Cameo Dalley explores post-colonial ontologies of belonging in northern Australia

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Cameo Dalley

25 March, 2021

“I’m thinking about how, in my own research, we can begin to move from ideas and understanding to action and generating policy around positive change.”

Cameo Dalley

Cameo is a sociocultural and economic anthropologist whose work explores the politics of belonging, indigeneity, and land. Largely Cameo’s work examines interculturality and issues at the interface between Aboriginal and settler descendant (non-Aboriginal) identities in Northern Australia where she has been working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Wellesley Islands within the Gulf of Carpentaria and the East Kimberley region of Western Australia.

I have admired Cameo’s work for some time now and I was eager to dive into discussions about her research and hear from her, firsthand, about the insights she has gleaned through her ethnography in various places across northern Australia. It became incredibly apparent during our conversations that we weren’t going to be able to cover everything as her catalogue of work is most comprehensive, but our humble excavation into her vast stratigraphy of experience working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia provided me with ample to reflect on. I’m very grateful to Cameo for sharing such important food for thought, it is surely knowledge that we could all digest a little more of.

Let’s start off with the beginning. How did you become an anthropologist? What’s the story?

I didn’t actually intend on becoming an anthropologist; I went to the University of Queensland to study archaeology. Then, in my first year of study, I got the chance to go on an excavation in Cape York. The excavation involved a number of students from the University of Queensland and also some Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners. The excavation site was in a limestone rock shelter on a remote cattle station in Cape York. So, we had these really long and hot days while excavating this limestone rock shelter and then at night, we’d go back and camp on the Mitchell River and we’d lie on a sandbar in the middle of the river and look up and watch these fruit bats coming to roost on these flowering paper bark trees, and we’d go fishing and sit around a campfire.

So you know, that’s a really nostalgic romantic memory I have, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve been to remote Australia, or the first time I traveled or anything but it felt like a pretty unique experience. A huge part of that experience was just being in the landscape, but it was also so eye-opening being around and having an opportunity to learn from the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners who had such a detailed knowledge about that country, and to have the opportunity of being taught about country by people in that way was so valuable.

The Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners that came with us had not been able to access that area of country for a really long time, due to the fact that it was now owned under a pastoral lease and that people weren’t necessarily living on country anymore. So, in spite of that disconnection, they still had that knowledge of country. But one of the things that happened during that trip was that one night, we went into the little town of Chillagoe, which was 170 kilometers away from the station we were working at. We went into the pub to have a drink and one of the men that we had been working with said to me, “Oh, can you go buy me a beer? Here’s some money” and I was like, “oh, yeah, you should probably do that yourself” and he replied with “well, no, not really.” So, to give you some context for this, we were in a very typical old pub in remote Queensland and there was a sense that as an Aboriginal person you might not get served, which is really strange for people from different parts of Australia to hear, but that’s what country Queensland is like, it’s incredibly racist.

So, you know there was this kind of juxtaposition between us all being out on country together and hearing about the knowledge of country that the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners have, and feeling really humbled by that knowledge, to then come into town to experience this radical reorienting of the relationship dynamics – like a shift in the power relationships – was really the first time I’d observed that kind of racism and division. Then when I came back after the trip, I changed my major to anthropology. I think my decision to change my major was really a twofold response to the trip because it made me realise that I didn’t know much about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture in Australia, and I had a desire to certainly learn more about that. But I also had a really strong desire to learn about contemporary racism and the divisions that exist in society and what the historical basis and history of those divisions are.

You did your PhD fieldwork in the remote community of Mornington Island in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria. What inspired you to work in that community?

Well, that was some years later. So, I guess fast forwarding a bit I had been out of the university for a few years and I applied to do a PhD on a large research project, which was based up in the Gulf. So, initially, I was interested to do a project on fishing, and the sorts of place making that is a part of fishing, like contemporary place making, that was occurring in those kinds of settings which is kind of like a project you might develop if you’ve never been somewhere, I suppose (laughs). You know, it was like ok, what can I learn about this topic from reading and looking through the archives because that was initially all I had access to, in terms of crafting that project.

