Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

An 'Unfashionable Concern with the Past': The Historical Anthropology of Diane Barwick

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

An 'Unfashionable Concern with the Past': The Historical Anthropology of Diane Barwick

Article excerpt

As an anthropologist, Diane Barwick reminded us that people of less than full Aboriginal descent are Aborigines too. As an historian, she rescued from anonymity the people who paid the highest price for the establishment of a new European society in the southern hemisphere (Reece 1987, 3).

Diane Barwick, nee MacEachern, was born in Canada in 1936 and remained a Canadian citizen. She came to Australia in 1960 to begin her anthropology doctorate at the Australian National University, and resided predominantly in Canberra until her death of a cerebral haemorrhage, in April 1986. Her research centred around the current and historical situations of Aboriginal people of Victoria and southwestern New South Wales.

From the early 1960s, she brought anthropology and history together in her work at a time when the two disciplines in Australia maintained a strident divide. This convergence of disciplinary tools and methodology emerged out of her Canadian training and her work with southern Aboriginal communities in settled Australia. Barwick defined herself as an anthropologist. As an anthropologist in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, however, what she termed her `unfashionable concern with the past' (Barwick 1984, 8) led to her ambivalent relationship with the academy over the next 25 years (see Kijas 1994).

Barwick was a committed advocate of Aboriginal rights to self-identification and community solidarity at a time when this was under concerted government attack in Victoria. An exploration of Barwick's writing, however, indicates, from early on, the complexity of accounting for Aboriginal diversity. This was not only the diversity between traditionally oriented and non-traditional Aborigines, or diversity across state borders or between local groups, to which she referred. More so, complexity and contradiction especially arose around diversity within the Aboriginal groups whom she studied, especially on grounds of class and gender. Within this are raised the ongoing tensions between scholarly `objectivity' and daily, material `politics', in a continuing condition of colonialism.

From the mid-1960s, Barwick's path increasingly took her away from fieldwork to the archival sources, moving from her strictly anthropological work to her increasing absorption in the documentary evidence. In seeking the historical past of Aboriginal Australians through a combination of documentary evidence from predominantly European sources, and present-day Aboriginal understandings of their past, Barwick pioneered a particular, influential and ongoing understanding of Aboriginal history. Her juxtaposition of anthropological fieldwork methods and historical evidence through both documentary and oral account was central in opening up possibilities for the academic writing of Aboriginal history. In this partly biographical paper, I wish to take a chronological and broadly thematic course in discussing Barwick's published and accessible unpublished writing over the first two decades of her work in Australia. I chart three major themes in her writing: assimilation, gender relations, and the historical and contemporary fight for land rights in Victoria.(1)

Strictly anthropology

Barwick recorded in the 1984 introduction to her manuscript, `Rebellion at Coranderrk', that her research task in 1960 was an anthropological study of contemporary life, not the recording of oral history. She went on to reiterate her early lessons from Aboriginal people on the importance of history, `that past decisions had present consequences' (Barwick 1984, 4). However, much of her published work in the 1960s and early 1970s, and her PhD thesis, lie securely within the disciplinary frameworks of anthropology as practised in Australia, even if not within the mainstream focus on traditional culture.

Her student friends from those early years were predominantly anthropologists and prehistorians (R Barwick 1992b and 1992c). …

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