Bob Tonkinson interview, 17 April and 23 April 2013

Dublin Core


Bob Tonkinson interview, 17 April and 23 April 2013




Emeritus Professor Bob Tonkinson studied anthropology at the University of Western Australia in the 1960s with Ronald and Catherine Berndt. He subsequently studied and worked in North America and at the Australian National University before returning to UWA as Professor of Anthropology in 1984. He has carried out extensive field research at Jigalong and in the Western Desert, as well as in Vanuatu.


Tonkinson, Bob


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Bob Tonkinson


Nedlands, W.A.


Interview 1: 1 hour, 49 minutes, 23 seconds
Interview 2: 1 hour, 25 minutes, 43 seconds
Total: 3 hours, 15 minutes, 6 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1: 17 April 2013

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Robert Tonkinson. Born 12 September 1938. Grew up in Mosman Park. Parents migrated to WA in 1926. Schooled Mosman Park primary and then Claremont High School.
02:09 Did Junior Certificate. Attended Perth Modern School where he did leaving certificate and matriculation. Encouraged and keen to go onto university. Got all 7 subjects
04:09 Influence of older brother – encouraged him to play tennis and hockey and take up teaching as a career. Full time at UWA. Missed second “B” mark by half a per cent. Had to go back part time instead of full time.
06:56 Taught for 3 years (1958-1960) at Harvey Junior High School. Main subject was geography. Started a hockey association which was very successful.
08:24 Came back and taught at John Curtin High School in the Princess Mary Annexe and went to UWA lectures after school. Studied Anthropology in his second year back. It was a new subject. Interested in people rather than things. Ronald and Catherine Berndt taught a mixture of Anthropology and Sociology.
11:00 Strong tradition to work in a different culture. Research experience of Ron and Catherine. She was from NZ and he was from SA. Very successful department.
12:09 Anthropology raises cultural awareness. A practical side to the subject. Applied Anthropology used by multi-national companies to assist in business dealings with different cultures today.
13:43 Hooked by the 3rd year and began to understand the principles. Learned to touch type and typed up lecture notes which assisted his learning. Urged by Ron Berndt to do Honours. Very supportive of his students. Got a 1st Class in Honours and did field work in the South West. Studied Noongars working on farms in Narrogin. Found field work hard and embarrassing. Interviewed Noongars and farmers. Wrote about the patterns of movement of the Aboriginal farm workers and prospects for assimilation.
17:36 At this time it was believed that the traditional cultures would die out and the Aboriginal people disappear as a distinct minority. Aboriginals considered mentally and physically inferior. “Smoothing the Pillow”.
19:50 The Aboriginal population was in decline until 1933 and then rose quite dramatically although they are still about 2% of the total population.
20:50 Ron Berndt suggested Bob give up teaching and do Anthropology full time. He found him a scholarship and suggested he do field work in the Pilbara area where people were still coming in off the desert. The Western desert is the largest Aboriginal cultural area. Great deal of uniformity across this huge area in Dreaming, Law and Religious ceremonies. Discussion of the dreaming and the spirit world.

Track 3
00:00 UWA was a small campus in the 1950s and Bob would run into people he knew from school in the other faculties. Anthropology was housed on Fairway.
01:29 Discussion of Berndt collection – small museum. Displays from PNG had caused consternation at the sexual nature of the exhibits. Berndt were experts on sex and cannibalism in PNG.
04:13 Interesting comment by a critic about Ron Berndt’s publication, Excess and Restraint: social control among a mountain people in Papua New Guinea that it contained lots of excess and precious little restraint!
04:57 There was a small library in the Anthropology Department. The main library was under Winthrop.
06:15 No Tavern at that stage. Socialising was done eating sandwiches on the lawn in front of Winthrop Hall. The R’ef was to the right of Winthrop Hall as you face Stirling Highway
08:27 Active theatre group and balls in Winthrop Hall. Bob taught jive at Wrightson Dance studio in Murray Street, Perth
09:50 The failure rates at UWA were high – student realised that they had to work.
10:40 Anthropology was not offered for first years. Bob was told the subject was about people and cultures so it appealed to him. John and Kati Wilson were some of the first students to qualify. They did work with Don McLeod who led the first strike of Aboriginal farm workers up north. They were inspirational to Bob.
12:42 Ron Berndt encouraged Bob to do some field work in Jigalong. He resigned from the Education Department.
14:20 Bob knew it was in the desert but did not know where it was. In those days the train went as far as Meekatharra 300 miles away. There were mission trucks that delivered rations and other supplies to Jigalong. Another student was leaving for Broome in mid-1963 and gave Bob a lift.
16:46 The missionaries were fundamentalists and Bob found them more different to him than the Aboriginal people. Bob had studied the texts of Wilf Douglas who produced a phonology and grammar of the Western Desert language. He had also done a year of linguistics at UWA with Susan Kaldor. Bob found the ability to write symbols to represent the phonetics very useful. In Aboriginal language there is a subject indicator.
21:38 Discussion of culture shock and what it is for those working in the field.
23:15 The difficulties of field work.
23:48 How supplying rations to the hunter gatherer people had affected their health and culture.
25:00 Discussion of the extended case method

