted recorders of the knowledge that senior Aboriginal men and women wanted to preserve.

I contend that throughout the first half of the twentieth century the discipline as a whole was politically heroic. Both its practices and its explicit arguments contradicted standard conceptions of “backward savages.” Ethnography then employed fundamentally anti-racist, anti-colonial and even anti-state frameworks. While reliant on many of the tropes of their time, and using language we now find offensive, ethnographers fundamentally sought to relate as equals to people who were known pejoratively as primitive and governed accordingly.

I don’t seek to relieve particular Australian anthropologists, or the discipline as a whole, of responsibility for the ways they were implicated or active in colonial schemes and structures. Rather, I argue that wholesale condemnation of the anthropological endeavour has become shallow and moralistic, and an excuse for continued misperception of that complex, contradictory and contentious phenomenon known as “traditional Aboriginal culture.” There is a postcolonial fantasy that wants to achieve redemptive virtue by condemning the past rather than understanding the complex political and social legacy that colonialism created and bestowed on us all.

Classical anthropology

In the light of others’ attempts to delegitimise anthropology in toto, I have moved from being a critic of classical ethnographic research in the 1980s to being its defender in the twenty-first-century. It appears to me that postcolonial aspirations have discarded the baby of classical ethnographic research with the bathwater of the colonial legacy. The heart of that discarded baby continues to beat, for instance in the Gunapipi and Yappaduruwa ceremonies that still today gather hundreds of people from across Arnhem Land. Such ceremonial work is concealed from the nation – except when Traditional Owners insist on road closures that annoy emissaries of the state. The role of ceremonial and other traditions in current Aboriginal politics is a fraught question, disputed among Indigenous peoples – and by the odd anthropologist.

My modest aim here is to recall some early ethnographic work in order to reconsider its significance. When, during the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898, W.H.R. Rivers and A.C. Haddon recognised the significance of the “classificatory” system of kinship in the Torres Strait and collected detailed information about its forms, they were opening up a field of scholarship that continued to grow for decades. In documenting the kinship system, they were also providing a necessary foundation for establishing positive personal relationships with Indigenous peoples.

The kinship diagram (below) that accompanied me when I first lived with Rembarrnga people in southern Arnhem Land in 1975 was a valued legacy of their work.

Subsection (skin) diagram adapted from L.R. Hiatt’s Kinship and Conflict (1965)

The intricacies that I had found puzzling and obscure in the lecture hall at Sydney University became foundational elements of my everyday relationships with Rembarrnga people. The diagram began to make perfect sense when I was adopted as Lorna Martin’s sister, becoming Ngaritjan, the same “skin” as her. It showed how everyone else was related to me – as classificatory “mother” (mula), potential “husband” (bunji), “daughter” or “son” (mula), or two distinct kinds of cousins and nieces and nephews – matrilateral or patrilateral. Rembarrnga children absorb the kinship terminology, structure and associated orientations from infancy, just as language is learned. The principle named by anthropologists as the “equivalence of same-sex siblings” was a valuable maxim that saved me from the embarrassment of confusing a “sister’s” children, for instance, with a “brother’s” children. Throughout Aboriginal Australia quite different kinds of relatives call forth different responsibilities and emotions. The children of same-sex siblings are “parallel cousins,” often classified as full siblings.

The kinship diagram that was so valuable to me was not the result of a single ethnographer’s research. After Haddon had developed the “genealogical method,” dozens of fieldworkers collected detailed accounts of what became known as the “subsection systems,” noting especially the differences between the four-section system of central Australia and the subdivided eight-section system in the north. Ethnographers devised varied diagrams to represent the marriage rules and the reproduction of kinship structures over time. They also documented ceremonial practices, economic exchange, family structures, power relations and metaphysics, as well as everyday life.

W. Lloyd Warner was an exemplary early ethnographer. In 1926, when the nation’s press saw Arnhem Land as inhabited by “murderous black savages,” this young graduate from Harvard lived for lengthy periods immersed in the social life of the Murngin (now Yolngu) people. The title of Warner’s book, A Black Civilization, was itself a challenge to public perceptions, and its detailed account of Murngin society remains so today. At Warner’s final parting from his loved and admired friend Mahkarolla, each man wept as he recognised that distance was about to sever forever the friendship they had developed.

