Transcript: Assimilation 1964 - 1971

Video length: 7 minutes, 11 seconds

Speaker: John Mulvaney, Archaeologist

I am fortunate to have been one of the foundation members of the Council of AIATSIS and I served for most of the time as its deputy chair. So I suppose I’m responsible to some extent for its virtues and for its failures. It was much criticized at times but it had to live within the period which of course was, in the federal government, was the period of assimilation during the 60s and one had to adapt to the requirements of one’s minister and so on.

Yes on this question of assimilation, it’s alright to think about it now, looking back though I was born in Victoria, I was bred in country Victoria and in the 1930s we believed there were no Aboriginal people, or we were told there were no Aboriginal people in Victoria. So in the early days of talk about assimilation, to me it didn’t really register. It was only when I started working in the field that I realised that this was very, the wrong thing to do.

I was an archaeologist. I worked in the history department of Melbourne University until I came up to Canberra in 1965. So that my arrival in Canberra was about a month after I was elected as a foundation member of the Council.

It has to be confessed though that there was no Aboriginal member of the Council. I’m not sure, some of us thought there should be, but others wondered, and in fairness it was in those days regarded as sort of an academic body in the European sense of academic. Many Aboriginal people were saying their elders were the equal of our academics, but it did take some years I think for this to be taken. Many of the anthropologists considered that they were the experts on Aboriginal society, rather than the Aborigines themselves.

Many people looking back on it will certainly think ‘this was terrible, there were no Aboriginal representatives, why didn’t they think of this?’ It was a different world and I think the governments of the day, would not have appointed an Aboriginal. It’s very different now.

But of course, during this time, 1965, is the Freedom Ride which was highly significant event in development of Aboriginal people in white Australia. Charlie Perkins who I got to know very well was really such a significant Australian. He was much criticized by many, but I think in the future people will see that he was quite a major Australian.

Then of course there was the referendum in 1967 which allowed Aborigines to be counted in the census as Australian people, as they were not counted prior. And of course it also meant the Commonwealth could legislate on Aboriginal matters, which was a major step forward and at the time we were very cheered by what happened.

I’d like to turn though to matters that pertain to me as an archaeologist and I think were matters of equal significance for Aboriginal affairs. In 1962 in an excavation at Kenneth Cave in Queensland I had got radiocarbon dates from a cave site which had been occupied through 19,000 years. But the first date I got showed they’d been there for 16,000 years which many people had expected the Aborigines had been here in the ice age which this was, but this was real proof that they’d been here and that was quite an exciting discovery, but more was to come. In 1969 at Lake Mungo in west New South Wales the burial of a young woman who had been cremated was uncovered. We now know that she was cremated in the order of 42,000 years ago.

In the period 1964 when the statute established the Institute, there was very little funding for research and one of the important aspects of the early Institute was that it funded archaeological research and in fact it funded the Mungo research among many other things and it helped establish radiocarbon dating for dating Aboriginal past.

It also funded a lot of linguistic work. In the 60s in the assimilationist attitude I suppose, it was assumed that Aboriginal culture was dying out, that it would become white European culture. Many people, particularly Bill Wentworth, who was one of the founders of the Institute were terribly worried that Aboriginal languages were dying out and they must to be studied and recorded, and the Institute did a great deal.

So intellectually these were terribly important developments and turning to the Aboriginal Institute, it played quite an important role in those early days.