Critical intervention: an archaeology of modern material culture, graffiti, and government policy in a remote Aboriginal community, Northern Territory, Australia

Author: Jordan Ralph

Ralph, Jordan, 2020 Critical intervention: an archaeology of modern material culture, graffiti, and government policy in a remote Aboriginal community, Northern Territory, Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Barunga is an Aboriginal community in Jawoyn Country, in the Northern Territory of Australia.

It is home to around 350 people, the vast majority of whom are Aboriginal. The Traditional

Owners of the Barunga region have a rich cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.

Despite this resilient connection to country and culture, the community at Barunga is one of

many Aboriginal communities subjected to the race-based and punitive government policy

known as the Intervention. Designed to bring about change in remote Aboriginal communities,

the Intervention has had a number of impacts upon Aboriginal lives.

While the political situation in the Northern Territory, and beyond, has been interrogated from

other points of view, little research has been conducted from an archaeological point-of-view. In

fact, very little research has been conducted with respect to the contemporary entanglement

between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in regard to material culture. While

material culture was used as a tool of cultural assimilation during early colonisation, it follows

that it still plays a central role in reinforcing colonial attitudes in remote Aboriginal

communities. Recent thinking in archaeology speaks to the deeply complex relationship

between humans and things, and as such this thesis set out to investigate the situation in

Barunga. This thesis explores material culture and graffiti in Barunga, in order to gain nuanced

understandings of the ways in which material culture is used in remote communities.

A theoretical model developed for this thesis is used in the interpretation of the material culture

of Barunga. It can be used to explore the material culture of other communities as well. The

model draws upon recent theoretical developments in the area of agency theory, entanglement,

materiality and ‘assemblage thought’ to provide the intellectual tools with which material

culture in Barunga can be understood as a cultural practice. The model consists of the themes,

time and space; resistance and persistence, and memory and affect.

The major result of this research is that the use of modern material culture by Aboriginal people

in the Barunga community is informed by Aboriginal social and cultural practices, rather than

reflecting some kind of assimilation with the dominant external society. Moreover, because the

material culture itself is familiar, its use by Aboriginal people is interpreted by the mainstream

society within a primarily European epistemology. This has led to government policy which is

viewed by Aboriginal people as punitive and which is certainly ineffective, as demonstrated by

the successive failure of the Federal government to ‘Close the Gap’ between Aboriginal and non-

Aboriginal health, education, employment and lifespans.

Keywords: Archaeology, modern material culture, contemporary archaeology, Indigenous archaeology, government policy, archaeological theory, Aboriginal affairs

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Claire Smith