The road to fieldwork

At the beginning of June last year, I set off for Barunga from my home in Adelaide with my partner, Antoinette, and our friend Jasmine. We’ve made this trip a number of times before, but this one was a little different. Ant and I were going to live in Barunga for several months for my PhD fieldwork. Jasmine, of course, is from Barunga but now lives in Adelaide while she finishes her degree.

Barunga is an Aboriginal community in Jawoyn Country, roughly 80km south-east of Katherine in the Northern Territory. It’s home to around 300 people and hosts an annual sport, culture and music festival. My supervisor, Claire, has worked there for almost 30 years with her anthropologist husband, Jacko.

Jawoyn Country, featuring the three largest communities: Barunga, Beswick and Manyallaluk. The map also shows the location of past and present shelters where the consumption of liquor is legal.
The three largest communities in Jawoyn Country: Barunga, Beswick and Manyallaluk. The map also shows the location of various ‘drinking places’

I’ve been working in Barunga since 2010 when I started my Honours research, looking at visual and material responses to the Howard Government’s Northern Territory National Emergency Response (or the Intervention). After graduating Honours, I continued visiting Barunga during the dry season each year while I taught on the Community Archaeology Field School and developed my next research project.

While the roughly 2,500km drive to Barunga was old news to us, the prospect of the next few months was daunting. We stopped at the usual spots along the way–Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Renner Springs–before arriving in Barunga the same day the Festival started.

The figurative road to my fieldwork was a little less routine.

It started in 2010 when, on the back of a field school in Darwin, Claire invited me to Barunga for a few days. The field school was one of the last topics of my bachelor degree and, honestly, I was going to leave archaeology behind once I was done. I just didn’t see my place in the discipline.

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Me and Gamung. Photo: Claire Smith

I went to Barunga, camped for a few days and met a lot of people. I was told my skin name (Bulain) by a senior man from Beswick, a neighbouring community. Despite visiting a few rock art places–including Gabarnmang–I was still thinking archaeology wasn’t for me.

In the weeks before my first visit, I’d given a presentation on the archaeology of graffiti and I’d developed an appreciation for it. After getting permission, I started to record some graffiti around Barunga.

This was three years after the Intervention started and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore local responses to it–these responses, I imagined, would rarely exist in media coverage. I spoke with the Traditional Owners about coming back to do a more detailed study into contemporary graffiti, which they were happy with.

An Honours project that dealt with more pressing issues than one that dealt with the distant past appealed to me. I found my place.

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Graffiti at Claire and Jacko’s hut, Barunga. Photo: Jordan Ralph

Fast forward a few years to 2014, I’d finished my Honours degree, visited Barunga a few more times and built some lasting relationships many in the community. I was ready to start talking about my next project.

I sat down on the calico by the fire with Esther Bulumbara (Traditional Owner) and Nell Brown (Traditional Custodian) and asked what they’d like me to study if I came back next year. It didn’t take long for the answer to come: “something about how the Intervention isn’t working”.

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Esther, Nell and me. Photo: Antoinette Hennessy

I developed their succinct and direct request into my current project, where I’m looking at how people living under the Intervention use material culture to regain some power and control over their lives; how government policy impacts on concepts of identity; and how changing concepts of identity are visible in material culture.

In a nutshell, I’m looking at graffiti, rubbish, fences, and vehicles (among other things). I’m also looking at change over time and space, hence the length of my field trip. Though, the length of my trip is also to gain some emic insight into the community and the things I’ll record.

So, while the prospect of the field trip was daunting–particularly the participatory approach and the artefact recording–we at least had the excitement of the Barunga Festival to help settle into our new home!

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