There’s also been a lot of ethnography done up there which has focused on people’s subsistence, because it’s such a rich marine environment in Northern Australia, so people had already written quite extensively on dugong and sea turtle hunting for instance. So, I was pivoting off that research early on in my PhD. But then I got the chance to go up to Mornington Island in the first year of my PhD, just for a very short period of time and I was just incredibly impacted by realising just how different the community and landscape was to anywhere that I’ve been before.

In the two weeks that I was there a few things happened that were just really important in regard to shaping my thinking. So, for instance, people still speak language to a degree and people have really detailed cultural knowledge, but it’s also a community where there’s some really quite long standing issues around violence and access to alcohol and those kinds of issues. And so, I guess that drew me to the place and to really try and understand the way in which those things sit alongside each other. The following year when I returned for a year-long stint of fieldwork, I was fortunate enough that a few very senior people in the community took me under their wing and enabled me to connect to the broader community through the extension of their kinship network and to include me as part of that community for the time that I was there.

What a great initial experience. I understand you recently wrote a book entitled “What Now: everyday endurance and social intensity in an Australian Aboriginal community” that explores some of the findings that came out of your time working in Mornington Island. So, I wanted to ask you, what inspired you to write about these concepts of endurance and intensity in Australian Aboriginal communities?

Yeah, so I was working on Mornington Island as I mentioned before and to set the scene a little bit, Mornington is a remote island community in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia which has one main settlement with about 1000 Aboriginal people and about 100 non-Aboriginal people living there. As an island community it has relatively constrained options for travel, so a lot of people don’t tend to come and go very freely from the island. So, during my early visits there, I was really trying to understand what is actually a very intense social world. I think that intense reproduction of sociality is, partly a product of the isolation of the community and the lack of travel options in and out of the island and within the island as well because you can’t just drive to other communities, you have to fly. And, okay, people do travel by boat, but that’s over to the mainland and that’s only a seasonal option for people. So, that’s sort of the social intensity side of things. The endurance component was actually something that emerged partly as a result of my long-term engagement with that place. You know, we often hear stories about Aboriginal communities in crisis in the media and I think that’s been a really powerful tool to try and mobilise political action around changing policy in remote Australia, policy that affect’s Aboriginal people’s lives. So, you know, Aboriginal people live this experience every day.

I think that idea of ‘crises’ has really served – to a degree – the neoliberal kind of ideologies that have underpinned a lot of policy that directly affects Aboriginal people. These media campaigns have been mobilised really well to justify particular policy instruments, and often very detrimental policy instruments. So, I guess, in a way, I was really interested to think about, what are some of the alternative ways for thinking about people and place and community over time? There is this really strong sense of endurance in the way that people outlive the State and out last, what are often, really difficult conditions to live under. I still find people’s sense of time, endurance and persistence really heartening when I go to see them and travel back there.

That’s an interesting point of view. The idea that Aboriginal people are enduring and outlasting Government policies is both heartbreaking and in many ways a testament to their resilience. We see many government workers, social workers, health workers and anthropologists who have good intentions when they begin working in Aboriginal communities but they do often burn out and it’s the community at the end of the day that have to live through all those new faces and all those new policy changes and really what actually changes in the end? How does all this change help to improve their livelihoods?

Yeah, exactly and they have to live with the kind of debitage of those policies in their everyday lives.



That’s really interesting. In your book, you’ve talked at length about Whitefella’s living in, what is actually an Aboriginal community, as you said, which is something that we don’t often hear much about. Can you tell me what inspired you to write about that group of people, the Whitefella’s?

I think probably the first worthwhile thing to say is that the term ‘Whitefellas’, and also often it’s corollary, ‘Blackfellas’, are terms that are actually in really common use in parts of Northern Australia and a lot of people would have heard those kinds of terms before throughout Australia. There is a similar term  ‘balanda’ which is used in East Arnhem Land and Arnhem Land more broadly to refer Whitefellas and non-Indigenous people and ‘kardiya’ is a term used in the Kimberley, where I work now, to refer to Whitefellas and non-Indigenous people. I think a key thing to recognise here is that, not all Whitefella’s are actually white. So, these terms are used in the Gulf really, as terms that kind of denote a set of people who are different to Aboriginal people and by that, I mean that they have certain traits, or behaviors or access to resources and opportunities that set them apart from Aboriginal people.

