First Nations descendants are celebrating the end of a 30-year embargo on a vast collection of anthropological field notes compiled by renowned anthropologists and Academy Fellows Catherine and Ronald Berndt. This significant development grants Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities access to over 45,000 pages of detailed cultural and family records previously withheld from public view. These notes, now housed at the University of Western Australia, promise to illuminate the rich cultural history of several remote communities. It is hoped that this newly accessible information will answer long-standing questions about cultural heritage and practices for members of these communities.

The Berndts were Fellows of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, with Ron elected in 1962 and Catherine twenty years later, in 1982.

Between 1939 and 1985, the Berndts meticulously documented their extensive travels through regional Australia and Papua New Guinea, capturing intimate cultural details in hundreds of notebooks. However, a clause in Catherine Berndt’s will imposed a three-decade restriction on access to this invaluable data—a restriction that included the communities from whom the information had been taken. Now, with the embargo lifted, efforts led by co-director of the Berndt Museum, Dr Stephen Gilchrist, are underway to facilitate the reconnection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their cultural heritage. The University of Western Australia has streamlined the application process for viewing the digitised notes, marking a new chapter of cultural reclamation and transformation for these communities.

Excerpt from ABC news article Indigenous communities can access sacred cultural knowledge in Berndt field notes after 30-year wait (12 June 2024):

Co-trustee of Ms Berndt’s estate, John Stanton, studied under Mr Berndt in 1974. Dr Stanton said the Berndts implemented a 30-year embargo on the field notes in line with American Anthropology Association and the Royal Anthropological Institute recommendations. He said they also had fears the information in the field notes could be used to the detriment of Indigenous people. “Catherine reiterated the reason for the embargo was that they both believed … that all governments in Australia were inherently antagonistic to Aboriginal interests,” Dr Stanton said. “They didn’t want their field notes to be used against Aboriginal people by what they regarded as pretty evil governments.”

University of Western Australia pro vice chancellor of Indigenous studies Jill Milroy acknowledged the pain the embargo had caused communities. “It has had a profoundly awful effect for Aboriginal people not being able to access their materials for this period,” she said.