Over the last couple of weeks I have immersed myself in histories written by Aboriginal people. These historians not only revealed aspects of Australian history of which I had been previously unaware, they also made me ponder the process of historical research and writing. This is why we need to read histories written by people from a different cultural background to our own. It is not only the stories that they choose to share that will differ, their whole approach to history can cause us to examine how our history has been traditionally constructed.
Ruby Langford Ginibi was a Bundjalung woman from the north coast of New South Wales. In 1990 and 1991 she made a series of trips back to her country, visiting her people and interviewing both black and white people about the history of this area of New South Wales. She made these trips both to fulfil a yearning to return to her roots, as well as to gather material for a history of the Bundjalung people. “We won’t be able to advance ourselves until white Australia knows our history”, she explained.
The important role that Aboriginal people played in the economic development of Australia is a strong theme throughout the book:
The Aboriginal stockmen and women virtually ran the livestock industry. They also worked as midwives and nurses. Aboriginal women were essential to the very survival of white families. We deserve to get recognition, along with the rest of Australia’s pioneers.
Ruby Langford Ginibi, p. 100
This reminded me of the accounts of successful Aboriginal farmers on the north coast which I had learned from Aboriginal historian, John Maynard, in his book, Fight for Liberty and Freedom, which I reviewed last week on this blog. It also made think about the European ‘explorers’. How would they have been able to travel around the country as they did without the Aborigines assisting them?
“Some of these first squatters and pastoralists treated Aboriginal people properly, while others were “proper bastards”!”, asserts Ruby Langford Ginibi. She was upset and angry at how Aboriginal people have been treated since European settlement and tried to rectify some of the past wrongs through her writing, but she did not allow these injustices colour her views with prejudice.
While reading this book I was alert to the methods Ruby Langford Ginibi used to research this history. She refers to documentary evidence as is expected of any historian. She includes excerpts from newspaper articles, both nineteenth and twentieth century as well as photos both old and new. A descendant of one of the settlers in the area gave Ruby Langford Ginibi an unpublished piece written by his ancestor in the mid-nineteenth century about Australian Aborigines.
However, the main source for her history is interviews, drawing on the memories of her people as well as non-Aboriginal people in the area. The story that she tells and her research process is both universal and one that is unique to indigenous people. It made me think back to my trips to visit relations in country Victoria and how, through conversation, the tales of my family were told. However, there is a world of a difference between my family history and Ruby Langford Ginibi’s. My family’s history is reflected in contemporary newspaper articles, in books, in school classrooms…. Aboriginal history has only recently and hesitatingly emerged into mainstream Australian consciousness. In many cases the best sources of Aboriginal history are the oral histories kept alive by the Aboriginal people themselves.
As I said in my review of John Maynard’s, Fight for Liberty and Freedom, the fact that something is not documented does not necessarily mean it has not occurred. Crimes were committed against Aboriginal people. Massacres did occur. Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families. Land was unjustly taken from Aboriginal people. All these issues are included in My Bundjalung People. If a crime or a morally reprehensible deed was committed, why would the person who has got off with it provide evidence which could be used against them? If someone witnessed these cruel acts and benefited from them, why would they say anything?
Snippets of evidence however, have slipped into the archives. Without the bigger picture, the full story as remembered by Aboriginal people, a non-indigenous historian can easily overlook the significance of just a couple of sentences here and there. This is the value of Aboriginal oral history. This is how Aboriginal historians can help us gain a better understanding of our own history. For the interactions between Aborigines and settlers in the past is a shared history – the bad as well as the good.
It is not only the Ruby Langford Ginibi’s research methods that interest me – the way she communicates this history is also interesting. She relates this history through dialogue, a series of conversations with the people she is interviewing. Rather than telling the history in chronological order, she relates it as a story of each of the four research trips she made to northern New South Wales. As she travels from place to place she tells us the story of the actual journey she is making and relates the history via the conversations she has at each stop on the way. This technique allows her to easily share her research methodology throughout the book as well as relate what her sources were and the difficulties and frustrations in doing this work.
This is a very readable book, but I urge readers to first read her autobiography, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, before starting My Bundjalung People. I am glad that I did this as I had the background about her and her family which enriched my experience reading My Bundjalung People.
I would not have known about this book if it wasn’t for one of the readers of my blog, Marion Diamond, suggesting that I add it to my list of histories written by Aboriginal writers. Thankyou Marion! I am also grateful to the suggestion of Professor Peter Read (included in the post about Indigenous Literature Week) that if we want to read histories written by Aboriginal authors we need to be open to questioning how history is written and constructed. But the biggest thankyou goes to Ruby Langford Ginibi who is no longer with us. Yes, Ruby, your book has “edu-ma-cated” me!
Ruby Langford Ginibi is read by people around the world who were saddened to hear of her death in October 2011. As a tribute the Journal of the European Association for Studies on Australia has just published a special issue about her work. Here you can see what an impact her writing has had on Spanish, Catalan and German speaking people, as well as Australians. In particular Pam Dahl-Helm Johnston’s article is one I recommend that you read. Johnston was the adopted daughter of Ruby Langford Ginibi, an accomplished artist and the person who drove Ruby Langford Ginibi on the research trips for My Bundjalung People. I wish I had space for it here, but Johnston’s discussion of Ruby Langford Ginibi’s attitudes towards ‘facts’ in history and use of language are illuminating.