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Type: Theses
Title: 'Plenty of opal back then: Opal Pulkah': a history of Aboriginal engagement in the Northern South Australian opal industry c.1940–1980
Author: Harding, Michael Albert
Issue Date: 2016
School/Discipline: School of Humanities
Abstract: This thesis examines the role of Aboriginal people in the northern South Australian opal industry, in particular the Andamooka and Coober Pedy fields, from 1940 to 1980, and the distinctive nature of their participation. It explores an aspect of Aboriginal engagement in the economy that has not been examined in a scholarly way, making considerable use of oral testimony. This thesis also highlights the agency of Aboriginal people, who participated in the industry while also maintaining cultural continuity in an era when the official government policy of ‘assimilation’ was in full swing. The small-scale and informal nature of the opal industry attracted Aboriginal people because of the level of workplace autonomy it provided, and how it accommodated important economic, social and cultural practices. The opal industry shared a number of similarities with the northern pastoral industry, a large employer of Aboriginal labour which also accommodated significant cultural practices and so provides a useful comparative framework throughout the thesis. In addition, there was considerable movement of Aboriginal people between both industries. Using the ‘hybrid economy’ model, which demonstrates how Aboriginal people in remote Australia participated in the market, public and traditional customary economies, this thesis argues that Aboriginal people were able to participate actively in the South Australian opal industry in a variety of meaningful and skilled occupations, often in trying conditions that required patience and determination. At the same time Aboriginal opal miners vigorously maintained important aspects of their traditional economic, social and cultural lives, which the industry readily accommodated. Recognising the significant engagement of Aboriginal people in the opal industry and an emerging Aboriginal opal community, the state government intervened in several ways to assist. These activities included assisting Aboriginal people attain fair prices for their opal, and some basic accommodation and welfare services. The level of this assistance varied considerably on both major opal fields, and this thesis examines the extent of this and longer term implications. The opal industry provided many Aboriginal people with a regular source of income for many years, but by the 1970s, their engagement began to dwindle. A number of factors contributed to this, including declining levels of opal production, new technology driven by increasing fuel prices and the extension of unemployment benefits to Aboriginal people in remote areas.
Advisor: Foster, Robert Kenneth Gordon
Sendziuk, Paul John
Dissertation Note: Thesis (Ph.D.) -- University of Adelaide, School of Humanities, 2016.
Keywords: Aboriginal opal mining
Aboriginal agency
cultural continuity
Provenance: This electronic version is made publicly available by the University of Adelaide in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. This thesis may incorporate third party material which has been used by the author pursuant to Fair Dealing exceptions. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material you wish to be removed from this electronic version, please complete the take down form located at:
DOI: 10.4225/55/5af3d1cab6544
Appears in Collections:Research Theses

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