Session 5 Keynote Address

Kingsley Palmer

Land, rights and interests, now and then: Australian Aboriginal anthropology, retrospective and prospective

In Australia the 1970s saw the development of legislation to protect Australian Aboriginal culture, particularly sites or areas of land. It was accompanied by a mood of optimism about and sympathy for Indigenous cultures. It was characterised by a degree of radicalization amongst those who worked in Aboriginal anthropology and within the instrumentalities charged with administering beneficial provisions. Those of us who then worked in Aboriginal Australia as anthropologists or would-be anthropologists applied ourselves within an environment seemingly characterised by the state's beneficence as well as personal motivation.

Despite these good intentions the legislation mostly failed in practice to protect cultural phenomena, a deficiency that continues to this day. Land rights (as opposed to site protection) was the fundamental issue that developed from Aboriginal loss of land. While mentioned now and then, in the states at least Indigenous rights in land were mostly ignored. The NT Land Rights Act marked a substantial change of direction in the nature of beneficial legislation. However, its impact was restricted to the Territory.

It was not until the Mabo cases that customary Aboriginal rights and interests were recognised and codified in statute, enacted perhaps unwillingly to provide 'certainty'. This provided a different context for anthropological inquiry since it relied no longer on the state's generosity and in fact assumed their respondent status. Moreover, the ideology that had driven former participation within the system was markedly absent  in part because of changing attitudes but also because the legal process eschewed and rejected it.

In this paper I situate the practice of anthropology within these two different milieu over the last few decade since I first commenced work in WA in the early 1970s. I identify the change in the legislative and social settings as key factors in the development of aspects of anthropological practice today and explore some of the issues faced by practitioners in this altered and ever developing environment today.

Dr Kingsley Palmer worked as a Research Officer with the Department of Aboriginal Sites in the WA Museum during the 1970s. He continued to work in the Pilbara region after he left the Department and completed his Ph.D through the UWA in 1981, based on his work in that area. He has subsequently worked in many areas of Aboriginal Australia including the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western and South Australia. Formerly Senior Anthropologist with the Northern Land Council in Darwin, he was appointed Director of Research at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra in 1985. He subsequently became Deputy Principal of that organisation, a post he filled until 2001. He is now a private practice anthropological consultant.

Kingsley has prepared expert reports for many native title claims over the last decade or more and has given evidence in the Federal Court in relation to some of them. He is currently working on or is involved in applications for the recognition of native title or other native title matters in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.