peteg's blog - noise - books - 2023 02 01 DeanAshenden TellingTennantsStory

Dean Ashenden: Telling Tennant's Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence. (2022)

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Kindle. From Black Books Inc for 16.99 AUD. It's been on the pile for a while due to the topic and rave reviews; Noel Pearson's Boyer lectures prompted me to read it. Both point back to Bill Stanner's apparent Boyer-of-Boyers lectures of 1968, with Ashenden having the space to canvas Stanner's broader academic/political output.

Briefly this is a capsule history of the relations between Aboriginal and settler Australians through the prism of Tennant Creek and the greater Barkly region. It is a rich source book and mostly evenhanded (as far as I could tell, given that the politics was sometimes hard to parse; for instance both Paul Hasluck and Stanner are deemed conservatives but are shown to have diverged significantly over the goal of Aboriginal policy). The meat is on anthropology and its shading into history and then legalism: the story of Spencer And Gillen (there apparently being little source material before about 1900), the politicking at Sydney Uni, the routine imposition of hierarchy, the early days of land rights (the bark petitions sent by the wily Yolŋu, who are unfortunately left opaque here). I felt a bit brought-up-to-speed by his coverage of Mabo (putting Henry Reynolds's role into perspective, as well as Justice Blackburn's) and was surprised that he did not go on to explain the Wik decision (pastoral leases versus native title) or the legal system's inability to grapple with issues of sovereignty. And much else. The concluding movement has him in Nyinkka Nyunyu in Tennant, trying to extract some oral history from various elderly Aboriginal ladies.

More dispiriting was his coverage of the culture/history wars of the Howard era that I lived through; it seems to have mostly quietened or gone underground now. Ashenden concludes on an optimistic note — things are changing — while observing that (much like the USA) it is politics and not legal manoeuvring that will (have to) ultimately make the difference. I'm not as optimistic as objectively (deaths in custody stats, a return to child removal, the grog, the lack of meaningful activity, ignoring the locals, etc.) things look like (at best) more of the same. Perhaps there will be movement again later this year.

Overall a thumbs up for me. I wished he'd written at twice the length. Excerpts are everywhere. Ashenden talking to (being cut off by) Phillip Adams on 2022-12-07. Kieran Finnane: yes, I always wanted to understand Aboriginal thought better. Goodreads. Apparently he won the 2022 Australian Political Book of the Year Award.