The Politics of the Voice: Ethnographic Fetishism and Australian Literary Studies


  • Richard Martin University of Queensland


A. P. Elkin, Bill Harney, John Bradley, Yanyuwa, Aboriginal literature, Australian ethnography


The politics of representing Aboriginality often focuses on questions of authorship and appropriation. Much of this criticism rests on the simplistic assumption that texts created by collaboration and even uneven collaboration are not in some respects voiced by their subject or subjects. This paper discusses two popular texts about Aboriginal ceremonial songs or ‘songlines’ in order to challenge this assumption, reading Bill Harney with A. P. Elkin’s Songs of the Songmen: Aboriginal Myths Retold (1949), and John Bradley with Yanyuwa Families’ Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of Carpentaria (2010) as Aboriginal texts. These texts are particularly interesting insofar as they focus attention on the relationship between voice and text, as well as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, being the products of collaboration by the anthropologists Elkin and Bradley with, on the one hand, a non-Aboriginal ‘Protector’ and popular writer (Harney), and, on the other, the subjects of the ethnography themselves (that is Yanyuwa Families). As I argue, the shifting ways in which the songlines of northern Australia are voiced in Songs of the Songmen and Singing Saltwater Country provides insights into the politics of representing Aboriginality in Australia, and the forces that have historically affected it. The close analysis of these texts focuses attention on the role of ethnographic fetishism for the exotic and authentic within the changing context of cultural production in Australia.

Author Biography

Richard Martin, University of Queensland

Research Fellow and Consultant Anthropologist, Culture and Heritage Unit, School of Social Science