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Every dead ethnographer (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) had a tin trunk in which all the information on the people, the language, the culture, anything, yes anything you want to know, could be found. But, I'm sorry, aunty died last week, and we don't know WHERE that tin trunk is now. (Source of observation: Michael Walsh). The anthropologist Ursula McConnel who worked with Wik Mungkan people on Cape York Peninsula, died in 1957, and people have been looking for her trunk ever since.

Nearly fifty years later, McConnel's tin trunk has at last made its way from 'under a pile of junk in the back shed of a property bought for demolition' to the South Australian Museum. Among other material it contains 450 photographs, a draft grammar of the Wik-Mungkan language, about 100 pages of linguistic fieldnotes of about 100 pages on an American Indian language, perhaps Karuk, a broken (sigh!) phonograph record and an early 55 page field-notebook 'on Wik and Wik-Way people of the Aurukun-Weipa area'. The wonderful story is in Peter Sutton's article Surprise Discovery of Early Anthropological Papers in Adelaide from The Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter Number 103, September 2006

A beeswax figure collected by McConnel and given by her to the South Australian Museum formed the starting point for a seminar by Peter Sutton at AIATSIS on Monday 25 September. Entitled 'Wax and Sex: Gender Identity, Wik Material Culture, and Ursula McConnel" it contained lots of ideas on gender switching in performance, on objects made with beeswax and beads, on McConnel's fieldwork, as well as some quite lovely photographs she took of men dancing, painted up and ornamented like women, and of women dancing holding spears, like men. But you'll have to wait for the book he's writing. I'll just mention some ideas and insights for linguists.

First were bees, honey and their nests. There are several species of native bees, which make different types of nest. All are split into binary oppositions of 'male' and 'female', even though there is no linguistic gender marking. Sometimes the source of the assignment is obvious - a nest with a long pipe as its entrance, or one with a hole. They are important totems, and Peter had suggestions as to what they symbolised. It's a good example of the need to work with biologists for checking understanding of habitat and habits (and see Tom's post on this) and with ethnographers for understanding the associated metaphors. The binary oppositions are in some respects a learned category, but, as Pat McConvell pointed out, in northern Central Australian creole boy sugarbag and girl sugarbag are the normal ways of referring to different types of honey - in areas where there is no linguistic gender marking. So the division is pretty important.

Peter suggested that bees, honey and wax and the myths associated with them have to do with sexual love and jealousy, with birth (pendants formed of umbilical cord embedded in wax), and with death (string aprons worn by widows with wax beads). He commented on the lack of discussion of emotions in many ethnographies, summing it up as "I don't think we have a good ethnography of Aboriginal feelings". (Update: Thanks to Kimberley Christen, I've just learned of Beth Povinelli's new and lusciously titled The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality - but whether it fills this gap I can't tell, because the blurb is liquid concrete, and Duke University Press hasn't taken up Amazon's offer to "learn how customers can search inside this book.")

It is exceptionally hard for the ethnographer to understand how other people feel. As Sutton pointed out, we do not have the same experiences. Most of us have not known what it is like to travel days getting hungrier and hungrier and hoping desperately that, when you arrive at some important place, a rockhole, a bush potato area, there will be food growing there, and then the joy and relief of finding that it is growing there, and how that feeling attaches to the place. So eliciting vocabulary to do with emotions is hard, because we don't know what the prototypical situations are for feeling certain types of emotion.

"What do you call it when your co-wife goes off with your husband?" "What do you call it when your nephew badgers you to give him a bicycle?" These situations are ones that a Warlpiri lexicographer came up with to define some words, and perhaps the situations that he thought prototypical can be used for eliciting in other Australian languages, and perhaps we can collect other such situations and share them, to come to better understandings of talk about feelings.

Comments

Do you happen to have a image of the materials that were recovered in the trunk

There are handsome illustrations of the trunk itself, as well as photos and an image of a manuscript in an article Peter Sutton has recently published: 'Ursula McConnel's tin trunk: a remarkable recovery', in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia (2010), 134(1): 101–114

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