ROSEMARY O’GRADY. Anthropology and Perspective

Feb 25, 2020

One of the rare pleasures of working to salvage documentation of a vandalized archive is that, sometimes, a damaged jewel surfaces amidst the rubble.

This small part of a longer piece throws some light on the character or climate of the politics and anti-professionalism and the context of Australian workers in vineyards that are not their own. The complete piece, a reference to Claude Levi-Strauss not long before he died, was most generously read for me by the late Prof. Ken Maddock, anthropologist, lawyer and Levi-Strauss expert, not very long before his own death.

Charles Mountford,  whose work is cited by Levi-Strauss in support of stellar universals, was in Derby, WA, during the ‘Dry’ season of 1963. He was there to film the making of a Kimberley ‘bi-faced post’. Related research drove him to seek-out a local resident reputedly knowledgeable in regional languages, for consultation. Thirty years later Howard Coate still lived as a resident and recluse near Derby, refusing co-operation to those who approached him, hoping for a look at his archive. His evidence was going to have to be subpoenaed in 1993, if it was to be obtained at all. For completeness in presenting the case, when the judge came to take evidence, this was what was intended.

Some clue as to Coates’s non-cooperation emerged as I read into Mountford’s 1963 diary. In the year Structural Anthropology was first published in English, Mountford recorded an account of significant non-publication.

‘… (Coates was the departmental patrol officer on the Arnhem Land expedition) who had been given a grant by the Institute of Aboriginal Studies to search for cave paintings in the Kimberleys, and record aborigine (texts? – illegible) at which apparently he is quite expert.

‘But, I understand, he is not allowed to publish his own work, this must be done by either Elkin or Capell.

‘About fifteen years ago Elkin gave Coates a grant to search for the cave paintings of the wandjina type, throughout the Kimberleys. He spent 12 months on this task, took many photographs, and recorded many (texts?). But Elkin claimed exclusive rights over them, and only a small amount of “Grey’s Paintings refound”, has ever been published. Elkin is still holding the manuscripts and, of course, will never publish them.

‘The same thing has happened this time. Coates has a number of large manuscripts with interlinear interpretations, well typed, and apparently ready for publication. But Elkin and Capell have told Coates that he must pass all his material to them, and they will publish, but not under the name of Coates.

‘I would judge that he has some valuable data about the philosophy of the wandjina paintings, none of which has been published, nor has there been any adequate account of the philosophy and beliefs of those curious examples ever been (sic)published. It will be a crying shame if this material is lost.’

The mendacity, jealousy, egotism and drive to (mis)-appropriate ‘aboriginal’ material evident in this fragment were, thirty years later, typical of the conduct of various professionals in the fields of aboriginal – indigenous affairs and policy, as the complicated legislative scheme of ‘native title’ was implemented widely across Australia – absent the consent of those most-affected – the Kimberley claimants already demonstrating the meaning of their wandjinas in the High Court case: P18/1992 (Utemorrah’s Case) and related actions in the WA Supreme Court, a claim prompted, in part, by the 1987 ‘scandal’ of David Mowaljarlai’s ‘re-touch’ expedition. Because this claim was so self-evident, bound to succeed on Milirrpum /Yirrkala precedents, and not able to be stopped – violence had to be implemented to halt it – dead in its tracks.

There is still quite a lot of blood marking the papers and files I handle as I stoop each day to clean up the mess.

Rosemary O’Grady is a lawyer and writer .

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