Transcript: Foundation before 1964

Video length: 7 minutes

Speakers: Emeritus Professor Bob Tonkinson, Member, AIATSIS Council, and Professor Colin Tatz, Foundation AIATSIS Member

Sensitivity: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this video may contain images and voices of people who have passed away.

Bob Tonkinson: I was a creature of my time and the thing that startled me was of course was, well wasn’t assimilation utterly inevitable? Weren’t these people going to end up disappeared in to the populous at large. Where were they going to go other than that.

Colin Tatz: In those days Aboriginal administration was totally paranoid, totally secretive and secluded. You had to have special permits to get in to any Aboriginal reservation. You had to have a chest x-ray that was clear for at least 30 days before you were allowed in even if you did have a permit. Permits weren’t given by the Aboriginal people, they were given by the white administrators.

Bob Tonkinson: There were no such things as people proclaiming in the positive sense that to be, you know, an Aboriginal identity or anything, so when I wrote about it and when I reread my honours thesis long past that, I winced at a few things. But that’s where I think thinking was at the time about these things.

Colin Tatz: So here you’ve got these policy ideals which are nice and beautiful sounding. Policies of equality and there’ll be no racial basis to policy and nothing will be done on a group or racial basis, it will all be done on an individual basis of need. There’s no room for discrimination etc. There’s no room for segregation. All of these beautiful sounding things.

And I write my PhD and it causes a whole lot of anxiety as Stanner expected it would because it says ‘look, all of these marvelous policy goals are not being implemented. And even the claims that they claim to have implemented are not being implemented, and what’s really being administered here is a variation of South African apartheid in which Aborigines are locked away in reserves. You’re not allowed in. You’re not allowed to go out. You’re not allowed to vote. You’re not allowed to have sex across the colour line. You’re not allowed to get married across the colour line except with special permission. You can’t join trade unions. You can’t earn above the, not the basic wage, the prescribed wage. You’re not allowed to drink alcohol, and so on and so forth.

Bob Tonkinson: whitefellas didn’t really go on the reserve unless they were welfare officials or anything like that. So I think the people on the reserve were rather curious but I tried to explain to them I was trying to learn more about Aboriginal stuff. At first any of my questions concerning tradition, what happened in the past, people would say ‘oh we don’t know anything about that’. And I probably went along with that on the notion of ‘oh yes, so much has been lost’ because they’ve been scattered, they’ve been colonised. The missionaries were very nervous and full of all sorts of prejudices and fears about the Aboriginal people. They were not working from the bible only, and with those fundamentalist propositions. They were not interested in learning from the Martu, they were interested in getting that baptism of the Holy Spirit which would wipe out all of this stuff and suddenly you would have all of these shining bright Christian people.

Colin Tatz: Stanner was about to be invited to chair his first informal meeting at University House in May, 1961 to discuss a possible future for a possible institute, which is where we’re sitting now. I listened to a group of very eminent men, many of which became dear friends and colleagues, talking about a new institute that would use anthropology as the science with which to examine Aboriginal man in nature before it is too late. And of course I choked on that, this wasn’t about Aboriginal humanity, it was the ‘nature of man’, this was Bill Wentworth’s term and he was the founding father of the Institute. And the notion that the only discipline that was available with which to examine the condition of Aboriginal people was anthropology made me choke even more.

It was an anthropology that was being studied completely out of context from which Aborigines were then living. So none of these anthropologists talked about what was happening on government settlements and Christian missions and on neighbouring cattle stations. It was what I called reconstruction anthropology. It was an attempt to reconstruct the days and lives of the Aboriginal tribes without any context that they were living under special laws, that they were living under discriminatory laws, that they were living under discriminatory systems.

Bob Tonkinson: The old Institute … lots of well-meaning people you know but also lots of notions of old Billy Wentworth himself. Lots of notions that wouldn’t hold up at all now.

Colin Tatz: Like many, I like Bill Wentworth. Can you say did he mean well? Of course he meant well. Was he good hearted? Sometimes. Was he the father of this Institute? Yes he was. He wanted two things: one was this Institute, the other one was that he wanted Aborigines to have a human rights set of clauses in the Constitution eventually. He didn’t get that but he got the referendum instead in 1967. But Bill’s whole nature was that we were going to study man in nature or nature in man. And to him man was this noble savage, one foot up, with a headband, a spear in his hand looking on into eternity into the Dreamtime. And it was all very romantic and it was all very nice but what the hell was it doing for blackfellas at Yuendumu and Papunya.

But I give him tribute! Hey he founded this place. And here I am, I’ve been a member since 1964 and here we’ve got a 50th birthday.