Academic journal article Oceania

The Returns of Recognition: Ngarinyin Experiences of Native Title, Encounter and Indeterminacy in the Kimberley Region of Northern Australia

Academic journal article Oceania

The Returns of Recognition: Ngarinyin Experiences of Native Title, Encounter and Indeterminacy in the Kimberley Region of Northern Australia

Article excerpt


This article draws on research with Ngarinyin Aboriginal people whose primary orientations are to lands and waters in the remote Northern Kimberley in Western Australia, a territory traversed by the Gibb River Road. Though most Ngarinyin people now live in towns and communities located on the periphery of Ngarinyin country, a dwindling number live in small settlements along what is affectionately referred to as 'the Gibb'. A continual reduction in government services provided in locations on country and the recent shift in government approaches to the funding of remote communities have compounded the tenuousness of Aboriginal people's residence on country. A 2012 report published by the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation (WAC), which is the relevant entity representing Ngarinyin people, summarized this situation: 'many Ngarinyin people do not live on or visit country' and 'many children have never been to their ancestral lands' (WAC 2012:30). However, rather than focusing on the cultural politics of the articulation of Ngarinyin identities and interactions off Ngarinyin country, such as in the towns of Derby, Wyndham and the community of Mowanjum, in this article I focus more specifically on the value that visits to country and being on country holds for those living away from it. Specifically, I describe the ways in which recognition and indeterminacy were read through encounters with kardiya (non-Indigenous people in local parlance) and non-human animals on Ngarinyin country.

The majority of my road trips along the Gibb have involved a senior Ngarinyin man, aged in his 60s, whom I call 'the Alchemist'. As he has been for other researchers, the Alchemist has been my key interlocutor in the Kimberley since I commenced fieldwork in the region in 2013. As I will explain further below, the man's social status has developed through a series of life experiences, including the pivotal role that he played in a native title claim covering much of the Northern Kimberley during the 2000s.

In interpreting the active involvement of Aboriginal people in native title claims generally, two interrelated observations come to the fore. The first is that the processes of gaining formal recognition act as a source of identity affirmation, in that it affirms Aboriginal people's pre-existing and underlying relationship to country. To use Taylor's (1994) phrasing, this involves a 'fusing of horizons', from one's sense of self as an owner of country, to a recognition as such by others. This affirmation comes as much from within the Aboriginal polity as outside it. A related aspect of this formal country-based recognition is the expectation that it will transform the intersubjective space in which relations to other residents are figured (Smith 2003). What often transpires for Aboriginal people is an optimism for different kinds of relations on country, both with kardiya and non-human animals. A second and related observation is that Aboriginal people find appealing the indeterminate character of this transformed relationality. This indeterminacy has been previously identified in the ways in which Aboriginal people interpret the world generally, but especially in relation to country {e.g. Keen 1994; Povinelli 1993; Rumsey 1994). As Smith and Morphy (2007a:4) have noted, though native title is often framed as providing certainty for the purposes of land use and development, Aboriginal people's interpersonal relationships and the continued coexistence of residents may be more dependent on the continued operation of indeterminacy (see also Smith 2003:43).


A number of authors have critically engaged with the divergent experiences of Aboriginal people with and on country in the aftermath of native title claims, whereby Aboriginal rights and interests have been recognized under Australian law (Babidge 2010; Glaskin 2017; Vincent 2017a). …

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