Written for ANTHR-216AU-01: Indigenous Australia taught by Sabra Thorner at Mount Holyoke College, February 14, 2019
With Great Power Comes Great Response-ability: The Problem of Representation of Western Desert Aboriginal Australians
What defines familiarity? Taken at face value the word suggests that which isn’t foreign, isn’t new. It shares roots with the word family, both implying a certain level of intimacy and kinship. In exploring Pintupi language regarding family, anthropologist Fred Myers writes, “one’s parents are said to kanyininpa one, meaning [...] ‘to look after one.’”(1) In this framework, kinship necessarily implies a level of care and responsibility to one another.
So in 1984, when nine Aboriginal people in the Western Desert met white Australians for the first time, the narrative put forward by Fred Myers, of this contact moment as one of kinship and familiarity, carried much with it. The opposing narrative, that of “first contact,” holds quite different implications. The significance of this event depends on what the words used to describe it signify themselves. In this paper I will argue that in Locating Ethnographic Practice: Romance, Reality, and Politics in the Outback Fred Myers, an anthropologist with a history of cohabitation and work with the Pintupi, has a responsibility to the Pintupi people, based on his personal familiarity with them as well as his position of power in the world of academia. This responsibility is what must be prioritized when generating narratives with and about them. In addition, I argue that the reaggregation narrative is the one that delivers on that obligation and responsibility Myers has.
The two general narratives that surfaced after this event can be summarized as the myth of “first contact,” versus the story of reaggregation proposed by Myers. From the perspective of the state, and further sensationalized by the press, these nine people were a look at “untouched” civilization, objects of scientific interest, and, essentially, a new frontier to be conquered. This discourse is grossly objectifying, and feeds into broader narratives of Aboriginal people as Other-than that abounded in pop culture in the mid-twentieth century.(2)
Contrasting this story, the local narrative is that of family members separated decades before being reunited. This discredits the idea of “newness” put forth by the Western narrative, and asserts this event as one continuous with the previous threads of Aboriginal history. This narrative is supported by oral histories recounted to Myers:
"They had come south, having seen smokes, “to look for relatives.” [...] When the old man who had been the father of the children died [...], we learned, they were “sorry” (yalurrpa) and left the area, heading south. Like other Pintupi in the numerous life histories we had gathered in the past and like Pintupi in the present, they moved away from the place of death. After a death [...] they had hoped to find some of their relatives, a common motive for travel- an acceptable basis of accounting for action to any Pintupi."(3)
This narrative is also supported by the powerful reactions by the Pintupi Myers observed. For example the night after the first contact the Pintupi threw spears at someone they had known as their relative, Tjukurti tjakamarra, for not having contacted them earlier.(4) This was coupled with other displays of great emotion, like cries of grief and loss while hugging.(5)
Another outcome of the reaggregation narrative is that, rather than objectifying these new people, it humanizes them, or, even more intimately, familiarizes them. Returning to the idea of obligation through kinship, “the Pintupi defined the newly contacted people as ‘relatives’ (walytja), to whom they had a responsibility.”(6)
One facet of the obligation to these previously lost relatives is simply material wellbeing and autonomy. The Pintupi had an obligation to their family members to ensure they acclimated well, which included preventing journalists and scientists from coming to disturb the community. This posed a difficult ethical dilemma for the Australian government, who saw their responsibility as one to maintain public health.(7) Without prior exposure to different pathogens present in colonized Australia, the newcomers were at high risk for potentially fatal diseases. On the other hand, the Pintupi and their allied doctor, Dr. Scrimgeour, placed their priority on the legitimacy of local conceptions of health, and thus the autonomy of Aboriginal ways of life.(8) Scrimgeour recognized that “[g]iven this situation, visits by relatives from other communities would not tremendously increase the danger, while their presence might offer psychological benefits,” and therefore actively worked to uphold what the Pintupi asserted as being best for themselves.(9) In this sense, the Pintupi acted on their obligation of care towards their kin.
Myers, who had a history of working with the Pintupi people of the Western Desert, agreed to travel to Kintore, NT after this event with his co-researcher Bette Clarke.(10) This research relationship also bore the weight of responsibility: “Aborigines maintained that to live with them I had to ‘help Aborigines,’ that is, I had something like the obligation they had to each other as coresidents of a community.”(11) This relationship in part derived from the cohabitation of the two parties, again referring to the necessity of responsibility that comes with kinship and familiarity. But I believe this particular obligation was also one of response-ability.(12) Myers, holding power and privilege as a white academic, was more capable of generating a narrative, of responding to this event in terms that Euro-Australian culture would comprehend. Because of his privilege, Myers was more response-able than the locals. With great power comes great response-ability.
His responsibility included that of upholding the narrative that would benefit the locals the most, in representing them honestly. Acting as an interlocutor, an intermediary, between the Indigenous peoples and the state, Meyers was in a unique position to advocate as a white academic to policy makers while upholding his obligation to the Pintupi people.(13)
The narrative of reaggregation was a direct push for land rights and autonomy. Myers writes,
"The very communities to which the new people had arrived were themselves the product of Pintupi initiative to regain some autonomy by moving back to their traditional homelands where they had, in their view, unquestioned right of occupancy. [...] This was their country; outsiders must “ask” their permission in order to visit."(14)
By asserting their relation and welcoming the old relatives to the land, they assert their right to decide who has access to their communities. In addition, in not welcoming the press or Western scientists to the community, they materially uphold that right to be autonomous.
Thus, the reaggregation narrative proposed by Fred Myers is one that fights for Aboriginal autonomy and supports the greatest wellbeing for the Pintupi. As opposed to the myth of “first contact” it does not actively Other, defamiliarize, and objectify the people it speaks about. It implies the obligation to the newcomers the Pintupi had, and therefore supports their wellbeing in that relationship, but it is also one that suggests the obligation to the locals that anthropologists had, and holds them accountable to the wellbeing of the Indigenous communities. In supporting the reaggregation narrative, Fred Myers acts on his responsibility to the Pintupi.
(1) Fred Myers, “Burning the Truck and Holding the Country: Pintupi Forms of Property and Identity,” in We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure, ed. Edwin N. Wilmsen (Berkley: University of California Press, 1989), 18.
(2) Fred R. Myers, “Locating Ethnographic Practice: Romance, Reality, and Politics in the Outback,” American Ethnologist 15, no. 4 (November 1988): 612.
(3) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 617.
(4) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 620.
(5) See note 4 above.
(6) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 614, (emphasis added). 7 Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 613.
(8) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 618.
(9) See note 8 above.
(10) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 612.
(11) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 613.
(12) Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
(13) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 611-12.
(14) Myers, “Locating, Ethnographic Practice,” 614-15.
Haraway, Donna. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham, Duke University Press, 2016.
Myers, Fred R. “Locating Ethnographic Practice: Romance, Reality, and Politics in the Outback.” American Ethnologist 15, no. 4 (November 1988): 609-624. http:// links.jstor.org/sici? sici=0094-0496%28198811%2915%3A4%3C609%3ALEPRRA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O
Wilmsen, Edwin N, ed., We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure. Berkley, University of California Press, 1989.