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Truth telling and cultural amnesia in Australia

The Slaughterhouse Creek massacre of 1838
The Slaughterhouse Creek massacre of 1838

JUDITH WHITE | Culture Heist

TWEED HEADS -  Truth telling was the theme of this year’s Garma festival, held in northeast Arnhemland on the first weekend of August. It’s also a crucial element in the Statement from the Heart made by the indigenous National Constitutional Convention at Uluru last year but rejected by the Turnbull government.

Telling the truth should be a simple matter, shouldn’t it? Yet when it comes to the nation’s history, for those in positions of power it seems to be the hardest ask. No government has yet given it a place among the much-vaunted but ill-defined “Australian values”. Kevin Rudd said sorry for the stolen generation, but didn’t go so far as to address the issue of the British invasion.

Politicians of both major parties are at fault. They hold that the Australian electorate will not support recognition of indigenous history. I believe they are wrong. A simple constitutional change, recognising the millennia of prior occupation of the land and Aboriginal culture, would have majority support in all states when put to the vote. The main proposal of the Statement from the Heart – for a Makarrata (“coming together”) Commission to bring about agreement – does not require a vote, just leadership.

Most nations that consider themselves “Western” have a long way to go in confronting their history. Neil MacGregor, former head of the British museum and now inaugural director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, which opens next year, has found modern Germany to be a “painfully admirable” exception. Unlike the British, he says, the Germans “are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it however painful it is.”

Compare that approach with the furore that greeted the opening of the National Museum of Australia in 2001 when then Prime Minister John Howard, his cronies and the Murdoch press attacked its “privileging” of Aboriginal history. Howard, who labelled invasion stories the “black armband” view of history, stacked the board with his mates to pull the museum back into line – and into denial of the origins of modern Australia. (Despite this, the National Museum has gone on to produce some first-rate exhibitions, such as Margo Neale’s Songlines last year.)

Meanwhile millions have been expended on the War Memorial (which director and former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson believes should have a limitless budget), on memorials overseas and on war propaganda in schools, but nothing on the history of the battles on Australian soil.

In fact the country’s true history is now well established and is increasingly understood by thinking Australians – even though, like the science of climate change, it’s still denied by Neanderthal politicians, bigots and the self-interested.

“It is a terrible story,” novelist Richard Flanagan said in his eloquent speech to the Garma festival, “but it is my story as much as it is your story, and it must be told, and it must be learned, because freedom exists in the space of memory, and only by walking back into the shadows is it possible for us all to finally be free.”

There are two crucial lines along which historical understanding has developed: one concerns the 60,000 years of pre-colonial civilisation, the other the British invasion.

Forgotten War - ReynoldsFor almost 40 years historian Henry Reynolds has been writing about the frontier wars – Australia’s longest war, fought across the continent. His 2013 book Forgotten War is an excellent summary of his extensive writing on the subject. The conflict involved at least 500 massacres of indigenous peoples; they have now been mapped by his fellow academic Lyndall Ryan. “Lest We Forget”, says Reynolds, should apply to the heroes who fell resisting the invasion, but in Canberra the motto seems to be “Best we forget”.

What kind of society did the occupying colonists destroy? Even many historians who rejected the official theory of terra nullius continued to believe that the indigenous peoples were “Stone Age” hunter-gathers. This view has now been overturned. ANU historian Bill Gammage wrote in his 2011 book The Biggest Estate on Earth of the “majestic achievement” of Aboriginal land management.

In 2014 Bunorong/Yuin writer Bruce Pascoe took this appreciation a huge step forward with his book Dark Emu. It draws on both recent archaeology and the records of early explorers to show the extent of indigenous achievements in agriculture, craft and construction as well as land management. Dark Emu is now the subject of the most recent dance performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre, has been re-published in the UK and is being translated into European languages. This week Pascoe is in Scotland as an invited speaker at the Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, and then goes on to Berlin.

Perhaps truth tellers, like prophets, are not without honour save in their own country.

Dark Emu and Forgotten War are both essential reading for anyone who cares about Australian history. They should be on the syllabus of every high school and tertiary institution in the country.

There is a strong tendency in this country for good writing to sink into oblivion. It mustn’t be allowed to happen with these books. As to why it happens at all, I don’t buy the facile answer that Australians prefer sport. A recent panel on ABC-TV’s The Mix, led by author Sunil Badami, raised the question of why so many books are forgotten. The speakers came up with some excellent reading-list suggestions, but the question itself remained unresolved.

I believe the collective amnesia has to do with the fact that writers and artists point us to the hard truths about society. Think Katharine Susannah Prichard, Judith Wright, Nene Gere, Randolph Stow and a host of others. More recently has come a great outpouring of indigenous voices – to name just a few: Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Leah Purcell, Melissa Lucashenko. These writers give better expression to our unresolved history than all the government reports put together, and they should be celebrated.


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Rashmii Bell

Thank you for the recommendation of Henry Reynolds 'Forgotten War'. Will make sure to add to my reading list.

