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Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies: historical and anthropological perspectives.

Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies: historical and anthropological perspectives

Edited by Ian Keen

Canberra: ANU E Press

Pp: xii + 195

This is a good book. Both geographically and temporally, the collection of essays spans a wide range of Indigenous engagements with the market institutions of settler society and its forms of capitalism. Juxtaposed one with another, the essays also pose questions that should prompt further research and debate. Most of these essays are based on extended field and/or historical research concerning particular regions. They therefore provide textured accounts of local experience where often writing on Indigenous economy within the Australian state is schematic and/or ideological. I hope that other like publications will follow this one either in the form of edited collections or sole authored monographs.

Keen's introduction discusses in turn the historical 'invisibility' of Indigenous participation in the Australian economy; relevant published regional studies; ethnographic accounts and analysis of an 'internal' Indigenous economy; and, finally, writing on articulation between the economies of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. With regard to the latter, Keen notes two types of approach--a 'top down' focus on welfare colonialism or marginalisation (Beckett, Austin-Broos) and a 'bottom up' approach indicative, he suggests, of the collection and epitomised by a hybrid economy model (Altman). Although only a few of the essays use the notion of hybrid economy, they all provide some insight into Aboriginal experience with the expansion of settlement, European practices of property, and market relations in different regions of Australia.

A historical essay by Christopher Lloyd begins the collection and I will return to it later in this review. Keen's essay on settler ideas about Indigenous property, or the purported lack of it, follows. Beckett then describes the migration patterns of Tortes Strait Islanders in the Australian labour force. He notes the particular historical conjuncture that brought this Torres Strait Islander diaspora about one that is inhabited fairly comfortably now. The contrasting localism of Aboriginal east coast populations notwithstanding forced re-locations of various types is described in essays by White on Yuin people in southern NSW and by Gibson on Aboriginal people around Wilcannia. Both these essays underline the enduring importance of kin-based relatedness to Aboriginal people both as a pre-eminent form of sociality and as individual identity. White recounts a history of seasonal rural work sustained in significant part so that 'family' might remain together. He effectively disputes the rendering of this type of activity as 'dependency'. Redmond and Skyring, and Diana Young, provide two interesting accounts of remote hybrid economy. One concerns the way in which Aboriginal men on Karunjie Station in northwestern Australia employed a new access to goods, including valued pearl shells, to elaborate the Wurnan or indigenous trade network and the other, dingo-scalping among Anangu. Both studies demonstrate hybridity by showing the way in which Aboriginal practice dissolved, at least partially, the distinction between 'ritual' and 'economic' as they are understood in non-Indigenous life. Both provide portraits as well of the deftness with which Aboriginal generations in the past sought to turn conditions of colonial contact to their own cultural purposes.

The final two papers in the collection address engagements between remote Aboriginal peoples and forms of corporate development--mining in the Pilbara and tourism in Kakadu. Sarah Holcombe presents a 'speculative' account of 'development' in terms of 'sustainable livelihoods' for Gumala in the Pilbara region. The approach has been promoted by the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in Alice Springs. It looks to the assets that Aboriginal people have rather than to their limitations, in formal education for example. Holcombe recommends this emphasis along with a view that eschews 'employment parity' for Aboriginal people on the grounds that it is a faint hope, and assimilationist. Chris Haynes's account of the way in which Aboriginal culture in the Kakadu region has been commodified by others in pursuit of the tourist dollar--only a tiny proportion of which is returned as income to Aboriginal people--is possibly the most reflective essay in the book. While deploring this poor return to an Indigenous 'periphery' for its engagement with 'the centre', Haynes nonetheless acknowledges that Aboriginal people will continue to be framed and frame themselves in terms of the white majority. In this circumstance, he suggests, the question is 'how Aboriginal agency might be demonstrated within the fields of power that have been so clearly established'. Haynes breaks this issue down into two more particular ones concerning how Aboriginal people can get more of the 'tourism cake' and 'take back some of the ways by which they represent themselves'. He notes a modest growth in Aboriginal tourist enterprise and speculates on the impact this could have for the future.

Christopher Lloyd's historical essay on Australian settler capitalism and 'hybridisation' and 'local evolution' frames these various contributions. It, too, is an excellent piece. Lloyd notes that hybrid economies only emerge where indigenous and nonindigenous ways have already been interpreted through settlement. Moreover, hybrid economies, properly socalled, tend to reside where Aboriginal people are able to maintain 'a strong place for their traditional way of life,' including hunter-gathering. Lloyd's exposition makes it clear that the best use for this term is as an alternative to the notions of 'dependency' and 'intelligent parasitism' discussed by A.P. Elkin at the mid-twentieth century point (see also White's essay in this collection). It is less clear that the concept is well-used to designate and bound any Aboriginal participation in a local economy that is circumscribed by relatedness. Some aspects of these kin relations-the large and dense demand-sharing networks of settlements--are themselves a product in part of encapsulation and subsequent economic marginalisation. To designate all such specificity 'hybrid' or to assume that Aboriginal people are 'assimilated' unless they can be said to reside in a hybrid economy, seems essentialising in the extreme.

Juxtaposed with Lloyd's careful treatment of hybridity, the essays raise many interesting questions. Have non-Indigenous ideas of Indigenous property really changed since the time Keen writes about? Have Indigenous ideas changed? Are there reasons why Torres Strait Islanders who do migrate for work are not 'assimilated', while remote Aboriginal people would be assimilated if they were to do so, even on a temporary basis? Again, is the receipt of government transfers (pensions, welfare and the like) assimilationist and, if so, what place does it have in a contemporary 'hybrid' economy? Is seasonal and/or casual employment in particular locales specifically Aboriginal or hybrid, and does a hybrid industry, art, make a hybrid economy? More generally, can Indigenous peoples, in the social contexts that they sustain, overcome past hegemonies, at least in part, as they address new circumstances? To tackle these questions, I suggest, requires that ideas about the 'top down' and the 'bottom up' not be mutually exclusive. Marginalisation is Indigenous experience as much as hybridity is. The aim in this area should be to document experience in its specificity as it is turned to negotiate the institutions of economy. This collection makes an excellent start.

Diane Austin-Broos

University of Sydney
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Author:Austin-Broos, Diane
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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