Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Anthropological Texts and Indigenous Standpoints

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Anthropological Texts and Indigenous Standpoints

Article excerpt


1998 marks the centenary of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. This was an expedition of ambitious proportion and logistics, an expedition at the cutting edge of new scientific disciplines and knowledge emerging during the last century. The scholars (AC Haddon, WHR Rivers, CS Myers, W McDougall, SH Ray, A Wilkin, CS Seligmann) involved in this expedition were experts in a number of fields: zoology, ethnology, music, experimental psychology, and linguistics. Their work challenged and extended the intellectual boundaries of what was known and understood about `primitive' peoples. The six-volume reports (hereafter Haddon Reports) produced from this expedition stand as one of the most comprehensive early attempts to document the lives and characteristics of a society of people before the onslaught of colonial expansion changed them forever and before Indigenous skills and knowledges were lost to the world.

In this article, I present an outline of the Haddon Reports from my standpoint as a Torres Strait Islander. This standpoint attempts to outline the content of what the Cambridge scholars did, sheds some light on the sciences they deployed, and discusses the legacy of their contribution to the current understandings and representations of Torres Strait Islanders today. However, it is the relevance of the Haddon Reports (as an exemplar of knowledge production) to the issue of an Indigenous scholarship that frames the whole article.

An Indigenous standpoint

This particular reading of the Haddon Reports is that of a Torres Strait Islander attempting to come to grips with the intellectual issues that surround the formation of knowledges. These knowledges, both historical and current, still contribute to the shape and form of both popular understanding and intellectual understanding of what it has meant historically and what it still means to be a Torres Strait Islander (Nakata 1998). The Cambridge expedition and the Haddon Reports stand as an exemplar of the formation of such knowledges.

My reading position is part of a broader research program to develop an intellectual standpoint from which Indigenous scholars can read and understand the Western systems of knowledge.(1) Of particular interest are those knowledges that have shaped how the position of Indigenous people is understood both by others and by themselves as they view their position through the knowledge of others. This pursuit has been a response by me to a dilemma I saw for Indigenous tertiary students: briefly, in order to understand our own position better, and to ultimately act to improve it, we must first immerse ourselves in and understand the very systems of thought, ideas and knowledges that have been instrumental in producing our position. In the process, students are tutored to view and understand the position of Indigenous peoples through the same systems of thinking, logic and rationality that have historically not served Indigenous interests at all.

Some (for example, Williamson 1997) would argue that current systems of thinking are not the same as they once were--that the goal of academic inquiry is to challenge, improve, develop and ultimately change thinking, ideas, understanding and knowledge, and that this process has been occurring to the ultimate benefit of Indigenous peoples. I do not dispute this (see Nakata 1997). I am well aware of, for instance, the important role that anthropology now plays in respect of land rights and native title and how useful it can be to the Indigenous cause. I cannot dispute that changing ways of thinking have led to the improvement of the conditions of many Indigenous people. I would argue, however, that for an Indigenous scholarship to develop, the argument does not rest there. The issue for Indigenous scholars is one of how to speak back to the knowledges that have formed around what is perceived to be the Indigenous positions in the Western `order of things' (Foucault 1970). …

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