So, in the community that I was doing field research in, there are about 100 Whitefellas but this is a growing population, which is something that’s happening Australia wide, the numbers of Whitefella’s in remote communities is increasing. We touched on this before, but I think these people play a really pivotal role in the way that policies are enacted in remote communities. So, for example, Whitefellas working in communities are in direct service delivery roles, so working in areas like health, education, policing and other kinds of local government roles. They can act as mediators between government and Indigenous people and they’re really influential in terms of how Indigenous people get access to resources, like which Indigenous people get access to resources and who doesn’t.

I talked before about how remote Mornington Island is and how intense the kind of social life is there. So, one of the products of this isolation is that Aboriginal people living there don’t necessarily have interactions with huge numbers of people from outside their known social world. So, partly their perceptions about non-Aboriginal people are based on the people that come to their community and live there. So, I think there’s also this loop of knowledge about the other and these perceptions about Whitefellas as being really influential.

That’s really interesting, so you became interested to learn about how knowledge is produced within this loop of how Aboriginal people perceive Whitefellas?

Yeah, I think it became clear fairly quickly that, often in ethnography, those people – the Whitefellas – who are working in these service roles are often written out of the picture. I do think they are very influential and certainly, this was the discussion that Aboriginal people were having when they spoke about Whitefellas.

Well, this relates to my next question actually. You’ve argued that “all too often non-Indigenous or White Australian culture is frequently presented as homogenous, in contrast to diverse representations of Indigenous culture” and this is something that you point to, in your research that “it remains the case that most ethnographies of towns and remote communities, even those with equal numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people” – and in this case, the minority was the Whitefellas – “ethnographies continue to pay scant if any attention to the non-Indigenous people and residents”. That’s a really thought-provoking point and I’m interested to know how your research has acknowledged and captured the experiences of the Whitefellas in these remote communities?

Probably one clarification I would make is to say that I think there is an important distinction to make between ‘non-indigenous people’ and ‘White Australian culture’ because I think that the category of non-indigenous is itself very diverse. So, we have to also be really careful not to homogenise non-indigenous people as always being White. This point has actually driven a lot of the focus in my own work and certainly within the settings where I’ve worked where I’ve observed really diverse people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds or ethnic ancestries who make up the non-indigenous portion of those communities. Some of those people may be either recent migrants to Australia, some of those people are in Australia on work visas and so I think the kind of flattening out of their experiences as being all the same and under a banner of being ‘non-indigenous’ really undermines that kind of diversity.

We’re seeing elsewhere that there are solidarities that have been formed and can be formed between people of various ethnic identities and ethnic backgrounds with Indigenous groups. So, in Melbourne, for instance, I know that there’s been some shared interest from the Palestinian community in Melbourne to collaborate with Aboriginal people, in terms of, people coming together to find common ground in their shared histories of dispossession and their experiences of violent settler states. So, I think that if we can find new ways to elaborate on what we mean by non-indigenous people and non-indigenous experiences we open, or I wouldn’t say that we open more potential for there to be more kinds of these solidarities, but I think we could then more accurately reflect the kinds of diversity that really exist within the category of non-indigenous populations.

There are so many questions that I want to throw in there! (laughs).

(Laughs) Yeah well, what I was also going to say is that Australia has a history of people coming here from diverse backgrounds, and too often, people of ethnic minority groups have been written out of that history. Certainly, in particular parts of Australia where I work, there are very strong Afghan and Chinese histories that sit alongside those of Indigenous and settler histories so there’s also that historical part to recognition of identity.

It’s like what you’ve mentioned before in your research that those “boundaries between the dichotomy of indigenous and non-indigenous are contextual, contested and configured and that attempting to define what is and what is not indigenous is relational and it’s historical and therefore context related”. This is something that’s really interesting and immediately makes me think of my own background and cultural identity. So, I have Scottish and Irish heritage, but I’ve only ever called Australia home. I’ve never actually even been to Ireland or Scotland. But that cultural identity is still there for me, I still feel that sense of connection; I was still brought up with that sense of connection. However, at times, it can be really disorientating, as I’m neither indigenous to those Celtic lands, nor to this land Australia. So, I like many others, are caught an in between space, a space which is complex and contextual, yet is all too often thrown under the reductionist banner of ‘White Australia’. So, how can we sensitively move past these dichotomies? Is it possible?

