All posts by Kim

Archival Possibilities

There has been some discussion on SM concerning the possibilities and implications of digital technologies in relation to indigenous communities, most notably when Michael Brown was a guest blogger. I mentioned in my first post that the reason I was in Tennant Creek over the last two months was to install a digital archive in the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in town. I’ll just give a brief overview of the project and then discuss the possibilities I see growing from these types of projects.

The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari archive was developed collaboratively over the last two years by myself, Warumungu community members, Craig Dietrich, Tim Dietrich (software developers) and Chris Cooney (designer). Mukurtu means ‘dilly bag’ in Warumungu. Dilly bags were used as safe keeping places for sacred materials. The archive is thus a “safe keeping place.”

The gist of the project is this: Warumungu community members wanted a way to manage the digital materials they received from a number of sources—mainly researchers, teachers and missionaries who had once worked in the community. How could they store, organize, distribute, and allow access to these images based on the Warumungu cultural protocols that surround viewing and distribution of images and the associated knowledge that goes with them?

Over two years of consultation, we developed a browser-based digital archive (using a MySQL database and PHP scripting language, the archive runs locally on an iMac in a MAMP web environment—Mac OSX, Apache, MySQL, PHP—for those techies out there) using the cultural protocols to drive the technology. That is, the information architecture of the system was driven by the specific Warumungu cultural protocols for the viewing, distribution, and reproduction of images. There is a detailed summary concerning the functionality of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive on my blog.

Over the last few years of development I have met several people involved in similar projects—mainly in Australia (I’d love to know about others). Finally having Mukurtu installed in Tennant Creek though gave us the opportunity to 1) think of ways to develop it further in the context of Nyinkka Nyunyu as an art and culture centre and 2) reach out to others to find ways to improve and share what we have. We have begun to develop a framework for a flexible system that would allow other communities to customize the system to fit their own cultural protocols–what we need now are more developers! Although at present most of the content in Mukurtu is from personal collections, the goal is to now reach out to museums and begin a process of virtual repatriation of Warumungu cultural materials. The South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria have already loaned physical objects to Nyinkka Nyunyu for their museum space. These objects are displayed at Nyinkka Nyunyu and are accompanied by Warumungu narration.

The local archive allows for thousands more objects to be virtually repatriated at a fraction of the cost. Mukurtu allows for the content to be curated by individuals in the community. People can tag the content with restrictions, add multiple stories and recollections, and sort it by culturally relevant categories. People can also print images or burn CDs and thus allow the images to circulate more widely to others who live on outstations or in other areas. In fact, one of the top priorities in Mukurtu’s development was that it needed to allow people to take things with them, printing and burning were necessary to ensure circulation of the materials.

Digital archives—powered by Indigenous protocols and intellectual property systems—have the potential to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the institutions that hold Indigenous materials and the communities to whom they belong. Even if one thought that all objects should be repatriated, most Indigenous communities don’t have the money or facilities to store the objects properly. Many communities want museums to keep their objects safe—they want a voice in the way they are displayed and curated. Digital projects can provide one avenue for Indigenous curation. One great example of this is the Virtual Museum Canada project. The Canadian government has funded many First Nations web based museum projects (see the Dane Wajich project by the Doig River First Nations community).

There is potential, then, for digital archives and other web-based projects (that take seriously and integrate Indigenous protocols) to reanimate the terrain of museum display, curation, and information management and to establish collaborative development projects between technologists, anthropologists and communities. Local archives, “safe keeping places,” that use Indigenous cultural protocols to define access and distribution parameters should not be read as closing down the commons or sealing off information. Instead, these projects give us a way to interrogate the limits of commons-like narratives about information or information freedom. They give us a way to redefine access and control apart from big business models. They allow us to examine different modes of information distribution and reproduction and the ways in which these systems maintain and create knowledge through their specific protocols. These archives are as much about production as they are preservation—in these cases the two are intertwined. Can these systems also inform the larger debate about access to information in relation to digital technologies? They seem poised to do so.

November 17th – International Day of Action on the NT Invasion


Just a quick post to let everyone know that the several groups in Australia, including the Green party, have planned rallies for November 17 as an “International Day of Action on the NT Invasion.”

The Government’s current top-down approach in the Northern Territory simply will not succeed. But John Howard doesn’t seem to want to listen. Join groups around Australia and the world on November 17th – an International Day of Action on the NT Invasion.

