Saturday, January 27, 2007

Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines

The predominant role of anthropologists from 1929 to 1945 (and indeed, to the present) in interpreting Aboriginal society, analysing its ills, and in recommending ameliorative policies, is remarkable. In fact, the Canadian historian K.A. MacKirdy commented in 1966 that ‘[Australian] historians generally have been content to leave the study of Aborigines to the anthropologists and then to ignore the anthropologists’! Adam Shoemaker

Any anthropologist who has worked on Native Title claims, or similar activity, in south eastern Australia is likely to have come across the anger of indigenous groups confronted with "academic" interpretations of their rights interests, customs and traditions which differ from their own view of these important aspects of their lives ....

Indigenous groups, not surprisingly , are highly indignant about having their claims, and the primarily oral traditions on which they are based, judged against the writings of the initial colonisers themselves and on occasion react even more strongly against later "academic" interpretations of territorial interests best epitomised perhaps by the work of Norman Tindale. Rod Hagen

I was browsing around to try to find out more on New England's Bundjalung people when I came across a reference to the papers of Malcolm Calley. This took my mind back.

Back in 1966 while I was doing my honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales at the time of European intrusion I read Malcolm Calley's PhD thesis on Bandjalang Social Organisation with fascination.

My thesis was a study in ethnohistory, using historical records to try to understand the economic structure of aboriginal life. These were necessarily written from a European perspective. In writing I was also influenced by the conflict between Karl Polanyi and my cousin Cyril Belshaw on the applicability of economics to non-money using societies.

So while I was a member of Isabel McBryde's pioneer prehistory group at the University of New England, I was still writing very much from a European, anthropological and historical perspective. As an aside here, I was going to insert the link I had used before to a story about Isabel's work, but find that for some reason the Australian Archaeological Association has taken the page down. I must say that's a real nuisance.

At the time I was writing there was great suspicion among historians about the role of oral history and tradition as an evidence source. There was also a view that the Aborigines of Eastern Australia were too far removed from their tribal past for current memories to be a valid guide to traditional life.

To me, the striking thing about Malcolm's thesis was the way it demonstrated that oral tradition was still in fact worthy of study as a way of understanding past Aboriginal life.

The details I have on Malcolm's life are skimpy and I wish I could say more.

Malcolm John Chalmers Calley was born in Sydney around 1932. In 1955 he gained an M.A from Sydney University with a thesis ‘Aboriginal Pentecostalism', completing his PhD thesis in 1959. In the 1960s and 1970s he was a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Queensland during which time wrote extensively about Indigenous Australians. He died in February 1983.

Malcolm's work with the Aborigines is typical of the important role that anthropologists as compared to historians played in academic Aboriginal research as well as the promotion of new views about Australia's indigenous peoples.

I can attest to this from my experience when I was doing my own limited work on the Aborigines over the period 1963 to 1966. All the academic writing I used came from anthropologists and, to a lesser extent, prehistorians.

I can also understand the Aboriginal position as summarised by Rod Hagen in the second of the introductory quotes. However, that quote also links to something that concerns me at a personal level, the nature of the interaction (at least as I perceive it) between the Aboriginal community and certain parts of the academic and intellectual elites in the broader Australian community.

There is no doubt that the treatment of Australia's Aboriginal people has been quite awful. This needs to be and is being addressed in research and writing. But it has led, again as I see it, to a kind of cringe on the part of certain researchers and writers that is adversely affecting both the subjects selected for study and the research itself. It is also leading to a negative response in parts of the Australian community that is equally distorting in the opposite direction. The net outcome is bad for all sides.

In saying this, I am not making a comment about political correctness, simply expressing a continuing practical frustration.

In writing about the history of New England I need to talk about the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples. I want to understand and express the sweep of New England Aboriginal life past and present. I cannot do so. The basic factual information is simply not there - or at least not easily accessible - because everything is being twisted by and to fit differing perceptions of Aboriginal-non Aboriginal relations.


lefty said...

Hi Jim,

I am interested in what you have been writing here. I live in Armidale and have done some research and writing in a grad dip on the local Aboriginal people. Particually the role of the Catholic church here in the mid 50s onwards in providing support for the people living in east Armidale. I feel that Armidale is unique. So much culture has been retained that people don't see. They still meet and camp down at a river site towards the coast as their ancestors have done for centuries.

I too get frustrated with the reactions from the general public in response to some history writing or the issue of welfare payments and other financial assistance.

My husband work with Aboriginal youth through sport on an voluntary basis and have made many friendships and contacts in the community. They are a strong people.


Jim Belshaw said...

This is fascinating C. I would love to hear more about your research.

I do not think that Armidale is unique in the retention of historical memories by local aborigines, I think that is also true of other areas.

Armidale may, however, be unusual if not unique in the nature of interactions between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal community.

I am not suggesting that this is in any way perfect. After all, I grew up in Armidale during the fifties,so remember the original shanty settlement in East Armidale.

I do have a strong feeling, however, that Armidale's traditional aboriginal families have achieved a degree of community prominence and at an earlier date than seems to have happened in many other places.

At the moment I am trying to write a stocktake post on my personal blog - - that will pull together some of the material I have written on the aborigines.

Anonymous said...

The great thing about this area is that although there were many experiences of families being held in missions such as bellbrook and burnt bridge at kempsey, the family and tribal groups have largely been held together. Many families moved to Armidale from the coast and Bellbrook in 1956 when you would remember a surge in the numbers on the town dump over east side. We spent 6 years in Wagga where I taught as a casual teacher. The Aboriginal people there had suffered more dislocation through the housing commission's policies of the 1960s-70s and through the removal of children prior to that. There were a few elders who had been through Cootamundra girls home. Although there were many Wiradjurri people, they were from many different areas within that nation. From Yorta Yorta as well.

Armidale is a great place to live. For me with my interests in helping Aboriginal youth, I couldnt be happier and we hope to stay here for a good while. The kids here are very easy to get along with.
I came to Armidale to go to uni up here in '89 and have spent most of my time here since.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, C. We actually overlapped in Armidale. I was there in 89, moving down to Sydney in 96 because my wife wanted to come home.

You are worth your weight in gum nuts with this comment because you have answered a question I have always had. I knew that some of Armidale's aboriginal peope were Dainggati but did not know how the connection came about.

Rod Hagen who I quote in this post worked with the Yorta Yorta.