More than just an autograph

One of the most time-consuming aspects of my directed study has been the endless need for letters signed by my industry partner, both supporting my research and authorising my access to archival material. Whilst this process is time-consuming for both myself and undoubtedly for my industry partner alike, it is inherently important and part and parcel of any research, such as mine. So far these letters have granted me permission to view and survey material that has been stored in such places as, the Tindale collection in the South Australian Museum Archives, The Mountford – Sheard Collection housed in the State Library and Collections held in The State Archives and Native Title Services. The reasons for permissions and support lie in the nature of material I have been consulting with and the subject matter I am being exposed to.

Primarily, material relating to Barney Warrior’s life has been collected within the paradigm of ‘anthropological data’ and as a result it often concerns private information regarding his life and Ngadjuri culture. Material such as this would not have been considered sensitive or restrictive to researchers 40 years ago; previously contemporary Aboriginal people had been seen as distant in regards to the material collected in the past.

The watershed that proved otherwise would come in 1976 with the publication of Charles Mountford’s Nomads Of The Australian Desert, which published results from Mountford’s 1940s fieldwork. It was argued in the Supreme Court by The Pitjantjara Council, that the subsequent publication of this book in the Northern Territory would make available to the public, knowledge and ideas that would weaken and subvert their traditional pedagogical methods. Furthermore, Mountford’s knowledge on these matters was given to him in good faith and not to be revealed. The result of this litigation upheld The Pitjantjara Council’s argument and an interlocutory injunction was placed on the publication of the book in the Northern Territory, finding that Mountford had breached the confidence of the men he worked with in the 1940s by publishing this material (Foster and Others V Mountford and Rigby Ltd 1976).

Subsequently, Aboriginal self-determination in regards to protecting knowledge, published or known by the wrong people or gender, such as the example above has resulted in the now well-established rule of institutes and libraries to only open their collections of archival materials when the group the material concerns gives authorisation and supports the research.

In regard to the letters of authorisation I receive from Ngadjuri, to some degree this is predicated on confidence and trust. Vincent Branson, chairperson of Ngadjuri heritage, views the letters of authorisation as an additional contract between Ngadjuri and myself; to undertake this research with respect and if needed, maintain some level of discretion and confidentiality. The letters also serve as a passive agreement between us, acknowledging a partnership of working collectively on the project, as opposed to the researcher having the main interests and Ngadjuri being marginal. Fundamentally, the letters, though time-consuming, are a primary method of avoiding transgressions like those of Mountford in the past.

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