Did you read it?

This is an annotated bibliography. I started it to give a brief account of some useful resources that address the interests of Indigenous people and their archives, arts, cultural expression and knowledge. To begin with, I’ve focused on references that might not be easy to find or don’t have summaries of their own. The list is not exhaustive, and other writers will add to it over time.

Writing about other peoples’ critical perspectives gives me a chance to reflect on my own. It’s handy to have these summaries – they’re a shorthand of what has been learned: a reflection of what is known. When I relay other people’s stories, I see myself in the retelling. As an archivist, it’s important to question the way that I think and speak these stories and to privilege and bear witness to other ways of knowing. This list is a memento to that process.

Please get in touch or comment if you’d like to add a reading, reflection, another resource, or to make a correction. The title ‘Did you read it?’ is based on the Portlandia sketch of the same name.

Bruce Baer Arnold (2015). ‘Dignity, Trust and Identity: Private Spheres and Indigenous Intellectual Property’, in Mathew Rimmer (ed.), Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, Edward Elgar, United Kingdom, 455-476.

Bruce-Baer Arnold makes the case that we should protect Indigenous knowledge and expression with privacy and confidentiality law. Doing so may allow Indigenous people to place boundaries upon the use of their knowledge and cultural expression without the need to regard this knowledge as commercial or public property under Australian Intellectual Property Law or the need to draft custom secrecy protections.

Arnold argues that we should aim to protect the private spheres of everyone: ‘without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation or historical antecedents such as abuses by museums and welfare institutions’. To lean too hard on questions of difference – e.g. what is Indigenous and what is not – offers little benefit in the application of privacy and confidentiality law and, moreover, risks eroding the dignity and agency of individuals and collectives caught up in ruminations about authenticity. With that said, there remains a need to respect different understandings of the world and to manage information and knowledge in step with these differences (e.g. the conditions and context of secrecy). Arnold reasons that ‘we need to act in multiple dimensions, that may rely on curatorial/research codes of practice, potentially codes that lock rather than open access and thus conflict with contemporary liberal democratic valorisation of access as colour blind and indifferent to attributes such as gender, age and religious belief.’ This practice should recognise, manifest and sustain indigenous people as the primary interpreters and custodians of their knowledge.


Judith Bannister (2015). ‘Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Australia: The Control of Living Heritages’, in Mathew Rimmer (ed.), Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, Edward Elgar, United Kingdom, 437-454.

Judith Bannister begins her chapter by talking about the concepts of culture and cultural heritage. She argues that contemporary cultural practices should be recognised as being part of cultural heritage. In Australia, Indigenous cultural heritage laws cover sites and objects, but do not directly protect intangible aspects of culture and cultural expression such as stories, songs, ceremonies, customs and beliefs that are associated with these sites and objects. This presents a problem for Indigenous communities when they are not recognised as legal owners of their heritage and their claims for control conflict with others – private, institutional or national –  who claim legal title in connected land or objects.

Bannister uses two case studies to represent attempts at protecting cultural heritage, one intangible and one material. The first case study is the attempt to prevent the building of a bridge at Kumarangk – Hindmarsh Island in South Australia, and the other describes attempts to prevent Dja Dja Wurrung bark etchings from north-western Victoria being returned to London after they were lent for a museum exhibition. Both cases conclude with court decisions and legislative changes that favour non-indigenous interests.

She closes with the suggestion that cultural heritage protections should help communities maintain and develop their culture – not just to control and protect it. She calls for funding to be made available for ongoing cultural development and sees an opportunity to improve the wider Australian community’s understanding of Indigenous cultural heritage.


Sarah Holcombe (2015). ‘Confidential Information and Anthropology: The Politics of the Digital Knowledge Economy’, in Mathew Rimmer (ed.), Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, Edward Elgar, United Kingdom, 417-436.

Sarah Holcombe explores the intersections between Indigenous notions of secrecy and privacy, and the legal and ethical concept of confidentiality. Her focus is the Australian Indigenous research context, so her chapter includes brief summaries of ethics protocols and examples of ethnographic research. As she demonstrates, the assumption of confidentiality at the point of research can never be absolute – especially when subverted by a different episteme or tested by judicial proceedings.

Of note is Holcombe’s point that the practice of de-identifying people and places in social science research may overlook complex cultural practices. She argues that ‘truth claims can only be tested against the context and the knowledge provider’ because all knowledge is contingent. According proper attribution to the knowledge provider – with their here-and-now involvement and endorsement – would remedy this oversight.

Holcombe stresses that secrecy and privacy take many forms; What is public and what is private depends on the context and function of its transmission; Knowledge types (such as secret/sacred and secular) are fluid categories that may change over time. Recognising and respecting the ‘shifting ground of confidentiality’ and the ‘attendant restrictions on the ways in which knowledge is worked with’ is essential.


Alice te Punga Somerville (2016). ‘”I do still have a letter”: Our sea of archives’, in Chris Andersen, and Jean M. O’Brien (eds.), Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, Routledge, 121-127.

Alice te Punga Somerville uses her own research and two texts from the Pacific – an essay by Epeli Hauʽofa and a poem by Evelyn Patuawa-Nathan – to show that we can benefit by assuming an Indigenous presence and proximity in the archive and the spaces in-between them. She urges the reader to take up ‘deliberate and reflective noticing’ of our experience of the archive as a way of ‘unbalancing’ and improving our understanding of our own investigations in places sometimes assumed to be free of an Indigenous presence. The very expectation of ‘presence, relationship and fullness’ can connect us to new contexts, questions and assumptions: ‘all of us benefit from deliberately seeking and cultivating ways of recognising and reaching for names’. She makes an important point that the transfer of Māori material from one archive to another (e.g. inter-agency transfer or repatriation) does not diminish or move the Indigenous presence in what remains; ‘Māori experiences always extend beyond geographic and institutional bounds’.

Subramanyam R Vemulpad, David Harrington, and Joanne F Jamie (2016), ‘Collaborative partnerships for recognising and protecting traditional medicinal knowledge’, in Natalie P. Stoianoff (ed), Indigenous Knowledge Forum – Comparative Systems for Recognising and Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Culture, LexisNexis, Australia, 208-226.

Subramanyam, Harrington and Jamie reflect on a fruitful collaborative research program driven by the aspirations of the Yaegl community on the New South Wales North Coast of Australia.  The authors, members of the Macquarie University Indigenous Bioresources Group, write about a more than ten-year cycle of continuous engagement, negotiation and trust building grounded upon a research method called Participatory Action Research. They include their thoughts about why the project succeeded, counting amongst the chief success factors ‘being guided by the community’, and playing to their strengths in benefit sharing and in-kind support. The chapter ends with an appendix that includes a copy of the collaborative research partnership agreement developed during a two day community forum involving about 60 people.

Community cultural protocols and orientation guides:

Author – Duncan Loxton


Image source: All Hands on Deck, Perry Grone (Unsplash)