Track 4
00:00 How to establish the topic of study for fieldwork. The importance of having the Berndt’s work to familiarise yourself with the area. Ethnographic salvage work – ritual, the dreaming, the law – vacuum cleaner anthropology. Sucking up all the information before it is too late.
01:42 The tension between the Aboriginal people and the missionaries who regarded the Martu as a primitive people who were sexually promiscuous who needed God to save them.
03:42 The missionaries were from the Apostolic Church of Australia. They were not very well educated or trained in missionary work. They originated from Wales. They did not try and convert Bob but worried he would turn ‘native’.
05:58 He did not consciously study them but became interested in their world view. They were obsessed by the sexual relations between the Martu.
07:35 Bob wrote on the ‘Jigalong Mob’ and on kinship and the similarity of their rituals even though it was such a huge area. They liked travelling so would use modern transport to visit kin and perform ceremonies. The society was dependent on those meetings held normally twice a year in the desert at a location where food and water could be found.
09:59 You gave to go with the flow as people come and go and appointment can be broken which can be a bit frustrating when you are doing field work
10:38 There was still a great deal of ritual at this time. Women had their own ceremonies which Bob could not attend.
10:58 From their part the Martu had to work out who Bob was and whether they could trust him. It helped that he could speak the language and understood some of the basics of the kinship, the law and the rituals.
13:07 Permissions had to be sought from the Native Welfare Department and the Mission. It is doubtful that the Aboriginal people in Geraldton or Jigalong were consulted. UWA gave him good credentials.
15:00 It is doubtful that the Missionaries would have consulted the Martu. This word means “person” and is a label that they give themselves.
15:39 People realised that Bob had a genuine interest and knowledge of the law. He swore so he could not have been Christian. Once he was asked by the Martu whether he had actually seen Jesus.
16:42 Some of the frontier whites on the pastoral Stations had Aboriginal concubines and children (not that they were acknowledged).
17:26 They had to work out what kind of a person Bob was. At one time, some of them wanted to be known as the University Mob
18:48 Initially Bob was at Jigalong for about 7 months. He would return every time he could. The major rituals were held during January and February known as ‘pink eye’ time. This is when the hirers of Aboriginal labour lay them off as there is no work and they return to the Mission.
21:03 Big emotions for the Martu are homesickness and shame. The kinship system is central to their law and ways of behaviour. They have no chiefs. The kinship system is the overarching framework with religion that defines their behaviour and interaction with each other. It is very complicated. They have a great sense of sense.
22:32 They have a strong command of their environment. The Western desert of Australia is one of the hardest places for human survival.
23:27 You can see the kinship system in action for example where people avoid each other as they are not allowed to meet.
24:32 You must not walk into a strange camp. You must sit outside and be invited in. Relationships must be established first.
25:37 Bob was asked what his skin group when he first met a group of men. They named him Panaka so they made him their brother in order that they could establish what relationship they could have with him.