For more information check out the Green Party Blog here— the Greens are one of the only national political parties to openly denounce the intervention since day one. Like I said in previous posts this issue has not gotten very much attention outside Australia. This is a chance for folks to spread the word and let people know what the Australian government is doing to thousands of Aboriginal people. I’ll post more about it on my blog, Long Road, on November 17, hopefully others will too.

Anthropologists and the Intervention

I know that there has been a lot of discussion here at SM over the role of anthropologists in war situations, particularly in Iraq. As I said in my last post, the state of emergency and militarization of Aboriginal communities in Australia is by no stretch Iraq. Still, anthropologists are (to continue the military metaphors) on the front lines in many cases (not just anthropologists though, linguists –a lot of linguists). Many work in Aboriginal communities long term as part of organizations or on-going projects, as consultants, etc. There is more “applied” anthropology work in Australia than in the US (from what I can tell—others might be better placed here to know if this is the case). So consequently many anthropologists (and other degreed folks) are caught up in the intervention. My most recent field trip coincidently overlapped.

One of the things that struck me the most when I got to Australia in August was the state of depression, for lack of a better term, that had taken hold of many of these folks. In Alice Springs I met several anthropologists and linguists who worked in several of the communities in the region at an event one night. The mood was very somber. Not in a pity me sort of way, of course their lives weren’t being upended by racist policies, perspective was in tact, but the feeling was one of utter disbelief. The Howard government has been hostile to Aboriginal issues for the last eleven years, but even this seemed extreme.

At the beginning, with little in the way of information about what was going to happen, many people felt like their hands were tied—what were they to do? No one knew what exactly the intervention was going be like. The Brough intervention team went out of their way to ignore and dismiss the people who worked in Aboriginal communities. Non-Aboriginal people—especially academics and other so-called “lefties”—have been painted as part of the problem. If self-determination failed then it did so with these “outsiders” as part of the problem. People working in Aboriginal communities, where abuse and other social problems were documented, were indeed as much to blame as anyone—or so the logic goes.

The first week in October, (about three months since the declaration of a state of emergency) Jack Waterford (a reporter) wrote an article in the Canberra times called “Anthropologists’ Silence makes them Complicit.” The first sentence of the article sets the tone:

“Has there ever been a more contemptible, despicable or obvious silence than the silence of academics in the Aboriginal industry—anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, et al—over the Federal Government’s invasion of Aboriginal Australia?’

Although he singled out anthropologists in the title, other academics, according to him, are equally silent and complicit.
In the wake of the article a sometimes heated discussion erupted on the Australian Anthropology Society listserv debating Waterford’s accusations. I won’t quote anyone since it is a semi-private discussion board (although I believe anyone can join). I’ll summarize some of the views.

  1. Anthropologists haven’t been silent, they just haven’t been listened to—or the venues in which they have spoken in are not well publicized and the mainstream media have been fairly pro-intervention
  2. The issues of abuse are too complex to boil down to a sound bite, so anthropologists are left out because their views don’t lend themselves to sound bites.
  3. There is a danger of anthropological work being used against Aboriginal people—i.e. one never knows how or where ones work will circulate or if parts of it will be used to uphold policies antithetical to its argument, so some material may not be published
  4. Anthropologists have failed to adequately deal with the harsher realities of Aboriginal life focusing instead on more “traditional” aspects
  5. Anthropologists know that the solutions to the social problems must involve long term collaborative work and the crisis mentality undermines the type of work that needs to be done
  6. Ethically anthropologists have a responsibility to the people with whom they work and that is complicated when they work for/with government.

The “it’s too complex” argument seems the weakest. I remember hearing Fred Myers give a talk in which he said it was incumbent on anthropologists to make our arguments in ways that many audiences could hear. Complexity exists in all situations and yet solutions need to be found and be articulated.

Over the course of the few weeks that the discussion went on it became clear that ethical issues within the field are hotly contested and that there isn’t one view of the intervention (as to be expected). Some of the points link up with the discussion of anthropologists in the military, in fact this was directly brought up by a few people on the AAS listserv, that working with government “compromises” anthropologists work.

How should anthropologists work in these times of crisis? If it is not a war zone, but has become a de facto militarized space do different sets of criteria apply? Should anthropological work inform government policy? Is there a dividing line between anthropology and advocacy?

A friend of mine (non-academic) said that after reading my blog posts on Long Road said that my writing struck him as advocacy not academics. I’m not sure the distinction holds up for me. Where would I draw the line and what would anthropology look like without advocacy-type work? If one works in communities that are being over powered and subject to racist and dehumanizing policies doesn’t one have an obligation to expose these situations?

Update: I fixed up the post the server cut out on me at the end and the whole thing didn’t get saved….but now it’s fine.

