Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Identifying Aboriginal 'Contact Period' Sites around Darwin: Long Past Due for Native Title?

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Identifying Aboriginal 'Contact Period' Sites around Darwin: Long Past Due for Native Title?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Stimulated by questions arising from my own experience as an expert witness in the Larrakia native title process, I report here on preliminary investigations aimed at identifying Aboriginal 'contact period' sites around Darwin, Northern Territory. The initial findings, of uniquely Aboriginal urban places, representing historic Aboriginal activity on top of older pre-contact sites, provide evidence of continuity and change in Aboriginal settlement and subsistence behaviours on the fringes of Darwin. This paper suggests that systematic research and production of a baseline database of urban 'contact period' sites, to potentially provide important historical evidence on the activities of urban-based Aboriginal people, relevant for native title, is long overdue.


In July 1999, I was engaged as a consultant by the Northern Land Council (NLC), in relation to native title claims brought by the Larrakia people in 1996 over the Darwin region. This subsequently led to my participation two years later as an expert witness in native title court proceedings. As the claim has yet to be determined and my evidence remains restricted at this stage, I am unable to discuss here the specifics of the claim. Instead, this paper describes examples of recently recorded 'contact period' Aboriginal sites around Darwin and their possible relevance to native title issues, generally, though this work is independent of, and postdates, the research undertaken for the NLC and Larrakia native title proceedings. The paper comments on the mismatch between the timings of native title processes and of archaeological research which focuses on potentially relevant 'contact period' sites. It suggests that adequate representation for Aboriginal claimants in the native title process requires public resourcing involving extended collaborative research between communities, archaeologists and anthropologists over extended periods of time.

Gaps in archaeological research for native title

Native title judgements that have recently been handed down, such as the Miriuwung-Gajerrong claim in north-western Australia (Federal Court of Australia 1998a), call attention to the importance of recent/ contact Aboriginal sites as archaeological evidence for the courts by their power to demonstrate, in a Western scientific sense, continuous use and occupation of a claim area that can be reasonably attributed to the group occupying the area prior to, and at the time of, European colonisation (Veth 2000:81-2). Yet the native title process has highlighted the almost complete lack of knowledge related to distribution or frequency of more recent 'contact period' sites attributable to Aboriginal groups in the Darwin region, where, as elsewhere in Australia, archaeological work historically has focused on sites of Holocene or earlier age.

Archaeological evidence may be particularly valuable for urban-based Aboriginal people in cities such as Darwin where, for example, ethnographic references to post-contact Larrakia land and resource use that may provide information for the courts may be less readily accessible than in remote areas. This lack of ethnohistorical information occurs, at least partly, as urban-based Aboriginal people disappeared from anthropological records in the early twentieth century into the domain of administration records, essentially as a 'problem' for the European colonisers (Wells 1995:17). The notional disappearance of Indigenous groups in areas that were the focus of intensive European settlement commonly occurs within decades (Read 1991), as such groups did not fit within the prevailing stereotypical Western concepts of 'traditional' sociocultural organisation generally seen in more remote Aboriginal communities and therefore worthy of anthropological study (cf. Cowlishaw 1992:24).

The now well-recognised pan-Australian historic dearth of anthropological interest in urban-based Aboriginal people has as a corollary a comparative lack of archaeological research focused on investigating the presence and distribution of more recent, historic Aboriginal places of post-colonial activity in urban areas (cf. …

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