‘Friend or foe? Anthropology’s Encounter with Aborigines’ Gillian Cowlishaw


There’s a very interesting recent article on the Inside Story website.


The article reprises many of the arguments and critiques that Cowlishaw has been making for the past thirty years (as this recent article about her shows) but its publication in Inside Story makes it accessible, not just in its language, but beyond the paywall that so many academic journals erect.  In it she argues that recent, postcolonial

wholesale condemnation of the anthropological endeavour has become shallow and moralistic, and an excuse for continued misperception of that complex, contradictory and contentious phenomenon known as “traditional Aboriginal culture.” There is a postcolonial fantasy that wants to achieve redemptive virtue by condemning the past rather than understanding the complex political and social legacy that colonialism created and bestowed on us all.

While acknowledging that foundational Australian ethnographic texts used language that we now find offensive, she argues that ethnography- albeit implicated in colonial policies and practices –  employed anti-racist, anti-colonial and even anti-state frameworks at the time.   Her article is a reflection on the intersection of anthropology and politics, both black and white (she notes particularly the rise of ‘native title anthropology’) and her own development as anthropologist.

It fits in well with the recent Message from Mungo documentary that was shown on NITV this week.  [I must confess that this was the first time that I’ve watched NITV.  It’s a pity that the Recognize campaign advertisements that ran during this program aren’t shown on ABC/SBS (or at least, I haven’t seen them) and commercial stations].  It was easy to mock the accents and demeanour of English archaeologists shown, but the documentary revealed well the range and contradictions between different specialities and world views.

And  Message from Mungo was echoed by last night’s documentary on the reburial service of Richard III’s remains at Leicester Cathedral  in March 2015. The formality of the ceremony was sanctioned at the highest level of state with the Countess of Wessex in attendance and all the pomp and historical clout of the Anglican Church behind it.  It struck me, listening to the choir which included girls and singers whose  lineage was drawn from an empire undreamt of in Richard’s time, that it was a service that would have been completely foreign to Richard himself.  The desire to ‘show respect’ through ceremony sprang from the same urge voiced by those in the Mungo documentary.

One response to “‘Friend or foe? Anthropology’s Encounter with Aborigines’ Gillian Cowlishaw

  1. Interesting article. I come to this area via Daisy Bates whose anthropological work in WA and SA is I suspect greatly underappreciated, Like Hiatt, mentioned in Cowlishaw’s article, Bates also suffered for suggesting Aborigines engaged in cannibalism.

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