Ethnographic information and anthropological interpretations in a Native Title Claim - The Yorta Yorta experience.

Rod Hagen, June 1997

(Draft of paper presented to CONFERENCE ON THE SOUTH-EAST

Any anthropologist who has worked on Native Title claims, or similar activity, in south eastern Australia is likely to have come across the anger of indigenous groups confronted with "academic" interpretations of their rights interests, customs and traditions which differ from their own view of these important aspects of their lives.

Native Title claims particularly, with their emphasis on the establishment of cultural "continuities" with the situation at the time of initial white occupation, have the potential to further exacerbate such views.

Indigenous groups, not surprisingly , are highly indignant about having their claims, and the primarily oral traditions on which they are based, judged against the writings of the initial colonisers themselves and on occasion react even more strongly against later "academic" interpretations of territorial interests best epitomised perhaps by the work of Norman Tindale.

They are highly suspicious of the accuracy of much of the work of this type, and of course it cuts across the ethos of self determination and self empowerment which has characterised indigenous affairs in recent decades.

On the other hand, groups such as the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang, on the Murray river between Echuca and Albury, with whom I have been working intermittently since late 1993, have found it necessary to come to terms with the importance of written ethnographic, anthropological and historical material in the course of preparation and presentation of their Native Title claim.

The Yorta Yorta have a long and remarkable history of using non-indigenous institutions and processes in attempts to obtain recognition of their interests. Within 25 years of the first white occupation of their lands in the late 1830's they were seeking compensation for the damage to their traditional fisheries caused by the introduction of paddle steamers on the Murray River. Within 45 years they were petitioning the government for formal title to parts of their lands.

Men such as William Cooper, a prominent figure in the 1938 "Day of Mourning" protests, were already making formal demands for recognition of their interests in land in the 1880's. In the late 1930's, three decades before the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill, the Yorta Yorta had done much the same thing at Cummeragunja. These matters are proudly remembered elements of the cultural history of the Yorta Yorta/Bangerang today and since 1960 have received some academic recognition in the writings of people such as the late Diane Barwick, Professor C.D. Rowley, Nancy Cato and Heather Goodall.

None of this history of struggle however can be seen in the writings of any earlier anthropologists or ethnographers. It speaks volumes about earlier Australian anthropology that so little attention was devoted to the social realities of the day. Under the circumstances the cynicism of many indigenous people about the discipline is hardly surprising.

The first significant documentation of the interests of indigenous people in the area which the Yorta Yorta are today claiming their traditional lands was undertaken by G.A. Robinson, the chief Protector of Aborigines in Victoria in the 1840's. Robinson visited the area on several occasions, recording the identity of individuals and groups at various locations. His materials, as we shall see , were later to be used by Diane Barwick in her own re-interpretations of traditional interests in the area.

Robinson's materials make excruciating reading. While edited transcripts exist of some of his journeys, for the most part researchers find themselves having to stare hard at each word before it reluctantly gives up its meaning, often still leaving the reader in state of some uncertainty. Fortunately for us all, Dr Ian Clark is currently undertaking the onerous and honourable task of transcribing the balance.  I understand this work is approaching completion. (UPDATE 1998 - These materials have now been published by Ian Clark)

Figure 1 - Extract from Robinson's journals

Despite these limitations Robinson's material contains a wealth of information from the earliest days of settlement of the region and has been of some significance in the course of the Yorta Yorta Native Title claim. As I have mentioned it was also one of Diane Barwick's primary sources in her 1980's re-interpretation of territorial interests. Robinson's data has also been used by Clark in his various examinations of territorial interests in Victoria.

Robinson's material is essentially devoid of any theoretical sophistication. He makes no mention of matters such as moiety divisions and although he recognised that indigenous groups operated on a variety of levels, he provides no elucidation of the principles of group recruitment or of other matters of structure or organisation. He generally called narrower groupings "sections" and broad groups "nations" and on occasion used the word "tribe" for either. Sometimes his two primary levels become three, with intermediate aggregates of "sections" identified by indigenous names such as "Quart Quart" which, in turn are identified as subdivisions of broader "nations".

Interestingly, people that he met in his travels, in the very first years of white settlement of the area, seem to bear little relationship to one of the "classical" models of Australian anthropology. Nowhere does he meet the "patriclan plus spouses" groupings beloved of many writers in the 20th century. Instead, he commonly meets people who identify with a variety of "narrow" groups, all living at the one place or travelling together for common purposes. If "clans" ever did provide the real core of land using groups in this part of south eastern Australia, they appear, on Robinson's evidence, to have already disappeared within a year or two of first white settlement.

