Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives

Article excerpt

Indigenous participation in Australian economies: historical and anthropological perspectives

Ian Keen (ed.) 2010

ANU E Press, Canberra, xi+195pp, ISBN 9781921666865 (pbk)

Indigenous participation in Australian economies Il: historical engagements and current enterprises Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd and Michael Pickering (eds) 2012 AN U E Press, Canberra, ISBN 9781921862830 (pbk)

It is a strength of these two volumes that the terms 'participation' and 'economies' mean a variety of things. Indigenous Australians can participate both by producing goods and consuming them, by being employed, unemployed or self-employed, by receiving welfare payments, by producing and consuming within a neo-traditional milieu in a remote region or in a suburb of a city, by working under the supervision of a private boss or a public boss, and under Indigenous or non-Indigenous authority, by hunting, by gathering, by digging minerals or by torching the flora.

One ethnographic tradition of research focuses on exchanges among Aborigines, in particular their 'moral economy' in which exchange enacts shared conceptions of relatedness and personhood. Ian Keen refers to Noel Pearson's distinction between the 'real' and 'artificial' economy (made, for example, in Pearson 2009:154-7) as an effort to continue such an Aboriginal understanding: that exchange is or should result in the reproduction of social commitment to Indigenous fellows (and, in Pearson's conception, to non-Indigenous Australians as well). In this conception, the 'economy' is 'society' examined from a certain point of view that highlights routinised exchanges; to exchange is to 'participate'. To get something for nothing is to be outside the exchanges that define economy and society. To the extent that one is supported by unconditional welfare payments, so this argument goes, is to be in an artificial (not 'real') economy and to be 'de-moralised'. To discover this congruence between the ethnographic tradition of writing about 'exchange' and Pearson's critique of 'passive welfare' is one of the rewards of reading Keen, the principal architect of these volumes.

Of course, it is possible to dispute Pearson's argument that passive welfare demoralises. Those whose welfare entitlements have reduced their obligation to labour for money are prominent in Lorraine Gibson's ethnography of Wilcannia. As she observes, occupational identity is weak among these Aboriginal people; their sense of worth comes from their unpaid participation in networks of kinship and friendship. In their moral economy, a sense of vocation, career and occupational identity is spurned as a 'white' way of thinking. She reports these people as regarding it as unfortunate that 'coconut' Aborigines (2010, p.134) now think this way, gaining so much of their sense of personhood from their jobs. The culture that Gibson observes in Wilcannia can be seen as an internalised (or defiantly asserted) negative stereotype (the indolent black). Reading her paper aroused my wish to read ethnographies of the point of view of the 'coconuts' themselves. How does a sense of occupation and vocation enable such Aboriginal people--especially those in white collar roles, delivering services and modelling respectable Aboriginality--a dignified identity? (A recent unpublished ANU thesis by Elizabeth Ganter documents this outlook richly.) The emergence of such an Aboriginal middle class is a striking statistical fact--and a theme of the important television series Redfern now. Meanwhile, Gibson's ethnography substantiates a way of being 'Aboriginal' in which the moral economy is defined and secured by avoiding the opportunities and escaping the pressures of the labour market.

Thus we are nowadays confronted with two politically laden framings of the Aboriginal moral economy that is only tenuously articulated with something known (by some) as the 'real' economy. Functionality (sociality) is the theme of one framing: Gibson's job-avoiders lead sociable lives and maintain a sense of self-worth in resistance to the labour market's demands. …

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