Decolonising Anthropology

John Ford (John.Ford@JCU.EDU.AU)
Wed, 8 Feb 1995 08:54:19 +1000

Daniel Foss in his massage claims, as I understand him, that culture
cannot be 'owned' because culture is 'absorbed' by others to the point
where there is no one 'pure' culture. On the surface his argument gives
the impression of scholarly thought but as current events demonstrate he
misses the point of where Johnston is coming from.

Culture is not something one carries around soley within one's head. It
has concrete properties like flags, songs, dances, images, cave paintings,
objects, narratives (oral or textual) and ideas. The current thread on the
subject of personal copyright concerning posts is an example that such
things do have a social reality and are subject to what we might call
'ownership'. And there is somethings call a trade war looming between USA
and China over copyright which indicates that copyright is anything but

Further, words used to describe this movement of 'culture', I suggest,
hide the social reality of what is actually going on. When culture is
described as being 'absorbed' of being 'appropriated' such words are
euphemisms because their use is designed to mask what is really going
on - stealing. In a recent court case a T-shirt manufacture was
succesfully prosecuted when it used, 'absorbed', 'appropriated' an
Aboriginal design. So one may well ask what of the future of those who
make Indian headdress - unless they are North American Indian.

Colonialists have successfully exploited the culture of other peoples and
made lots of money in doing so. These exploiters include researchers. The
libraries, museums, science laboratoris, if not the halls, of academia are
full of stolen property. Up until recently we have bluffed our way
through by describing such activities as either 'research' or plain
'business' transactions. Either way the process has created jobs, wealth,
careers and reputations, all allowing access, for the few, to money which
in turn allows access to resources which are denied those from whom they
stole and exploited. That process is now being challenged.

Not that I necessarily claim any high moral ground - its just that
indigenous Australians have decided to make us (colonialists) 'pay the
rent'. So I cannot just wander off to some isolate Aboriginal community
and announce I'm doing something called research. It is now a matter of
negotiation, and if Aborigines or Torres Strait Islander don't gain some
benefit - forget the project. In fact JCU now has a eithis committee that
incorporates the Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Not
the full title). The Centre will have a large say in how the project is
to proceed, who gets what at the end of it, and what happens to that

The agenda, as Gillian Cowlishaw has forecast, is changing. It is
increasingly no longer acceptable to 'appropriate' culture - and it is
gathering the backing of the courts. We may not be able to fix the
troubles of the past, but we can do something about the present and the

john ford