Spencer and Gillen Revisited

June is turning into a month on the road for me, so although I have plenty to write about, I don’t seem to have much time to sit down at the keyboard. I’ve seen the wonderful, award-winning documentary Contact (Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, 2009), based on the book Cleared Out by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson, and Yuwali (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), and read Rod Moss’s terrific memoir of his life and friendships with the Arrernte people in Alice Springs, The Hard Light of Day (University of Queensland Press, 2010), but further commentary on both will have to wait until next month when I can be appropriately expansive.

Quickly noted, however, “The Strange Career of the Australian Conscience” by Dean Ashenden this week at Inside Story takes a look back at the accomplishments and changing reputation of Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen. His essay provides an excellent synopsis of the early collaboration between the two men, focusing on the events leading up to and captured in their first, ground-breaking publication, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Ashenden frankly explores both the prejudice and the almost unprecedented sympathy with which the two men perceived the Arrernte, focusing especially on the role that Gillen played in opening up the first understanding of the inner lives of the desert dwellers to the European mind. He also explores, all too briefly, the impact that the intellectual struggles of the pair have made on anthropologists and Australian in the succeeding years of the twentieth century, focusing in particular in W. E. H. Stanner. Spencer and Gillen were captives of a world view that saw Aborigines as the lowest rung on the ladder of human evolution, and yet they were captivated by the intelligence and humanity of the people they worked with and who worked for them. Ashenden suggests that this wobbly pivot endures to the present day. 

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