New Books on Aboriginal Culture

One of the great benefits of being a librarian, especially at a university library, is going to work everyday for an organization that owns something in excess of five million books. The building in which I work itself houses well over three million. As I write that it strikes even me as incredible. But it’s true. And what we don’t actually own here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is pretty easy to borrow from other libraries, including Australian libraries, who are extraordinarily generous in sharing their collections with me. There’s a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges that’s popular among my colleagues: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Of course, the downside is that I have to work there. I don’t, unfortunately, get paid to read them all. But it’s the next best thing. 

And like many libraries, we have a new books shelf that I visit once a week. Here’s are a few titles that have shown up recently–and that I haven’t read. But I thought that once in a while I’d send in a report on new publications of potential interest. The annotations are cribbed from the publishers’ announcements of the books.

McKnight, David. Of Marriage, Violence and Sorcery: the quest for power in northern Queensland. Aldershot, Hamps.: Ashgate , 2005. 0-7545-4465-0. 259pp.

This is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between marriage, violence and sorcery in Australian Aboriginal culture, drawing on David McKnight’s extensive research on Mornington Isalnd. The case studies, which occurred both before and after a Presbyterian Mission was established on the island, allow McKnight to show how the complexities of kin ties and increased sexual competition help to explain incidences of violence and sorcery, without resorting to psychiatric justifications. He demonstrates that kin ties both stimulated conflict and help to mitigate it.

Following on from McKnight’s previous book, Going the Whiteman’s Way (Ashgate, 2004), [this work] offer an archive of valuable primary materials, drawing on the author’s thirty-five year knowledge of the community on Mornington Island.
Chesterman, John. Civil Rights: how indigenous Australians won formal equality. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2005. 0-7022-2514-8. 357pp. 

The compelling story of how Indigenous people won civil rights.

Denied the same legal rights as other Australians for so many years, Indigenous Australians fought a long yet little-known battle to gain legal equality. This important civil-rights struggle – from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s – is the subject of John Chesterman’s engrossing and meticulously researched book.

Chesterman challenges the myth that civil rights were handed to Indigenous people and not won by them. Drawing on government and other archival material, he makes a compelling case that it was this painstaking agitation for civil rights, in conjunction with international pressure, that led to legal reforms.
A full review can be found here along with links to several other related titles on Aboriginal history.

Taffe, Sue. Black and White Together FCAATSI: the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, 1958-1973. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2005. 0-7022-3511-3. 402pp.

In the 1950s Australia considered itself “the land of the fair go”. However, this was not the experience of Indigenous Australians who were excluded from the vote, equal wages, education and social services. Action against such disparity came in 1958 with the creation of the grassroots organisation, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, whose founding members were black and white. As the first national lobby group of its kind, it achieved sweeping social and legislative reforms for Indigenous Australians. Over the next decade, unions, religious groups, communists, students, artists and activists joined in the timely alliance, campaigning for inclusive civil rights and land rights. Conflicting ideologies and shifts in leadership strained the group’s harmony and effectiveness. With the advent of black power politics and the Tent Embassy, FCAATSI became an Indigenous body and the inter-racial coalition came to an end.

This rigorously researched and absorbing book on Australia’s pre-eminent Indigenous civil rights organisation began as an oral history and contains rare interviews with former members and strategists, including Faith Bandler, Charles Perkins, Stan Davey, Shirley Andrews and Joe McGinness.
Russell, Peter H. Recognizing Aboriginal Title: the Mabo case and indigenous resistance to English-settler colonialism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 0-8020-3863-8. 470pp.

A judicial revolution occurred in 1992 when Australia’s highest court discarded a doctrine that had stood for two hundred years, that the country was a terra nullius – a land of no one – when the white man arrived. The proceedings were known as the Mabo Case, named for Eddie Koiki Mabo, the Torres Strait Islander who fought the notion that the Australian Aboriginal people did not have a system of land ownership before European colonization. The case had international repercussions, especially on the four countries in which English-settlers are the dominant population: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

In Recognizing Aboriginal Title, Peter H. Russell offers a comprehensive study of the Mabo case, its background, and its consequences, contextualizing it within the international struggle of Indigenous peoples to overcome their colonized status. Russell weaves together an historical narrative of Mabo’s life with an account of the legal and ideological premises of European imperialism and their eventual challenge by the global forces of decolonization. He traces the development of Australian law and policy in relation to Aborigines, and provides a detailed examination of the decade of litigation that led to the Mabo case.

Mabo died at the age of fifty-six just five months before the case was settled. Although he had been exiled from his land over a dispute when he was a teenager, he was buried there as a hero. Recognizing Aboriginal Title is a work of enormous importance by a legal and constitutional scholar of international renown, written with a passion worthy of its subject – a man who fought hard for his people and won.

Peter H. Russell is University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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