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.