Robinson identified two broad "nations" occupying the bulk of the area claimed by the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang today. One of these, his "Pinegerine", has appeared frequently in the ethnographic and anthropological thereafter as the "Bangerang" or "Pangerang". The other, his "Waveroo", disappeared from view completely until Diane Barwick resurrected his materials in the early 1980's. No other 19th century commentator makes any mention of them. (UPDATE 1998 - two further possible mentions of the "Waveroo" have now been found - there is a reference to "Weeroo" in a table compiled by Brough Smyth in the Argus newspaper in 1860 and of the "Weiro" by Barber in 1841 on the Ovens). Intriguingly too, in his journals the area which he ascribes to "Waveroo" groups in a large measure overlaps the areas which he, and other 19th Century commentators such as Edward Curr, also ascribe to the Bangerang, and he identifies members of both groups living and travelling together in all or almost all places which he visits in the region.

We shall hear more of the Waveroo and of Robinson a little later when we come to examine Diane Barwick's reconstructions in the area.

The next major figure in the ethnographic literature of the area is Edward Curr, pastoralist, sheep warden and author of one of the major tomes of nineteenth century ethnography, "The Australian Race". In "The Australian Race" and "Recollections of a Squatter in Victoria from 1841 to 1851" Curr sought to describe aspects of "Bangerang" life. He did so on the basis of his 40 year old memories of his time as one of the first squatters amongst the giant redgums of the Moira and Barmah forests.

Despite the great delay between his observations and his writings (and his own confession that he took little interest in Aboriginal matters when he was living in the area), Curr paints a far more vivid picture of the indigenous people of the area than that offered by Robinson. It is clear that for much of his material he relied heavily on the observations of others, though much of "Recollections .." in particular is written in the form of a first hand account.

With Curr we begin to see the more forceful intrusion of politics and western intellectual interests into the process of "recording" the life of the people of the region. Curr was in frequent conflict with figures such as R Brough Smyth. They disagreed on matters of both Aboriginal policy and ethnographic theory. In the midst of raging ethnographic debates about the evidence for the "progression" of social organisation from the simple to the complex, based, in part in turn , on social Darwinist theory, and of policy debates about relative merits of protectionism and assimilation, the two men took opposing sides. The white brawling over protection or assimilation of course lasted well into the present century. And the anthropological arguments about indigenous hierarchy or egalitarianism have continued to the present day, as Les Hiatt has pointed out in his "Arguments about Aborigines" (1996).

In the context of the present discussions, one is left wondering which parts of Curr's commentary of the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang derive from genuine observation, and which are the product of a desire to bolster his own theoretical and political position.

Curr's depiction of Bangerang society places far greater stress on narrow patrifocal groups than Robinson's "on the ground" identification of the people that he met on his travels would suggest. The fundamental unit of organisation according to Curr was the patriarchal family, with aggregations of families forming "septs" (his equivalent of the Radcliffe Brown's later "clan"), and aggregations of "septs" forming the Bangerang "race". There was no formal system of government or control, no "council of elders", no leaders or "headmen" other than the family heads, whose authority stopped with the family itself. Yet despite this Curr spoke of the broad Bangerang groups being "virtually one for the purpose of war".

In contradiction of Robinson's unelaborated observations he paints a picture of strongly patri-local residence within the territory of the "septs", or, indeed within even more localised territories of their constituent families.

Curr, in "The Australian Race" provides the first attempt at a detailed map of indigenous interests in the area.

Figure 2 - from Curr 1886, The Australian Race

It is apparent that Curr relied at least in part on observations of others in his delineation of narrow group boundaries. Unfortunately he does not make his sources explicit. Furthermore there are substantial discrepancies between his eastern boundary for his "Bangerang" group. Even the map shown above misplaces the town of Cobram by approximately 10 miles. In Recollections... he places the eastern 'Bangerang" boundary at Yarrawonga, rather than Cobram; another 20 kilometres or so to the east. Nowhere does he explain these discrepancies.

