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The Unan cycle : a study of social change in an Aboriginal community

posted on 21.05.2020, 02:34 by Deakin, Hilton
The subject of this study is a small community of Aborigines and Whites living at Kalumburu, a remote settlement in the Kimberley region of the far north of Western Australia. The settlement is a Catholic mission, administered by a group of Spanish Benedictine monks and nuns. The cultural situation of the community was partly a result of the isolation of the settlement, and the concentration of local horde groups into a central site, which permitted strong control over the development of the mission, and the relative self-sufficiency achieved by the community. In discussing the life of the Aborigines and whites at the mission, I look at the attitudes and assessments each had of themselves and of the other. In many ways evaluations of people and groups are mutually exclusive, so that both Aborigines and Whites have world views in which the own group was central and the other peripheral or even excluded. One of the principal aims of the missionary presence and work has been the introduction of their version of western cultural benefits to a people they believed to be in dire need of them, especially the Catholic form of Christianity they sought to introduce. An analysis is made of the results of the attempt to dominate and particularly to penetrate the belief and value system of the local people through the imposition of another system. In some measure this gauges the effectiveness of the missionary work. In spite of the many advantages that isolation and unquestioned control gave the missionaries, the local people retained significant elements of their old culture, and forged a dynamic and pulsating cultural life at odds with the dominant culture represented by the missionaries, the local community school and the government agencies that tried to implement the policies of the federal and state governments. Sometimes it was a case of direct clash and opposition to an introduced or imposed custom or value. Just as often it was a case of adaptation by people trying to reach a modus vivendi between two different systems. A major agent in the preservation and adaptation of traditional ways has been the exchange system or Unan, which consisted of a highly organised series of groups and clusters of groups constituting a long chain that reached out over many hundreds of kilometres of territory to embrace distant communities. Through and into these groups material of a ritual, mythical and economic nature circulated at a measured pace, controlled by the needs of any given community, the inventiveness of the controllers of the Unan, and the capacity of the modern means of communication to relay the material from one place to another. The people have accepted much of what the missionaries brought them. They have also resisted and reshaped many things. Today they are culturally distinct as a group through means and in a way that the missionaries would not have envisaged when they set their sights on bringing the Kalumburu Aborigines into the mainstream of Australian cultural life.


Principal supervisor

Michael Swift

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Anthropology and Sociology


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts