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The red professor and the white anting that continues to this day

Rose and Groote Eylandters Nertichunga, Machana and Nabia, Groote Eylandt, 1941. Courtesy of SLNSW, Frederick Rose papers, Box 5

The red professor and the white anting that continues to this day

In late 1981, I was appointed to Groote Eylandt to work on an established bilingual Anindilyakwa and English education program, to which the local people were committed.

In the end I didn’t take up the position because an “orthography war” was taking place between two rival linguists with different missionary affiliations. One was based at Angurugu on the western side of the island, the other on the eastern side at Umbakumba.

The dispute centred on how Anindilyakwa words were to be spelled, particularly on how to represent vowel sounds. The dialectical differences between eastern and western Anindilyakwa are relatively minor. Parenthetically, this whitefella orthography row on Groote Eylandt has never been resolved. As a result, the bilingual progam was permanently discontinued, despite Anindilyakwa endorsement.

The tricky situation on Groote Eylandt meant that I instead took up a position at the Warlpiri settlement Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert. The people there had been lobbying the Federal and NT governments since the 1970s for a bilingual program.

On arrival at Katherine, I had to wait for weeks before being permitted by the Department of Education to fly to Lajamanu. Many NT politicians, administrators and officials viewed bilingual education programs as a Federal imposition (by the Whitlam government) and some did their utmost to sabotage the policy.

Fred Rose with fly net on ridge of sandhills to the north-east of the flying base and boundary of the Aboriginal reserve on Groote Eylandt, 1938. Rose family collection

Institutional racism and resistance from the top to the empowerment of remote area Aboriginal people in the NT is by no means a thing of the past. The white-anting and blocking of numerous initiatives engendered or strongly supported by Aboriginal people – and relating to their deepest aspirations – still occurs today.

Memories of my time in the NT came flooding back while reading Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt’s excellent book Red Professor: the Cold War Life of Fred Rose.

It’s a vivid, comprehensively researched and engrossing study of a man whose objective to research Aboriginal life and culture thoroughly and sensitively was thwarted at every turn by authorities wedded to an “assimilationist” policy or who found his leftist politics repugnant or distasteful.

As an academic working in Australian studies, this book spoke to me both professionally and personally.

Who was Frederick Rose?

Rose (1915-1991) migrated to Australia in 1937 to conduct anthropological fieldwork in a classical Aboriginal society. Born in London and educated at Cambridge, he was inspired by zoologist and anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon, who in the late 19th century had led a research expedition to the Torres Strait Islands. “Red Professor” opens an enthralling portal into the life and times of a fascinating and complex man, and into Australian contact history.

A portrait of the Rose family when Fred (dressed in a sailor’s suit) was a young child. Rose family collection

While at Cambridge, Rose was also profoundly influenced by the ethnographic research of Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who for years had lived with Trobriand Islanders in the Western Pacific. Malinowski’s approach to fieldwork, based on participant-observation, redefined the field. Rose conceded that he became an “uncritical adherent” of Malinowski’s approach.

Later, Rose’s modus operandi and written publications were increasingly informed by his Marxist materialism. This meant that he came to understand classical Aboriginal kinship structures and relationships as superstructure founded on a substrate economic base.

Arriving in Australia with virtually no money, Rose took up short-term employment. In Sydney he met A.P. Elkin, an Anglican clergyman and Professor of Anthropology at Sydney University. Elkin’s anthropological status hovered somewhere between the amateur and professional. He had established deep connections with many Christian missions in Aboriginal Australia. Like many other Australians, Elkin supported the notion of assimilating Aboriginal people into the Anglo-European mainstream – a mindset that persists to this day.

Later, Elkin was to foil Rose’s hopes of undertaking further fieldwork and anthropological research. This undermining of his ambitions would become a recurrent theme in Rose’s encounters with authorities, including conservative Australian politicians and bureaucrats.

In an attempt to realise his dream of working in remote Aboriginal Australia, Rose retrained as a meteorologist. Ultimately this led to a paid position in that field, on Groote Eylandt, homeland of the Anindilyakwa people. On the island he was able to pursue his anthropological research – albeit outside of normal working hours.

