Dr Norman Barnett Tindale

Archive Collections / Dr Norman Barnett Tindale
Born : 12 October, 1900
Died : 19 November, 1993

Norman Barnett Tindale was born in Perth, Australia, on 12 October 1900. James Tindale, his father, moved the family to Tokyo, Japan in 1907 to continue his work as an accountant with the Salvation Army. Tindale's intense anthropological interest in other cultures can be traced partly to his formative Japanese experiences. As a young boy Tindale learnt German and French from the private school he attended. His 'street Japanese' learnt from playing with Japanese children, was later put to use deciphering Japanese military codes in his capacity as RAAF Wing Commander in the Second World War. During his Japanese childhood Tindale developed an interest in entomology, in particular Lepidoptera. He collected moths and butterflies in the countryside around Tokyo and visited the Imperial Museum. Entomology remained an absorbing interest until his death on 19 November 1993.

The Tindales left Tokyo on 5 August 1915, arriving in Perth the following month. In February 1917 the family moved to Adelaide. Tindale immediately formed an association with the South Australian Museum's Curator of Entomology, Arthur Lea (see AA 867). Tindale writes of Lea's desire 'to have someone who would look after Lepidoptera generally' (diary entry, 21 February 1917). In May 1917 Tindale secured a cadetship with the Public Library, but was determined to transfer to the South Australian Museum as soon as a position in entomology became available. Tindale wrote in his diary on 19 May 1918:

'While sitting at breakfast and reading (a la solitaire) I came across this newspaper article dealing with New Guinea and the PLM & AG of SA's trip [this was the Museum's 1918 collecting trip to the south-west Pacific, led by Edgar Waite (see AA 356)] and had instantly a great desire to be one of the party and see again the country I desire to go to. Only time can tell whether my dreams and desires will come true.'1

Tindale only had to wait a further six and a half months for his ambition to be realised. The Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery had received additional funding, allowing Lea to finally arrange for Tindale's transfer to the position of Entomologist's Assistant. During Tindale's time with Lea, he learnt the importance of original order and provenance when asked to examine an entomological collection prior to purchase:

'They were horrified to find Mrs Lower, dear lady, beginning an attempt at making the collection tidier. She had picked out those specimens with conspicuous labels, and those which had wings of one side mounted on cards, and had piled them in a little heap. Here were priceless type-specimens on their way to destruction. Careful handling soon put things right and Tindale was able to conclude that little of significance was lost. It was nevertheless a near tragedy and served to illustrate the desirability of leaving undisturbed any collections made by a departed expert if scientific data is to be preserved and especially if they are to be offered to a Museum.'2

In 1921, the opportunity arose to combine Tindale's interest in entomology with anthropology, when he requested one year's leave of absence to assist the Church Missionary Society of Australia and Tasmania as an honorary member on an expedition to Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He planned to study and collect natural history specimens on the South Australia Museum's behalf. Lea supported the application, stressing that no zoologist or botanist had collected from the island and its adjacent localities since the time of Flinders. Further, he stated, 'the ethnological objects should also be of exceptional interest as there is not one from the Island in any museum'.3 Having convinced the South Australian Museum Board of the importance of the expedition, Tindale was given £50 in advance for purchasing specimens from Aboriginal people.4

As preparation for the expedition, Tindale was advised to visit Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer at the University of Melbourne for instruction on how to collect anthropological data. Showing Tindale the 'Geographic II' spelling used for transcribing Aboriginal vocabularies, Spencer also advised him:

'Never to go to bed at night before entering the key data of the day, even if I had to write the following day about corrections which should be made. I learned to write on the even numbered page of my journal, being careful to indicate date and place, leaving the odd-numbered side for entering data on photographs, making sketches, adding later comments and additions. In later years I learned to keep a rough running index which I tidied up and bound when my journal had extended to about 500 or more pages. It is useful also to put a title page on the journal so that in later years it can be quoted as a manuscript book.'5

Of the 7,651 specimens and objects Tindale collected on Groote Eylandt, 487 were ethnographic.6 The anthropological results were published in the Records of the South Australian Museum. On the 'great island', Tindale formed an association with Maroadunei, a Ngandi tribe songmaker from Arnhem Land. Tindale wrote:

