Senior Anthropologist Richard Davis

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What do you currently do in terms of work?

I am a Senior Anthropologist at the Central Land Council (CLC), located in Alice Springs.

How do you apply the knowledge and skills of anthropology in your work?

The majority of work that I and other anthropologists do at the CLC is grounded in understanding different kinds of Aboriginal land tenure. That will include understanding   whatunderlies the composition of a landholding group, how seniority, or authority, is structured in that group, and how inheritance and succession works. This requires an understanding of kinship, how attachments to place are made, gender relations, political economy, time, work, and broader issues that arise out of the intersection of different modes of being in an environment where the state, law and resource development are ever-present. An anthropologist working in this environment also has to have an awareness of history, memory and race, as these are critical registers that permeate the way life is lived in Central Australia.

Tell us about an interesting or important project you’ve contributed to. 

Prior to my work at the CLC, I undertook a research project for the British Museum. The Museum was responding to a request made by a group of Torres Strait Islanders to have human remains of their ancestors returned to them. The Museum asked me to provide a report on the historical  and contemporary significance of the human remains to Torres Strait Islanders. The repatriation of human remains gathered in the colonial era is a potent and heartfelt issue and the opportunity to play a part in an issue of such importance was important to me.

What are some common challenges in your work?

The organisation I work for represents the interests of the Aboriginal traditional owners andresidents of Central   Australia. On occasion, I am involved in discussions with Aboriginal people where there is dispute over who owns a particular area of land according to Aboriginal law and custom. Meetings where there are disputes of this kind can have people making varying claims about ownership and the anthropologist, myself, may be asked to offer an opinion about which claim holds up. Care is needed in these instances, if only because such an opinion may be taken as an authoritative assertion. A combination of thorough preparatory research and on-the-ground nous is critical to navigating this sort of situation.

What do you love about your work?

The opportunity to combine specific anthropological skills to help identify the right Aboriginal people to make decisions about their country.

How did you get to where you are today?

My focus on indigenous Australians in my undergraduate and post-graduate studies meant that I was well-placed to take up work of this kind. I undertook a PhD, but very few of the anthropologists who work in the field I do, carry a PhD, as it is not really seen as advantageous to gaining on-the-ground-skills necessary for doing applied anthropology.

What advice would you give to a student of anthropology who wants to work in your field?

Focus on indigenous Australia in your undergraduate and 4th year. The 4th year (Honours) is the critical year that indicates your ability to work to task and show self-direction. Do this well and you are well on your way.

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