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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Historical Dictionary of Australian Aborigines edited by Mitchell Rolls and Murray Johnson, 213 pp, The Scarecrow Press, Inc, Lanhan, Toronto, Plymouth, UK, 2011, ISBN 9780210259975 (hbk), $75.00.

The Historical Dictionary of Australian Aborigines has been published as part of a series called ‘Historical Dictionaries of Peoples and Cultures’. Other editions (there are 11 in total) have featured groups of people such as The Kurds, Gypsies, Tamils and Jews. The dictionary, numbered at just over 200 pages, is a surprisingly comprehensive account of Aboriginal history and culture for its relatively compact size. The dictionary entries themselves, covering Aboriginal culture and tradition, people, places, organisations and significant historical events, are accompanied by a chronology, an introduction from the historian Henry Reynolds and an extensive bibliography divided into different disciplines and thematic works. The different sections combine to make this a very useful reference work for students, both undergraduate and beyond, and anyone with an interest in the ‘history, economy, society and culture of the Aboriginal past and present’ (p. vii-iii).

The Series Editor, John Wonoroff’s foreword makes explicit three important factors in any understanding of the Australian Aboriginal past and present: that at the moment of colonisation all aspects of Aboriginal life were ‘intrinsically linked to the territory of each particular group’, that the life-experiences of Aboriginal people since colonisation have differed widely throughout Australia, and that despite the resilience of Aboriginal people and the significant gains made since the initial devastation inflicted by British occupation, Aboriginal people are still socially and economically marginalised within Australia and their overall living standard, in many places, remains incomparable with that of other Australians.

The chronology begins 60,000 years BP, the point in time of the earliest evidence that humans were present on the Australian continent. The chronology is punctuated, over ten pages, by significant points in time in the Aboriginal past. The first contact between Europeans and Aboriginal people occurs two-thirds of the way down the first page. The following nine pages document encounters, disease, massacres, historical figures, government policy decisions, the establishment of significant Aboriginal organisations and moments in time that have either denied or restored Aboriginal political, social and economic rights. The chronology contains those events that you would expect, the Batman Treaty, Myall Creek, the formation of the Aborigines Advancement League, the 1967 Referendum, Mabo and the national apology to the Stolen Generations. A little more surprising, and extremely welcome, are those entries not usually covered in a chronology of this kind; the timeline also tells the reader that in 1868 an all-Aboriginal cricket team toured England, in 1942 at Skull Springs, an estimated 200 Aboriginal people from 23 language groups met to discuss action for ending their exploitation, and in 2010 residents of Alice Springs Town Camp Ilpeye Ilpeye agreed to surrender their Native Title to the Commonwealth government in order to convert tenure and to pave the way for private homeownership.

Henry Reynolds’s introduction fleshes out the chronology and gives it life with his narrative, reiterating as he does so, Wonoroff’s emphasis on the importance of understanding the historical factors that have undoubtedly shaped an Aboriginal past and present. Reynolds writes that by the time Europeans arrived Aboriginal people had developed a relationship with the physical world around them and had moulded themselves to their country with ‘art, religion and ritual’ (p. 1). He also points out that the ‘slow and fitful settlement over a vast and varied continent meant that Aboriginal experience differed greatly’ depending on where and when it occurred (p. 2). However, Reynolds argues that despite this difference in experience, there are common and powerful themes that hold true for all Aboriginal people; that of terra nullius and land rights, the violence of invasion and official policies that had their foundations in Social Darwinism and theories of evolution, and the complete exclusion from political and legal rights as enshrined in the constitution.

Reynolds concludes his introduction by acknowledging that great disparities remain between Aboriginal and other Australians across all the social indicators, something that has ‘continued to shame and vex national life to the present day’ (p. 6). He also acknowledges that an emphasis on unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence and poor health in the media and public commentary obscures a diversity of experience among Aboriginal people. Reynolds argues that this preoccupation overwhelms the significant achievements Aboriginal people have made in regard to their fight for political equality and the various ways in which Aboriginal people have celebrated their culture with story, song, dance and art and sought to share it with a world beyond Australia.

The dictionary itself is a comprehensive account of important Aboriginal individuals and organisations, covering resistance fighters from the frontier, political figures and organisations, artists, musicians and successful sportspeople. Many of the individual entries themselves are detailed, with good historical overviews of significant developments such as that of Aboriginal media and the Aboriginal art movement or more politically charged moments in Australia’s history like the ushering in of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. There is also considerable detail on lesser-known entries, such as the genesis of ‘Alice Springs Town Camps’ that help to demonstrate the diversity of Aboriginal history and experience within its definitions and historical overviews.

However, despite this diversity, the inclusion of some entries and the omission of others seems at times a little skewed in favour of southern experience. Similarly, despite the argument for diversity amongst Aboriginal culture and experience, some of the entries work to ‘pan-aboriginalise’ in their use of terms or language. ‘Koori’ is defined as the word used by Aboriginal people in Victoria or New South Wales to refer to themselves, as is Nunga in South Australia, Murri in Queensland and New South Wales, and Nyungar in south-west Western Australia. However, Anangu, the word used by Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara speaking people in South Australia, the Northern Territory and some parts of Western Australia to refer to themselves is accompanied by the words ‘ See ULURU’. Anangu are the Traditional Owners of Uluru, however, to reduce the definition of the word to this is to undermine the meaning and use of that word for Anangu; it is about much more than a connection to that most famous of natural features.

Similarly, Tjukurpa is mentioned in the ‘Uluru’ entry, however, despite ‘The Dreaming’ and ‘Ancestral Beings’ being included with separate entries, Tjukurpa does not receive an entry of its own. Tjukurpa is a crucial concept still spoken of widely and a dictionary such as this would benefit from giving it, and the Arrernte altyerrenge, definitions of their own, provided by people who speak those languages and can translate the meaning of those words best into English. Similarly, ‘Coolamon’ and ‘Corroboree’ are both entries that give the impression that these terms are used indiscriminately amongst Aboriginal people Australia wide. In contrast, I have never encountered either of these terms being used in the Northern Territory and imagine that it may be similar in other northern parts of Australia; in Pitjantjatjara, one of the most widely spoken of Aboriginal languages, the respective terms piti and inma are used and are words that one would encounter often if working or living with many Pitjantjatjara speaking people.

Rather than being criticisms, my focus on these particular entries serves to highlight that a better, more nuanced, understanding of these important Aboriginal concepts and languages can contribute in no small measure toward a greater understanding of the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal history and experience and way of being-in-the-world. The combination of the different sections, particularly the inclusion of the extensive bibliography, makes the Historical Dictionary of Australian Aborigines an excellent work of reference for academics, students and interested people alike. Despite the few examples cited above, the breadth and detail of the entries, in conjunction with the Chronology and Reynolds’ introduction, work to provide a rich and diverse account of the Aboriginal past, as experienced in different parts of Australia, and a context for a better understanding of an Aboriginal present.

Shannyn Palmer

The Australian National University


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