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Deborah Bird Rose

Deborah Bird Rose

American ethnographer of Aboriginal peoples
Deborah Bird Rose
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American ethnographer of Aboriginal peoples
Was Anthropologist
From United States of America
Type Social science
Gender female
Birth 1946, United States of America
Death 2018 (aged 72 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


Deborah Bird Rose (1946-2018) was an Australian based ethnographer of Aboriginal peoples; plus, in her lifetime, an increasingly ecological, multi-species ethnographer and leader in multidisciplinary ethnographic research

Her research since the 1980s has focused on entwined social and ecological justice, based on long-term fieldwork with Aboriginal people in Australia. Her approach has drawn on elements of anthropology, history, philosophy, cultural studies, religious studies, and animal studies and has led to innovative understandings of ethnographic and ecological knowledge, most recently in the new area of multispecies ethnography

— Ann Standish, "Rose, Deborah Bird", The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia (2014)

Early years

Born in 1946, Deborah Bird Rose was the eldest of four siblings (Betsy, Rose, and Will) growing up in Seattle, Washington. By the early 1970s Rose was living in Delaware, attending the University of Delaware, where she worked as a research assistant and helped teach within the University's Department of Anthropology, in 1973 completing a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, with honors and distinction.

From 1973 to 1974, Rose was a coordinator of a Women's Education Collective, teaching at a Women's Resource Centre in Newark, Delaware, following which, by 1977, she was in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania completing a Master of Arts in Anthropology with Bryn Mawr private women's liberal arts College., and for a brief period in 1979 lecturing in Anthropology on cultural and social change at Trenton State College, New Jersey

By 1980 Rose had enrolled in a Doctor of Philosophy with Bryn Mawr College and obtained a National Science Foundation grant to undertake research in Aboriginal Australia, taking her to Australia and to the Aboriginal Australian community of Yarralin, Northern Territory for which Rose also obtained an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies grant to study and research the 'cultural identity' of Aboriginal peoples at Yarralin

Ethnographic fieldwork

For a period, from September 1980 to July 1982, Rose immersed herself and conducted twenty-two months ethnographic research within the Northern Territory Aboriginal communities of Yarralin and Lingarra, actively observing and interviewing mostly Ngaringman and Ngaliwurru speakers who had otherwise lived the whole of their lives on Anglo-Australian owned cattle stations, wherein Rose participated in, photographed, and learned about these peoples' public ceremonial life, women's secret ceremonial life, and their daily life in town, and in the bush .

"In 1980 I came to Australia to do research with Aboriginal people in the hopes that, if successful, I would be able to write a thesis and earn my PhD I came with questions about the meaning of life. I wanted to know how a group of Aboriginal people in outback Australia posed and answered the fundamental questions that humans everywhere ask: why are we born, why do we live, why do we die?.".

From this initial, immersive period of ethnographic research, Rose learns local Aboriginal peoples of the Victoria River District ".. possess their own exegesis of cosmos and humanity.." also known in Aboriginal English as 'the Dreaming', and, in 1983-84, she obtains a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies undertaking to write about and report on "the religious identity of the Aboriginal peoples of the Victoria river", altogether culminating in her producing, for 1984, her Bryn Mawr College Doctor of Philosophy dissertation as follows:

This .. is an ethnographic study of an Australian Aboriginal group's conceptualization of the cosmos and of the role of human being within the cosmos. The analysis is interpretive, focusing on domains of meaning which can be summarized as cosmos and humanity. I focus the analysis on the dialectics of Dreaming law, human action, and actions of other portions of the cosmos, showing how Dreaming law is both a model for, and commentary on, the life of all living beings. Dreaming law and human action both indicate that the cosmos is seen as a system which works because all its parts (humans, other living beings, the country, the seasons, and so on) are conscious and because they act according to a few fundamental principles, the goal of which is to produce a life enhancing cosmos.

In 1984 Rose presents some of her doctoral findings on Yarralin peoples' religion and religious identity to an Australian Association for the Study of Religions, entitled "Consciousness and Responsibility in an Australian Aboriginal religion", being a summary paper that is later included in W.H Edwards (1987) "Traditional Aboriginal Society: A Reader" for future students of Aboriginal peoples. Rose's ethnography, itself, eventually becomes an influential Australian anthropological book entitled "Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture" published first by Cambridge University Press in 1992, winning the Stanner Prize for a work on Aboriginal issues; next printed in 2000, with a third edition printed in 2011:

Postcolonial histories

At least one reviewer of the ethnographic work arising out of Rose's doctoral fieldwork observed, "..the author’s research is an example of [a] wave of anthropological writing, with [an] emphasis on community involvement, ownership and control.." wherein Rose herself advised:

Victoria River Downs Station, Northern Territory, handling of fully grown cleanskin cattle which had been captured in trap yard, 1953

My Aboriginal teachers were particularly interested in sharing the history of colonisation with outside readers – especially with white Australians and Americans. As part of my payback to them, I wrote a history that incorporated large amounts of their own words: Hidden Histories (Aboriginal Studies Press, Winner, Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature).

