Document Type

Book Chapter


If you spend time in the region around Mistake Creek, an Aboriginal owned cattle station in the north western Northern Territory, you will soon run into Aboriginal people proudly sporting caps embroidered with the station name and logo. For these Aboriginal people, their association with a large cattle station is a source of pride and identity. This may be surprising to many, as a popular view is that the impacts of pastoral settlement have been unambiguously negative for Aboriginal people. Past and present Aboriginal associations with pastoralism are, however, diverse, encompassing everything from brutal violence to relatively benign, if paternal, labour relations, to contemporary Aboriginal ownership and management of pastoral enterprises and the not uncommon sight of Aboriginal cowboys in the inland and the north. Despite the relative economic decline of rural industries and critiques associated with environmentalism and the Aboriginal land rights movement, pastoralism maintains an influential position and high status in Australian society and continues to be celebrated in a variety of fora and through a range of events as an essential element of the economy and of Australian identity and mythology (Curthoys 2000; Gill 2005). Through their association with a station and through acquiring shirts etc) associated with it, Aboriginal people are able to ‘accrue the social and cultural capital that has historically rested with settler pastoralists’ (Davis 2004, 39). This does not, however, imply that Aboriginal pastoralists have shed their Aboriginal identities and adopted an ‘Aboriginality’ that conforms neatly to settler pastoral identities and land use ideals. As Davis notes for the Kimberley in north western Australia, while practising pastoralism and accruing its benefits, Aboriginal pastoralists nonetheless maintain a ‘radical alterity’ (2004, 39) from settler pastoralists, partly through specific pastoral practices. Similar arguments have been made for Central Australia and northern Queensland by Gill (2005) and Smith (2003), who show that attempting to draw sharp boundaries between the pastoral and Aboriginal domains ignores their mutual production in both the past and in present daily life in which both change and stability are always evident.