Accepted paper:

Anthropology, Christian missions and the morality of land as Indigenous birthright


Kirstie Close-Barry (Deakin University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper traces the influence of anthropology on the moral discourses of missionaries, focusing on their use of the term ‘birthright’ to describe land in Australia, PNG and Fiji. Though used by the colonisers, it was used to unify and defend Indigenous peoples against the threat of dispossession.

Paper long abstract:

The term 'birthright' has been used by anthropologists, missionaries and Indigenous Christians to assert the need to defend Indigenous rights to land. This paper offers a historical view of the influence of anthropology on colonial discourses around Indigenous land ownership, and how this was used to assert Indigenous rights to property. Missionaries from the 1930s onwards were trained in anthropology and utilised the anthropological concepts of culture and difference to comprehend their day to day experiences in the mission field. They were thus engaged in the configuration and fusion of moral and anthropological concepts. Using anthropological concepts of morality, this paper explores the exchange of the term 'birthright' between missionaries and Indigenous Christians to describe Indigenous connections to land. The term became a powerful motif, utilised by missionaries to comprehend the processes of colonialism, and by Indigenous peoples to fight colonialism's systematic economic oppression and dispossession. This paper considers the morality of land and 'birthright': a term that both reflected colonial power and that was incorporated into Indigenous articulations of autonomy.

panel Land02
Moral horizons of land and place