Ceremony Men

Making Ethnography and the Return of the Strehlow Collection

By Jason M. Gibson

Subjects: Indigenous Studies, Anthropology, History
Series: SUNY series, Tribal Worlds: Critical Studies in American Indian Nation Building
Paperback : 9781438478548, 318 pages, January 2021
Hardcover : 9781438478555, 318 pages, May 2020

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Language and Orthography


1. Archive and Field

2. Early Alhernter Encounters

3. Strehlow's Scope

4. A Balancing Act

5. Urrempel Man

6. Declarations of Relatedness

7. The Intermingling of Intimate Narratives

8. "You're my Kwertengerl"



Rethinks the role of Indigenous and non-Indigenous interactions in the production of ethnographic museum collections.


Winner of the 2022 W.K. Hancock Prize presented by the Australian Historical Association

Shortlisted for the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Awards in the Australian History Category presented by the Australian Prime Minister and Minister for the Arts

Winner of the 2021 Council for Museum Anthropology Book Award presented by the Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA), a section of the American Anthropological Association

By analyzing one of the world's greatest collections of Indigenous song, myth, and ceremony—the collections of linguist/anthropologist T. G. H. Strehlow—Ceremony Men demonstrates how inextricably intertwined ethnographic collections can become in complex historical and social relations. In revealing his process to return an anthropological collection to Aboriginal communities in remote central Australia, Jason M. Gibson highlights the importance of personal rapport and collaborations in ethnographic exchange, both past and present, and demonstrates the ongoing importance of sociality, relationship, and orality when Indigenous peoples encounter museum collections today. Combining forensic historical analysis with contemporary ethnographic research, this book challenges the notion that anthropological archives will necessarily become authoritative or dominant statements on a people's cultural identity. Instead, Indigenous peoples will often interrogate and recontextualize this material with great dexterity as they work to reintegrate the documented into their present-day social lives.

By theorizing the nature of the documenter-documented relationships this book makes an important contribution to the simplistic postcolonial generalizations that dominate analyses of colonial interaction. A story of local agency is uncovered that enriches our understanding of the human engagements that took, and continue to take, place within varying colonial relations of Australia.

Jason M. Gibson is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Australia.


"Ceremony Men makes a fine addition to a growing scholarship on engaging with and making sense of historical collections of Aboriginal material today, particularly contentious collections that carry a fraught legacy … Through this grounded, localised, collaborative and relational encounter with a valuable, if opaque, collection, Gibson contributes another seminal case study to a growing body of scholarship that insists upon working collaboratively, relationally and respectfully on historical collections and archives." — Australian Historical Studies

"Ceremony Men is a rich and thoughtful book, of great value to historians, anthropologists and those thinking about museums." — History Australia

"…[the book] makes an important case in highlighting the historical and contemporary value embedded within Australian ethnographic collections. Importantly, beyond his detailed study of the Strehlow collection, Gibson calls attention to the ongoing need for such critical research, as well as providing support for exploring improvements in the collaborative management and care of these collections." — Anthropological Forum

"This is an unusual, indeed quite a wonderful book that will become a classic of anthropological and historical/archival research and analysis. Gibson fundamentally rethinks the role of Aboriginal agency in helping and shaping museum collections." — Howard Morphy, Australian National University

"Gibson's engagement with the Indigenous descendants and participants to the making of an ethnographic collection, and his pursuit of the continuing social lives and value of the materials exchanged is extraordinary. This is a very valuable contribution to the literature, comparable with Nicholas Thomas's classic Entangled Objects, and as a case study of the social life of archival materials, it is quite a brilliant and profound case." — Fred Myers, New York University