Fieldwork update, Weipa 2012 (and reflections on a decade of work)

I’ve just arrived in Weipa again for a few weeks of  work with the Anhatangaith and Alngith groups. It will likely be the most relaxed field trip I’ve had here for some time. I’m not planning to survey, record, dig or count. I’m here to listen, to catch up with old friends, to write, and maybe catch a fish or two along the way. I thought I might try and throw out a quick blog post or three while I’m here about what I’m generally up to. “What is that?”, you ask?

Last year my small research team and I completed a field survey program at Waypandan, an important place within the Country of the Anhatangaith people (via Weipa). The purpose of that work was to pull together  a ‘management plan’ to help conserve and look after this important place into the future. We’re all familiar with such reports; there are quite prescriptive guides on how to write them and every second heritage project you’ll read about mentions them. While I think they’re important and useful documents, my experience is that they are poor – and lazy – ways to finish projects that are supposed to be collaborative, inclusive and above all, useful for the communities that we all work with.

I have recently been thinking a little about ways to relegate the management plan to the background, where it should be. A few days ago I found some field notes that I recorded in late 2007 during an informal meeting with a group of Elders who were instrumental in establishing the project. According to my notes, they mentioned that they would like to tell people about the “true history” of Weipa in a book. So for the next couple of weeks one of my tasks is to sit down and find out if a community oriented book might be a more useful way to finish this phase of the project. I’ll still need to prepare a supplementary report and management plan, but they will be brief and in the background. Our research has generated such a wonderful array of oral, historical and archaeological data that I think it would be unethical to exclusively present that in a dull report.

The other thing I need to do while I’m here is to help set up a heritage/caring for country program for the Alngith people. We finished a major project early last year that included, among other things, a ‘whole of Country’ heritage management plan to outline problems and issues that they face with regards to managing their Country. The next step – and the focus of this trip – is to form a heritage reference group to guide development of a program that can employ people and offer tangible outcomes. Growth of this idea has been very organic and slow (since 2008!) and for me at least, the path forward is still a confusing tangle of ideas: rangers, signage, rehabilitation, environmental management, eco-tourism, fencing, ethnobotany, mining, oral history, etc. But that’s often the case with this type of community work: it is complicated and – for outsiders at least – confusing. But it should be; if things don’t seem complicated then you’re probably not listening (or hearing) what people are saying.

In any case, a heritage reference group will help sort out those tangles and facilitate some focussed discussion.  I’ve recently been reading  a wonderful book by Annie Ross and colleagues, who propose an Indigenous Stewardship Model for such situations. I haven’t finished the volume yet, but their framework will be very helpful as we move forward.

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Not much of this counts in my discipline, at least for more traditionally minded archaeologists (though this is changing). For me though, I think it reflects a natural progression in how I see myself fitting in here. When I first bounced up the dusty road to Weipa in 2000 with my then boss Roger Cribb, I was fully focussed on counting and digging up middens and managing things: I was an ‘archaeological cowboy’, riding the wild frontier and cracking the whip of science. Perhaps I wasn’t that bad, but I certainly know that this approach is counter to everything I’ve since learnt here. I tend to shun conferences these days, because I see too many of these glorious cowfolk (and their students) with their pith helmets, leather boots, medals and tall tales. I have no problem with science, research or generating new knowledge, I just dislike the ‘cowfolk approach’. That will the subject of another post, though, and one that is best left unpublished for a while.