Of many other early ethnographers, let me mention two more notables. Phyllis Kaberry’s 1939 Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane was a rich and evocative depiction of family relationships and everyday life, based on long-term fieldwork in the Kimberley. Donald Thomson travelled extensively with the Wik people in North Queensland and the Murngin in Arnhem Land, publishing, among other things, “The Joking Relationship and Organised Obscenity in North Queensland,” as well as Economic Structure and the Ceremonial Exchange Cycle in Arnhem Land in 1949. He also left a marvellous archive of photographs and other objects. These are no small matters.

It should also be noted that ethnographers – and other whitefellas – faced severe obstacles to participating in Aboriginal social worlds until not long before my own first fieldwork in the mid 1970s. In the name of protecting Aboriginal people from rapacious whites, and to avoid what was known as the “half-caste menace,” state and territory protection laws prohibited “consorting” with Aborigines. Anthropologists’ desire to participate in Aboriginal social life was a challenge to the separatist regimes that monitored interaction between racially categorised populations by issuing permits for particular purposes. By 1975 such separatist legislation had been abandoned, but people of the Northern Territory cattle country still despised anthropologists, contemptuously calling us “Aboriginal lovers.” It seemed to me that this term expressed pastoralists’ fears of Aborigines and of the implicit challenge that these “primitives” posed to everything pastoralists stood for – private property, accumulation, hierarchy, individualism. In taking Aborigines seriously, anthropological practice was subversive. In subtle but shocking ways the Northern Territory public showed us extreme disapproval.

It now appears that postcolonial scholars express a more resounding disapproval of ethnographers. We are condemned, not for being friends of Aborigines but for being exploitative, just like the pastoralists. To understand how such accusations emerged, we need to grasp the ambitions and context of early ethnography.

Anthropology’s ambitions

When anthropology emerged as a discipline in the late nineteenth century, European intellectuals were working on the frontiers of knowledge of human variation, contemplating human history in a new evolutionary light. Australians, as Aborigines were known, caught the attention of these scholars because of the contrast between their simple technology and small-scale groupings on the one hand, and their elaborate ceremonial life supported by marvellous theories about the nature and origins of the world, and their intricate but flexible social structures, on the other.

Speculation about Australians’ place in early human social history competed with recognition of their sophistication and moral significance in the world. Spencer and Gillen’s early work in central Australia took up international debates about human origins and particularly the elementary forms of human society. One dispute was about whether “group marriage” existed in central Australia, following the observation that categories of relations were classified as possible spouses. “Group marriage” was soon shown to be a misinterpretation – a confusion of actual spouses with legitimate marriage partners. This is one example of how early research was trying to make sense of utterly different social institutions.

In anthropology, the term “radical alterity,” or “otherness,” does not refer to different human beings, but to the radically different ways that equivalent human beings construct, reproduce and grapple with their social worlds. What early twentieth-century ethnographers sought was not some general, romantic or narcissistic knowledge of “otherness,” but an understanding of particular peoples in their own conditions and on their own terms. The radical implications of this search are clear. Ethnographers showed that there was nothing normal or natural about any particular social arrangement, whether a language or philosophical belief, a family grouping, an economic system or a form of politics. Early anthropological studies greatly expanded conceptions of human ways of being in the world by offering comparisons between Europeans’ self-acclaimed “civilisation” and a range of other social arrangements.

But Europe was not decentred. The fledgling discipline of anthropology took others seriously but counter-moves arose with the racial “science” that was also thriving in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Europe. The negative images and reputation bestowed on peoples deemed “backward” were Europe’s defences against the challenges that these others represented. But it is crucial to recall that many powerful European thinkers refused to endorse the human hierarchy that was being established by colonial states. While involuntary participants in the language and evolutionary thinking of their times, they were excited by the challenges being offered to normative conceptions of human society and human being. Thus, dismissing Australia’s ethnographic literature because of its colonial context is equivalent to discarding the work of pioneering thinkers – Darwin, Freud or Marx – because they shared their intellectual world and its language with the morally and scientifically contemptible work of racial “science.”