This probably speaks to what we were discussing before in terms of when I sort of started out writing about some of these concepts, which is probably more than 10 years ago really, and so the trajectory of my ideas around indigeneity and around identities and dichotomies within identity categories, and between them have changed quite a bit. It’s fair to say that my thinking around these topics have changed a fair bit now. At the time that I was writing about concepts of indigeneity, there was a kind of groundswell of people who were also writing on this subject, including Indigenous scholars and a lot of this research was generated by some really provocative work, particularly coming out of settler contexts whereby settlers were asserting Indigenous identities which was, of course, bringing them into conflict with pre-existing indigenous populations who have long standing autochthonous relationships to land.

There was a bunch of scholars in Australia who were interested in thinking about how those kinds of international developments might relate here and they were interested in asking similar questions around indigeneity as a concept. In my early work on this subject and the people that I worked alongside we drew from Francesca Merlan’s work by looking into what she called ‘a relational approach’, which really focuses more on the lived experience of Indigenous people rather than criterial expressions of indigeneity such as a genetic description, or something like that. There was this question or provocation whereby people would say, “if I’m born in Australia then I’m Indigenous too, right? and “why can’t that work? Why can’t I be considered Indigenous also?”

I probably got sucked into that way of thinking also and you know, on reflection I don’t think that I paid enough attention to why those kinds of identifiers like indigeneity are so powerful for Indigenous people. I think that this sort of early research really needed to be more cognisant and mindful of the political implications of different groups or individuals asserting themselves into those categories of Indigenous self-recognition. I think that over time this has provided a motivation for me to move in a different direction and to ask why are non-indigenous people so committed to the idea of wanting to be identified as Indigenous?

I do think that we haven’t really developed any kind of mature or thoughtful lexicon for discussing belonging in Australia and I think that’s going to take time and that’s okay because at this point the impetus needs to be on us as settler descendants – and I’m included in in that category – to ensure that we’re not re-colonising Indigenous people and their identities to justify our own continued existence here in Australia. The work of that is to say that I think there is a bunch of ways that we can think about ourselves as settlers and settler descendants and there’s plenty of them that aren’t liminal, you know, they are coloniser, settler, colonialist and I think these are categories that we need to come to grips with because I think this desire to be Indigenous and be recognised as Indigenous is, well it doesn’t exist in a political void and I think that’s a very damaging political project to undertake.

Yes, and it can inflict a lot of trauma onto Aboriginal people who have fought for so long to be respected and recognised as First Nations people.

Yeah absolutely. I think affect is dangerous as well, right? Because I think affect is then used as a shield for really getting to what our structural inequities are and our structural power relationships that we continue to enforce on other people. There’s this really slippery move between affect and personal experience and using anecdote and using these kinds of things to elucidate what are really structural forms between settlers, settler descendants and Indigenous people.

Yes, and coming to realise, as a collective society, that colonisation didn’t occur in the deep pages of a history book and that it hasn’t been very long since Indigenous people have been forcefully removed off their traditional lands and their children forcefully removed from their families and their culture and language essentially being taken away from them in many areas of Australia where it was punishable to speak in language and practice culture. So, as you say, healing will take time, we can’t relinquish the responsibility to address the damage that has been done. 

Yeah absolutely and I think entering into that work, whether you’re doing that academically or doing it in terms of people thinking about their own position in Australia or their own sense of belonging to Australia as a country, I think there’s a danger in entering into those things with the expectation of there being change at a pace that’s determined by your own investment rather than seeing these things as really long term kinds of patterns of engagement and of reorienting.

Yeah totally and I think it was really interesting what you said before about well, why is it so important for us to feel Indigenous to Australia? That’s a really fleshy concept. What is it about that feeling? Why do we want to feel like that individually and as a nation?

I’m not sure that everyone does either, I mean, I do think it’s difficult, right? Because I mean this maybe ties back into some of the stuff we’ve discussed before but I think sociologists have done a much better job at explaining and elaborating on the category of non-Indigenous. I think in Australia, sociologists have a much better grip on understanding the diversity of ethnic groups in Australia and multiculturalism. I think there’s just more work in these areas within sociology, but I also think that they have done a much better job at navigating this space in a more depoliticised, well maybe that’s not the right word, but I think, as a discipline, anthropology in Australia has such a particular history. It is difficult history you know, the kind of fascination with the ‘Other’ has been really deeply ingrained in the discipline and there’s this colonial kind of desire to consume and appropriate the ‘Other’ and their experience. So, I think that’s part of the challenge in anthropology as well, you know, how do you shed yourself of this dark history? Not that I think we should completely shed that history because I think it’s inevitably now a part of what we are as a discipline, but I think it’s important to consider how we grow from that.