At the same time as submitting her dissertation, in 1984, Rose submitted to publish the first of her 'Aboriginal histories learnt while undertaking her ethnographic fieldwork; this one entitled 'The Saga of Captain Cook: Morality in Aboriginal and European Law' (1984); followed shortly afterwards with 'Ned Lives!' (1986, later reincarnated as 'Ned Kelly Died for our Sins' 1994); also 'Remembrance' (1986) plus ‘Signs of Life on a Barbarous Frontier: Intercultural Encounters in North Australia’ (1998), all published during a stint as a visiting fellow in Canberra, at the Australian National University's History Department writing the Yarralin Aboriginal teachers' ' "Hidden Histories. Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia" (1991)

"Rose says in the introduction to Hidden Histories, many Aboriginal stories of their pasts ‘are distressing. They tell of intense cruelty perpetrated by human being [settlers] against human being [indigenous people]’. Rose also writes that ‘people who worked for [Victoria River Downs (VRD)] and Wave Hill, for the most part regard the decades of work for others as a time of horrendous hardship, deprivation, and oppression’.".

Rose also saw her Aboriginal teachers, elders, and historians Humbert Tommy Nyuwinkarri and Hobbles Danayarri formally acknowledged in the Horton's (ed) (1994) Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, also seeing Hobbles Danayarri included and acknowledged in the 1996 Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, also in 2007, the Australian Dictionary of Biography .

Land rights

As a visiting fellow (1984-1988) with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), whom had provided funding supporting Rose's doctoral research, Rose teamed up with archaeologist/historian Darrell Lewis:

  • co-authoring a paper on ethical issues for archaeologists recommending Aboriginal consultation methodologies for archaeologists (1985);
  • collaboratively documenting and assessing the cultural significance of rock art in the Victoria River district (1987) and;
  • co-writing for the AIAS a book about the rock art of the Victoria River District entitled "The Shape of the Dreaming. The cultural significance of Victoria River rock art" (1988)

Over this time Rose also teamed up with Darrell Lewis to research, write, and provide expert opinion for the following land claims under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976:

  • the Kidman Springs/Jasper Gorge Land Claim (1986); then
  • the Bilinara (Coolibah-Wave Hill Stock Route) Land Claim (1989)

Later (1993-1998) as a fellow with the Australian National University's Darwin based North Australia Research Unit (1993-1998) Rose undertook further statutory Northern Territory land rights work, this time including writing senior anthropological reports and providing expert opinion for:

  • the Kamu People, Kamu Country Land Claim (1993)
  • the Kenbi (Cox Peninsula) Land Claim on behalf of the Tommy Lyons Group (1995)

Rose played a major role in the Victorian and NSW Yorta Yorta Native Title claim in the 1990s, strongly and forcefully supporting the claimants against Kennett Government intransigence.

Rose was also consulted by, and provided specialist anthropological advice to the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice Peter Gray, responsible for deciding statutory land rights claims, including, for instance, in relation to the Central Mount Wedge Land Claim (1998), Palm Valley Land Claim (1999), The Alcoota Land Claim (2007) , and the Wangkangurru Land Claim (2014)

Rose describes her work in this whole land rights field as follows:

I have worked on more than twenty land claims, native title cases, and Aboriginal land disputes, in some cases working with the claimants and in other cases working for the Aboriginal Land Commissioner. I have carried out sacred sites surveys throughout the Victoria River District. In the course of this work I have become an experienced bush woman: I have travelled by truck, foot, boat, and helicopter, have driven cross-country through sand and mud, across boulders and through the long grass, and have slept out in a wide variety of places and conditions.


  • ROSE, Deborah Bird (1991). Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hills Stations. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0855752248. OCLC 24405276.
  • ROSE, Deborah Bird (2004). Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. Sydney, NSW. ISBN 978-0521794848. OCLC 63187291.
  • ROSE, Deborah Bird (2011). Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813930916. OCLC 663101308.

Publications on-line

Talks on-line

Reports on-line

External Links

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 13 Feb 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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