Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

How Kinship Structures Have Been Adapted to Allow Continued Descent of Rights and Interests in North-Estern Victoria

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

How Kinship Structures Have Been Adapted to Allow Continued Descent of Rights and Interests in North-Estern Victoria

Article excerpt

The data discussed within this paper were gathered in the course of my work as an anthropologist with Native Title Services Victoria and the analysis forms part of a presentation to the State of Victoria on behalf of the First Peoples of the Millewa/Mallee. Following anthropological convention, I do not provide names of the individuals or families that were the subject of my analysis. Nor do I discuss the specific language group identities of the region in anything but the most general terms. This is because language group identity in the region has become a highly significant aspect of identity for Aboriginal people in the native title era. Further, because of the legal and political ramifications of identifying (or not identifying) with a historical language group, the individuals and families with whom I worked might be unintentionally identified by a closer discussion of specific language group composition. My aim here is not to delegitimise language group identities but to present a more descriptive model for the region.

I first sought permission to write this paper in 2015 as I intended it to include the themes I developed during the course of my work on the region for the purposes of native title research. I feel strongly that, where possible, research developments that stem from native title research should be more broadly available as they are often the most extensive source of long-range ethnographic engagement with Aboriginal communities available to anthropologists and other academics focusing on the people of any particular region of Australia. Furthermore, I believe that it is important, where permission is given, that the voices of people, so long the focus of research, should be heard by the broader anthropological and academic community outside the boundaries of the native title legal context.

Owing to the interval between beginning the paper and publishing it, in 2017 I again sought and was granted permission from the group to publish. As in the first instance, this was done at a meeting of the whole claim group, at which copies of the completed draft were handed out and briefly discussed. I was, and remain, very grateful to the people of the region for allowing me to present this material and to contribute it to the field of anthropology (and related studies).

The primary data were collected over a two-year period using semi-structured interviews of varying lengths and field trips involving participant observation, and by attending and participating in native title claim group meetings. I have applied a constructivist approach to the analysis, building a descriptive model as it emerged from the data. My work as an anthropologist in native title in Victoria involves a detailed reading of the ethno-historical record, which is used, in concert with my contemporary field work, to provide context and clarity.

Precolonial society in north-western Victoria

Language-bounded models of Aboriginal societies have dominated native title research now for many years. One explanation of this lies in the convenience of imagining a group of people seminally defined by their language use who are confined by strict, unchanging boundaries that are widely recognised by other Aboriginal groups as 'traditional'. Most native title claims are proposed by claim groups emphasising a particular language group identity. These claims depend on anthropological, linguistic and historical analysis to assert, in the first instance, the existence of the claimed language as distinguishable from the other languages spoken within the given region. This allows for the proposition that the people speaking that language also possess socio-cultural practices linked specifically to the area and its associated language group identity.

Given such clear definitional boundaries, it is no surprise that this model, where applicable, has often resulted in successful native title determinations. However, while it is descriptive of many areas throughout Australia, I argue that it does not allow for the complexities involved in describing groups such as those along the central Murray riverine, where mutually intelligible dialects of the same language were no barrier to overarching social structures and shared cultural ceremonies and beliefs. …

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