Resistance from the top

Unfortunately, because of the opposition to Rose conducting his anthropological work, the impact of his contribution to a larger national and international conversation has been curtailed. His anti-racism and the fact that he was an early fellow traveller in Aboriginal people’s struggles have also been under-acknowledged. Monteath and Munt’s book should go some way towards rectifying this.

Red Professor has been well reviewed, mostly with the primary focus on Rose’s putative espionage activity in Australia (never substantiated) and his collaboration with the Stasi when he went to live in East Germany.

Christine Nicholls’s battered, well-read copy of Rose’s, 1987 book, The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines. Christine Judith Nicholls, Author provided

But what Rose eventually did publish of his anthropological research is of the highest order, warranting a great deal more attention than it has received thus far. The book not only makes for a cracking read but also remains relevant today, possibly in unexpected ways.

Opposition to Rose did not come from the Anindilyakwa or other Aboriginal people, with whom he enjoyed harmonious relationships. When he was consistently denied entry to Groote Eylandt the views of the Anindilyakwa people were simply discounted.

In Rose’s case the undermining from above was writ large. But it is important to realise that such resistance is endemic and comes almost exclusively from non-Indigenous people in powerful positions.

‘Tidy up your desk young lady!’ (& other Territory tales)

Returning to my own experience, in 1991, not long after I had taken up a senior position in the NT Education Department, an unforgettable incident took place. My supervisor saw that my desk was in disarray. “Young lady!” he exclaimed. “Tidy up your desk immediately – it looks like a black’s camp!” Ironically, this individual was the Director of Equal Opportunity – with whom the buck stopped if there were any staff complaints about sexism, racism and so forth. Aboriginal educators worked in the same office space.

Another example relating to my time in the Territory deeply affected my Warlpiri colleague and friend Peggy Rockman Napaljarri, who for many years had been head cleaner at Lajamanu School.

Christine Nicholls and Peggy Rockman Napaljarri. Author provided

Napaljarri retired at the end of 1990 and was entitled to receive a pension. As a non-literate – as opposed to “illiterate” – person, born in the Tanami Desert, who had never attended a western school, Peggy had the utmost difficulty in accessing her pension.

Despite my ongoing attempts to assist Peggy, including numerous letters and telephone calls, it wasn’t until 2002, after I flew to Katherine in a final attempt to resolve the impasse, that Napaljarri began receiving her entitlement. Her money was tied up in a bank account in her name in Katherine. For more than a decade Napaljarri had been visiting that bank trying to make a withdrawal, with no success.

A more recent example of this mindset relates to a 2005 incident that took place at the Head Office of the NT Education Department. A stated goal of the Department was to provide work experience opportunities for talented young Aboriginal people from remote communities.

Only rarely, however, did it provide opportunities in its own departmental offices in Darwin or in the region. The Darwin workplace also involved possibilities for non-Aboriginal employees to work and forge meaningful relationships with Aboriginal trainees.

A contingent of three bright young women from the predominantly Gurindji settlement of Kalkaringi (approximately 900 kilometres from Darwin) was selected to take part in this initiative. The young Gurindji women were to work in an office space to be shared with three young white women holding substantive positions in the same area.

On the Sunday before they were to start work, the young Aboriginal women were shown the building and workspace to familiarise them with the office layout and help overcome their shyness and fear of lifts.

This group of second-language speakers of English rehearsed greetings and practised the names of their white co-workers and how to use the telephone.

But when they entered the workplace the next morning, the three young white women weren’t there. They’d found reasons to work elsewhere on the floor, with the tacit consent of their supervisors.

The upshot was that the Gurindji schoolgirls sat in a solitary group, dramatically reducing the quality of their work experience. It was a lost opportunity too for the presumed “colleagues” at head office to expand their worldview.

The biggest losers?

Frederick Rose was before his time in his understanding that some Aboriginal people may not wish to be fully assimilated into “mainstream” Australian society, and that it should be their prerogative to decide.

Many of the attitudes that were prevalent in Rose’s day persist today. Able and committed non-Aboriginal people who are able to use the word “we” when working with Aboriginal people are still being shafted.

Ultimately, it’s always the Aboriginal people in remote Australia who are the biggest losers.