Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt produced Kamilaroi and Kurnai in 1880. Their book revealed the complexity of Aboriginal societies and changed the course of anthropology in the early years of the discipline. Fison was a Wesleyan Missionary with extensive experience in the Pacific and A.W. Howitt was a polymath explorer, geologist, magistrate and naturalist with a deep interest in anthropology.
Working together, the two men corresponded with settlers from all over Australia to try and build a better picture of Aboriginal societies. Often, they would begin by sending preformatted questionnaires designed in the hope of gathering consistent information. Many of these settlers, often in far flung localities on the colonial frontier, would then proceed to interview local Aboriginal people living and working in their midst. The responses gathered from Aboriginal people, via colonial settlers, went on to inform the synthesis produced by Howitt and Fison. This information was also often supplemented by A.W. Howitt’s own ethnographic studies and experiences of people in Victoria and New South Wales.
Aboriginal cultural experts who worked with Howitt and Fison include William Barak, Billy McLeod (Tulaba), Jenny Cooper, Ipatha, Ienbin, Sergeant Major, King Charley, Bruthen Munji, and Yibai-Malian (Murray Jack). Non-Aboriginal peoples who regularly corresponded with Howitt and Fison are also identified such as A.L.P. Cameron, Harry E. Aldridge, Jocelyn Brooke, May Benson, John Bulmer, Otto Siebert, Edward Palmer and many more.
The information amassed in this collection, as well as Howitt and Fison’s publications, continue to shape the production of knowledge about past and present Aboriginal language, kinship and culture. It is an important cultural archive for many Aboriginal people in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.