Australian Aboriginal Studies 2004

Volume 2

Return of the 'noble savage': misrepresenting the past, present and future
M. J. Rowland

The view that a ‘noble savage’/’ecologically noble savage’ existed in peaceful harmony with nature is a concept that has permeated writings in anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, political science, literary and art criticism, and in the popular media over many years.
The idea of the ‘noble savage’/‘ecologically noble savage’ has resurfaced in recent publications and this article questions the reasons for this and discusses the negative implications of such views. A critique of these concepts may be interpreted as an attack on indigenous peoples or is at least considered insensitive, if not politically dangerous. But to continue to accept the ‘noble savage’/’ecologically
noble savage’ requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. When indigenous peoples are stereotyped as ‘noble savages’ they are once again frozen in the past and therefore can have little to contribute to human history. There is a continuing need to search for a view that focuses on a much more positive engagement with indigenous peoples on environmental issues.

Aboriginal, Maori, and Inuit youth suicide: avenues to alleviation?
Colin Tatz

As a society, we react badly to suicide, especially by the young. We seek understanding of why youth do it, and we are determined on prevention. To date we have looked mainly to the Western medical/mental health model, one which approaches the treatment and prevention of suicide as if this behaviour was solely a ‘mental illness’. But this particular model has failed to alleviate, let alone prevent, escalating rates of youth suicide among Aborigines, Maori and Inuit in Australia, New Zealand and the Canadian territory of Nunavut, respectively. An alternative approach is to look at external social, political and cultural factors, such as ‘Westernisation’, the legacies of colonialism, chronic unemployment, and the impoveri-shment of body and soul; and at internal factors such as parenting problems, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug overuse, grief cycles, an absence of mentors, illiteracy and deafness. To generate discussion about the need for the separation of this growing problem from the mainstream medical approach to suicide, a case is made for the development of entirely different pathways to suicide alleviation (a less ambitious and less grandiose aim than prevention) in these three societies.

Addressing Indigenous suicide: a special case? A response to Colin Tatz
Michael Dudley

Colin Tatz’s article on Aboriginal suicide prevention seeks to extricate indigenous psychiatry and suicide prevention from what he regards as domination by Western medical/mental health approaches. Although Tatz fails to do justice to such approaches, because he empties them of sociocultural, historical and political content relevant to mental health, some extreme forms of psychiatry (e.g. the problematic drift of Western psychiatry towards biological reductionism) may confirm his concerns. The article lacks supporting evidence for its assertions that indigenous peoples do not experience depression, that suicide prevention approaches generally have failed and that their endpoint (‘prevention’ rather than ‘alleviation’) is flawed, and that Western medical approaches to mental illness are essentially urban, white, middle-class and hedonistic in intent. Nevertheless, Tatz raises perennially important issues to do with the realities of history and power that profoundly affect the health and wellbeing of Aborigines. These include avoiding the temptation to objectify and minimise the lived experience of members of oppressed groups, restoring the debate about existential and ‘purpose of life’ issues, and a timely protest against ‘mainstreaming’. The latter criticism is applicable in the academy, the political arena, multicultural mental health and (indigenous) suicide prevention. Tatz also offers valuable though not easily comparable data based on fieldwork experience, alludes to the difficulties of research with indigenous peoples, and suggests some compelling directions for further enquiry.

It is argued that there is a need for a forum for experienced researchers and authorities such as Colin Tatz to meet with indigenous community leaders, other stakeholders, and health planners to advance the indigenous component of the national suicide prevention strategy.

What does it mean to say that Aboriginal suicide is different? Differing cultures, accounts, and idioms of distress in the context of the indigenous youth suicide.
Joseph P. Reser