Philosophers, psychologists, biologists and philologists responded to the expanded conceptions of the human by asking how far human societies could vary. Did these others, assumed to be historically prior, have true languages, laws, religions, politics, economies? Were their cosmologies coherent? The answers, explored and documented by anthropological fieldwork, were overwhelmingly “yes.” Human beings are fundamentally alike and have created societies with equivalent institutions. While other newly established social sciences were fully occupied with studying Europe’s past and present, social anthropology developed a method of systematically researching, recording and interpreting the nature of non-European societies, and called it “ethnography.”

As the new discipline of social anthropology flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, demographically small-scale and technologically simple societies were of greatest interest. The earliest systematic ethnographic studies were mainly in Africa, the Arctic, Melanesia and Australia, and pursued serious questions about the nature of social life – its necessities and contingencies. Baffling political systems, elaborate economies and intriguing metaphysical meanings played out in rich ceremonies; and all were recorded and interpreted with intense curiosity to reveal both the power of human imaginations and certain common human structures and forms of expression. A better understanding of the varieties and limits of human existence was a core concern of early anthropologists and one shared with a wide range of thinkers around the globe – including many who were known by anthropologists as their “informants.”

Now, over a century after the first anthropological expedition to Australia, the kind of knowledge those scientists and their successors pursued appears to have lost its legitimacy and relevance. The enterprise of understanding radical alterity, other ways of being in the world, is no longer popular or even significant in most intellectual and scholarly circles. How this came about can be traced through a more particular history at the University of Sydney, where the first anthropology department in Australia was established in 1926.

Political tales of the 1970s

When I began an arts degree in 1970 it was the anthropology department at Sydney University, which then included linguistics and prehistory, that was knowledgeable about Aborigines. It is important to recall that there were no identified Aboriginal scholars and that no other discipline made any contrary claim. Because the discipline’s pride had been in recording and analysing “traditional Aboriginal culture,” questions of social change, the “mixed race” majority, and the role of the state received little attention. Although A.P. Elkin, professor of anthropology at the university, had encouraged this kind of fieldwork in New South Wales, others designated it “sociology” in attempted disparagement. Historians had as yet taken little interest in Aborigines and there was no Australian Cultural Studies to attend to contemporary cultural shifts. Further, the rare appearance of an Aboriginal person at an academic seminar caused discomfort, sometimes with a muttered anxiety that the discipline was becoming “politicised.”

Neophytes like me were turning on their disciplinary elders, criticising their narrow focus on “traditional culture” and the lack of attention to social change. Armed with an emerging international literature and powerful theoretical developments critical of Eurocentric scholarship, we were contesting anthropology’s agenda, demanding that cultural practices be given economic and political contexts. We challenged ideas of static “traditional culture” because, we argued, “cultures have histories and colonisers have cultures.” The positivism, empiricism and lack of reflexivity that characterised the more tedious ethnographies were also on our critical radar. (Emerging feminism determined my own PhD research into Indigenous women’s control over fertility.)

It was also in the 1970s that Aboriginal people began to emerge in the media as forceful spokespeople demanding land rights, and by the 1980s Aboriginal authors, activists and students were participating in political debates and in academic seminars. They largely ignored anthropology, perhaps because by valorising “traditional culture” we had accepted the governing categories that authenticated some Aboriginal people over others. An exception was the young anthropologist Marcia Langton, who published a seminal essay in 1982 on anthropology’s traditionalism, “Urbanising Aborigines: The Social Scientists’ Great Deception.” The essay became a powerful weapon for those trying to shift the boundaries of Australian anthropology.

My own harsh critique of Elkin, Ronald Berndt and Kenneth Maddock referred to their arrogance in naming their subject “The Australian Aborigines” when they ignored the majority of Australian Aborigines. But I valued the ethnographic literature that had illuminated the original Australians’ social structures, which were, and are, still unrecognised and treated with a lack of respect in public discourse. To return to the familiar metaphor, we young critics of traditionalism assumed that the dirty colonial bathwater had not drowned the ethnographic baby or its referent, Aboriginal social life. We desired an expanded ethnographic focus on relationships between settler and Indigenous populations, the nature of colonial rule, and new Aboriginal social forms of adjustment or resistance to changing conditions.

