In the late 1950s, there was an increasing focus on the global need for anthropological research into ‘disappearing cultures.’ This trend was also emerging in Australia in the work of researchers of Aboriginal peoples and cultures.
In 1959, Australian Liberal Party members and House of Representations Member for Mackellar, W C Wentworth submitted a Proposal to the Cabinet led by Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, the concept of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) to record Aboriginal cultures.
In 1960, a Cabinet sub-committee assessed the proposal and formed a working party at the Australian National University (ANU) to consider the viability of the proposal. One of their first actions was to appoint Australian anthropologist, W E Stanner to organise a conference on the state of Aboriginal Studies in Australia.
The conference was held in 1961 with academics and anthropologists in the field of Aboriginal Studies attending and contributing research papers. No Aboriginal people were present at the conference.
Later that year, Prime Minister Robert Menzies appointed an Interim Council to plan for a national Aboriginal research organisation and establish how this organisation would interact with existing research and scientific bodies. The Interim Council was also tasked with immediately developing a programme that would identify and address urgent research needs.
There were no Aboriginal people on the Interim Council.
The Yolngu people of Yirrkala from Arnhem land in the Northern Territory presented the first traditional petition prepared by Aboriginal people to the Commonwealth Parliament in August of 1963.
The two pages of the petition were on bark and paper, surrounded by traditional Yolgnu artwork. Written in both English and Gumatj, a Yolgnu language, the petition asserted Yolngu rights to their land and sacred sites. The petition was also a response to the government granting mining company Nabalco 300 acres of the Arnhem Aboriginal Land Reserve without any consultation with the Yolngu.
The petitions called for a committee to hear the views of the Yirrkala people to the land excision. Prior to the Yirrkala Bark Petition, numerous petitions by Aboriginal people to Australian Parliaments and the Crown had been unsuccessful.
A parliamentary committee of inquiry acknowledged Yolngu rights and recommended the protection of sacred sites and compensation be paid.
The judge used the legal fiction of terra nullius to deny the Yolngu of the property rights to their country.
The Yirrkala Bark petitions, historically significant documents for the nation, are now held in Parliament House, Canberra.
Nearly a decade after, W C Wentworth’s efforts and lobbying, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) was established as a Statutory Authority through an Act of Parliament in June 1964.
The mission of AIAS was to record language, song, art, material culture, ceremonial life and social structure before those traditions perished in the face of European ways.
This notion is also reflected in the Institute’s official functions, as recorded in the Reading of the Bill in Parliament. These were:
(a) to sponsor and to foster research of a scientific nature on the Australian Aborigines.
(b) to treat as a matter of urgency those studies for which the source materials are disappearing.
(c) to establish and conduct a documentation centre on the Aborigines, and a library of books, manuscripts and other relevant material, both for the use of scholars and for public education.
(d) to encourage co-operation with and between scholars in universities, museums, and other institutions engaged in studies of the Aborigines, and with appropriate private bodies.
(e) to publish and to support the publication of the results of research.
(f) to co-operate with appropriate bodies concerning the financing of research, the preservation of sites, and the collection of records.
(g) to promote as and when necessary the training of research workers.
(h) to establish and maintain relations with relevant international bodies.
The Institute had a twenty-two member Council, comprised mainly of academics, and had a foundation membership of one hundred. The Institute’s founding principal, Fred McCarthy, an anthropologist was also an advocate of film as an important part of research methodology as early as his tenure as curator of anthropology at the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1940s.
In the early years of the AIAS, the Film Unit largely outsourced early filmmaking work to other companies or worked in collaboration with the Commonwealth Film Unit. Over the next 30 years, the film unit would go on to produce "one of the most significant bodies of ethnographic film material in the world."
In keeping with the AIAS official function "to publish and to support the publication of the results of research", a publishing arm of the Institute was also established in 1964. The Aboriginal Studies Press was at that time a means through which academics, specifically white people, could publish their work in Aboriginal Studies. Throughout the 1960s, and into mid 1970s, this remained the prevailing publishing model.
There were no Aboriginal peoples on the Council or working with the AIAS administration.
Maralinga Tjarutja lands in the remote western areas of South Australia is home to the Anangu.
In the 1950s, the title for Section 400 just over 3000 square kilometre parcel of land located inside the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands was held by the Commonwealth Government. Section 400 was a site of spiritual significance for the Anangu.
The Australian Government agreed and supported a request from the British Government to carry out nuclear tests at three sites in Australia – the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast, Emu Field and Section 400 within Maralinga Tjarutja lands.
In 1954, section 400 was developed as the permanent proving ground site and many Anangu were forcibly removed from their homelands.
In 1956, the testing commenced and the first atomic bomb was set off. A number of nuclear test trials and hundreds of minor trials were also held on the site until 1963.
In 1967, the site now heavily contaminated by radiation and hazardous chemicals was officially closed following a clean-up operation.
In 1985, the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia recommended that “Section 400″ – a parcel of contaminated land – should be cleaned-up and returned to its Traditional Owners. The clean-up finished in the year 2000 and for nearly a decade, Anangu negotiated with the Commonwealth and State Governments over the conditions under which the land would be returned to the traditional owners.
Section 400, the last parcel of more than 3000 square kilometres within Maralinga Tjarutja lands was returned to the Anangu in 2009.
In 1968, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) Council Chairperson was Emeritus Prof NWG MacIntosh and the principal, Frederick McCarthy. There were no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people appointed to the AIAS Council or institute membership. The founding father of AIAS and now an Australian Government Minister in charge of Aboriginal Affairs, William Charles Wentworth resigned as a member of the Council.
A few years earlier, Wentworth had proposed after the formation of the AIAS, the Council should consider adding one or two Aborigines as members. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) Act 1964, states that the AIAS Council shall consist of 22 persons namely:
"the Principal of the Institute, two members of the Senate appointed by the Senate, two members of the House of Representatives appointed by the House; six persons appoint by the Governor-General; and eleven members of the Institute elected by the members."
Now a Minister, Wentworth’s view had more imperative and the AIAS set about seeking names of a suitable Aboriginal person for appointment. Within the Institute, the definition of an Aboriginal person for the purpose of appointment to Council was: the appointee would be a ‘full blood Aboriginal - fully initiated’.
In personal and confidential letters from the institute Secretary Boydell to select Directors of Social Welfare or Native Welfare or the like, he advised that a shortlist of Aboriginal men who might be suitable for appointment to the Council was being prepared.
In the letter, Boydell, noted that, ‘the man we are seeking is a full blood Aboriginal – fully initiated, in the age group 40 - 50, and fluent in English’. After compiling responses, McCarthy wrote to Minister Wentworth drawing attention to concerns that an Aboriginal person not elected by his own people could not represent them or speak for them as a whole. McCarthy also conveyed that a better option would be the appointment of an advisory panel.
In response, Minister Wentworth expressed support for the establishment of an advisory panel of Aborigines, adding that ‘It may well be that one person elected by this advisory panel should be included as one of the Governor-General’s nominees’. He still wanted an Aboriginal appointee on Council.
Wentworth pointed out that members of Council, in general, did not represent other groups; they were chosen for what they could contribute to the work of the institute. There was another reason, Wentworth argued, for the appointment of an Aboriginal member of Council:
"There are important psychological advantages I think in having an Aboriginal on the Council because it acknowledges the existence of Aboriginals as human beings rather than as being simply objects for study."
This statement foreshadowed the beginning of a new relationship between the AIAS and Aboriginal people.