Breaking the Great Australian Silence: How Durkheim Finally Makes Room for Australian Indigenous Peoples’ Religious Life

Marion Maddox


Australian processes for recognising Indigenous sacred sites and, in some cases, land ownership, often offer claimants an invidious, lose-lose choice. On the one hand, claimants can support their claim by producing evidence of religious knowledge that they may be culturally required to keep secret. On the other hand, as a series of landmark cases has demonstrated, the material, once revealed, runs the risk of being rejected as not religious enough. The representation of Indigenous religion in Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse arguably contributed to these impasses. But the same work, particularly when read in conversation with his moral and political writings, also offers a way forward—not as an ethnographic source, but more for its theoretical conception of the relationship between individuals, religion, society, and state.

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