The conflict between the priorities of anthropological elders and those of the recently empowered Indigenous rights activists was illustrated in the clash between Les Hiatt, then reader in anthropology at Sydney University, whose research had been conducted in Arnhem Land, and Gary Foley, an emerging Aboriginal intellectual and land rights activist. Did “Aboriginal politics” refer to national, racist politics or to Aborigines’ traditional forms of political practice? No reconciliation seemed possible between Foley’s anger at the lack of scholarly attention to Aboriginal disempowerment and Hiatt’s passionate sense of the significance of an Indigenous politics that was virtually unrecognisable as politics to Western political science. (Maddock described the Aboriginal polity as “a kind of anarchy, in which it was open to active and enterprising men to obtain some degree of influence with age, but in which none were sovereign.”)

A dispute between two American ethnographers working in central Australia illustrates the critical perspective that was emerging in anthropology. Eric Michaels, a pioneering visual anthropologist from the University of Texas, was documenting the impact of television on remote Aboriginal communities. He published The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia in 1986, the same year that Fred Myers from NYU published his acclaimed ethnography Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self. Michaels was critical of Myers’s book. He hoped it was “the last of the ethnographies” in which classical anthropology attempts to capture a culture within the covers of a book. Researchers, he said, must now ask “not just whether the ethnography is ‘helpful’ in some absolute sense, but will its subjects regard it as so.” Michaels documented the way that secret-sacred categories, localism and personal ownership of important knowledge – crucial principles to central Australian Aborigines’ knowledge system – stood in opposition to the incoming mass media’s principles, where knowledge is universally valid, publicly available and not subject to personal rights or authority. The Aboriginal men who Michaels knew were concerned about their cultural future, and Michaels’s impatience with Australian anthropology stemmed from his acute sensitivity to those apprehensions.

During my studies I was torn between two impressive figures in the Sydney department. Les Hiatt represented the past and Jeremy Beckett the future of Australian anthropology and I did not want to follow one by discarding the other. Beckett, initially a Marxist thinker, had begun his research in western New South Wales among people who were then known as “half-castes.” In a mass lecture theatre in 1971 Beckett played his recordings of the subversive, witty, satirical songs of grassroots intellectual Dougie Young, which sowed a seed of my future work. Hiatt, anarchist and libertarian, was politically conservative but a radical thinker who occasionally and deliberately shocked moral orthodoxies. During a flurry of public debate about cannibalism in Australia, he defended Yolngu mortuary rites, arguing that there could be no greater testament to feelings of unbearable loss than the desire to ingest a morsel of the lost loved one’s flesh. This was not a productive political strategy!

Aboriginal studies had become politically fraught. My fellow students conducted fieldwork elsewhere and the new ethnographers in Australia were mostly overseas scholars. Established Australian anthropologists were resisting the influences of poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonialism as well as that of the incoming Indigenous scholars.

Engaged anthropologists?

Scholars and intellectuals do not lead, but follow social change, and it was the loss of colonial authority that led to the emergence of postcolonial critique. Before the 1970s, anthropologists, as individuals, were not postcolonial or neo-colonial, but they tended to be anti-colonial. Ralph Piddington, for instance, is reputed to have danced around a Western Australian campfire singing “The Red Flag” in the early 1930s, an action that led to his exile to New Zealand, where he ran a progressive anthropology department. In 1968 W.E.H. Stanner’s immensely popular and influential ABC Boyer Lectures predicted that what he named “the great Australian silence” would not survive “the research that is now in course.” He believed that more accurate, informative accounts of Aboriginal societies would replace negative stereotypes. While contributing to the acceptance of difference, Stanner unwittingly conveyed a sense of inevitable tragedy – that Aboriginal traditions will not adapt and survive in changed forms, but rather will be misunderstood, trampled on and destined to disappear.