This highlights one of the problems with much of the ethnographic source material in south eastern Australia (and other parts of the continent as well for that matter). Simply put, the authors had little reason to be concerned whether the locations which they provided for boundaries (or, for that matter, on other aspects of life as well) were accurate. Curr did not produce his map with the intent of mapping "real" rights and interests, but rather as a Victorian gentleman pursuing intellectual games concerning a people whose interests he believed were no longer relevant. He was pursuing the Victorian fetish for "collecting" rather than seeking hard information for hard purposes. Curr, in his Recollections of a Squatter, published in 1883, reflects on the disappearance of the people who form such a central part of his book. It is, I would suggest, noteworthy that two years earlier these same disappearing people had petitioned the NSW Governor for land and would continue to press their claims throughout the following century.

Curr himself indicates in his text that his boundaries should not be seen as "hard lines" but I am not aware, in fact, of anyone commenting on the discrepancy in Curr's delineation of his eastern boundary of the Bangerang prior to the present land claim hearings.

Despite this, Curr's "mapping" of boundary lines has had powerful effects. A map, no matter how questionably drawn, has a certain seductiveness about it. Here is something "concrete" in a situation of ambiguity. All four of the expert witnesses called by parties opposing the Yorta Yorta Bangerang land claim (Ron Brunton, Ken Maddock, Marie Fels and Bruce Sommer) cite Curr's map as a (generally "the") primary authority for the extent of their territories.

Once lines have been drawn on a map they attain a concreteness that stands out from the complexities and ambiguities of reality. Interestingly they (the experts engaged by the oponents of the claim) seem not to have noticed that the discrepancy between Curr's own different versions of "boundaries" described in the text of his volumes are as great or greater than discrepancies in some other areas between Curr's descriptions and the claimants own views. In the latter situations they see such differences as highly significant. When the differences lie within Curr's own works they are instead seen as generally consistent.

There were other players in the 19th Century ethnography of the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang. Figures such as the assistant protectors, Parker, Dredge and Le Souef, and the missionary Francis Tuckfield, in the early days of occupation ; the ethnographers A.W. Howitt and RH Matthews and the missionaries Daniel Mathews and Thomas James, late in the century who all made contributions but time prevents me from any serious consideration of their material, though Matthews and Howitt will receive at least a brief mention when I come to Diane Barwick's reconstructions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and ethnography to anthropology, much of the interests of "Australianists" moved to the more remote parts of the continent. The largely dispossessed and, no doubt, dispirited people of south eastern Australia no longer provided the lure of "primitiveness", of difference, of exoticism, that they had originally engendered. Very little of the writings of people such as Curr, Matthews or Howitt relates directly to the situation of people at the time that they were writing. Instead they were interested primarily in the notion of an essential past, of Aboriginal life as they saw it "uncontaminated" by the actions of their white contemporaries. Northern Australia offered far better opportunities of this kind for those who were to follow them.

Although both Radcliffe Brown and Davidson made passing comments about the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang, it was not until Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell visited Cummeragunja in 1938 that the people were again exposed to significant anthropological investigation. Older members of the community still tell stories of the strange, unwell man who came to take photographs, measurements and family trees at a time when the community was in a state of foment over the actions of the manager of the day. They took him soup because they were worried about his health, but gave no thought to the idea that his published works might later, for better or worse, be of significance in their attempts to regain control of their traditional lands. As with Curr, at the time of the Maloga petitions for land, Tindale's published materials evince no interest in the community as it was at the time of his visit; simply in attempts at collecting the "past".

Tindale obtained some information about territorial matters from the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang themselves and it seems likely that this was of significance in his 1940 Royal Society of South Australia map of tribal distributions. He also relied on published materials from Curr, Eyre, Smyth and Howitt. Interestingly, his 1940 map perhaps comes closest of all of the recreations to reflecting the views of contemporary Yorta Yorta / Bangerang people. None of the published sources which he cites dealt with the areas to the east between Yarrawonga and Albury. One can only assume that he obtained this information directly from the community itself.

Tindale cites RH Matthews alone as his sole justification for the identification of the Yorta Yorta (his Joti jota) as a separate group from the Bangerang. There is no doubt that he was wrong about this (all earlier sources identify Yorta Yorta or variants with people in the same place as "Bangerang" groups, generally suggesting that it was a language or dialect name), but the myth has lived on in numerous subsequent local histories and other publications. It was not until Diane Barwick , and then Ian Clark, challenged his view more than 4 decades later that the poverty of evidence for the separation became clear.

Diane Barwick, along with Marie Reay, Jeremy Beckett, Malcolm Calley and a handful of others, played a major role in the revitalisation of anthropological interest in South Eastern Australia in the late 1950's and 1960's .

