Indigenous Studies

At first glance, the slender paperback, with its cover drawing of dark-skinned men and boys, looks like a conventional illustrated children’s book. A few pages in, it’s clear that Tjanimaku Tjukurpa is something else. The version I have is in Pitjantjatjara and English. There is also an edition in Ngaanyatjarra and English. To anyone familiar with remote Aboriginal communities, the illustrations vibrate with authenticity – the landscape, the buildings, the cars, the appearance and demeanour of the people. This is a story embedded in the reality of community life. Told through the eyes of a concerned grandfather, it is a narrative played out in various iterations across the Indigenous world.

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When I was a small boy in Hobart, my mates and I would often go down to the Tasmanian Museum after school; and one of the exhibits that interested us most was what we called ‘the human skeleton’. It stood in a glass case on the stairs, and it was only when we were older that we took in the fact that these were the remains of ‘Queen’ Trucanini, last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. There was no general notion abroad then that there was anything wrong with exhibiting these bones; but I remember a vague sense of unease – of being in the presence of something shameful. Such a sense exists in all of us; but there is no god so powerful as science in persuading men to suppress it.

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Scarcely a week passes without reference in the media to Aboriginal land rights. The tone of the reporting varies from the outraged indignation of those who see their rights to exploit and control land being curtailed, through eloquent pleas for simple justice, to forceful demands for the return of land which was illegally acquired. Comment is not confined to Australia: the rights of indigenous peoples are matters for comment in international forums such as the United Nations and the World Council for Indigenous Peoples. Yet despite this coverage ignorance, prejudice and paternalism abound. For this reason, a comprehensive volume on land rights Australia-wide is welcome.

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This special issue of La Trobe Journal is guest edited by Lynette Russell from Monash University, and John Arnold, the Journal’s new general editor (since No. 82). Titled Indigenous Victorians: Repressed, Resourceful and Respected, it showcases new historical scholarship that draws on the State Library of Victoria’s unrivalled collections. Topics covered in the twelve essays are diverse: Aboriginal guides to the Victorian goldfields, fisheries in western Victoria, cricketers at Coranderrk, Lake Tyers Aboriginal settlement, the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League, and government legislation relating to Aboriginal Victorians, among others.

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This book is a collection of papers from the first Aboriginal Writer’s Conference, held at Murdoch University in February 1983. Despite the long (unexplained) lapse between the conference and the appearance of this book, the papers raise a number of urgent and complex problems, for writers and commentators.

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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.

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It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.

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Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse follows the life of the strong Nuenonne woman who lived through the dramatic upheavals of invasion and dispossession and became known around the world as the so-called ‘last Tasmanian’. But the figure at the heart of this book is George Augustus Robinson, the self-styled missionary and chronicler who was charged with ‘conciliating’ with the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples. It is primarily through his journals that historians are able to glimpse and piece together the world fractured by European arrival.

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When country needs burning, timing is everything, and the grasses, by how cool or warm they feel, tell you exactly when to light up. Victor Steffensen is a master of timing. His book about Indigenous fire management came out just weeks after Australia’s unprecedented fires inspired calls for more Indigenous burning to quell the danger.

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First encounters between Indigenous Australians and European voyagers, sealers, and missionaries often unfolded on the beach, a contact zone where meaning and misunderstanding sparked from colliding worldviews. This sandy theatre also serves as one of the enduring metaphors of ethnographic history, a discipline that reads through the accounts of European explorers, diarists, and administrators to reconsider historical accounts of the gestures of Indigenous people from within their own cultural frameworks.

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