This is in many ways connected to your most recent work, which charts your own family’s relationships to land, and how the intergenerational transmission of memory is transformative in the making of settler descendant identities? Can you tell me a little bit about this research and the implications of writing about your own family?

Yeah, so this is related to what we were talking about before, so, a lot of my work, over the last sort of five to 10 years has been focused more on pastoral identities in Australia, so looking at specifically the cattle industry and the kinds of belonging and place making that happened within the cattle industry.  It should be explicit to say that the cattle industry includes both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But yeah, over time as I was doing this kind of research on the cattle stations, I realised that a lot of the questions that I was asking settler pastoral families were questions that I could also very well be asking my own family as both my parents came from pastoral families – my dad actually still lives on a cattle station that my family own.

So, I came to realise that I was asking all these other people to think about these hard questions about their relationships to land and their responsibilities to Indigenous people in Australia without having necessarily done that work myself and not having really charted that back into my own family history. So, this research has really been a way for me to think about how settlers become settler descendants and what is the difference between a settler and a settler descendant. I know that in literature there is a preference for using the term settler rather than settler descendant because it emphasises that colonialism is ongoing and that the process of settling in Australia is an ongoing process. But I think the challenge when we focus on settlers rather than settler descendants is that we overlook the role of intergenerational transmissions of memory and the way that this changes people’s belonging to land and people’s feelings of connection to land.

I think memory and the transmission of stories between people is a very powerful tool for developing bonds to land. But at the same time, what I’m really interested in is, how do we develop a critical engagement with those processes? So, again, I’ve mentioned this before, how do we ensure that we don’t use affect – so the way that people feel about their connections to country – as a shield to genuine critique. So instead of just asking someone, how do you feel about this place? We may also consider the structural factors that enable them to be in possession of this land and what should be the entailments to the people that you’ve dispossessed in the process?

You’ve recently been part of a podcast entitled Welcome? that you produced with your colleagues at Deakin University. The episode that you produced about your research is called ‘On the Road’ which is a remarkable retelling of your ethnography in Wilinggin in the Kimberley region of North West Australia. You explored how Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people are negotiating co-existence in the Kimberley, particularly within cattle stations where there is a long history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together. Can you describe the journey that listeners are taken on when tuning into this episode?

Yeah, so the episode is based along the Gibb River Road which is a part of the Northern Kimberley and it’s a really iconic region in Australia known for its biodiversity and its history in Australia’s cattle industry – some of the largest cattle stations in Australia are located in the Kimberley. In this episode we visit four stops along the road starting in the East Kimberley port town of Windham, where I’ve been working for the last eight years and we hear from two Indigenous people who grew up on the Gibb River Road and we hear about their experiences of growing up on a particular cattle station on the Gibb River Road. For both of these people, growing up in that area was quite violent but they had different experiences of this. So, Ida Moore talks about having been removed from her parents as a child and the impact that that had on her and her life. Then the other person that we hear from is Donald Campbell who talks about the kinds of challenges of life as a stockman.

Then we travel a little bit further along the road and we hear from two couples. The first couple we speak to run a big cattle station that’s very heavily skewed now towards tourism so, they derive a large portion of income on that station from tourism. Then the next station we visit is a little bit further down the road and it has actually since been sold, but we hear from a couple there who have recently left that station after it has been in their family for a long time now. This station was established by Peter Lacey’s father, so we hear from Peter Lacey and his wife, Pat. Yeah, I think that the journey that the listeners are taken on is really one to learn about the resonance of history in the present. So, the cattle industry in the Kimberley had a really brutal history of dispossessing Aboriginal people over really vast swathes of the Kimberley and those who had been removed were forced into forms of slave labor on stations and also onto the reserves.  So those kinds of historical patterns have really influenced the way that contemporary Kimberley is today but has also hugely influenced Indigenous people’s relationships to non-indigenous people in that region, particularly pastoralists. So, we explore these issues in the episode by introducing listeners to these individuals who live along the Gibb River Road and hearing about their stories.

