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Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past

Invasion, Violence, and Imagination in Indigenous Central Australia

The Arrernte people of Central Australia first encountered Europeans in the 1860s as groups of explorers, pastoralists, missionaries, and laborers invaded their land. During that time the Arrernte were the subject of intense curiosity, and the earliest accounts of their lives, beliefs, and traditions were a seminal influence on European notions of the primitive. The first study to address the Arrernte’s contemporary situation, Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past also documents the immense sociocultural changes they have experienced over the past hundred years.

Employing ethnographic and archival research, Diane Austin-Broos traces the history of the Arrernte as they have transitioned from a society of hunter-gatherers to members of the Hermannsburg Mission community to their present, marginalized position in the modern Australian economy. While she concludes that these wrenching structural shifts led to the violence that now marks Arrernte communities, she also brings to light the powerful acts of imagination that have sustained a continuing sense of Arrernte identity.

336 pages | 18 halftones, 8 maps, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: Southeast Asia and Australia

History: General History


“This is a landmark book for indigenous studies, one of the best things I’ve read in years. I am really taken with the subtle way in which Austin-Broos characterizes and explains the formations of contemporary Arrernte life, the connections it has with the past, and the way in which she allows us to see the role of their imagination in making this world in the face of great difficulties.”

Fred Myers, New York University

“Mobilizing key concepts in Heideggerean existentialism, Austin-Broos analyzes how colonial invasion grabbed and framed Arrernte lands and lives and how Arrernte imagined and made new futures of hope for themselves and their children. In the process Austin-Broos maps out new ways of understanding indigenous efforts to create, uphold, and extend their life-worlds in the context of an often violent and hostile nation.”

Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Columbia University

“The history of Australian indigenous policy making is punctuated by crises in which Australians ponder the difficult trade-off between respecting the indigenous entitlement to be different and honoring their citizens’ right to conditions of living that meet Australian standards. Published in such a moment of perplexity, after twenty years of research, Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past offers no easy formula for policy renewal. Rather, this book’s profound service is to remind us of the difficulty of plotting the trajectory of hunter-gatherer ‘modernity’. Immersing the reader in the evolving Arrernte imaginary, Austin-Broos evokes its tenacity and its fragility, its accommodation of Lutheran Christianity and its ambivalence towards governmentality. In Central Australia, as in so many zones of postcolonial adjustment, the order of kinship and the order of the market clash tectonically—a long, slow friction whose casualties include not only the Arrernte but also the moral confidence of their varied champions. In Austin-Broos’s deeply researched and felt ethno-history, the reader will find elements of tragedy, relieved by the author’s persistent confidence in the Arrernte imagination.”

Tim Rowse, University of Western Sydney

"A concentrated, important work."

Sydney Morning Herald

Table of Contents

Maps and Illustrations
Note on Orthography
Part One: Remembering the Mission
1. Encounter at Ntaria
2. Kaporilya, a Big Place
3. The Meaning of Pepe
Part Two: Life as a Standing Fight
4. Home and Away: The Dislocation of Identity
5. Living with Kin
6. Honey Ants and Relatedness
Part Three: Outstations and Being Remote
7. Factionalism (or, the Secret Life of an Outstation Movement)
8. When Imaginaries Collide
9. A Very Remote Emergency
Appendix A: Kaporilya Song
Appendix B: Glossary of Western Arrernte Terms

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