Aborigines lack both the ideological and economic bases of power in contemporary Australian society; for the most part, they control neither tilings nor ideas. White Australians (and foreign-based corporations) control most resources: they control the means of production and distribution. They are influential in defining needs, and they are able, by and large, to determine how and whether or not these needs are fulfilled. This, of course, was not always so. For thousands of years Australia's Aboriginal inhabitants were, or at least so they thought, absolute masters of the universe - it was their continent. They controlled the physical world that surrounded them, and they defined how power over tilings and over people was to be obtained and reproduced. This situation changed drastically when European colonists arrived. In a very real sense, Aborigines lost control over things and they lost the ability to define the situation, although recognition of this fact was sometimes slow to materialize. Aborigines were deprived of power, and since their initial incorporation into Australian society they have been searching for a satisfactory place in the new socio-economic order.
The authors of the chapters that follow address themselves to an examination of the evolution of power in relation to Australia's aboriginal population from the pre-contact period to the present. The chapters approach the study of power historically and in a wide range of settings. The book as a whole is especially concerned with Aboriginal power as it has been influenced by Aboriginal incorporation into Australian society, and with the transformations that have occurred as a result of this incorporation.
The initial chapters (those by Kolig, Turner, Maddock, Myers, and Tonkinson) pay particular attention to power relations and ideologies in traditional and tradition-oriented Aboriginal societies, and to the impact of contact with non-Aboriginal peoples. The discussion focuses primarily upon northern and central Australia, although the points raised are of more general relevance.
Examination of the traditional situation is intended to allow for a better knowledge of the precise political effects of integration into Australian society. An understanding of traditional patterns and concepts is of additional importance because of the central role that perceived Aboriginal traditions continue to play in the political dialogue between whites and Aborigines.
The normative basis of power in the pre-conquest setting, and among tradition-oriented Aborigines today, was religious in nature, as expressed in Dreamtime mythology and the Law (see Stanner 1958, Berndt 1965). To traditional Aborigines, power rested on religious dogma and the performance of rituals. Religion and ritual were central to control of the environment, for access to and maintenance of resources; and those possessing the relevant knowledge and the right to perform the necessary rituals were afforded power as guardians of the world order. For individuals, power was acquired through the medium of kinship and by mastery of religious lore.