There’s an interesting point that you raise in this episode and that is that the stations where historically, for many Aboriginal people, a refuge as they were allowed to stay on their country, rather than being displaced into towns or onto missions. You speak about how there were usually places on these stations where people could practice culture and speak language. However, as you point out, this was a compromised position for Aboriginal people as well because, in some ways, they had certain freedoms while living on the stations, but they were also being exploited for their labor and sometimes were only paid in rations rather than money. Can you explain a little bit of the history around this?

Sure, I mean a lot of the really forensic historical work about this time has been done by a bunch of great historians. So, there’s been a bunch of work done by people like Chris Owen, Patrick Sullivan, Mary-Anne Jebb, and Paul Marshall. A lot of this work was done mostly in the 1990s. Tim Rowse also did some work around documenting the kinds of historical patterns from the 19th century, through to the 20th century which is really when that part of the Kimberley was settled by pastoralists. Those bodies of work explain the way in which Aboriginal people were moved onto pastoral stations to work. These works managed to chart the relationship between changing policies and changing local conditions and the movements of Aboriginal people in and out of towns. Understanding the history around the violent dispersal of Aboriginal people throughout the Kimberley enables us to understand why Aboriginal people now live in the places they do and how they move around the country today and this is very important.

I lot of my work now is looking at contemporary pastoralism and linking this history to the operations of contemporary agri-business companies to ask questions like, what are the responsibilities of this industry to Aboriginal people? And how might these industries develop more just relationships with the local Aboriginal people? I would say that in the Kimberley, increasingly stations are owned by large multinational companies. So, part of my work has really been focused on asking these questions and understanding what the industry’s responsibilities are to Aboriginal people today.

I found it really eye-opening when you talked about the changes that occurred in Western Australia after 1968 when the state government made changes to pastoral labour laws which removed a clause that allowed Aboriginal people to be paid less than non-Indigenous people. However, while this effectively ended decades of slave labour, the effect of this amendment wasn’t what one might hope for, as soon after this the government dramatically raised the rents on pastoral leases which lead to cattle prices deceasing and the industry going into a profound downturn. This resulted in many stations becoming essentially abandoned which meant many Aboriginal workers were pushed into the towns and fringe communities. Are these two events symbolic, did the former in some way influence the later?

No, I don’t think that these events were connected in that sense. I think actually they demonstrate the powerful way’s in which there are often multiple things happening at different times, which may not be connected. Pastoral labour law is federal, pastoral lease rents are state managed and cattle prices are really market driven and much more determined by issues to do with supply, or lack thereof. In Australia, environmental conditions, particularly drought and rainfall, and government subsidies that prop up agricultural production and create market confidence remain really key in determining cattle prices. But there’s also regional variation depending on who your main consumer is and the product they’re purchasing– live export, locally processed boxed (frozen) beef or a steak you buy at Woolies or Coles.

But the point that I think that you’re making and I’m likewise interested in querying is,  how do broader economic patterns influence the social and cultural lives that we’re able to lead or in this instance that Aboriginal people are conditioned to lead. And when we focus on a particular part of an industry or an experience, we don’t always understand that there are multiple drivers so we attribute cause and effect without necessarily understanding the broader picture. I think as anthropologists we sometimes struggle to differentiate the micro from the macro and vice versa but I’m increasingly interested in scale and moving between different registers.

Yes exactly, great points Cameo. So you briefly mentioned this before and I understand that your research on the Gibb River Road has documented much more recent changes to the ownership of agricultural land especially pastoral leases. One example that you give is a station being purchased by an overseas owned investment company. This is something that is happening all over Australia. I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on the implications of these developments on Aboriginal people who work on these stations?

This is a new area of research that I’ve been working in over the last couple of years which partly started out with trying to chart a little bit of a forensic history of the pastoral lease ownership in the Kimberley. So, going back and sort of charting the ownership of different big stations, because the Kimberley is dominated by a million-hectare pastoral stations, so they’re quite big. They’re named and known if you know what I mean and, in a way, that’s quite different to the sorts of stations in southern Australia. In the Kimberley there are only a limited number of stations and they’re very rarely, if ever, subdivided to make smaller stations. So, you can get this really interesting genealogical history of ownership of these places by digging through records. Australia’s pastoral history is one of big beef barons and you really only have to think about the Sidney Kidman’s and these sort of big figures in Australia’s history who owned, at various points in time, really large swathes of the country.

