Tracking Properness: Repackaging Culture in a Remote Australian Town

Peer Reviewed


Indigenous people around the world have used the contemporary convergence of a global tourist market, increasingly available recording technologies, and ambivalent national desires for reconciliation to repackage their traditional cultural knowledge. This article examines the production and circulation of an internationally available compact disc containing Warumungu women’s dreaming songs. Tracking its production, circulation, and ongoing insertion into cultural negotiations, I explore the contours of cultural change through simultaneously commercial and traditional practices. In a nation that claims self-determination for its Aboriginal population, Australian national sentiments and Aboriginal cultural mandates are not separate. Recent land rights movements, political moves for cultural autonomy, and continuing political marginalization are not just the backdrop for the compact disc’s production but part of the impetus for its existence. As Warumungu women consciously repackaged their ancestral song tracks into the compact disc’s tracks, they did so in ways that connect their abiding traditions and their uncertain future through “proper” (jurrkkul) cultural actions.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on indigenous practices that negotiate the politics of representation, including Marisol De La Cadena's "Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond 'Politics'" (2010), Patricia Pierce Erikson's "A-Whaling We Will Go: Ecounters of Knowledge and Memory at the Makah Cultural and Research Center" (1999), and Faye Ginsburg's "Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media" (1994).

Cultural Anthropology has also published many articles on the circulation of cultural products, including David Novak's "Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood" (2010), Martha Kaplan's "Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity" (2007), and Elizabeth Emma Ferry's "Inalienable Commodities: The Production and Circulation of Silver and Patrimony in a Mexican Mining Cooperative" (2002).

About the Author

(Adapted from Christen's website)

Kimberly Christen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies and Director of Digital Projects at the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies at Washington State University. Dr. Christen received her PhD from the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz in 2004, and her work explores the intersections of cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, intellectual property rights, the ethics of openness, and the use of digital technologies in and by indigenous communities globally. Her fieldwork and collaboration with the Warumungu community spanned ten years and produced new ways of sharing cultural heritage online (see links below). Dr. Christen is currently conducting fieldwork with the Plateau Tribes in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Warumungu Links

Digital Dynamics Across Cultures: Christen worked with the Warumungu to develop this "interactive project focusing on the cultural protocols of the Warumungu people from Central Australia."

Mukurtu Protocol: Developing a digital storehouse for Warumungu cultural materials, Christen innovated a CMS (content management system) that can be used by other communities as a dynamic archival system.

The Song Peoples Sessions: This website presents recordings that are "collaboration[s] between traditional and contemporary AustralianIndigenous musicians to support the protection of intangible culturalheritage and maintenance of Indigenous languages and traditional songcycles, creating new forms of musical cultural expression." The sessions are an example of the kind of ongoing negotiation between modernity and tradition that Christen explores as "properness" in the article. As she wrote, the Warumungu use of the term properness pushed her to think of it "as a type of continuity, as a continually reworked set of actions that align with, but do not necessarily reproduce, an ideal notion of the past."

The National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia: Information about the CD compiled by Linda Barwick that is mentioned in the article, "Yawulyu Mungamunga Dreaming Songs of Warumungu Women," can be found at this website.

Additional Readings

Christen, Kimberly  

2005 "Gone Digital: Aboriginal Remix and the Cultural Commons." International Journal of Cultural Property 12(3):315–345.

Erikson, Patricia Pierce  

2002 Voices of a Thousand People: The Makah Cultural and Research Center. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ginsburg, Faye  

1993 "Aboriginal Media and the Australian Imaginary." Public Culture 5(3):557–578.

Hamilton, Annette  

1990 "Fear and Desire: Aborigines, Asians, and the National Imaginary." Australian Cultural History 9:14–35.

Jolly, Margaret  

1992 "Specters of Inauthenticity." Contemporary Pacific 4(1):49–72.

Kaberry, Phyllis  

1939 Aboriginal Women: Sacred and Profane. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lattas, Andrew  

1993 "Essentialism, Memory and Resistance: Aboriginality and the Politics of Authenticity." Oceania 63:240–267.

Nathan, David  

2000 "Plugging in Indigenous Knowledge: Connections and Innovations." Australian Aboriginal Studies 1–2:39–47.

Povinelli, Elizabeth  

2002 The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tafler, David  

2000 "The Use of Electronic Media in Remote Communities." Australian Aboriginal Studies 1–2:27–38.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte  

2004 "Circulating Aboriginality." Journal of Material Culture 9(2):183–202.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Do you work with a community that has a wealth of materials that could be shared online? What are some benefits and drawbacks of sharing a group's meaningful materials with a wider audience unfamiliar with those meanings?

2. In the article, Christen notes that, "the compact disc is an object that seems to bridge many divides." Have you encountered phenomena that similarly connect different situations?

This article has been included in Cultural Anthropology's Curated Collection on Infrastructure

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