Track 5
00:00 Fieldwork methods are pencil, notebook, camera and tape recorder. The ethics of using these. Brain, eyes and ears are the most important. You must cross check the facts.
01:24 Discussion of specialisation in Western Society and the contrast with Aboriginal society. Education in hunter gatherer societies is by observation and imitation. The importance of tracking and reading the signs.
04:34 The importance of the elderly for passing on the knowledge.
05:06 When Bob was writing information down most people asked what he was doing but when they realised that it was to ensure the knowledge was there for ever they were mollified.
06:42 You prove yourself by being there and saying you are coming back and coming back. In the end Bob was not regarded as a white fella but part of the furniture. Bob would pay the people by giving tools and tobacco.
08:30 They prize useful things like buckets and chisels. The material things from Western society are accepted but the religious and intangible things like values are not. They adopt and adopt material goods which are useful.
10:00 The issues around recording voice and photography. He did not take photographs of sacred objects at first. Bob has never published pictures of sacred objects.
11:55 Recording voice was similar to photographs of the dead but a couple of generations on, many people come to Bob’s house to see photos of their great grandfather. This taboo seems to be easing. The Martu people can recognise people’s limbs or hands as well as faces.
14:43 Cross checking research. The unwritten rule is that you contact the person whose has been in the field before you. You liaise and/or cite sources from people who have specialist knowledge in the field i.e. Fiona Walsh for her knowledge of the seasons and environment. Doug and Rebecca Bird have worked at Jigalong. They are from Stanford in the US and are interested in diet and bush tucker; hunting food and how it is distributed. Relationships.
18:32 Bob’s Master’s was longer than his PhD as he was covering a lot of territory. The focus of his thesis was: “How do groups who are so different ideologically and culturally co-exist without falling apart at the seams”.
21:58 Myrna’s Bob wife studies food, how you eat, what you eat, food preparation, etc.
22:23 Comparison of universal activities; similarities and differences. Your own culture is the standard, or model against which other cultures are compared. The data is then analysed to write the thesis. The relationships in Jigalong are integral to any study of any area. Avoidance relationships. How these are managed in the modern age is very interesting.
26:20 Bob has not been up to Jigalong for 3 years so things might have changed in this time as cultures and practices adapt.
26:35 Bob’s Master’s thesis was examined by external examiners.

Track 6
00:00 After completing his thesis at UWA, Bob became aware of a project about relocated communities in the Pacific. It was organised by the University of Oregon in the USA.
01:30 Bob was able to take part in this project and had a temporary teaching position at the University of Oregon. He also did more field work in Australia when he could.
02:00 Bob did his PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
02:28 Bob returned to Jigalong and focused on the rain making ritual.
03:14 Bob got a tenured teaching job back in Oregon in 1971 and submitted his PhD in 1972.
03:39 In 1984 Bob took a job at the ANU in Canberra and was here for 4 years. At about the same time Ron Berndt retired and had always wanted Bob to take on the professorship, so he returned to Perth and UWA and came full circle

Interview 2: 23 April 2013

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00: 0

Track 2
00:00 Return to UWA in 1984. Found UWA had grown considerably. The Department of Anthropology was now in the Social Sciences Building. Anthropology was a ‘problem’ department. Roy Lourens. John Gordon was a Harvard graduate and had some good ideas for the reorganisation of the department, including combining second and third year courses.
04:40 Bob brought in some procedural changes including that essays needed to be handed into the office to be registered rather than handing them direct to staff members.
05:33 Some staff encouraged to take early retirement or to find other employment. Some left of their own volition as they couldn’t cope with the work load.
06:44 The new appointments were crucial to the success of the department. They had to be collegial and experienced in different fields. The department concentrated on Aboriginal Australia, South and South East Asia and the Pacific. Staff informed of what was happening and there were regular departmental meetings.
09:03 It was decided to hire staff from outside the university rather than hire their own graduates. All the new appointees were excellent teachers – Bob considered this central to the success of the department. He himself enjoyed teaching and loved taking the first year classes.
11:46 Linguistics was within the department but later went out on their own. A similar thing happened with archaeology.
13:13 The students came from a wide range of departments. The Faculty of Arts encouraged students to study broadly in their first year.
14:06 A thesis writing seminar was introduced for Honours students. Students often did not realise that a thesis needed a hypothesis.
15:27 The Berndts had left their mark. They were excellent field workers and ethnographers and developed good areas of questioning. They left a moratorium on their archives to be quarantined for some years but then to be available for researchers.
17:15 Their material was found to be crucial in the Hindmarsh case and with land claims.
18:29 UWA has benefited from their collections. The museum is very well regarded.
18:52 Field work was considered essential but became difficult for students who were working part time and/or had families. One student studied Dutch businessmen in Perth.
21:00 Bob regretted that there was no mechanism to follow up with their students after 5 years and 10 years to find out whether Anthropology had been useful in their career and how it had helped them.
21:43 Comparison of American and Australian systems. Working at ANU had helped him to get into the zone in Australia. There are many more four field departments in the US. Being an administrator was a new role for Bob. Oregon is his second home. He is still in touch with people there and in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver
24:10 Bob considers getting international exposure is vital and likes to have staff possessing experiences outside Australia.
26:58 Things have changed now and many people find it difficult to get full time work especially on the east coast of the US.

