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Diane Elizabeth Barwick (1938–1986)

by Tim Rowse

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Diane Elizabeth Barwick (1938-1986), anthropologist, historian and Aboriginal-rights activist, was born on 29 April 1938 in Vancouver, Canada, daughter of Ronald Bernard McEachern, forest worker, and his wife Beatrice Rosemond, née O’Flynn. She grew up in logging camps, sometimes housed on a log raft. Her father, nicknamed ‘Bear Tracks’, was a ‘high rigger’ and camp manager in an industry in which a personal reputation for bravery, skill and sheer survival secured his authority. Apart from one year at a Vancouver high school, Diane was schooled by correspondence before enrolling at the University of British Columbia (BA, 1959), where she graduated with first-class honours in anthropology. Based on five months’ field-work in six camps, her thesis evoked the occupational subculture of the loggers of Englewood Valley.

In 1959-60 McEachern worked at the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, Victoria, British Columbia, researching West Coast Indian material culture and ethnohistory. Awarded a postgraduate research scholarship in anthropology, she arrived at the Australian National University (Ph.D., 1964), Canberra, in 1960. Having been advised that the New Guinea Highlands were too dangerous for field-work, she studied the cultural adjustment of some three thousand Aboriginal people in Victoria. Her twelve months in the field between October 1960 and April 1962 included a stint in a fruit cannery and eight months visiting Aboriginal households in Melbourne. Victorian Kooris reminded her of Canadian lumbermen. Impressed by their independent sense of honour and warmed by their comradeship, she remarked in her thesis on the tension between her roles of ‘friend’ and ‘observer’. Despite attempts to assimilate them, she argued, Kooris remained a self-conscious minority, divided by continuing ancestral attachment to home regions within Victoria, but united by unanswered grievances as a people dispossessed of land, harried by officials and despised by many non-Indigenous Australians. Koori memories persuaded her that historical scholarship must complement ethnography in understanding Aboriginality in the 1960s.

McEachern married a fellow Ph.D. student, Richard Essex Barwick, a zoologist from New Zealand, on 14 April 1961 at the registrar’s office, Canberra. That year Diane Barwick attended the research conference that founded the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. When the institute received its statutory charter in 1964, she was a founding member. In May 1978 she was the first woman to be elected to its council. From 1978 to 1982 she served on the institute’s publications and social anthropology committees. In 1981, when she was invited to apply for the post of principal, she submitted an application that advocated training Indigenous researchers. She was not appointed. Partly at her urging, the institute set up a history committee in 1982; she participated in it during her second term as councillor, in 1982-86, and she chaired the publications executive committee in 1983-86. In May 1985 she accepted the institute’s twelve-month honorary appointment to establish a national Aboriginal biographical register. Drawing in part on her own tireless combing of Victorian archives, the register comprised twelve thousand index cards by the time of her death.

The ANU was Barwick’s other institutional home. However, as she was the pioneer in Australia of ethnohistory, her career suffered from the slow awakening of historians’ interest in Aborigines and from anthropologists’ tendency not to consider the historical dynamics of non-Western societies. From March 1966 to June 1972 she was a research fellow in the department of anthropology and sociology, Research School of Pacific Studies. Between April 1974 and December 1978 she was intermittently employed as a tutor and lecturer in anthropology in the Faculty of Arts, and in 1979-80 she was a temporary research fellow in the department of history, Research School of Social Sciences.

If Barwick’s industry was not rewarded by tenured employment, she was none the less influential. In his formative historical and sociological survey Outcasts in White Australia (1971), Charles Rowley drew heavily on her unpublished thesis. It was through honorary work that she achieved much of her impact as a promoter of Aboriginal history and of Aborigines as historians. She was a founding editor of the journal Aboriginal History in 1977-82 and a co-editor of the Handbook for Aboriginal and Islander History (1979). In February 1981 at her instigation a ‘Working Party of Aboriginal Historians’ challenged ‘Bicentennial’ historians to consider the cultural biases of their notions of competent historical narrative. Australian historians must encourage diversity, she urged, in both the authors and the idioms of the narrated past. When two obituaries noted her strong dislike of ‘dishonesty, misrepresentation and carelessness’, they referred not just to her scholarly scruples but to her broader conviction that the truthful accounting of the past was a matter of justice.

Barwick’s post-doctoral research amassed a detailed genealogical portrait of Victoria’s surviving Aborigines. On this basis she developed arguments in historical demography (including an unpublished consideration of the impact of smallpox). In a series of biographical essays about Koori women she showed that families and congregations were the social units of Indigenous survival. The changing relations of gender and the utility of Christian faith were themes in her account of a remnant people’s accommodation to the colonists’ pressures in the period from 1870 to 1950. Her familiarity with Victorian administrative archives made her a formidable chronicler of governmental neglect and bad faith. When the traditional owners of Framlingham reserve demanded security of title in the late 1970s, Barwick’s 1979 submission narrated more than a century of official indecision and Koori intransigence.

Her North American background acquired new relevance in 1980, when she involved herself in the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. Acknowledging her reservations (‘I am by birth and conviction a Canadian’, she wrote in 1983) about involvement in Australian politics, she was also proud to be descended from American Indians through her mother, a fact not evident in her publications. In 1960, fresh from Canada, she had been shocked to learn that Victorian Kooris were not protected by a treaty. Two decades later, her work for the committee urged that Australians rise, in this respect, to the standards of other British dominions.

Barwick died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 4 April 1986 at Royal Canberra Hospital and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery with Catholic rites. An obituarist, Nancy Williams, recalled her ‘sense of humour, her sharp wit’ and ‘her infectious and hearty laugh’. She was survived by her husband and daughter; their editorial efforts ensured the posthumous publication of her manuscript Rebellion at Coranderrk in 1998. One friend, Ken Inglis, noted that its appearance had been delayed in her lifetime by ‘two commitments’: ‘to other people’s lives’ and ‘to perfection’.

Select Bibliography

  • Aboriginal History, vol 9, part 1, 1985, p 4, vol 11, part 1, 1987, p 1, vol 12, part 1, 1988, p 2
  • Canberra Anthropology, vol 9, no 1, 1986, p 1
  • Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1986, p 70
  • Oceania, vol 57, no 2, 1986, p 81
  • Canberra Times, 7 Apr 1986, p 8
  • ANU Reporter, 9 May 1986, p 6
  • Australian Historical Association Bulletin, June 1986, p 5
  • J. C. Kijas, An ‘Unfashionable Concern with the Past’ (MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1993)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Tim Rowse, 'Barwick, Diane Elizabeth (1938–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McEachern, Diane Elizabeth

29 April, 1938
Vancouver, Canada


4 April, 1986 (aged 47)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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