Rethinking Indigenous Histories – some reflections

conference logo and scheduleThe plenary on Thursday morning at the Australian Historical Association conference was about ‘Rethinking Indigenous Histories’.  The history of Aboriginal people since European settlement has been the focus of a couple of decades of outstanding work by Australian historians.  Yet there is still much work to do.  This plenary was timely, especially as this week is NAIDOC week.

“We are one species with lots of variations”, stated Professor Marcia Langton.  We may regard this as self-evident but Langton argued that discredited racial theories still pervade current thinking in Australia.  “Only undesirable ‘others’ are defined as part of a race”, she noted. She said that defining Aboriginal people as a race, rather than ‘first peoples’ sets up conditions where Aboriginal people are regarded as exceptional, incapable of being participating members of the national society.

The fact that people are defined by race at all is giving credence to a theory that the theories about race are valid.  Reflecting on Langton’s comments I looked up the ‘United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination‘.  Reflect on this statement in the preamble:

Considering that any doctrine of racial differentiation or superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination either in theory or in practice..

Why indeed are we still thinking in terms of racial categories in our everyday lives? Historians need to research the discourse and operation of the ideas of racial theories because they had a significant impact on society in the past, but in our everyday lives today we need to watch that we are not perpetuating these miserable ideas.

Professor Tim Rowse spoke about the historiography of indigenous histories. I won’t delve into the complexities of his arguments but he raised an issue which all non-indigenous Australians need to be mindful of.  Aboriginal people today can suffer from the consequences of ‘repressive authenticity’ where they are required to perform to non-indigenous expectations of what an ‘authentic’ Aboriginal person is. All cultures change over time but the expectations engendered by ‘repressive authenticity’ does not allow this. It expects Aboriginal people to be like an exhibit in a museum, never changing, in order to satisfy our desires.

In a session I attended later in the day historians who work with Aboriginal people briefly discussed how some of the Aboriginal cultures they are working with are changing their practices towards naming people after they have died.  Like any culture Aboriginal cultures change over time. Note that I use the plural when referring to Aboriginal cultures. There are many different Australian Aboriginal cultures as you would expect in a country as large as Australia. We have to be careful to recognise that to know one Aboriginal culture in one part of the country does not necessarily mean that the same understanding  translates to other Australian Aboriginal cultures.

Tim Rowse reminded us that by definition settler colonies such as Australia cannot decolonise. This is an uncomfortable thought because we now understand the horrible injustices that went with the colonisation of Australia. However, I think it is useful to consider this in conjunction with the comment of the last speaker at the plenary, John Maynard. He bluntly said that “the past is the past”; we cannot undo it.  While we may look on the past with regret we need to accept that these things have occurred and work to ensure that we are not perpetuating these issues in the present. We should not allow ourselves to be trapped by our past.

John Maynard noted the importance of the historians such as Doreen Wanganeen (Kartinyeri), Alan Atkinson et. al., who asserted that Aborigines needed to write their own history. This is not to say that non-indigenous historians should not write about this history as it is their history too.  However, Maynard noted that the best work by non-indigenous historians is by those who have forged strong connections with Aboriginal people.  He said that women historians have played a big part in this as many have been willing to question themselves and their own roles in this work.

Maynard noted the growing number of indigenous historians and said that they need to define what they want fro history and how it is to be framed.  Tim Rowse commented in the discussion at the end of the plenary that there is a growing indigenous historiography captured in the outpouring of memoirs by indigenous people.  I see the underlying message here is that we need to read indigenous histories whether they are memoirs, biographies, family histories, films, documentaries etc.

In a comment from the audience at the end of the plenary, Professor Peter Read noted that historians have not done enough work on the history of reserve life.  Reserves were places where many Aboriginal people were relegated in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. He also mentioned the importance of reaching Australians who have arrived here in the last couple of decades with this history.

The plenary addressed difficult issues which is what Professor Shane Houston called for in a recent talk. As I reported in my post about Houston’s talk, Houston said that we have to embrace difficult things in order to build a better society.

I have been tweeting this conference, but refrained from sending many tweets at this session. While listening to Marcia Langton I tweeted the following comment:

The only way to address difficult issues is to take time and provide plenty of context.  A series of soundbites read without the context can be distorted, upset people and do more damage rather than helping our society to heal.

I have deliberately put the word ‘reflections’ in the title of this post.  This post is not a report of the proceedings – far from it.  Rather I have plucked out a few comments which resonated with me.  In order to report on this plenary I would need to have a copy of the papers in front of me which I don’t have.  It was good to see that ABC Radio National was recording the proceedings.  When the program comes out I’ll put an addendum to this post so that you can listen to it for yourself.

This post is not a report of the papers delivered.  It is the story of how I engaged with some of the thoughts presented.

Another Conference Post

Janine Rizzetti is also blogging this conference.  She has also written about the same plenary session as well as other sessions that were held yesterday.  I recommend you read her post, Australian Historical Association Conference 11 July.

This is the 100th post on Stumbling Through the Past! 


13/9/2013: You can now hear this session yourself. A podcast of this session is available from ABC Big Ideas – Rethinking Indigenous Histories.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Indigenous Histories – some reflections

  1. I found it interesting what Professor Rowse said about repressive authenticity- and I like the phrase! It’s always interesting to reflect on how my own culture, as a British background Australian has changed over the years- mashed potato (South-American) is one example, and spaghetti bolognaise is now the quintessential Australian dish!

    Dad told me tonight about a visit they had at work (the Sydney branch of an IT company) by an Aboriginal man during NAIDOC week. According to the guest, the “traditional” didgeridoo and dance performances by Aboriginal Australians for the public in the Top End are more often than not done by people from southern Australia, as the groups in that region who still follow a traditional way of life prefer to keep their ceremonies for celebration within their own community.

    Also reminds me of the tendency many of us have to judge the authenticity of Asian restaurants by the ethnicity of its staff- in Sydney, many sushi outlets are run by people from Korea, and waiters at a local Chinese restaurant were predominantly Japanese! But we would all think it “un-authentic” if they were staffed by people of European appearance!

    Hope you’re having fun!


  2. Many thanks for sharing your reflections Yvonne. Over 20 years ago now, I was fortunate to be teaching in a school which was “piloting” the new South Australian Aboriginal Education Programme. Our Training & Development came directly from local Aboriginal people who were fantastic teachers themselves and helped us understand many of the issues which you’ve mentioned. It was wonderful to integrate this within the curriculum and involving children from the nearby Kaurna school as well as our own Indigenous parents. An unforgettable and wonderful experience.

    Yes, the notion of “repressive authenticity” is so important to understand and I’ve seen it to sometimes be incredibly problematic for the Irish of today when those with Irish Ancestry visit and expect the country, and the people, to fit their perception of Irishness which has filtered down through the family stories. Confess that I always have to keep checking my own preconceptions 😉

    Thanks again for a most thought provoking post.


  3. I thought of you and your blog just now as I registered for the AIATSIS 2014 Conference in Canberra next March. The topic is: 50 years on: Breaking Barriers in Indigenous Research and Thinking. Might be some interesting historical perspectives and approaches discussed at the conference and there’s sure to be lots of historians around.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.