Track 3
00:00 The high point of his time at UWA was being awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1988 as he prided himself on making his lectures entertaining and engaging.
02:56 Bring the ‘otherness’ back home and give relevant examples so that they can understand what is going on using the ‘home made model’.
03:38 Lots of people came to the lectures – including people from other disciplines. One student came to a lecturer having been invited by a friend and decided to study Anthropology and did her PhD.
04:48 The university instituted an award that was voted on by the students to find the best teachers. Six were chosen including Bob. The award included the sum of $1,000.
05:55 In 2002 Bob was asked to give the Berndt Memorial lecture.

Track 4
00:00 How Anthropology is used. The discipline is founded on anti-racist notions. Other cultures are not ranked. Anthropologist must also be aware of observer bias. Field work can be very lonely and it is important to retain a perspective.
06:38 Bob’s particular fields of interest were religion and sorcery. How sorcery and magic can be used to create social control.
17:20 Correspondences can’t be made until you know a fair bit about that society. This entails repeated visits to the field. It isn’t just professional as you make relationships in those societies.
19:33 Lecturing on Melanesia and PNG on expedition cruise ships

Track 5
00:00 The development of Anthropology in Australia and its importance for Native Title. The importance of custom
03:57 Being Nomadic was a key element – no boundaries.
05:21 Interviews are done with the people and information is gathered to ascertain the basis of their claim; their association with the land.
05:59 Children were taken from their mothers. Bob is involved with The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and does a lot of reconciliation work.
07:28 Once anthropologists only did academic work but now they can do consulting. It is a very important area today. There are university courses just on this topic.
08:05 Issues with national parks. There are Indigenous Ranger programmes.
08:28 Torres Strait islanders are the second indigenous group. They are Melanesian. The first big significant land claim was in the Torres Strait.
09:13 Job prospects for anthropologists are very good now.
09:57 The heritage component also has to be taken in consideration when approving mining leases.
10:20 Study leave and international conferences are crucial to keep abreast of developments in the field. Bob gets students referred to him from the US due to his contacts there.
11:24 Protocol of contacting the person who has done field work in the area you are intending to go into. The importance of anthropologists not being drawn into internal politics in an area.
13:56 Anthropologists tend to be leftists as they identify with the downtrodden. Sometimes your actions can be misinterpreted as trying to stir up social revolt.
16:14 American anthropologists have been taken for the CIA in South America and killed. This is not helped by the fact that some anthropologists were in fact recruited by the CIA!
17:42 Anthropologists pay their informants by in kind presents or cash. When Bob left his field trip in Vanuatu he gave the village his possessions to be divided up amongst them. The villagers knew who had helped and were able to do this. People got items on a scale of value that equalled how much they had helped.

Track 6
00:00 Headship 1985-1987 and 1995-1997. Happy to hand this over as he always taught a full teaching load even as Head of Department. Jill Woodman the department secretary.
03:53 Bob’s need to be punctual, able to make deadlines and have this neat and ordered.
04:40 The Department has blossomed due to Jill’s presence and the esprit de corps. Staff had to communicate and communication with students was considered very important.
06:21 If Bob had not been born in Australia he would have liked to have been born in New Zealand due to its very interesting native culture and large multi-cultural Polynesian society.
07:48 In the last 20 years Australia has become very multi-cultural. There are black people in every Australian city.
08:51 He believes that Australia has strong assimilatory powers.



Tonkinson, Bob, “Bob Tonkinson interview, 17 April and 23 April 2013,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,