Encounters with Indigeneity: Writing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Encounters with Indigeneity: Writing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

by Jeremy Beckett

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For four decades Jeremy Beckett has shone a light on previously marginalised fields of life. While the many went in search of ‘traditional culture’, Beckett was fascinated to learn how people who often lacked wider recognition of their Aboriginality went about their lives. In the process he changed our understandings of those people and highlighted the issues they confronted. He has enriched our appreciation of the diversity of Indigenous identities and experiences. He was an expert witness leading up to the Mabo decision, and has brought Australian Indigenous studies into a world framework. His work continues to be influential to many: those who revisit his ideas here; and those who are newer to his work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781922059796
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press
Publication date: 04/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 726 KB

About the Author

Jeremy Beckett taught anthropology at the University of Sydney, was a Visiting Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, the Australian National University, New York University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He has carried out long term field research with Australian Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders including ethnomusicology, has been involved in native title recognition and in the contextualisation of Indigenous identities in the postcolonial world.

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Encounters with Indigeneity

Writing About Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

By Jeremy Beckett

Aboriginal Studies Press

Copyright © 2014 Jeremy Beckett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-922059-79-6


George Dutton's Country: Portrait of an Aboriginal Drover

I first met George Dutton in the winter of 1957. I had come to the little town of Wilcannia, on the Darling River, in the course of a study of part-Aborigines in the far west of New South Wales. My assignment was to investigate their place in 'outback' Australian society. I had not intended to search for remnants of the Indigenous culture — indeed, my advisers had led me to believe that there would be none. But I found a dozen old men and a few women who had been initiated, and I was soon devoting a part of my time to working with those who were ready and articulate enough to tell me something about the 'dark people's rules'. It was frustrating, time-consuming work, and I might not have attempted it had it not given me an occasion for being among Aborigines who were suspicious about, and more or less uncomprehending of, my interest in their present-day affairs. I found, moreover, that it provided the basis for a closer relationship than I could achieve with any of the younger generation.

I had already heard of George Dutton while working on the Lachlan. When I came to Wilcannia, everyone agreed that he was the man to see: 'He knew forty lingos!' They directed me to the outskirts of town, where a score or so of scrap iron humpies stood scattered in the saltbush and mallee scrub. Some youths in cowboy hats and high-heeled boots led me past the wrecked cars, over the broken glass and rusty tins, to a rough single-room shanty, just big enough for the two beds in which he, his small son and two daughters slept. Dutton was sitting outside playing cards, a tall, emaciated half-caste of about seventy, his long, sallow face sunken with the loss of his teeth, under his broad brimmed stockman's hat. I stated my business but he was unresponsive, saying he might come and see me tomorrow.

I felt I had been fobbed off, but he came. He explained that he wasn't going to talk in front of the young people because they only made fun of the old ways. He dictated a few myths and then drifted away to a poker school. Rather to my surprise, he didn't ask me for any money or even seem to expect payment. But I had to pursue him to get more. It took some time to convince him that I wanted more than the few folk tales that had proved enough to satisfy the tourists he had met before. Perhaps also it took time for him to marshal the knowledge that had lain so long untapped. I kept off ritual, having found other old men very reticent on the subject. At last one day, when we were drinking in the hotel, I asked him whether he had been 'through the rules', which was the way Aborigines in these parts described initiation. He answered noncommittally, as I feared he would. But when we stopped by the lavatory on the way out, he showed me that he had been circumcised. He then gave me a detailed account of the young men's initiation, though it was some time before he would discuss the higher rites.

As time went on, the character of our work changed. I was still eager to learn what I could about tribes that had gone undescribed, but I was becoming interested in the man himself and ready to let him take his own course. The culture was dead, but its exponent was alive and accessible. Much of his talk was about the country, which he knew both in its mythological associations and as a drover. I had to send for large-scale maps to follow the tracks that the Dreamtime heroes — the muras — and he had followed. In the arid back-country, both Aboriginal and stockman must be able to recognise landmarks that seem nondescript to others, and they travel slowly enough for each feature to make its impression on them. I have heard drovers in bars rehearsing each step of a route, remembering what had happened here and there along the way, as though they were Aborigines 'singing the country'. The country provided the link between George Dutton's life as a stockman in white society and his life as an initiated man in black society. For him at least, it seems to have mediated the conflict between the two worlds.

George's country was not Wilcannia, but the 'Corner', the arid country to the north-west where the three states meet. He had not been there for some years, and we were soon seized with the idea that he should 'show me the country'. He also had the notion that we should find opals at the end of some mura track, since the old people used to say that opal was mura's blood. Unfortunately, however, I had no car. We managed to get a lift as far as Tibooburra the following January, but that was as far as we could go. Even so, the trip was worthwhile. We saw a few of the places that had been no more than names until then. And though many old timers were dead, while others had left in the general drift from the region, there were still a few of George's generation with whom I could hear him reminisce and talk myself. It was not until several years later that the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS) provided me with a Land Rover to go up to Cooper's Creek. George was in his eighties by then and frail. I was half-joking when I asked him whether he was coming. 'By Jesus Christ, I'm coming!' he said. And he persuaded his youngest son to join us. Despite his enthusiasm, he found the heat and the journey gruelling. With his failing sight, he could barely recognise the drought-ravaged country he had not seen for forty years. At Innamincka Station, there was not one Aboriginal person where once there had been hundreds.