Two major strands emerge from this period. Initially, perhaps for the first time since early ethnographic fumblings of the Protectorate period, researchers attempted to look at indigenous communities of the region as they were at the time rather than seeking to recreate information about a supposedly pristine past. The literature of this time often seeks to locate the people of the south east within a more general international discourse on the situation of people in the third world or other situations of colonial dispossession. In order to break free of the shackles of traditional anthropological interests this often meant downplaying the locally pertinent for the sake of emphasising the universal.

As time passed however, and as indigenous groups became freer to pursue their own cultural interests with the death of "assimilation" as the guiding light of official policy, writers such as Barwick sought to understand the synthesis of traditional and contemporary aspects of Aboriginal life. One of Barwick's fundamental contributions in this period involved the rediscovery of materials such as the records of the Port Phillip Protectorate and the recognition of the importance of observations of writer such as Robinson.

In the years immediately before her death Barwick began an ambitious project to map local groups in Victoria. The first section of this work "Mapping the Past, part 1" was published by Aboriginal History in 1984. A second section, relating specifically to groups in the vicinity of the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang claim area was in preparation at the time of her death. Drafts of ths material have kindly been made available by Dr Richard Barwick in the course of the current claim hearing. In these works Barwick attempted to apply the conventional anthropological views of the day concerning "clans" to the data collected by Robinson and others.

Barwick herself clearly recognised the tentative nature of such work, cautioning her readers to see it simply as a first step in a difficult process. In my view she erred signficantly in placing too much emphasis on "narrow" groupings, and insufficient on broader interests and inter-reltionships reflected in the writings not only of Robinson, but of others such as Parker and , later, Howitt. Her factual interpretations are also open to question on occasion, at least in the area of the current Yorta Yorta / Bangerang native title claim - the area with which I am most familiar. On occasion she places great weight on snippetts of information of dubious worth. In other situations she appears to be influenced as a result of taking sides in some of the great ethnographic brawls of the 19th century, most notably championing Howitt against RH Matthews.

A major issue in the current native title claim involves her resurrection of the "Waveroo" as a discrete group to the east of the Yorta Yorta / Bangerang between Shepparton and Albury. As I have indicated this group are mentioned nowhere else in the literature after Robinson's identification of them. Neither the location which she gives them as whole, nor the local groups which she identifies with them, accord well with Robinson's descriptions. One of the four sub groups which she mentions is identified as a completely separate entity by Robinson (and as a Kulin group by Howitt). Two others may well simply be local groups identified as Bangerang by others, with different locative suffixes. Yet she cited no other authority for their existence.

In a map of the region she locates this group neatly filling a gap to the east of Curr's "Bangerang", but this only partially accords with the Robinson source data on which she depended.

Despite these problems, Barwick's "Waveroo" are showing signs of becoming re-ified as definite group in their own right. Ian Clark has used Barwick's map in his own publications dealing with the area, and at least one expert engaged by parties opposing the native title claim has cited his materials as coroborative of her position, though essentially he seems to be simply relying on her own interpretation of the situation.

The Yorta Yorta / Bangerang, and other neighbouring indigenous groups, say simply that there never was a separate "Waveroo" grouping, and that Robinson must have misunderstood the application of a descriptive term of another type (suggestions have been made that it may have been a moeity name or perhaps descriptive of particular environmental features). They find it remarkable that the uncorroborated evidence of one white man in the 1840's, re-interpreted inaccurately in the 1980's, can even be contemplated as standing against the weight of oral evidence handed down to them by their ancestors.

In this paper I have been reflecting on some of the negative aspects of the ethnographic and anthropological materials in a Native Title setting. There is, of course, another side. Much of the material of this type relating to the Yorta Yorta Bangerang claim area provides eloquent and effective support for the position of the contemporary claimants. It also helps to clarify some areas of doubt and confusion.

Nevertheless the examples given above help to highlight some important aspects of contemporary anthropological practice. Firstly we need to be very clearly aware that any materials which we produce may later be used for purposes quite different from those for which they were intended. Drawing lines on maps makes for effective presentation of aspects of indigenous territoriality, but doing so may lead to situations which re-ify our own interpretations of reality, no matter how much we qualify them at the time, in situations of real importance to living people. Tentative conclusions and working hypotheses can all too easily come to be seen as "facts" when given a patina of age and frequent repetition.

We also need to be humble about the extent of our own knowledge and of our discipline's ability to provide unequivocal answers, especially when seeking