Aboriginal Business: Alliances in a Remote Australian Town, by Kimberly Christen, 304 pp, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2009, ISBN 9780855757021 (pbk), $39.95.
Anyone who has spent time in an Aboriginal community cannot but notice the great amount of time and energy that Aboriginal people devote to whitefella ‘meeting business’. What is not always apparent, however, is why Aboriginal people are willing to do so. Kimberley Christen’s book provides considerable insight into the significance of such meetings to Warumungu people as part of a broader field of business they conduct in and around the town of Tennant Creek. According to the author, ‘Aboriginal business’, which encompasses a wide range of practices including ceremony, paid work and claims to land and resources, ‘is concerned with continually creating possibilities for the future of one’s kin and the extended networks from which one draws strength and community’ (p. viii). She notes that what sustains much Aboriginal business in the town of Tennant Creek are ‘strategic, meaningful and conditional alliances’ forged among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parties within structures of unequal power relations (pp. viii, 28). These alliances are rarely straightforward, and the negotiations surrounding them often involve misunderstandings, contestation and compromise (p. 43). In examining how alliances are made, Christen seeks to throw into relief the ‘politics of indigeneity’ operating in Australia and to illuminate ‘the intricacies of these relations, the rerouting of power, and the agency culled by those who may seem to be firmly in the grip of hegemonic power’ (p. viii). In doing so she tracks alliances involving Warumungu and a range of non-Aboriginal actors including white settlers, Aboriginal organisations, local councils, mining and railroad companies, the Australian Navy and tourists.
This book is based on the author’s doctoral research and collaborative work undertaken with Warumungu at Tennant Creek since 1995. During this period the author helped construct Mukurtu Archive, a digital archive of Warumungu history and culture, and contributed to the development of the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre. In addition to her work with Warumungu, the author also draws on interviews with staff (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) of organisations and businesses associated with the Tennant Creek region as well as media reports and relevant academic and archival sources.
The body of the book has three major sections, entitled ‘Community Control’, ‘Uneasy Alliances’ and ‘Proper Productions’. Each major section comprises two chapters and an introduction. The sections are preceded by a preliminary chapter which outlines the book’s theoretical framework and central concerns. This chapter has a brief but incisive discussion about the self-determination and reconciliation ‘policies, discourses and practices’ which have shaped Indigenous politics over the past 30 years. This is not a seamless account. Rather, by ranging over different scales and debates the author seeks to capture something of the complex and entangled terrain in which Warumungu alliance-making occurs (p. 6). While some readers may disagree with her position, I found the author’s discussion refreshing in that it is neither negative critique nor its opposite. For example, she notes that while there were inherent problems with self-determination – including that it was ambiguous, was often undermined by governments (particularly in the Northern Territory) and clearly did not overcome Aboriginal disadvantage and suffering – it also resulted in ‘productive versions/visions of Aboriginal communities and political power’ as well as goals yet to be realised (p. 12). Her call to mend former Australian prime minister Howard’s separation of the ‘symbolic’ and ‘practical’ by ‘reorienting practicality around the work of Aboriginal communities, without divisions among social, economic, cultural and political motives and meaning’ (pp. 18–19) underpins the approach taken in the book.
In Section 1 of the book the author focuses on how Warumungu engagement with Aboriginal organisations and the land rights process ‘redefined the political, social, and territorial landscape of relationships in Tennant Creek’ (p. 28). As with other sections, this part of the book is framed by a brief discussion of recent political events – in this case the Howard Government’s ‘intervention’. Against a backdrop of what the author refers to as the latter’s denial ‘of history’s place in current community dynamics’ (p. 35), she asks what community control means in a space characterised as much by interdependent relationships as structural inequalities.
Chapter 2, ‘Country Claims’, discusses significant historical events following white settlement of Warumungu country, culminating in the rise of Aboriginal organisations and land rights. As noted over many years by a range of scholars including Stanner in the mid 1930s, Nash, and Edmunds, the town of Tennant Creek has a troubled history involving settler conflict with the Warumungu traditional owners of the country that led to their dispossession. However, as Edmunds observed, the town is also unusual in the way that its Warumungu and non-Aboriginal residents tried to accommodate their differing interests. While Christen presents little new material on the early settler period and there is overlap with Edmunds, there are also differences. Edmunds’ study is concerned with competing forms of representation and discourse in the late 1980s. In contrast Christen focuses on Warumungu ‘histories of engagement’ and partnerships in order to illuminate new arrangements with and claims to people and country amid shifting national and local agendas.