'It was he who introduced me to the idea of the existence of tribal boundaries, limits beyond which is dangerous to move about without adequate recognition. His account of the tribespeople he had visited and his guidance in the matter of vocabulary changes enabled the writing of a paper containing data and a map of Southern Arnhem Land tribes. The editor to whom it was submitted refused to accept a map with finite boundaries, making the assertion then popularly believed, that aborigines roamed at will over the whole country - free wanderers. By a compromise the dotted lines that appear on the map were permitted to remain and the paper was accepted.'7

From this moment Tindale set out to collect and collate data relating to tribal boundaries. This eventually became his major contibution to anthropological research, culminating in the 1974 map and accompanying catalogue, Aboriginal tribes of Australia, their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits, and proper names. His objective was to demonstrate that Aboriginal people were not 'free wanderers' 'but were linked by culture, kinship, and language and were bound to the land ecologically and geographically'.8

Tindale was appointed as part-time ethnologist in 1928. He continued his duties as assistant entomologist until he relinquished this position in 1933 to become the Museum's full-time ethnologist.9

Tindale became an active member of the 'Adelaide school' of anthropology, participating in the early meetings of the Anthropological Society of South Australia (founded in 1926) and became a crucial member of the Board for Anthropological Research (see AA 346), based at the Univeristy of Adelaide. The Board's project was primarily one of physical anthropology, but Tindale's participation emphatically extended its scope to cover social aspects of anthropology. Rather than exploring the functionalist, kinship-based research model set by the University of Sydney, Tindale and his colleagues were urgently recording data relating to Aboriginal social life, material culture and environmental relationships, before this data was irretrievably lost through European contact and social change. Tindale became an examplary 'salvage ethnographer'. The extension of the north-south railway to Alice Springs in 1929, along with the 'advent of motor trucks'10 both reinforced this sense of urgency, and created the means by which the Board expeditions were able to contact remote Aboriginal groups within a few days of leaving their Adelaide base.

Tindale participated in most of the annual Board for Anthropological Research expeditions until these were interrupted by the Second World War. During the 1930s these expeditions were largely to remote regions beyond influence of government officials and missions. Expeditions to Koonibba (1928) and Hermannsburg (1929) provided exceptions. Here, as on the 1938-39 Harvard-Adelaide Universities' Expedition and later visits to Queensland mission stations, Tindale was aware that his research concerned Aboriginal cultural traditions which were actively discouraged by religious and government authorities. Despite this, he was able to record an impressive amount of data while preserving good relations with mission authorities and Aboriginal leaders.

Tindale's record-keeping, both in the field and on his return, reflected the standard techniques of the period. In the field, Tindale recorded his observations in notebooks entitled 'rough notes'. Each evening, following Spencer's advice, Tindale wrote these more fully into his expedition journals. Once the transcription was complete, lines were ruled through the pages. A few of these rough notes survive.

Tindale's journals became the backbone of his documentation, containing the crucial record of all his scientific activities, and often providing the primary data which described his anthropological collections acquired on behalf of the Museum. In this sense, Tindale's journals are, apart from their narrative, essential elements of the Museum's own collections. It was because of this fact, rather than any general commitment to future researchers, that Tindale ensured that his journals were copied, in typescript form, and lodged at the Museum on his retirement in 1965. Subsequently of course, his original journals were bequeathed to the Museum in Tindale's will.

Tindale and other expedition members also created many supplementary records, additional to their journals. These included maps, drawings, Aboriginal vocabularies and genealogies, annotated crayon drawings by Aboriginal people, anthropometric and sociological data cards, receipts for expenditure, and audiovisual material including 16 mm cine-film, wax cylinder sound recordings, photographs, as well as collections of artefacts and natural history specimens. Tindale's collection thus contains a range of data, not all of which was originally generated by him.

