Indigenous descendants have welcomed the lifting of a controversial 30-year embargo on a collection of anthropological field notes.

Warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this article contains the name and image of a person who has died.

The move is set to give First Nations communities access to more than 45,000 pages of notes, which are expected to provide a glimpse into the cultural and family life in these remote communities. 

The extensive notes were compiled by world-renowned anthropologists Catherine and Ronald Berndt last century, then left to the University of Western Australia after their deaths.

After waiting decades, Ngadjuri man Vincent Copley Junior will finally have access to his people’s history.

Vince Copley Junior will travel to Western Australia to view the Berndt field notes on behalf of his family.(Supplied: Vince Copley Jr)

“Those notes are very important to us because we haven’t had access to any knowledge prior to the Berndt [field notes],” Mr Copely said.

“Personally, I’m just hoping that it answers a lot of questions that are still yet to be answered.”

Traversing Australia

Between 1939 and 1985, anthropologists Mr and Ms Berndt travelled through regional Australia and Papua New Guinea, visiting more than 70 locations.

They gained intimate access to remote Indigenous communities and recorded key cultural information, Dreaming stories, sacred practices, and family histories in hundreds of notebooks.

When Ms Berndt died in 1994, she left the notes and other artefacts to the University of Western Australia’s Berndt Museum.

However, a stipulation in her will barred access to the field notes for 30 years after her passing, including the Indigenous communities who the Berndts collected information from.

Ronald Berndt taking a break in Warburton, 1959.(Supplied: Berndt Museum, University of Western Australia)

Co-trustee of Ms Berndt’s estate, John Stanton, studied under Mr Berndt in 1974.

Dr Stanton said the Berndts implemented a 30-year embargo on the field notes in line with American Anthropology Association and the Royal Anthropological Institute recommendations.

He said they also had fears the information in the field notes could be used to the detriment of Indigenous people.

“Catherine reiterated the reason for the embargo was that they both believed … that all governments in Australia were inherently antagonistic to Aboriginal interests,” Dr Stanton said.

“They didn’t want their field notes to be used against Aboriginal people by what they regarded as pretty evil governments.”

Catherine Berndt out in the field in Warburton, 1959.(Supplied: Berndt Museum, University of Western Australia)

A painful legacy

As time passed, various Indigenous communities — including the Ngadjuri and Gurindji communities — sought access to the field notes to synthesise their cultural knowledge, but were denied.

Mr Copley Junior’s late father, Vincent Copley Senior, was one of several elders who were denied access and passed away in 2022 aged 85.

Mr Copley Senior understood Berndt’s archive contained notes from an interview with his grandfather Barney Warrior (also spelt Waria), who was the last-known initiated Ngadjuri man.

“Dad was an advocate for trying to get them released early … it’s knowledge passed down from his grandfather and he wanted to know what it contained,” Mr Copley Junior said.

“We weren’t too sure whether Berndt had actually described what Barney Waria said … or whether it was his interpretation.

“Dad was a bit of an advocate for saying, ‘Well, it’s our property’.”

Ngadjuri people were displaced early in the colonisation of South Australia, as pastoralists expanded into the country now known as the Clare and Gilbert valleys.

Ngadjuri Elder Uncle Vince Copley wanted to access the Berndt field notes before he passed away in 2022.(Supplied: Vince Copley Jr)

Mr Copley Junior is now following in his father’s footsteps to access the Berndt field notes.

“It’s the transfer of culture … Ngadjuri area was colonised very early and a lot of our culture wasn’t recorded, and those notes seem to be the main focus of our culture at the moment,” he said. 

Opportunity for cultural ‘transformation’

Associate professor of Indigenous Studies and Yamatji researcher Stephen Gilchrist has been appointed co-director of the Berndt Museum to oversee Indigenous communities accessing the Berndt field notes.

“We really want to work with communities so that they can tell and claim the rich stories that are within them to tell,” Dr Gilchrist said.

“Though these field notes were under the jurisdiction of the Berndt Museum, it was never the Berndts’ knowledge to hold anyway.

“Although it was legal, it was never right that this information was held out of reach from communities for such a long time.”

Stephen Gilchrist has been appointed co-director of the Berndt Museum to oversee Indigenous communities accessing the Berndt field notes.(Supplied: University of Western Australia)

As of 2020, the Berndt Museum has fallen under the Indigenous Studies arm of the University of Western Australia and leadership is looking forward to connecting Indigenous communities with their cultural information.

“When we’re looking at these archives, when we’re connecting people with objects, there’s these encounters that could be transformative,” Dr Gilchrist said.

“It’s not that the museum wants to further document or objectify, but that it can be a really important space for that exchange of cultural information.”

University of Western Australia pro vice chancellor of Indigenous studies Jill Milroy acknowledged the pain the embargo had caused communities.

“It has had a profoundly awful effect for Aboriginal people not being able to access their materials for this period,” she said.

Last month, following the lifting of the embargo, the University of Western Australia added a section to its website allowing Indigenous communities to apply to view the digitised Berndt field notes.

Berndt Museum staff will then follow up with a phone call to gather information to find relevant content in the field notes and provide access in the most appropriate way for that community.

Posted , updated