Review of ‘Peopling the Cleland Hills’ by Mike Smith

01st December 2007

McDonald book review cover AA65Peopling the Cleland Hills by Mike Smith. Aboriginal History Monograph 12, Aboriginal History Inc., Canberra, 2005, xi+103 pp., ISBN 0 9585637 8 0 (pbk).

Jo McDonald

Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd, 6 Supply Place, Red Hill, ACT 2603, Australia and Centre for Cross Cultural Research, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

In this beautifully illustrated little book (A5 format) Mike Smith turns his attention from deep time to the historic period. He uses Puritjarra – the site where he has methodically delved into and documented the Pleistocene occupation of Australia’s arid centre – as the place from which he can view historic social exchanges and colonial interventions amongst the Kukatja peoples – several families with whom he has worked over generations. Multiple sources of documentation are astutely drawn together – interviews; journals (by explorers, prospectors, missionaries and surveyors), books, articles and unpublished sources; parliamentary papers, ration lists and prison records; genealogies compiled by T.G.H. Strehlow; and anthropological records compiled by N.B. Tindale. There are some fantastic historical photographs – again from a number of sources.

Smith states his initial intention was to document the historic and ethnographic context for the most recent phase of occupation at Puritjarra – evidenced by the modern campsites, wooden implements, caches of quandong nuts and a frieze of white ochre painting. This grew, however into ‘[a] ‘history in a locale’ rather than an ethnography or an archaeology of contact’ (p.3). Smith also speaks of his desire to ‘people’ the Cleland Hills – to naming individuals and following the history of individual families from the time of Ernest Giles’ first incursion into the area in 1872.

Many of the early insights about the Aboriginal people tell us more about the nature of the engagement between them and their recorders than the recorders might have anticipated. The frontier was a fairly brutal place for the original settlers and the images of prisoners (boys and men) in neck chains for having speared cattle – before they were marched to Port Augusta reveals how marginal existence must have been on this pastoral frontier for the pastoralists.

The book ties together diverging lines of evidence – and it is a good example of the type of documentary that the Native Title era could be producing for many parts of Australia. Engaging with the people who make the archaeology we study is a fascinating journey – one which not all archaeologists have the good fortune to experience. Mike Smith also correctly identifies how archaeology can feed back into communities – regenerating interest and knowledge about place as well as sparking management and conservation initiatives. Smith’s work at Puritjarra provides an important record of the early occupation of the arid zone – this book provides an equally important record of the people who have persisted in this environment through its more recent history.

Jo McDonald
Review of ‘Peopling the Cleland Hills’ by Mike Smith
December 2007
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