Difference and Autonomy - Then and Now: Four decades of change in a western desert society

Friday, 30 June 2006
Robert Tonkinson

In the 2006 Wentworth Lecture, Emeritus Professor Bob Tonkinson discusses two interrelated themes: the status of cultural difference and the exercise of autonomy. He draws on his experiences since 1963 with the Martu, a Western Desert people of the East Pilbara region of Western Australia. 

He notes at the outset that, as themes, ‘autonomy’ and ‘difference’ have no analytical force per se in that neither exists apart from more pressing issues in community life, such as power relations, social cohesion and social control. Yet, regardless of how they are perceived by others or of what policy dictates, the Martu, like other remote Aboriginal Australians, have clung to their differences, seeking to retain their present distance and level of autonomy.

Today, both the costs and the benefits of staying remote are palpable and widely observed, so the imperative remains to refine academic theorising and analysis to better comprehend the nature of Aboriginal responses. Perhaps then, practical advice can be offered to those highly placed non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people charged with the responsibility for bringing about positive and enduring change.