Thomson in Canberra
Anthropologising Aborigines
in Governing natives
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This chapter examines Donald Thomson’s Australian discovery of ‘native society’ in Arnhem Land, representing the recognition of Indigenous difference in the north. In 1933, Aboriginal people at Woodah Island in eastern Arnhem Land killed a policeman who was ostensibly in the area to investigate previous killings of Japanese men who had intruded into Yolngu country. Aboriginal legal responses, including violence, disabused settlers of the notion that their governing capacity was possessed of an omnipotent sovereignty. This was an administrative crisis, in which public power lacked the capacity to govern effectively in its own terms. While a range of responses to Yolngu action were considered, including another police party, an ultimately abandoned punitive mission, and a successful missionary peace party, this chapter examines Donald Thomson’s deployment to investigate and report on Yolngu law and custom. His narration of the discovery of ‘native society’ in Australia populated the terrain of northern government in the official mind of Australian settler colonialism. Identifying the anthropological ‘native society’ in the north was the governing correlate of the recognition of the Northern Territory’s colonial difference traced in Chapter 3. It established Aboriginal presence, inciting a turn to indirect rule as the art of governing native society without pushing it to disorder.

Governing natives

Indirect rule and settler colonialism in Australia’s north


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