Colin Tatz’s article provides a provocative and ostensibly ‘different’ perspective on indigenous suicide. There are multiple problems with the arguments and evidence presented, and the article, as a whole, is arguably more of a rhetorical ‘argument’ and ideological position and challenge than a research report, considered review of the theoretical or research literatures addressing this phenomenon, or substantive analysis of a critical and salient social problem. It should not be confused with a systematic, evidence and research findings–based study and/or evaluation of the evidence of others. Given the status of the author, the seriousness of the issue, and the social problem construction character of the public discussion to date, it is important that some counter views and caveats are offered, ideally from a spectrum of disciplinary, professional practice, and cross-cultural perspectives. Professional and ‘research-based’ analyses, accounts and evaluations have real consequences, not only in the context of prevention and intervention programs, policy initiatives and reviews, and funding in the health sector, but also with respect to public understandings of science and, in this case, health and prevention programs. The article and position offered by Tatz could well have unfortunate consequences with respect to prejudicial disciplinary and professional practice judgements, and the discounting of important and very necessary initiatives and programs at the level of preventive public health and individual and community intervention.

Incarceration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults, 1991 to 2001: trends and differentials
Aminiratne Wijesekere

I examine trends in incarceration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults in Australia during the 11-year period from when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) handed down its report in 1991. The data for the analysis are drawn from the annual prisoner census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. To calculate incarceration rates, Estimated Resident Population and the relevant Experimental Indigenous Resident Population Estimates of the ABS are used. Age-standardised incarceration rates are used for comparison to take account of different age-profiles among comparison groups. Despite implementation of several measures recommended by the RCIADIC, incarceration rates for Indigenous adults have been increasing at a faster rate than for the non-Indigenous population. A part of the increase in the rates could be due to the increasing tendency for self-identification among persons of Indigenous origin. The absence of reliable estimates of the Indigenous population for post-censal years is also a factor affecting the comparability of rates across time and across population subgroups. I discuss some policy implications of observed trends.

Traditional Owners and 'community-country' anangu: distinctions and dilemmas
Sarah Holcombe

In some contexts, including those that require concrete and locally specific knowledge, the term ‘traditional owner’ has come to mean something different from its original statutory definition, in daily discourse, in the routine operations of settlement life and the administration
of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA). It has also become a common referent for Aborigines resident in remote areas, rather than a specific term for land-holder. I will begin to unpack the nexus between this category and the reality of decision making by persons whom I term ‘community-country’ anangu. To this end, this post-settlement sociopolitical category is examined to contrast it from the definition of traditional ownership under the ALRA. This will highlight the tensions between the functional legal operations of the ALRA—its obligation to consult with traditional owners—and the reality of those persons who tend to be consulted about development proposals. The emerging issue of the regionalisation of remote settlements also plays directly into this issue of defining traditional owners.

Transitional traditions: ‘Port Essington’ bark-paintings and the European discovery of Aboriginal aesthetics
Paul SC Taçon and Susan M Davies

The earliest surviving bark-paintings from northern Australia derive from the Cobourg Peninsula but until now little was known of their circumstances of collection. We examine 28 extant or described barkpaintings thought to be from the Port Essington region, note the formal qualities of the imagery they contain and describe their history as far as is possible. We compare the imagery with some of the region’s rock- and more recent bark-art, note relevant instances of early European– Aboriginal contact and outline the ways in which the barks may have been obtained. We conclude that many of the barks from the late 1800s were initially acquired by Paul Foelsche. We argue that Foelsche’s activities sparked interest in bark-paintings among collectors and museums and that it was Foelsche, rather than Baldwin Spencer, who initiated the bark-painting ‘industry’ that now dominates art from the Northern Territory’s ‘Top End’.

Aboriginal/Macassan interactions in the 18th and 19th century in northern Australia and contemporary sea rights claims
Denise Russell

The first native title claim to the seas under the Native Title Act was brought by the traditional owners of Croker Island in Northern Territory, Australia. This claim was partially successful. The High Court judgement on this case in 2001 resulted in the granting of non-exclusive sea rights. Exclusive rights were not granted as it was argued that the Croker Islanders had not asserted a right to exclude non-Aboriginal fishers in the past. This article looks at the basis for rejecting exclusive sea rights. Through an analysis of the complex relationships between Aboriginal and Makassan fishers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an argument is made that there could well be a basis in traditional practices for the granting of exclusive sea rights to some Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

Archaeology of Torres Strait turtleshell masks: the Badu Island cache
Bruno David, Ian McNiven, William Bowie, Manuel Nomoa, Peo Ahmat, Joe Crouch, Liam Brady,Michael Quinnell and Anita Herle

Turtleshell masks are distinctive Torres Strait Islander objects that were used during ritual performances, and carefully curated, during ethnographic times. Yet the history of these rituals and their material expressions are poorly understood. The numerous instances of turtle shell masks collected during the nineteenth century and currently held in museum collections around the world, and the chance discovery of one such mask cached in a rock-shelter on the island of Badu, now allows for their historicising through a program of AMS radiocarbon dating. Initial results are reported.

