Bill Stanner and the End of Aboriginal High Culture

In 2005, the Australian National University commemorated the centenary of the birth of one of its late professors of anthropology with a conference discussing the lifetime achievements of W. E. H. (Bill) Stanner. This was an uncommon honour for an Australian academic who died 24 years earlier, as was the volume of the conference papers published in 2008, An Appreciation of Difference: W. E. H. Stanner and Aboriginal Australia, edited by Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett.[1] More recently, to satisfy an anticipated increased interest in Stanner’s works, a Melbourne publisher brought out a collection of his major works The Dreaming and Other Essays.[2] Apart from one additional essay and an introduction by Robert Manne, this was virtually identical to Stanner’s out-of-print 1979 collection White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938–1973.

Stanner is a worthy recipient of this revival of interest since he was clearly one of Australia’s most important anthropologists and, in his writings for the general public, one of the most impressive essayists this country has ever produced.

Stanner had a varied career that also included journalism in the 1930s, military service in World War II, and political advice on colonial policy in Africa and the South Pacific in the post-war period. In 1967, following the strongly positive vote in the national referendum on Aboriginal affairs, Prime Minister Harold Holt invited Stanner to join H. C. Coombs and Barry Dexter to form the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and advise on national policy.

He held that position through successive political regimes, including the Whitlam government, which began to implement much of the program Stanner, Coombs and Dexter endorsed: land rights, the movement to outstations, increased social welfare and community-based economies.[3] Stanner brought to this policy package an anthropologist’s sensitivity to the importance of ceremony and ritual. In particular, at the handover of the first native title grant to the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory in 1975, Stanner recommended Prime Minister Whitlam should perform the memorable symbolic act of pouring earth through the hands of Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari.[4]

Today, this policy package is identified most with Coombs and the left-wing academics and political activists who followed him. Although he had the same views on Aboriginal policy, Stanner did not share their political background. His connections were mostly on the conservative side of politics. At various times he worked for prominent conservative politicians Bertram Stevens, Percy Spender and Richard Casey, and at one stage in the 1930s had considered standing for the House of Representatives seat of Martin as a United Australia Party candidate.

Stanner was probably more influential because of this. Since 1958 he had been a public critic of the policy of assimilation pursued in federal politics by the Liberal Party’s Paul Hasluck. He gave the alternative, more radical package of ‘self-determination’ the respectability of apparent bipartisanship. There is little doubt he thus influenced, either directly or through their advisers, the Liberal politicians who became ministers of Aboriginal affairs in Malcolm Fraser’s government — Ian Viner, Fred Chaney and Peter Baume — who continued down the same road.

Paradoxically, Stanner’s most impressive single piece of writing, which Robert Manne’s introduction to the 2009 collection rightly describes as his ‘masterpiece’, can be read as an argument against the intellectual rationale behind the Coombs package that Stanner himself, wearing his hat as government adviser, had long supported. Titled ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri’, the essay was written in 1960 but was based on the field work he had done in the 1930s among Aboriginal people in the Daly River district of the north-west of the Northern Territory. It undermined Coombs and his followers by disproving several of their key premises, especially the notion that Aborigines could only be satisfied living in their own country and that title to their country would give them a viable platform on which to build a life based on traditional culture. It revealed Aborigines were not as locked into their traditional ways of life as the leftist orthodoxy claimed. They could, and often wanted to, change where they lived and adapt to completely different circumstances.

By the 1930s, Daly River had experienced several failed ventures in agriculture and mining but, apart from a handful of impoverished peanut farmers, there were no white settlers left, and many of the local Aborigines still lived customary lives as hunter-gatherers. Nonetheless, the few whites in the district found themselves beleaguered by Aborigines for their provisions.

Stanner said he was soon compelled to spend part of every other day hunting because of the pressure on his food supplies. ‘Each day,’ he wrote ‘was something of a battle to keep unwanted natives from settling nearby to live on me. They were peaceable but as persistent as running water.’[5] He explained this as a product of the ‘sound calculus’ the Aborigines made of the effort required to gain daily food from the whites compared to the difficulty of getting it from their natural surroundings.

The life of a hunting and foraging nomad is very hard even in a good environment. Time and again the hunters fail, and the search for vegetable food can be just as patchy. A few failures in sequence and life in the camps can be very miserable. The small, secondary foodstuffs

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