Obituary: Rosalind Langford (1946-2012)

19th December 2012

It is with great sadness that we report the untimely death of Rosalind Langford, whose intervention in Australian archaeology at a conference in Hobart in 1982, on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, was instrumental in transforming our Australian practice into a more ethical and sensitive discipline.

Rosalind (or Ros) Langford was born Rosalind Atkinson on 18 September, 1946 in Leeton, a Riverina town in New South Wales (NSW), spending her early years on the Flats in Mooroopna, Victoria. Her mother was a Yorta Yorta woman, born on Cummeragunja mission. Rosalind moved to Tasmania when she married in the early 1970s and has raised four children in the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. She died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 August 2012.

Rosalind was instrumental in starting the Aboriginal Information Service (AIS), the first Aboriginal organisation in Tasmania, and was elected as its first State Secretary from 1972 till 1975. This was at a time when the state of Tasmania accepted Commonwealth money for Aborigines but denied their existence. From that base Ros worked to raise the profile of Aborigines in Tasmania. One of her earliest initiatives was to attend the first Aboriginal Legal Services conference in Canberra in 1973 and successfully put the case for a grant to operate a proper Aboriginal Legal Service in Tasmania. In 1977 the AIS became the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. Rosalind was elected its State Secretary several times over the next 20 years, most memorably in 1982—the year of the Franklin River Campaign, during which simmering tensions between Aborigines and archaeologists over the control of Aboriginal heritage came to a head.

With respect to the Australian archaeological community, Rosalind’s major impact was an intervention contained in an address to the Australian Archaeological Association’s 1982 Hobart Conference with the seminal work, ‘Our Heritage – Your Playground’ (published in Australian Archaeology in 1983). This presentation, delivered on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, confronted archaeologists, who relied on an unquestioning acceptance of their scientific prerogative to freely dig up, remove and pronounce on Aboriginal heritage, with the fact that this was the culture and heritage of a living people. The presentation strongly asserted that scientific professions were underpinned by the cultural values of white supremacist imperialism and maintained by the self-serving denial of the rights over heritage, and even the continuing existence, of Indigenous people. Aborigines required archaeologists to take practical steps to acknowledge Aboriginal ownership and control of their past as a pre- condition for any future working relationship. In response, the AAA voted at its Annual General Meeting following the conference to acknowledge Aboriginal ownership of their heritage and to build consultation with Aborigines into all research funding projects.

Perhaps the most widely quoted passage is this:

From our point of view, we say – you have come as invaders, you have tried to destroy our culture, you have built your fortunes upon the lands and bodies of our people, and now … want a share in picking out the bones of what you regard as a dead past. We say it is our past, our culture and heritage and forms part of our present life. As such it is ours to share on our terms.

This paper of 1983 has been, and continues to be, widely cited by archaeologists and scholars in other areas, such as general heritage studies, Indigenous heritage studies and law. It has not only influenced archaeologists and other white researchers, but also Aboriginal people, and not just in Tasmania, and has been referred to as an important milestone in Australian Aboriginal Studies.

Rosalind is survived by her children, Daniel, Ruth, Tasman and Joshua, and many grandchildren. 

Sandra Bowdler and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre
Obituary: Rosalind Langford (1946-2012)
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