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Research & Reward in Central Australia

Called a “timely collection” and a “worthwhile contribution” to the discourse of Aboriginal life, Growing up in Central Australia: New Anthropological Studies of Aboriginal Childhood and Adolescence was first published in June 2011 and was published last month in paperback. Editor Ute Eikelkamp revisits the volume and describes the joy and reward of fieldwork that led to its publication.




Paying attention to the life experiences and capacities of the Aboriginal children I had known as mediators, shifting presences and welcome companions for some years during field research with the senior knowledge bearers in a central Australian community has been a most rewarding experience, both personally and intellectually.

Looking back, it was the easiest and most productive work I have as yet undertaken, for several reasons: the children loved being watched, filmed, photographed and engaged with more generally, and I became an adult playmate – a role akin to that of the ethnographer who belongs yet does not belong. Thus, I never felt I was intruding upon their lives or time. Moreover, the girls’ prolific storytelling in the sand presented ample opportunity to learn about the process of symbolic productions, and seeing the community through children’s eyes enriched my understanding of Anangu society immensely. Importantly, families were actively supporting the research that sought to document children’s social and cultural capacities by offering trust, intellectual curiosity and precious interpretative skill.


Two surprises were in store for me. First, I had not anticipated that turning towards the youngest members of the community would open the door towards deeper insights into the cosmological perspectives held and developed by highly reflective senior people. I felt overwhelmed in the way the encounter with great art provokes it when I was told how a certain play tradition relates to a higher order symbolic system sustained through ritual. And second, the focus on children has engaged local Indigenous educators who are beginning to speak and write for themselves. When Katrina Tjitayi, a leading Anangu educator told me, “That interview we just did, that’s not your data, that’s my text,” I knew a fundamental shift of the gaze and of the nature of engaging in fieldwork was happening, at last.


Katrina’s text, combined with the voice of another active woman in the local community, Sandra Lewis, became a chapter in the book, along with those written by trained anthropologists and linguists. Hopefully this is just a beginning.


Perhaps this will be another beginning, one through which we can forge a genuine dialogue, exchange experiences and turn these into knowledge, talk and write together. The shift in positioning the self by my Anangu friend has also triggered a shift in my own self-reflexive stance; it encouraged me to develop an ethnographic project in my old home in Westphalia’s Ruhr Valley.


At the time, my own writing plans were cut short when, towards the end of the three year-long research on childhood at Ernabella, I fell pregnant with twins. “Now you will know what it’s like,” my closest friends assured me, alluding not only to the mixed blessing of endless joy on one hand and demand on time and energy on the other, but also to the new source of understanding that comes with experience.



Ute Eickelkamp is ARC Future Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Between 2004 and 2009 she was ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School for Social and Policy Research at Charles Darwin University. She studied Anangu children’s imagination and social and emotional dynamics through a traditional form of sand storytelling in the Central Australian community of Ernabella, after therapeutic sandplay work with Tiwi children in Australia’s north. Her current research focuses on the transformation of Australian Indigenous ontologies and subjectivities.