So, there is a sense in which some of these trends that we’re seeing now are not as new as people might actually think, in terms of the centralisation of ownership of land. But I’ve been really interested in what’s called the financialisation of agri-business and the way that’s operating in Australia, so essentially looking at the way in which stations are traded as forms of capital for sums that vastly outweigh their production value. There’s been a lot written about this now internationally, including this idea of the financialisation of land and of the agri-business sector.

So, some of the companies involved in these patterns in Australia are not production or consumption focused; they’re actually using these stations as forms of tradable capital. So, they might hold a station for a set period of time and then sell it on at a later period of time for a much larger sum of money. So, these include superannuation companies and investment companies, so these areas of country become traded in ways that is different, I think, to the way that most people in Australia might conceptualise the way that land might be bought and sold and won’t be bought and sold for. So, part of this research is about thinking about what happens when you fundamentally buy and sell land for financial reasons and not for production or consumption.

So, in terms of the developments on Aboriginal people, my research has looked at the ways in which these companies that maybe don’t have a physical presence in Australia or in the region, will in some instances, not necessarily develop relationships with Aboriginal people. This overseas investment has built a reputation about it and it’s often in the media and it’s something that comes up from time to time and it has its base in a kind of land grab which is essentially tied to racism. For example, we hear a lot about Chinese investment in Australian agricultural land when actually the largest foreign owner of Australian agricultural land is by Canadians.

So, what impact do you think your research has had on communities that you’ve worked with and what can people learn from your research findings?

I think the kinds of core concepts of belonging and connection to land and the changing nature of those things through time, and also the continuing potency of history are all very interesting matters and I guess what people can take from that all depends on who you are in that scenario. There is still, amazingly, a lack of understanding about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture in Australia. I think we’ve moved to a place where people feel like they should have a much more sophisticated knowledge of people that are different to themselves, however, I’m not sure that we actually do have that knowledge yet. There remains a really genuine sense of people wanting to learn more about Aboriginal people in Australia and I think there is a real thirst for that knowledge which I think can be problematic because I think people can often feel like that’s enough, that’s the job of reconciliation done, and they can tick that box.

It’s like “oh well, now I know more about Aboriginal culture and now we should all just get along because I understand everything a lot better now”. I think over time enough people have been writing and sort of thinking about these ideas and doing research around these ideas, so we know that understanding doesn’t always change behavior, it doesn’t always change people’s sense of responsibility. And so, I guess, often I’m thinking about how, in my own research, we can begin to move from ideas and understanding to action and generating policy around positive change. I don’t think there are any simple answers in any of the stuff that I write or think about and that’s probably very annoying, but these issues are complex and take time.

But it goes to show that there are no simple fixes to these issues. I think even just explaining and communicating the complexity to the general population of Australia is beneficial because it can change their preconceived and, in all honestly, quite naïve ideas about simple fixes for long standing and deeply imbedded effects from colonisation. So, I want to ask you, what do you think anthropology can offer to humanity and society?

I mean, obviously, in your own work being involved in native title anthropology is beneficial and I’ve also been involved in this kind of research. There are many other applied forms of anthropology that provide direct benefits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people and I think anthropology can offer some really valid critiques about social and cultural processes in and out of Australia. Anthropology hasn’t had a perfect history and anthropologists haven’t always been complicit with ethical and beneficial processes for Indigenous people and we should be aware of this history, but I think there has also been some really wonderful and positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the work of some anthropological based projects.

It’s not just the applied context where people can make positive change and can have a positive influence. And I think, you know, the scholars, undergraduate students and postgraduate students who come through and study anthropology come out with ways of understanding and being in a world that enables them to engage critically with some really foundational questions about what is it to be a settler and want to belong in Australia. And you know, what are non-Indigenous people’s responsibilities to Indigenous people that they live alongside with? And how can we develop more just relationships in the present? So, I think that kind of work is also really important.

Interested to learn more about Cameo’s research? Visit her academic portfolio and read her journal articles here.

Get your copy of Cameo’s latest book “What Now: everyday endurance and social intensity in an Australian Aboriginal community” here.

Check out Cameo’s podcast “On the Road” via Welcome? here.

Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.