An image from the Caroline Tennant-Kelly Collection – a funeral takes place in Cherbourg in 1934. Courtesy Kim de Rijke
An image from the Caroline Tennant-Kelly Collection – a funeral takes place in Cherbourg in 1934. Courtesy Kim de Rijke
1 July 2011

A surprise discovery made by UQ researchers will come full circle during NAIDOC Week celebrations next Monday.

Postgraduate students Kim de Rijke and Tony Jefferies will present findings of their native title research in Cherbourg on July 4 to coincide with a new exhibition honouring the life of prominent anthropologist Caroline Tennant-Kelly.

A large collection of Ms Tennant-Kelly’s papers were hidden for 20 years before Mr de Rijke and Mr Jefferies discovered them in a cattleman’s shed in northern New South Wales in late 2009.

Since then, funding from the Social Inclusion Division of the Attorney General’s Department has allowed the team to analyse and index the collection – almost 2000 items in all – and compile the research on DVD to hand back to local communities.

Mr de Rijke said Ms Tennant-Kelly’s manuscripts, letters and photos shed light on the social and cultural practices of the Indigenous people she lived and worked with, particularly in Cherbourg.

“The ethnographic record from those years is scant and very little first-hand information was available regarding the conditions of cultural life at Cherbourg during the 1930s,” he said.

“These materials demonstrate both the maintenance and adaptation of Aboriginal cultural practices in a situation where the odds were stacked against them. Further, her vivid descriptions of the ways in which the settlement was administered by the officials provide a 'warts and all' picture of government policies as they affected Aboriginal people in 1930s Queensland.”

The research project harnesses this information to assist Aboriginal people and others involved in native title research to find relevant information quickly.

“The ethnographic research materials have been put into a form such that researchers and laypersons alike can locate the information they wish to find,” Mr de Rijke said.

“We have categorised the documents and provided an index which allows a search of the material through place names, personal names, Aboriginal language names and certain key topics in native title such ‘change and continuity’, ‘kinship’ and so on.”

Mr de Rijke said progress in native title work remained “painfully slow”, with only a fraction of the claims lodged in the last 15 years resolved.

A key goal of the research was to facilitate Indigenous inclusion and access to research materials relevant to them.

“We always considered it important to return the ethnographic materials to the Aboriginal communities involved,” Mr de Rijke said.

“We know how little material is available and how such records are often treasured by members of the communities. This project provided a unique opportunity to do that.”

Mr de Rijke said the value of the Tennant-Kelly collection had become clear following its discovery, with scholars working in fields as diverse as theatre history, urban planning and immigration studies seeking out its contents.

Ms Tennant-Kelly started her career in the 1920s as a playwright, before researching Aboriginal culture in the 1930s, and then becoming involved in post-war immigration issues. In the 1950s and 60s she focused on the social aspects of Sydney’s early urban planning, and at the time was the only anthropologist employed in Australia in this capacity.

“The collection is valuable for historians and contemporary commentators, containing as it does first-hand accounts of major issues in Australian history that continue to today, including Aboriginal living conditions, social issues associated with urban sprawl and the experiences of refugees and other immigrants in numerous places across Australia,” Mr de Rijke said.

The exhibition of Caroline Tennant-Kelly’s photographs will be officially opened at the Ration Shed Museum in Cherbourg on July 4. Guests will include Grahame and Stephanie Gooding – the couple who looked after the collection for two decades before its discovery – and Ms Tennant-Kelly’s son James, now in his seventies.

The University of Queensland is holding several major NAIDOC Week events including the inaugural Yalari Indigenous leadership camp from July 1–3 and an Indigenous Health event hosted by the School of Medicine on July 2.

Media: Kim de Rijke (0405 407 741, or Cameron Pegg at UQ Communications (07 3365 2049,

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