After 1958, I was caught up in other work and able to make only brief and infrequent visits to the far west — in 1961, 1964, 1965 and, finally, 1967. One by one, the old people died, and each time I left George wondering whether I would see him again, but each time I came back he was there, thinner, coughing more and seeing less, but mentally as alert as ever. His friend Myles Lalor, who had droved through the same country and who took down many of his letters, predicted in 1964 that we wouldn't have the old man with us much longer; later he said, 'He's nearly died a dozen times but he won't give up.' George never lost his zest for the old stories, especially when he was recording them on tape. He was by now a seasoned informant, working with NWG Macintosh, Stephen Wurm and Luise Hercus (McCarthy and Macintosh 1962; Hercus 1970). In 1968, I sent Harry Allen, a prehistorian, to see him, but this time it was too late. He was too ill, though he dictated a short letter: 'Me and Harry can't do much here now. I can't get around to help him along, but I'll send him a word when I get strong ...' He died in November of the same year, the last initiated man in the far west.

I found the same restlessness and love of travel among other Aborigines of George's generation, though none had travelled so widely as he. This does not, of course, support the notorious 'walkabout' myth. They had not grown up as hunter-gatherers, and I doubt whether they were much more peripatetic than white pastoral workers, whom Anthony Trollope had earlier called the 'nomad tribe' (Ward 1962, p. 9). Though the white settlers exploited the country in ways different from their Aboriginal predecessors, they nevertheless reproduced the conditions for nomadism, at least among the proletariat. The prevalence of seasonal and contract work, the need to drive stock across vast distances, the monotony of life on remote stations and the shortage of women were all conducive to moving on. And, for some at least, the way of life acquired a certain glamour. There are Australian folk songs that are little more than lists of places where shearers have shorn or drovers have travelled (Ward 1962, pp. 177 — 9). These conditions survive today only in the most remote areas, but they were still active when Dutton was a young man. Aborigines, in addition, had to cope with periodic official harassment, forcing them to move on or take flight.

More than others, Dutton responded to the combined pressures of white and Aboriginal society in his zest for travel. And in his old age it mattered more to him than it did to others. Once, when he was arguing with another man who had misremembered my name, he clinched the matter by saying, 'Dammit, I've travelled with the bloke!'

When George Dutton was born, the traditional order still held, but it was breaking up by the time he reached maturity and the memory of it died with him. Yet he was not a tribal Aboriginal. His parents' generation had already made the adaptation to pastoral settlement, grafting the institutions that they valued onto station life. They had, in Elkin's (1954, p. 324) words, 'woven station activity and certain European goods into their social and economic organization and into their psychology without upsetting the fundamentals of their social behaviour or belief'.

This adaptation appears differently according to whether it is viewed from the settlers' perspective or that of the Aborigines. Elkin (1951) sees the Aborigines as pursuing a strategy of 'Intelligent parasitism'. The term has unfortunate overtones — doubtless unintended — and the notion credits them with more freedom of choice than they necessarily had. They were indeed able to use European resources to underwrite Aboriginal activities, but only because the arrangement suited the settlers.

In terms of the wider system, we have what may be called internal colonialism, a regime that preserves traditional institutions in order to maintain a supply of cheap labour (Protector of the Aborigines 1883). In New South Wales as elsewhere, the pastoral industry could not have survived recurrent droughts, recessions and labour shortages without Aboriginal help. Many stations supported permanent communities in order to be assured of a supply of cheap but skilled labour that could be taken on and laid off at will. Aboriginal women, for their part, provided domestic labour and sexual release for the solitary males who made up the white workforce. Thus the pastoralists had nothing to gain and something to lose by disrupting their peons' ties to community and country, or teaching them the virtues of monogamy and thrift. Cultural difference obscured and legitimised exploitation, but at the same time it assured Aborigines of an area of autonomy.

When the modus vivendi broke down, Dutton's people moved into the phase that Elkin (1951) has called 'Pauperism'. This refers to an indigence that is as much cultural as economic, a net loss of material and mental things, and a life that is wholly mundane. Also lost are the occasions for self-determination. Until they can reconstruct their identity, Aborigines are distinguished from other Australians by external factors: the colour bar and the uninvited attentions of welfare and protection agencies.

The transition is poorly documented and little understood. Ultimately the determining factors are to be found in the white sector, and there are many instances of direct suppression of custom — even of language. But sometimes the agents of destruction have been the Aborigines themselves, responding to diffuse and indirect pressures from within the community, as well as from without (e.g. see Berndt 1962; Stanner 1960). Often, as in the far west, the decimation and dispersal of Aboriginal populations have been crucial (Elkin 1951, p. 170). But the dispersal must be understood in terms of changes in the rural economy of the far west, which were themselves reproduced in other parts of Australia. I refer to the subdivision of the large pastoral properties and the decline in the proportion of wage labourers to self-employed smallholders. In those parts of northern Australia where the population has been neither decimated nor dispersed, and Indigenous institutions have not been suppressed, the transition may not take place.

