Elder and historian honoured
Yirrganydji elder and local historian George Skeene will receive the Award of Honorary Doctor of Letters at James Cook University’s graduation ceremony in Cairns tomorrow (Tuesday 26 March).
The Honorary Doctorate recognises Mr Skeene’s outstanding service and distinguished public contribution to the northern Queensland community, and his exceptional service to the University by his contribution to academic excellence in a number of disciplines.
George Skeene was born in Cairns in 1948 and grew up in two Aboriginal camps on the then fringes of the city, absorbing culture from his parents and grandparents and others of their generations.
His book Two Cultures is an invaluable historical resource for JCU staff and students, as it is the only history available of the Cairns town camps, and one of only a tiny handful of biographies by Aboriginal people in the Far Northern region.
Mr Skeene began his working life at 14, working on timber mills, tobacco and sugar cane farms, road construction, and mainly for the Queensland Railways.
Since retiring in 1997 he has been engaged in researching the culture and history of his people – as a consultant to archaeologists and as a volunteer worker in a number of fields.
As he noted in Two Cultures: “There is no money to be made in the type of research I do. I do it for the love, commitment and the betterment of my group”.
After his investigation of Australian museums uncovered the remains of a Yirrganydji woman at Queensland Museum Mr Skeene arranged for the remains to be released and re-buried in Cairns. He received a Special Cultural Award on Australia Day following this work.
His has done considerable research into Yirrganydji artefacts taken in the early days of colonization, tracking some down to European museums. With a Land Council grant in 1997 he visited such museums and had artefacts photographed, resulting in a museum display in 2005.
He has published two papers on his findings of artefacts in German museums.
Mr Skeene’s research led to his becoming an Indigenous Research Associate of a JCU research team with a major Australian Research Council grant for a project titled Artefact Transactions in the Wet Tropics.
With a grant from the Department of Environment and Heritage, he has conducted a considerable amount of archaeological work identifying Aboriginal cultural sites on his group’s land, beginning with a survey of the area from Ellis Beach to the Mowbray River in 1999.
He volunteered his time for a major survey looking for artefacts and cultural sites with Environmental Protection Agency staff in the area between Cairns and Port Douglas, the traditional area for the Yirrganydji people.
Mr Skeene’s involvement with James Cook University is in the areas of Education, Indigenous Studies, Anthropology, Archaeology and History. His contributions include both teaching and research, as well as providing expertise when Aboriginal artefacts have been found on campus.
Since 1997 Mr Skeene has taken groups of students on bus tours through the city, noting significant places for Indigenous history and culture.
He also guides students through Indigenous displays at the Cairns Museum, including his own display on growing up in the Aboriginal camps of the city. With JCU Archaeology students and staff and EPA staff, Mr Skeene has worked on a surface archaeological survey of the English Street Aboriginal Reserve.
He has assisted in developing a first year education subject and delivers a lecture to the students. Associate Professor Hilary Whitehouse, who teaches science education, has been helped by Mr Skeene to provide her students with a different perspective on biological sciences in the local area. He was also involved in her research into intercultural scientific understandings, and he has assisted Dr Ruth Hickey’s students in their Community Awareness Raising Project, focussed on the Cattana Wetlands.
Mr Skeene continues to assist history and cultural heritage students with their research, most recently a PhD student examining intercultural music education in Cairns.
Mr Skeene will also deliver the Occasional Address to the 311 students receiving their degrees at the Cairns Convention Centre. A further 172 students had their degrees conferred in absentia, taking this year’s total to 483.
Issued March 25, 2013
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