Stabilize, Normalize, Exit…it has a nice ring to it

I think we’ve got the comments issue fixed…seems mine were going to the spam filter, to many links in them I think.

Back to the intervention. As Jangari mentioned in a comment below there was a great Four Corners program on yesterday, you can watch the entire program or extended interviews online here.

Once the “emergency” was declared Northern Territory Aboriginal communities the Howard/Brough team set out their plan for action. The ‘intervention’ was given a mission: “stabilize, normalize, exit,” a “team of experts” (list here) and an operational commander: Major General Dave Chalmers. The military language continued as they announced a “boots on the ground strategy,” “command operations” and “strategic plans” and an “embedded” national media presence.

Major General Chalmers assignment is to act as the operational leader. There haven’t been machine guns, IEDs or tanks and the soldiers have playing footy with the kids pretty regularly. This is not Iraq. There is a joke circulating in Australia that Australia is the first member of the “Coalition of the willing” to invade itself (remember Australia was one of the first and remaining supporters of Bush and the war on terror). In Willowra, this sign greeted intervention teams:


Over the first six weeks of the intervention as the command team was moving from community to community a pattern started to emerge. The team would go in, often unannounced or with only a few hours notice. They would convene meetings in which intervention team personnel would often read from pre-written scripts about the changes ahead. The changes (which are part of the bundle of legislation passed on August 17, 2007, a good summary, here) included:

  1. Changing the permit system (people need to get permits to enter Aboriginal land in the NT, this is handled by the land councils. The CLC approves over 90% of permit requests each year)
  2. Increased alcohol restrictions
  3. Restrictions on pornography and x rated television
  4. Compulsorily taking over communities through five-year leases (and paying “just compensation” to the landholders)
  5. Appointing a “community manager” to oversee the bureaucratic and “law and order” changes
  6. Cutting off the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) which employee over 8,000 Aboriginal people in the NT and are the economic lifeblood of most remote communities
  7. “Transitioning” people to “real jobs” through STEP programs or when their are no jobs putting them on “work-for-the-dole”
  8. Quarantining 50% of people’s Centrelink payments (welfare, old age pensions, etc).

For a good summary guide see the Central Land Council fact sheets, here
Continue reading

Indigenous “crisis”: states and emergencies

Thanks to the gang here at Savage Minds for inviting me to guest blog for the week!

I returned a few weeks ago from a two-month field trip to Tennant Creek a small town in Australia’s Northern Territory. I’ve been working in Tennant Creek since 1995 with Warumungu people. This trip was focused on installing a community digital archive–a collaborative project that we have spent about two years on. I’ll get to that at the end of the week, but I want to begin my blogging here with a discussion of the “intervention” into Aboriginal communities that began in June of this year and has no clear end in sight (sound familiar?).

First, the “emergency.”

In June of this year the “Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: Little Children are Sacred” report by Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson was released by the Northern Territory (NT) government. The report detailed child abuse (including sexual abuse) in Aboriginal communities and made dozens of recommendations for specific ways to address the problem including more community consultation, the use of interpreters, education, safe houses, etc. The report made it clear that this was not a new problem, and that solutions need to be long term and had to involve Aboriginal communities at every level (full report here, summary here). I’m not going to re-hash the debate that went on here at SM concerning the veracity of the report or who saw what where.

My purpose here is to examine and pose some questions about the relationship between settler governments and their indigenous populations in light of the events that followed the release of the Anderson/Wild report in Australia.

On June 21 2007 Prime Minister John Howard (who has been in office since 1996) and his current Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough called a special news conference to declare a national “state of emergency” in 73 Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and the town camps in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine (see the map here). Using the Anderson/Wild report as their basis, they announced their intent to ignore “constitutional niceties” in order to adopt a plan that was “radical, comprehensive and interventionist.”

It didn’t take long for the crisis rhetoric to be undermined as some commentators noted that similar reports had been released consistently over the last ten years without so much as a peep from the Howard government. But these critiques were largely eclipsed by the emphasis on crisis–John Howard even likened the NT situation to the hurricane Katrina: “We have our Katrina here and now. That it has unfolded more slowly and absent the hand of God should make us humbler still.” This is one of the only mentions of the long history of problems predating the “emergency.” Most of the crisis rhetoric places the problem squarely in the present and thus The PM’s need to take “swift” action lest he be left looking like GWB post-Katrina.

What does the Commonwealth gain by defining Aboriginal communities as in crisis? How does this frame the way that Aboriginal issues are dealt with in the nation?

Continue reading