Through the MWTE Writer Fellowship 2018, I first learnt of Lyndall Ryan's mapping research in Mark McKenna's Quarterly Essay 'Moment of Truth'. Just before that I'd read Claire G Coleman's 'Terra Nullus' and found myself spending some time thinking exactly what Phil Fitzpatrick has commented on. Just devastating.
I've been fortunate to listen to Melissa Lucashencko in-person at a few literary events this year. I have much admiration and respect for her work and how she delivers in advocacy.

Chris Overland

We in what passes as the civilized world (an increasingly dubious descriptor) live in an era where the humble adjective has been entirely supplanted by the superlative. Almost numbingly mundane events are now described in the most florid and extravagant terms.

For example, someone winning one of the endless sporting contests that occur across the globe on a daily basis ends up being described in words that might once have been used only for events of the most profound importance.

So devalued have superlatives become that we now struggle to find words of sufficient power and force to describe events that really matter.

Also, we live at a time in which thoughtful discussion has been largely replaced by near hysterical denunciation of those you do not agree with and public discourse that is all too frequently just a shouting match.

Much of the media, presumably fairly reflecting the interests of its readership, displays an obsession with A to Z grade celebrities and shock and horror stories. In many instances, the connection between the objective truth and the story as published is tenuous indeed.

Donald Trump’s alternatively provocative, offensive, threatening and indignant tweets seem entirely consistent with the way public discourse on difficult or contentious topics is now conducted.

Bearing this background in mind, it is unsurprising to me that our political class has, as a general rule, shied away from openly discussing our collective history as it pertains to the Aboriginal people.

It is a very distressing history to contemplate, full of pain and heart ache. It is hard to reconcile justifiable pride in the undoubted achievement that is modern Australian democracy with the ugly truth about the harm done to Aboriginal people in the process of creating it.

Judith White alludes to the so-called History Wars of the 1990’s, in which efforts to have the truth told provoked a significant reaction, mostly from the political right. They preferred to see Australian history through the prism of the conqueror, not the conquered.

I think that the History Wars are now over although some of the combatants are still blazing away at one another. Much like those in southern states of the USA who still insist on mythologizing the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, the proponents of a triumphalist view of the British take over have actually lost but cannot admit it.

There is not cultural amnesia about this, at least at an academic level. No respectable historian can any longer seriously maintain that the wide spread murder, assault, rape and dispossession of Aboriginal people did not happen. The weight of evidence is too great.

However, beyond the halls of academe, the sound and fury of the History Wars seems to have barely impinged upon the public consciousness.

I do not think that this is because people have not heard and understood the arguments. After all, Kevin Rudd’s fulsome public apology to the Aboriginal people was very widely endorsed by the public.

So the problem is not lack of awareness or even sympathy, excluding only that tiny minority of contemptible recidivists epitomized by Senator Fraser Anning.

I am afraid that an irreducible number of such people will always be with us, but their views have been consistently rejected by the huge majority of Australians.

To my mind, it is simply a case of being unable to comprehend how the evils that occurred can now be put right.

The proposal to enshrine an extra-Parliamentary advisory body exclusively for Aboriginal people in the constitution may strike some people as a fine thing to do but, for many Australians, it smacks of creating a class of citizens who stand above and outside of the huge majority of the population.

This offends the very entrenched egalitarianism that is one of the hallmarks of Australian society.

Also, I think Australians are intuitively aware of the law of unintended consequences, where well meaning people introduce reforms that produce a whole set of new problems to be confronted. Not for nothing has America’s Bill of Rights sometimes been described as a Villain’s Charter.

Combine this with the wider electorates’ notorious conservatism, and now almost pathological suspicion about the motives and intentions of the political class, and Malcolm Turnbull’s reluctance to push for constitutional changes becomes much easier to understand.

Right now, for the reasons given, I think that most Australians are neither amnesic nor hostile, but they remain unconvinced that constitutional change is either necessary or desirable.

I think that the onus now lies upon the victors in the History Wars to find a way to convince the Australian public that there is a sensible way forward.

This was done in 1967 when racist ideas were considerably more prevalent than they are today, so it is not impossible. But it will certainly be difficult.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I explored the theme of government removal of half-caste Aboriginal children in an early work of fiction called 'Dingo Trapper'.

It was largely based on talking to old Aboriginal people who had been taken away by the police from the camps in Central Australia in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Most of those kids had been fathered by white dingo trappers.

I also did a bit of research through the literature and archival records.

What really made me understand the inhumanity of it was simply thinking about how I would feel if the police had burst into our house and taken our children away never to be seen again.

Just try and imagine that.

It gives you a hint of the other atrocities that were visted on Aboriginal people.

Lindsay F Bond

An expression in English language: “You don’t say” indicates (or feigns) a “polite surprise”.
It would seem remiss that a family no longer has recall of a babe given away to strangers nor of a juvenile carried to a far-off place, yet is it of pain or of prolongation that retelling and recalling dies?
From a family so encumbered but not constrained, recovery is for consideration if yet not celebration…

Recalling “instructions” from 20 April, 1787…

Of ships enroute to “Our Territory [called] New South Wales and its Dependencies”
recall that there were babes born,
recall that there were juveniles borne,
recall they too were to burden “Natives of that Country”

Of those Natives at that Country
citing beliefs of belonging to the long land
came sight of bearing young of other land
causing impost of burden yet unremitting,

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