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  • Conversations on the Frontier:Finding the Dialogic in Nineteenth-century Anthropological Archives
  • Jason Gibson (bio) and Helen Gardner (bio)

In the early weeks of August 1881, an Aboriginal man, Ienbin, had a series of conversations with A. W. Howitt, anthropologist and magistrate to the region of Gippsland in the Australian colony of Victoria. We know this because on the evening of Thursday 18 August Howitt wrote a long letter describing these meetings to his mentor Lewis Henry Morgan, in Rochester, New York. Ienbin was a Yuin man who moved between the mountains of his mother's home in Gippsland and the coastal regions of his own country in southern New South Wales. Over many pages Howitt repeated Ienbin's description of his people's belief systems, kinship forms and social structure, using some terms from the Yuin language. In the process, however, he removed most of the conversational elements of their encounter and served up the information in the genre now described as the ethnographic present. Howitt concluded this section by observing that he now held considerable influence over Ienbin, and that he intended to expend this in extracting further information in the days to come.1

This article examines the conversations through which anthropological materials from the Australian frontier were created in the late nineteenth century. We argue that dialogue, interaction and exchange were essential to the formulation of these documents, but came to be lost as a result of the demands of the anthropological genre of the time. We therefore make the case for an interrogation of the dialogic elements of these archives by refocusing on the conversations between observers and observed, author and subject. These documents were clearly created from dialogue, yet this conversational grounding is neither theorized nor acknowledged in archive-based scholarship. From the point of creation to drafting and publication, the conversations through which these documents were produced largely disappeared; especially in nineteenth-century materials where anthropology met the demand for 'objective' 'scientific' observations of Indigenous communities, stripped of individual responses or the muddle of encounter.

Our analysis of the dialogic aspects of Howitt's archive stems from a much broader project on his unpublished materials currently being [End Page 47] undertaken by historians, anthropologists, linguists and the Indigenous communities from which they were first gathered.2 One of the aims of this project has been to digitize and transcribe the vast treasure of ethnographic materials gathered by Howitt and his key collaborator, the Methodist missionary Lorimer Fison, in the late nineteenth century. The documents they left behind are steeped in the colonialism of the era and reflect the power relations of settler colonialism, but they are also amongst the best nineteenth-century materials on language and ethnography available in Australia. Critical to our research, however, has been uncovering the ways in which anthropologists worked in partnership with Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal correspondents living across the Australian continent during the late nineteenth century. After carefully transcribing and analysing this collection we have come to realize that the materials are so imbued with the cultural expertise of the Aboriginal informants who contributed, that these people should be acknowledged as central to their production. Notwithstanding the questions of colonial administration, social evolutionary theory and missionizing that colour Howitt and Fison's work, there is vivid evidence of a co-creation of 'knowledge' within this archive.

The aim of this project has been to return Howitt and Fison's papers to Aboriginal communities and to the wider public in a way that brings to the fore their rich linguistic and ethnographic data as well as the relationships and histories of their original production. We hope to re-present these materials as artefacts of deep and prolonged colonial encounter. Howitt's archive is presently being transcribed using an online transcription site by the project team of geographically distributed academics (linguists, historians and anthropologists), volunteers and interested community members with Aboriginal backgrounds. As each document is transcribed we are tagging important categories such as place names, personal names and Aboriginal language terms.3 Following consultations with interested and relevant Aboriginal individuals and groups, the material will be made available via a project website. This information is of deep...


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