Tindale saw the importance of authenticating information in the field by recording the Aboriginal informant's name and social class, often verifying that data at a later date. Trained in a natural science tradition, he valued the importance of 'making a record' which could stand alone, for other researchers. This was particularly evident in the care taken with his linguistic data recorded from Yaraldi and Tangani informants such as Albert Karloan and Clarence Long (Milerum). These texts and songs were transcribed into International Phonetic Spelling, to a scientifically accepted standard. Tindale was aware that many mistakes had already been made through poor transcriptions of handwritten original records, and by virtue of the fact that some of his predecessors did not have an ear for language.

On his return from the field, Tindale bound his daily journals to form a volume or volumes, depending on length. He incorporated further items of interest such as newspaper cuttings, additional notes and photographs, sometimes adding these years later. As the collection grew, Tindale recognised the importance of creating a contents page and index to assist his own research.

To his main series of expedition journals Tindale added desk journals and volumes containing notes and compilations on various subjects. The desk journals include information gathered on overseas trips (such as his 1936 Carnegie Fellowship to Europe and the United States to examine Aboriginal ethnographic collections and museum display techniques). Notes on archaeological sites are found in a bound compilation entitled 'Campsites and Implements', and notes on shorter trips may be found in the 'Entomology and General Field Trips' journal. These volumes also contain photocopies of data drawn from other original journals. As Tindale's interests continued to diversify, he filed additional data such as cosmology, mythology, place-names, ecology and botany in ring-back folders.

Tindale's expedition journals served as his major primary resource for compiling data on Aboriginal tribal groups for his 1974 Aboriginal Tribes publication and its accompanying, large-scale map. This publication contains a full catalogue of Tindale's Geographic II orthography for these tribal names, cross-referenced to alternative and variant spellings. This thesaurus enables a researcher to consult Tindale's catalogue entry for the tribal group, arranged by state. These entries contain the bibliography of sources used by Tindale to arrive at his research conclusions relating to the tribal name, its territorial extent and location. Not surprisingly, Tindale's own journals feature in many of these bibliographies.

Tindale's collection is distinctive in that he never drew the line between his personal activities and professional research. The content of his journals remains remarkably even, despite his transition from museum scientist and researcher to his post-retirement career as visiting Professor at the Unversity of California in Los Angeles and the University of Colorado.

Despite his early transition from entomology to ethnography, his private interest in entomology never diminished. Tindale went on to become a world authority on the ghost moth, Hepialidae, publishing his results in scientific journals. Despite publishing almost 200 scientific papers, he never closed any line of research, believing that a new record always had the potential to suggest different conclusions. He continued to research, revisit, and rewrite his data until his late eighties and had advanced plans for a revised edition of Aboriginal Tribes. It is unfortunate that, despite his careful organisation of the data, he was never able to complete a first draft of his major work on the Tangani people of the Coorong, based on his research collaboration with Clarence Long (Milerum).

Tindale guarded his research as is common in the faculty of science. Knowing how easily his data could be misinterpreted he tightly controlled research access to his records during his lifetime. An exception lay with his linguistic data, in deference to trained linguists to whom he freely supplied copies. Another exception lay with his Aboriginal genealogical data, which he was happy to make available through the South Australian Museum's Aboriginal Family History Project. He was unaware of the dimension of the impending native title debate, or of the demands which this would place on his material. Nevertheless, he knew that the day would come when he would pass control over his research material to the South Australian Museum; this prospect further motivated him to organise his material as coherently as possible.

The South Australian Museum Archives contains Bound Journals of expeditions and supplementary papers; Indexes to journals and language research; Copies of journals; Notes and drafts for proposed Gazetter of Aboriginal place names; Photographs relating to journals, and Folders of Anthropology slides; compiled Vocabularies and grammatical sketches, Annotated complimentary source materials, and Manuscript documents; Speech and sound recordings, and associated documentation on tribes; Maps; Expedition films; and Correspondence 1920-1960.

Inventory Listings by Series
Prepared ByJonathan Nicholls, Adrian Fenech, Stella Marr, Darinka Gluvakovic, Dr Paul Monaghan, Jane Thimke, John Vaughan-Williams, Shane Mobley, Peggy Brock and Francesca Zilio