Although many anthropologists have worked among Aborigines at the first stage of integration, few have described them in these terms. Ronald and Catherine Berndt (1951) have given some impression of it in the early pages of their South Australian study and Mervyn Meggitt (1962) has stressed the settlement environment of his Desert People. However, WEH Stanner (1960) has given it the most direct and vivid treatment in his biography of a Port Keats Aboriginal, Durmugam. In the far west of New South Wales, the phase had ended by or before 1920 and there was no question of my observing it, but it was the setting for the early years of Dutton and his generation. By the time they were born, Europeans had already settled the land, which may explain why none of them could give me a coherent account of local organisation. Theirs was a world of sheep stations, wayside hotels and rare, dusty townships, but also of regulated marriage, bush camps and secret rituals.

During these times, Aborigines had the freedom and occasion to travel further afield than their forebears did. This increased mobility brought into contact tribes that had hitherto been separate. There were more cups from which to drink, even if the contents were somewhat adulterated. The white sector likewise offered new experiences and opportunities, as well as restrictions. Some Aborigines made more of their opportunities than others. The half-caste was perhaps better able to penetrate the white sector and, in this part of Australia at least, suffered no disabilities in the Aboriginal community.

The names and location of the tribes of the far west are a matter of some confusion. Dutton's own account (Map 1.1) does not coincide exactly with that obtained by Tindale from field and documentary sources, and there seems to be no way of resolving the differences at this date. However, the general picture is clear enough. The tribes to the east of the Darling were linguistically and culturally homogeneous and may be classified together under the heading of Wiradjeri (Capell 1956, p. 42). They do not concern us here, except to note that they differed from the people of the Darling and the country to the north and west, who may be classified as Bagundju. According to Dutton, Bandjigali, Danggali, Bulali, Wiljali, Wiljagali, Wainyubalku, Barundji and Bagundji people all spoke variants of the one language. They also employed the same kinship terminology, which Elkin (1939, p. 43) recorded under the name Wijakali.

The people of the 'Corner' — Maliangaba, Wadigali, Gungadidji and Wonggumara — differed again. They are mentioned only in passing by earlier writers, and Maliangaba is the only group about which I could obtain much information (Beckett 1968). Though their languages were not like Bagundji, their kinship terminology and social organisation were similar. But, like the peoples of south-western Queensland and north- eastern South Australia, they practised circumcision and a form of the wiljaru rite. Elkin (1931, p. 53) has classified them with these northern and western neighbours as part of the Lakes Group, but since some of the northern members of the Bagundji group also practised a variant of the wiljaru without cicatrisations (jama — i.e. 'clean' — wiljaru), one should be wary of setting up boundaries. Mythical mura tracks run from the Paroo to Lake Frome in South Australia, and from White Cliffs to Bulloo Downs in Queensland. Aborigines around Tibooburra travelled over into South Australia as far as Parachilna for red ochre and exchanged grinding stones with people on the Cooper. Dutton and other informants made little mention of contacts with the Darling River people, but this may have been due to the disrupting and decimating effects of white contact upon the latter, already advanced by the time they were born.

Hardy (1969) has documented the settlement of the far west in detail. Europeans began to establish pastoral runs along the Darling early in the 1860s. By the end of the decade, the banks of the river had been taken up and newcomers were pressing into the arid areas to the north and west. By 1880, almost all the country to the state borders had been carved up into vast pastoral properties. Wilcannia was a flourishing town of substantial stone buildings, its prosperity based on its situation as a port for the river traffic which linked the region with the coastal cities. But the back-country stations were so far from such centres that they were obliged to be self-supporting for long periods. Stations that had become established and prosperous employed scores of workers, maintaining their own workshops, smithies and stores. CEW Bean, who explored the region before the First World War, described such stations as being more like villages (see Bean 1945, pp. 73 — 6).


Excerpted from Encounters with Indigeneity by Jeremy Beckett. Copyright © 2014 Jeremy Beckett. Excerpted by permission of Aboriginal Studies Press.
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Table of Contents


1 George Dutton's Country: Portrait of an Aboriginal Drover,
2 Walter Newton's History of the World — or Australia,
3 Aboriginal Histories, Aboriginal Myths: An Introduction,
4 Autobiography and Testimonial Discourse in Myles Lalor's 'Oral History',
5 The Torres Strait Islanders and the Pearling Industry: A Case of Internal Colonialism,
6 Rivalry, Competition and Conflict Among Christian Melanesians,
7 Mission, Church and Sect: Three Types of Religious Commitment in the Torres Strait Islands,
8 'Knowing How to Talk to White People': Torres Strait Islanders and the Politics of Representation,
9 The Murray Island Land Case,
10 Aboriginality, Citizenship and Nation-State,
11 Contested Images: Perspectives on the Indigenous Terrain in the Late Twentieth Century,

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