Fierce rivalries occasionally erupted among anthropologists about the proper direction of government policy. In the 1930s Donald Thomson and others argued for expanding reserves, such as Arnhem Land, to allow Aboriginal societies some protection from pastoralists’ and miners’ incursions. They were accused of protectionism and separatism, or of trying to keep the Aborigines in zoos in order to study them. Others, such as Elkin and Ronald Berndt, promoted the then progressive policy of ensuring Aborigines access to schooling and other mainstream institutions. They were later reviled as assimilationists. Most busy ethnographers saw themselves as apolitical, with their attention fixed on gaining a proper understanding of the complexities and specificities of knowledge and practices among “traditionally oriented” Aborigines. For some, the discipline had been politically progressive in trying to give responsible advice to the Australian states, whose longstanding oppressiveness was being laid bare, initially by Charles Rowley. It should be noted that the Aboriginal people with whom ethnographers engaged before 1970 were largely remote from government processes; their own languages, literally and metaphorically, were barriers to their engagement in public debate.

While the ambiguities of individual morality may be rendered irrelevant in the face of two centuries of invincible colonial rule, individual culpability cannot be ignored. Elkin, professor of anthropology from 1932 until 1956, was never a popular figure among anthropologists. In his own eyes, he was a great reformer, determined to improve Aborigines’ lot while conducting extensive scientific research. He also endorsed the British nuclear tests and for years dominated the infamous NSW Aborigines Protection (later Welfare) Board.

But Elkin, like all of us, was not simply one thing. His passionate reformism aside, he demonstrated that the ethnographic imagination is able to transcend the constraints of its cultural milieu. While an ordained minister of the Anglican Church, Elkin’s respect and admiration for those he called Aboriginal Men of High Degree (1977) is palpable. His book detailed their extraordinary powers and “outstanding personalities,” and Elkin says:

Medicine men are not impostors. They practice their profession in the way that they and their fellow tribesfolk have inherited, and that they believe, and have found, to be effective.

The fact that even a conservative Christian, a good citizen of the empire, could deliberately contradict popular stigmatising images of Aborigines by demonstrating that “medicine men” were serious intellectuals, is surely testament to anthropology’s counter-hegemonic core. Another example is Norman Tindale, infamous for his painstaking measurements of Aboriginal bodies, who demonstrated that the popular images of Aborigines as nomadic wanderers unattached to places were quite mistaken.

It is the practice of ethnography – the sharing of everyday life with others, investing one’s own subjectivity in an other social realm beyond one’s everyday comfort zone – that ideally allows the anthropologist to think outside the normative discourses of her or his own social realm. But this method appears to contradict conventional ideas of proper scientific method, and anthropology has always had an ambiguous relationship with science and scientism. Earlier ethnographers such as Warner, Thomson and Kaberry wrote rich and descriptive accounts, although their faith in precise observation and description was entirely empiricist and realist, expressed in exhaustive and often exhausting detail. In the 1950s and 60s more impersonal, objectivist styles of writing emerged as anthropologists attempted to give their work more authority by mimicking the biological sciences. Critic Mary Louise Pratt noted: “How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?”

It was not, though, the writing style that led to the overturning of anthropological authority in Australia. The very notion of anthropological authority became anathema as colonial authority frayed – or appeared to. When the Commonwealth took responsibility for Aboriginal policy after the 1967 referendum, a large body of racist legislation was rescinded, formal equality before the law was established, and state-funded Aboriginal organisations were launched across the nation.

But severe tensions emerged as the agendas of the Australian government, academic anthropology and Indigenous activists moved in different directions. Scholarly knowledge production shifted when historians at last recognised that “White Australia has a Black history” and began to reveal the price Aborigines had paid for national prosperity. As historical research flourished in the 1980s and public perceptions shifted, it was accounts of Australian colonialism that became known as “Aboriginal history,” and these reframed public discourses about the nation’s past. Historians became the primary scholars recognised in the burgeoning academic field known as Aboriginal Studies. Powerful and revealing Aboriginal autobiographies that emerged at this time remained largely outside the purview of history scholars, as did classical Indigenous cultures. With few exceptions, white historians’ accounts of their ancestors’ collective colonial crimes positioned Aborigines primarily as colonialism’s victims.

The new intellectual order

The pre-1970s anthropological imagination lacked the sense that Aboriginal societies could be incorporated within the state and become participants in the Australian nation without being destroyed. Postcolonial thought simply rejected this idea and paid little attention to the profound adjustments Aboriginal societies throughout the continent were making to colonial conditions.

