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Change in continuity: an archaeology of Mualgal missions, western Torres Strait, northeastern Australia
In order to distinguish essays and pre-prints from academic theses, we have a separate category. These are often much longer text based documents than a paper.
posted on 30.01.2017by Ash, Jeremy
This thesis is an archaeological examination of the colonial history of the Mualgal people
(the Indigenous people of Mua, western Torres Strait, northeastern Australia) from their first
entanglements with the London Missionary Society in the late nineteenth century, to their
later supposed "absorption" into the Queensland State bureaucracy following the turn of the
twentieth century. The two case studies considered - Totalai and Poid - are seminal
ancestral village sites for the Mualgal today. They offer a rare opportunity for researchers to
examine changing Mualgal traditions of the colonial era with relatively fine-grained
temporal resolution. Occupation of each village during this colonial period was short
(although an even earlier village at Totalai has a pre-colonial antiquity) and relates to a
different phase in Torres Strait's colonial history: the indirect "rule" of the LMS years (c.1871
- 1904) and the colonial authority of the Queensland Government Protectors (c.1904- 1950).
The key question pursued in this thesis is essentially an issue of representation, and, more
specifically, the difficulties archaeologists confront in conceptualizing the actions of
Indigenous peoples when writing about mission- and reserve-based entanglements. For the
most part, archaeologies of Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia have been
approached in academia through one dominant theoretical lens: hegemony. While such
approaches have undoubtedly elicited important insights into dynamics of power relations
within institutional settings, I argue that hegemonic and related frameworks are inadequate
to address how Indigenous peoples approach and think about their own post-contact past.
In part, this inadequacy reflects the ways in which archaeologists interested in power
dynamics have, for the main, overlooked Indigenous notions of material culture and
landscape - a reflection that unconsciously mirrors a researcher's own preunderstanding or
preconceptions. Such oversights have broader disciplinary and political implications, not
least of which is the potential to reinforce a general perception that missions and reserves
were in essence Western places of quarantining (and cultural incarceration and
rehabilitation), of steps towards cultural extinction ("the dying pillow" trope) and
disconnection, to the neglect of a counter, Indigenous view of a rich, Indigenous postcontact
history of emplaced cultural vitality and dynamism. In this sense, missions cannot and should not be reduced to institutional spaces, but recognised as personal places that
have been and continue to be socially and culturally experienced.
This thesis, therefore, attempts to investigate these "other" narratives of mission and
reserve-based entanglements; that is, it aims to depart from narratives highlighting rupture
and control, toward an analysis that explores and traces themes that transcend and connect.
I attempt to do so archaeologically through the perspective of "biography", and in particular,
the biographies of "traditional" Mualgal objects and places as they became involved in new
sets of social relations and political fields, taking on new kinds of cultural relevance. In
tracing the biographies of Mualgal things through time, I argue that the histories of Totalai
and Poid involve histories of both loss and regeneration, of colonial relationships and
ancestral entanglements, and of displacement and emplacement in complex iterations that
link Mualgal people today with Mualgal people as they once were.