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Ian S McIntosh

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.

Ian McIntosh

Dr Ian S McIntosh

Director of International Partnerships


Adjunct Professor of Anthropology

Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis


Missing the Revolution! Negotiating disclosure on the Pre-Macassans (Bayini) in North-East Arnhem Land

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By their own admission, members of the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition were motivated by a search for the 'primitive' and the 'authentic'. It is not surprising therefore that their published report shows a singular lack of awareness of the sorts of debate raging within Aboriginal circles at that time. So-called 'missionised' North-east Arnhem Land Yolngu (North east Arnhem Land Aboriginal people), for example, were engaged in a major discussion about whether Christianity was an expression of the Dreaming and thus culturally mandated (as some Yolngu elders argued), or whether God gave Yolngu the Dreaming (as some missionaries argued).

Charlie Mattjuwi Burarrwanga with Ian McIntosh, Elcho Island, 1989.
Charlie Mattjuwi Burarrwanga with Ian McIntosh, Elcho Island, 1989. Photo: Djoymi Wutjara Dhamarrandji.

Was the Mountford team aware of this discourse taking place at the highest levels in Yolngu society? No. Were they interested? Given their focus on salvage anthropology, probably not. In this paper, I explore this debate and others in order to shine light on the artefacts, barks, and myths, collected by expedition members ¡ª especially those pertaining to the Makassans and a curious then-unidentified group of seafarers known as the Bayini.

In 1948, a major transition was taking place in Yolngu perceptions of their history. The Bayini, for instance, were once considered to be ancestors of the Yolngu, and the carriers of the sacred law of the 'white man' which was centred on a Dreaming entity known as Birrinydji. But given the increased exposure of Yolngu to outsiders, including military personnel during the Second World War, a decision was made by Yolngu law keepers to send the Bayini and Birrinydji 'inside'.

For the purposes of public or 'outside' discussion with anthropologists and historians, the Bayini would be described as the predecessors of Makassans, a historical group whose origin and activities were shrouded in mystery. And yet, an understanding of the significance of the Bayini is not possible without reference to the aforementioned debate about the place of God in the Dreaming.

I will argue that by not taking Yolngu Christianity seriously, or engaging with mission Aborigines in their struggle to integrate the traditional and the modern, the Mountford team missed a great opportunity to document what was a remarkably dynamic period of Yolngu-directed change.

David Burrumarra MBE, instigator of the Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land, with Ian McIntosh, Elcho Island, 1988. Photos: Djoymi Wutjara Dhamarrandji.
David Burrumarra MBE, instigator of the Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land, with Ian McIntosh, Elcho Island, 1988. Photo: Djoymi Wutjara Dhamarrandji.


Dr Ian S McIntosh PhD is the Director of International Partnerships at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) and an adjunct Professor of Anthropology in the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts. He is also an Associate of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. At IUPUI he teaches a class on truth and reconciliation and also runs the Global Crossroads lab, which facilitates cross cultural communication between diverse academic and activist populations.

An applied anthropologist, Ian is a former managing director of the Harvard-based indigenous rights organisation Cultural Survival Inc., and is the senior editorial advisor for the Cultural Survival Quarterly, the premier journal focusing on the rights, voices, and visions of the world's indigenous peoples. He is also a former deputy country director of the Armenia Tree Project, where his work was recognised with the 2008 Energy Globe Award for Sustainability.

Ian has published two books and over 100 articles and has worked on human rights projects in a number of countries, including Mali, Kenya, Armenia, and Australia. His greatest interest, however, is the religions and cultures of Aboriginal Australia. He worked on a number of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s and has written extensively on the historical and spiritual dimensions of Yolngu (North east Arnhem Land Aboriginal) relations with Makassan (Sulawesi) seafarers from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century.

Note: The views expressed in speakers' abstracts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Museum of Australia.