Anthropologists became embarrassed about claiming expertise above the expertise of Aboriginal people themselves. Yet they were, of course, experts on particular matters on the basis of their scholarship and their relationships with senior Aboriginal men and women who represented traditions that had been largely destroyed in the south. But speaking of “traditional culture” gradually became anathema – it might imply that Aboriginal people were fixed in traditional worlds that carried the taint of the primitive.

Aboriginal people in the south, who had been dispossessed of their country a century or more before, began to claim authority over a unified Aboriginal culture that incorporated contemporary conditions and retained only symbolic ties to what is popularly referred to as “the oldest culture in the world.” Those Australian anthropologists whose conception of “Aboriginal culture” was still limited to the classical traditions were rescued from irrelevancy by the advent of a new role as expert witnesses in native title cases. Now named “native title anthropologists,” they segued smoothly into a niche within the Australian state’s postcolonial projects, supplying evidence largely on the basis of traditional cultural practices whose representational nomenclature – clan, patriline, descent group – had been established within the discipline in an earlier era. A new literature, now known as native title anthropology, began to detail Indigenous connections with country in relation to Australian law. This work does not question the authority and good will of the state. In Australia, the whole discipline of anthropology is now often equated with expertise in “Aboriginal culture,” perhaps because few local anthropologists have taken up other ethnographic subjects.

The postcolonial literature deconstructing the intellectual paradigms of colonialism has aimed to nail the moral and epistemological flaws that pervaded the era rather than to appreciate what was accomplished despite those burdens. (For example, Patrick Wolfe’s 1999 work, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology.) Rereading the earlier Australian ethnographies, mining them for the gems buried there, seems too high a hurdle for current scholars who show little interest in the Aboriginal societies that were the subject of these works, but whose unique histories are not fashionable in social science departments.

The limits of the postcolonial challenge

The intellectual movements of postmodernism and poststructuralism developed as part of the fraying of the power and legitimacy of colonial empires. Postcolonialism refers to an aspiration named, though not invented, by intellectuals. Fuelled by the empowerment of colonial subjects, a set of liberating ideas became a popular platform for research and writing across the social sciences. It was during – and perhaps owing to – the growth of this movement in Australia in the 1980s that anthropology was rebranded as fatally flawed because complicit with colonialism. But I am arguing that the colonial context of the earlier Australian ethnography makes the work more, not less valuable. While the foundational flaws in that literature are now obvious – exclusive attention to classical Aboriginal traditions and a tendency to objectify human subjects – it nonetheless provides rich information about a social world that has never been properly recognised, respected or related to as the original Australian culture.

The wholesale condemnation of anthropological research as exploitative and worthless is, I believe, childish, superficial and wrong. A body of knowledge – however flawed and limited – is condemned unread, a positive approach to social variation is ignored, and important forms of social life can continue to be dismissed as merely primitive and anomalous in the contemporary world. The political myopia of earlier times is easily condemned. Too often the past era’s common sense is retrospectively dismissed, sometimes merely on the basis of a standard descriptive language – terms like “native,” “savage” and “primitive” – that is taken to have today’s meanings. A lack of intellectual generosity refuses recognition of what the ethnographers did achieve.

My aim is to counter a popular hubris that takes pleasure in its own enlightenment by remaining ignorant of the past. What has been lost when new generations of Australian students can learn nothing of the genius of small-scale social organisation, linguistic complexity and Indigenous ontologies? The ethnographic classics merit respect and their enduring significance should be recognised. To understand the complexity of contemporary Aboriginal politics, some knowledge of the gap between traditional Aboriginal values and normative mainstream assumptions about social life – family relationships, authority structures, moral regimes – is surely necessary. Older anthropology is deemed a moral failure for its use of objectivist language that relied on the ethnographer’s authority, and for alleged political quietism, but surely another moral failure is to have lost interest in those other Australian traditions, ones that are difficult to understand and that find little room in the intellectual imaginations of Westerners. The refusal of radical difference is a deeper sign of poor race relations, particularly in remote Australia.