Power and Recognition: Australia’s Indigenous People Today

image from www.upenn.eduToday we have a guest post from Francesca Merlan, Professor of Anthropology at Australian National University and author of Dynamics of Difference in Australia Indigenous Past and Present in a Settler Country. Merlan's book examines relations between indigenous and nonindigenous people from the events of early exploration and colonial endeavors to the present day. Here, she offers a summary and a preview of her book's insights, providing valuable context for the situation in which the indigenous people of Australia live today.

The indigenous people of Australia were long seen as living in the world’s materially simplest and sparest conditions. As against that essentialization (often wielded as a criticism), defenders of their humanity including anthropologists often countered that they had one of the world’s most complex kinship and social systems. Such contrasts persist today, in revised form. Although both perspectives are true in some way, they do not get to the crux of differences that nourish such stereotypes, and are at the basis of persisting incompatibilities and inequality.

My book Dynamics of Difference in Australia examines the dynamics of interrelation over time, from the arrival of Captain Cook to the present. What were and are the interacting parties on either side interested in knowing about the other? Contrasts of “technological simplicity” and “social complexity” aside, what have been the dimensions of materiality in their inter-relations? From indigenous perspectives, how have sensibilities concerning relationship and person shaped their preparedness to meet even vastly different outsiders as potentially knowable people? From the colonial side, how have indigenous tendencies of network-like interconnection been strenuously restructured into bounded “us-them,” “black-white,” racialized categories? What is the status, and likely future, of such reshaped categories now, as large proportions of the continent’s indigenous descendants and non-indigenous people are obviously biologically intermixed, but differ socially to varying degrees? How has the recent period of greater liberalization, inclusiveness, desire and even requirement of participation enunciated nationally, engaged indigenous people and perspectives to a greater extent, and reshaped some of these dynamics?

This book examines these “dynamics of difference” both historically and ethnographically, based on my own field experience in northern Australia over the past four decades. It finds strong continuities underlying these differences despite their reshaping over time. It attempts to give ground-level insight into interrelational dynamics, as well as contextualize them globally. It begins and ends with consideration of what is known in Australia, and in such relations around the world, as “recognition.” In Australia, after decades of colonization, its violences and indifference, there has been a push for some kind of reference to indigenous people in Australia’s constitution, as well as for a treaty between government and indigenous peoples. But “recognition” and “treaty” have meant different things over time to different people, forming an ongoing basis of difference and incompatibility.

Dynamics of Difference in Australia is centrally concerned with formulations of power, continuity and rupture, and questions of recognition and reconciliation following long histories in which “sidedness” is reproduced as a central property of relationships, and reshaped in the dynamics of difference. The book will be of use to readers interested in indigenous-nonindigenous relations, colonialism and post-colonialism, power, theorization of culture and change, and attention to ground-level perspectives on these issues.

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