From the available sources, what can we say about the roles and status of Aboriginal women in eighteenth and early nineteenth century indigenous society

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Hilary King

        HST 210



(for Open Universities Australia students)

Centre for Open Education



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Indigenous women had a strong and critical role in indigenous society before European contact. After contact, their role changed and then progressively diminished through the rest of the nineteenth century.

Voice and perspective are critical in analysing and understanding how history is told and valued. Generally, historical information detailing the roles and status of Indigenous women in Australia has been viewed through the perspective of white men. However, in order to understand or develop a concept of identity and cultural roles, one must understand the language, meanings and context of the community being studied[1]. Indigenous Australians had no written historical records and depended on either oral histories or art to portray their story. A strong oral tradition within Australian indigenous culture enables modern historians to gather some contempory evidence of pre-contact societies, however, as the historian John Tosh suggests in his book, The Pursuit of History, “ ‘The voice of the past’ is inescapably the voice of the present too.”[2] 

In comparison, Europeans have not been reluctant to voice their views and interpretations of indigenous culture from both pre-contact and post contact times. Perceptions of the roles of indigenous women during pre-contact and early contact periods have generally been provided from a white male perspective. One of the challenges faced by historians is that the dominant voice heard through history is often that of the white male explorer or conqueror. The voices of colonised people and women often are more difficult to find. Lack of written records or other manifest signs of everyday life means that portrayals of indigenous culture need to be carefully examined. This essay is looking at perceptions and the author acknowledges that perceptions are the subject of both the perceiver and the storyteller.

Information gathered by the American anthropologist Diane Bell and Australian feminist Hannah Rachel Bell (no relation) on two diverse traditional aboriginal societies gives an insight into traditional women’s roles. Diane Bell’s work with the Kaytej women of the Northern Territory explores the role that women had, and still have locally, in understanding territories and the connections between neighbouring territories. The ability to move through the landscape, while piloting the complexities of aboriginal kinship laws and ancestral responsibilities, allowed women to protect their communities from climatic and population disasters.[3] 

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Hannah Bell’s long-term relationship with the Ngarinyin people of Western Australia considers the roles of both men and women within this traditional community. Pre-contact indigenous society was generally based on collaborative relationships between genders.[4] Women’s and men’s roles were both highly valued and seen as necessary for the functioning of the total society. Indigenous society was divided along gender lines; however, unlike Western Society, women’s roles were seen as critical to the functioning of the whole.[5] Women, in particular, were responsible for reproduction rites, the daily hunting and gathering of food (especially small animals, fish and shellfish, berries and fruit) and the ...

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