Given the broad sweep of history Christen covers, the selection of topics she treats in detail is necessarily partial. What surprises me, however, is her lack of discussion here of the forced removal of children of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal descent from Phillip Creek Mission. The latter was the subject of Cubillo v Commonwealth, a case brought before the Federal Court of Australia which involved sisters Kathleen Nappanangka and Eileen Nappanangka, close relatives of Lorna Cubillo who also feature heavily in Christen’s account. I should add that I wrote an anthropological report for the Cubillo case and appeared as an expert witness. In my view the subject warranted Christen’s examination for what it could reveal about conditions of historical ‘intracultural’ engagement and issues of concern which continue not only to resonate but explode in the present. Here I am not just referring to the protection of children, which was an official rationale given for the Howard intervention, but also what happens when people are disempowered. The omission is all the more puzzling considering that the coda to Aboriginal Business addresses Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generation and Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the nation, in which he describes how Lorna Fejo, an age-mate of Lorna Cubillo, was taken from Phillip Creek. However, my comments are not meant to detract from what I otherwise consider to be an insightful and well researched book.
Chapter 3, ‘Managing Mobs’, provides a timely discussion of the rise and roles of the diverse Aboriginal organisations in Tennant Creek ‘as part of a local articulation of Aboriginal power vested in the creation of new nodes of community formation’ (p. 79). The author interweaves academic commentary concerning their genesis and limitations with her own observations of their significance in the daily lives of Aboriginal people. She points out, for example, that not only do Aboriginal organisations seek to fulfil their own mandates, they also provide community development services and the majority of Aboriginal employment in the town (pp. 85, 101). In the light of this discussion she ponders what changes that the Howard Government introduced might mean, including ‘mainstreaming’ and legislation which enables the government to seize organisational property (pp. 105–15). Although there is now a new government in power, the fact that the intervention continues to be implemented renders her considerations highly pertinent.
Section 2, Uneasy Alliances, discusses the signing and significance of an Indigenous Land Use Agreement involving Warumungu Native Title holders in the face of a history of bitter opposition from the Northern Territory government. Chapters 4, ‘Constrained Collaborations’, and 5, ‘Practical Partnerships’, are particularly absorbing in their nuanced coverage of the negotiations and background surrounding post-land claim partnerships. The examples treated involve Warumungu, the mining industry, the Central Land Council, the Australian Navy and railway companies.
The third section of the book is explicitly concerned with the materiality of culture. Comprising chapters 6 and 7, it discusses ‘how Warumungu people are simultaneously preserving, producing and repackaging traditional practices in conjunction with national tourist markets, the regional economy, and local desires to maintain proper productions’ (p. 200). ‘Properness’, observes Christen, is a ‘type of continuity’ in which actions are aligned with ‘but don’t necessarily reproduce – an ideal version of the past’ (p. 203). Chapter 6, ‘Negotiating Networks’, tracks how Warumungu women negotiate concerns about both the ‘properness’ of the cultural production of a CD of Yawalyu Mungamunga dreaming songs and control over what is circulated. Chapter 7, ‘Culture Work’, examines the coming into being of the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre. As Christen describes, the centre is a collaborative project involving Warumungu as authors of their own cultural representations in a space of intercultural exchange.
Aboriginal Business is an impressive achievement. Although the subject matter is complex and wide-ranging, the volume is well constructed and engagingly written. In analysing practices of alliance-making in Tennant Creek, Christen has succeeded in moving beyond binary representations of Warumungu as either victims or agents, assimilated or autonomous, and of the self-determination era as success or failure. She presents us with a valuable, though not uncritical, snapshot of a range of outcomes and possibilities that can emerge when Aboriginal people are active participants in negotiations concerning their futures. The book is especially relevant at a time when, as Nicholas Rothwell recently noted, a ‘dreadful disconnect between the administered and the administrators is palpable’ in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. This is a legacy of the Commonwealth intervention and changes in Northern Territory local governance structures which have resulted in some positive changes but at the cost of Aboriginal people feeling deeply marginalised and controlled by a burgeoning bureaucracy. Christen’s book Aboriginal Business will be of value to a wide readership, including those interested in Aboriginal politics, applied anthropology, cultural studies, museum studies and Australian history.
Edmunds, Mary 1995, Frontiers: Discourses of Development in Tennant Creek, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.
Nash, David 1984, ‘The Warumungu’s Reserves, 1892–1962: a case study in dispossession’, Australian Aboriginal Studies 1: 2–16.