Refiguring indigenous economies: A 21st-century perspective

Jon Altman, Nicholas Biddle

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)


    Introduction The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia (or Indigenous Australians) have been excluded from grand narratives of the economic development of the continent since British colonisation. The Indigenous story has been assigned to barely a footnote, which is summarised as follows: Post-Enlightenment colonists with a superior western economic system and institutions and superior military might found dispersed and impoverished small-scale hunter-gatherer groups scattered across the continent with no recognisable forms of land tenure, property rights or political systems. Land was expropriated for more productive purposes. In his critical interpretation of the history of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe (1999) notes that colonial society was premised on displacing Indigenous people from their land and their elimination. In the brutal clashes between British settlers and Indigenous nomads on the frontier, there were winners and losers; and thus the Australian nation was born without any apparent Indigenous contributions. In this chapter we explore the Indigenous economic contribution from a comprehensive historical perspective. First, utilising a new economic historiography, we re-imagine Indigenous economies in the period 1850-1970. A little like the new history of frontier violence, a story of diverse economic histories emerges from the recent scholarly focus on the archive, case studies, and oral history. Next, we look at the period since 1970 when the Indigenous economy was rendered statistically visible after efforts were made to include Indigenous Australians fully in the national census. In particular, we examine the policy focus on a form of convergence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes as measured by statistical indicators that reflect the normative criteria of the dominant society. Third, we use a spatial perspective to examine what we term 'a land-titling revolution' that has seen the return of one-third of the Australian continent to traditional owners living mainly in remote areas; we also assess old and new economic development opportunities that might be linked to this restitution. Finally, we consider different policy approaches and discuss future options that might better suit diverse Indigenous circumstances and aspirations in the 21st century. We end by examining the transformative possibilities that are today emerging for Indigenous economies.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Economic History of Australia
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages25
    ISBN (Electronic)9781107445222
    ISBN (Print)9781107029491
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


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