Politics, Parliament, and Anthropology: Canberra

Stepping off the train in Canberra was quite daunting after the experience of Sydney. Canberra is much smaller and serves as the political hub of Australia. Fortunately, because it is the nation’s capital, the public centers (museums, government buildings, archives) are incredible. My first day in Canberra consisted of riding a bicycle to the National Museum of Australia, located on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin.

View of Canberra from Telstra Tower

View of Canberra from Telstra Tower

This museum was much different from the Australian Museum in Sydney, as its focus was not on natural history but instead on the social history of Australia. In some ways, this provided more use for me as a cultural anthropologist exploring Aboriginal peoples. Most significant to my blossoming research interests were the exhibits that focused on the political presence and activity of different Aboriginal peoples.

Ranging from the Freedom Rides of the 1960s to the Mabo decision in 1992 (recognizing Native Title in Australia) to the present Aboriginal presence in Australia’s parliament, the National Museum of Australia works to accurately portray how poorly

Map of Aboriginal language groups throughout Australia

Map of Aboriginal language groups throughout Australia

Aboriginal nations have been treated since the European invasion in 1788 while additionally attempting to highlight the importance of Aboriginal peoples in Australia today. These race relationships have been difficult and almost always unfair for Aborigines, but the museum does not work to hide this, instead underscoring Aboriginal contributions to society.

Furthermore, by visiting parliament, I was able to see a temporary exhibit called “Prevailing Voices,” which focuses on Aboriginal political leaders. While there is certainly a place for more Aboriginal leadership

Prevailing Voices political exhibit at Parliament

Prevailing Voices political exhibit at Parliament

in parliament, this exhibit shows the important steps that have been made towards more inclusive Australia. It was evident to me, through these exhibits, that a continuing apologist narrativeĀ is being perpetuated. While I certainly fall on the side of equality of Aboriginal rights, which underscores how European invaders acrimoniously treated Aborigines for hundreds of years, often refusing to acknowledge Aboriginal existence, I cannot help but notice trends in the way these relationships and narratives are discussed in the public sphere.

My next and final stop was the National Archives. Unfortunately, because my research interests are so

National Archives of Australia

National Archives of Australia

broad, there was only so much I could search for at the archives. Nevertheless, an extremely helpful aid spent time conversing with me about possible research directions and additionally explained how the archives system works. The aid also suggested exploring Maralinga and related topics, due to my interest in contemporary Aboriginal Rights. Maralinga served as a nuclear testing site during and after World War II. However, the site was erroneously thought to be unoccupied, but was inhabited by the Pitjantjatjara people. These people consequently endured the causticĀ radiation poisoning and other adverse effects. This subject struck me as a potential jumping off point for furthering my exploration of white/Aboriginal relations in Australia.

As my research topic narrows, I will be able to utilize the information available (such as documents related to Maralinga) through the National Archives of Australia. Going forward, I want to use the information I was provided by the National Archives, the National Museum, and Parliament to hone my research question.

Native Title display poster at the National Museum of Australia

Native Title display poster at the National Museum of Australia

While my interests are still broad, this trip to Australia allowed me access to countless pieces of information that are simply not available in the States. I plan to continue working to sift through my journals written while down under to develop my research. It is evident that an intersection between politics, Aboriginal rights movements, and race relations between white Australians and Aboriginal Australians is a particularly ripe place to start.

I want to thank the Reves Center, the College of William & Mary, my advisor, and every single person and part of Australia for this preliminary research opportunity. In the coming months I plan to have a more clearly defined research question for my thesis. In the next year, I plan to be back in Australia furthering my research.

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