Aboriginal 'Difference' and 'Autonomy' Then and Now: Four Decades of Change in a Western Desert Society

Robert Tonkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


In just a few decades, Aboriginal people living near Australia's Western Desert fringe have experienced an extraordinarily intense trajectory of change: from a highly autonomous nomadic existence, through first contacts, the pastoral and mission frontiers, the devastating impacts of alcohol and of Western lifestyle diseases, the outstation movement, resource exploration and mining, a long but largely successful struggle for native title, and much else. In this paper, notions of 'difference' and 'autonomy' are used to explore these transformations. The situation among the Mardu is here linked to the gulf between government policies and lived Aboriginal experience. If the self-management thrust of 1970s policies achieved partial restoration of Aboriginal autonomy, recent Federal Government policies are intent on intervention to reduce difference and claw back some of that autonomy. Their determination to force Aboriginal people out of their 'dysfunctional' 'cultural museums' (homeland settlements) and into greater economic engagement ignores the crucial underpinnings of security and identity among remote Aborigines. The retention of difference, albeit at considerable social cost and entrenched disadvantage, is still strongly preferred by Mardu to the kinds of engagement with the dominant society that not only assault their sense of self but also threaten to overwhelm whatever autonomy remains to them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-60
JournalAnthropological Forum
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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