Academic journal article Oceania

Shifting Sands: Towards an Anthropological Praxis

Academic journal article Oceania

Shifting Sands: Towards an Anthropological Praxis

Article excerpt


This paper reflects on some of the dilemmas within my shifting roles over the last twenty years as helper/friend/member of the Katherine Indigenous community in the Northern Territory of Australia and then, as anthropologist. During this period, indigenous calls for land rights have been increasingly interpreted in the terms of 'bourgeois law' (Collier et al. 1995). Indigenous identities have become the focus of intense public scrutiny as they define eligibility for scarce resources. Fighting over the scraps of what was once a wholistic indigenous landscape, some of Australia's indigenous peoples have begun to turn upon each other, in the struggle for recognition. Anthropologists as the scribes of indigenous identities are placed in invidious positions, and are easily accused of participating in (neo)colonial endeavours. This paper takes some small steps towards locating an anthropological praxis in this land rights/native title arena of power.


In the last twenty years, Aborigines in Australia have emerged as 'Indigenous peoples' as power relations have become reconfigured in a politic of decolonisation and globalisation in a transglobal world of indigenism; material conditions have become embedded in the (im)possibilities of the complex relations of bureaucratic performativity and accountability and the economic (ir)rationalism of 'bourgeois law' (Collier et al. 1995). In the struggle of indigenous peoples for recognition in modern nation states, the idea of essentially being something or someone, often at the exclusion of other facets of identity, has become paramount as ideologies of identity mobilize claims on governments and legitimise government responses to such claims. Aborigines in Australia began to use a language of nationhood, self government, sovereignty and negotiation, reflecting the underpinning of a global logic of identity, in which the politics of identity and difference has increasingly become the dominant form of political organisation and nationalism of late modernity everywhere. 'Aboriginal Culture' has also become part of a much wider field of politics, moving out of the realm of analytical concepts and becoming essentialised, codified and reified into consciousness as a key marker of difference -- 'this is our culture...this is why we do this...' -- as it provides the content and symbols of Aboriginal nationalisms and, in part, of Australian nationhood.

In this paper, I reflect on some of the dilemmas within my shifting roles as helper/friend/member of the Katherine community in the Northern Territory of Australia and then, as anthropologist, over the last twenty years. Since I first arrived in Katherine in 1979 to take up a position as an Aboriginal Adult Educator at the Aboriginal town of Bamyili (now Barunga) on the Beswick Reserve about sixty kilometres to its southeast, I have donned many 'hats'. So too have the Aborigines I have known throughout the region. Each of these 'hats' has been accompanied by shifting regimes of identification, exclusions, inclusions and ways of relating as local notions of 'community' and relationships to land and 'rights' and 'hierarchy' have been rapidly transformed to fit the logic of the state system (see von Benda-Beckmann 1997:ix).

Despite such changes, there seems to have been a constant Aboriginal refrain of 'helping' in Katherine, as, over the years, on my intermittent returns to the town, Aborigines have continued to ask: 'Are you still helping us?'. 'Helping', understood in the indigenous Katherine context to entail mutuality and reciprocity as actions are co-jointly constructed as 'helping each other', was once, no doubt in my naivety, relatively straightforward for me. But, in the vice-like grip of the trajectory of 'Aboriginal advancement' with its bureaucratisation and statutory fields of power, and in a discourse of rights which emphasizes self-empowerment, 'helping' has become a complicated matter. …

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