Putting Herbert Basedow back in focus: the 1928 expedition to Arnhem Land
Murray Garde and Apolline Kohen-Raimondo

In 1928 ethnographer and geologist Herbert Basedow undertook a privately funded expedition through western Arnhem Land. The photographs he took on that trip constitute some of first photographic images of western Arnhem Land rock-art. In addition to his photographs, Basedow kept a field journal that reveals a relatively enlightened attitude towards Aboriginal art, considering the views commonly held by Europeans about Aboriginal peoples during this era. The rock-art sites Basedow recorded in 1928 remain sites of significance to the Kuninjku site custodians who have their own contemporary interpretations of the paintings photographed by Basedow some 75 years ago. Comparisons are presented between Basedow’s 1928 documentation and the contemporary Kuninjku view of these sites.

'Exotic Bradshaws' or Australian 'Gwion': an archaeological test
Michael Barry and J. Peter White

‘Bradshaw’, Aboriginal rock-art figures in the Kimberley, recently have become a focus of increased interest and publication. We discuss six recent pieces of work relevant to the suggestion that they are of exotic, rather than Australian origin. We present robust evidence of their Aboriginality.

'Stoning Fish?' A hitherto unrecorded class of stone artefact from the coastal Pilbara
Kim Akerman

Yodda-like stone artefacts from the coastal Pilbara region of Western Australia differ markedly from recorded yoddas and constitute a hitherto unrecorded Aboriginal Australian stone implement. I suggest that the implements were possibly used as missiles for killing or stunning fish.

Papers from Symposium B of AURA2000 Congress The rock-art of Central Australia: an overview
R. G. Gunn

Central Australia has long been recognised as containing a regionally distinct suite of rock-art; its character has, however, still to be adequately defined. The rock-art exhibits a range of techniques, with each technique having its own distinctive motif repertoire. Three techniques dominate: paintings, stencils and peckings. The paintings and peckings contain the greatest range of motif types with the paintings dominated by circles and other abstract elements (U-shapes, C-shapes, dots, bars), and macropod- and emu-track types. Peckings consist of three temporal sub-groups: early horizontal panels, intermediary vertical panels, and recent horizontal panels. The peckings are dominated by animal tracks, circles, lines and in some areas human figures with small numbers of large animals and anthropomorphs. Human hands dominate the stencils, with some object-stencils. The early pecked repertoire is fairly consistent across the region, while the later peckings and painted motifs tend to show a degree of variation with local concentrations of particular motif types. A distinction between the rock-art of the Arrandic and that of the Western Desert language areas is emerging. Limited evidence suggests a tentative chronology from the Pleistocene to the present.

'These things take time': Central Australian rock-art in context
June Ross and Leo Abbott

The continuing discussion about Indigenous perspectives and understandings of rock-art has implications for archaeological research, especially in Central Australia where rock-art is a significant part of Aboriginal life today. We present an Indigenous view of outcomes of research projects generally and an outline of a current collaborative rock-art study in Central Australia. We investigate the context in which rock-art was produced in order to develop an understanding of the relationship between the landscape, the motif assemblages and other past human activities

Rock-art and the archaeological record of indigenous settlement in central Australia
Peter Thorley

This paper provides an overview of archaeological and radiocarbon evidence relevant to the interpretation of central Australian rock-art. Archaeological assemblages span a period of approximately 30 000 years that was anything but static. From a combination of archaeological and paleoenvironmental evidence it has been possible to identify trends in human occupation against a backdrop of fluctuating cycles of high and low rainfall. The implications of these trends are not limited to settlement structure and resource use but extend across all aspects of life including social organisation, ideology and symbolic expression.