From edition

Voices on the Wind: Writing on Indigenous Issues.

Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming. [1983] Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2002; Thom Blake, A Dumping Ground. A History of the Cherbourg Settlement. University of Queensland Press, 2001; Peggy Brock (ed), Words and Silences. Aboriginal women, politics and land. [1982] Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001; Richard Broome: Aboriginal Australians. Black Responses to White Dominance 1788-2001. Allen and Unwin, 2001; Elaine Brown, Cooloola Coast. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000; Rosalind Kidd, Black Lives, Government Lies. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000; Dawn A. Lee, Daughter of Two Worlds. Aboriginal Affairs Victoria; Deborah Bird Rose: Dingo Makes Us Human. Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. [1992] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Sarina Singh et al, Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islands: Guide to Indigenous Australia. London: Lonely Planet, 2001.

Aboriginal issues are hot topics in contemporary Australia. Aboriginal Australia – its culture, history and discontents – is a divisive national phenomenon, dwarfed in the Australian media only recently by equally fiery debates over the mandatory incarceration of refugees. Yet the arguments most publicly ventilated in the reactionary cultural milieu encouraged by the conservative Howard government (now in its third term) possess a predictable circularity which confines any prospect of real enlightenment. Even terminology, such as ‘invasion’, ‘massacre’, ‘genocide’ and ‘stolen generation’, is rendered taboo by a government which cannot even bring itself to employ mainstream words like ‘multiculturalism’. In their place, new phrases are coined: Government critics are dismissed as the ‘chattering classes’ and unrepresentative ‘elites’; academics researching Australia’s conflictful past, particularly its violent frontier story, are condemned as guilt-inducing ‘black-armband’ historians; and Aboriginal activists who resist the onslaught of disempowering policies are branded as ‘the Aboriginal Industry.’

The term ‘Aboriginal Industry’ is heavily laced with cynicism and fear. To rightward-thinking commentators, it summons up something insidious, located mid-way between a conspiracy and a putsch. It denotes venality (‘They get more than we do.’ ); deception (‘They invent “sacred sites”.’); and upset (‘They want us all feeling guilty.’)

Yet, in reality, there is no such monolith. As these volumes show, Aboriginality walks many pathways, pursues many different goals and represents not one, but many different ‘industries’. What these studies also indicate, however, is that there is something which might be termed an Aboriginal Publishing Industry, albeit one still largely dominated by white authors. Its output appears to be almost as large as its readership in a nation still stubbornly resisting being ‘told’ its more confronting stories. And its subject matter is complex, intricate and bewilderingly diverse. A small review article can merely struggle to encompass its abundance.

Only one of these volumes – Dawn Lee’s slim Daughter of Two Worlds – is written by an author of Aboriginal ancestry. Another, the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Indigenous Australia, contains multiple Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal contributors. Four other texts are written by white historians, and two by white anthropologists. Finally, Words and Silences, edited by Peggy Brock, contains chapters by both anthropologists and historians, traversing the theme of Aboriginal women, politics and land, with a single chapter by a female Nyungar lawyer, Hannah Mc Glade. Three of the books – Richard Broome’s general history, Aboriginal Australians, Diane Bell’s Daughters of the Dreaming and Deborah Bird Rose’s Dingo Makes Us Human are republished ‘classics’, first appearing in 1982, 1983 and 1992 respectively.

Broome’s Aboriginal Australians in its twenty years’ existence has performed an enormous task of educating and enlightening. Having sold more than 35,000 copies, it has commercially out-performed even Henry Reynolds’ most popular titles. Its second edition in 1994 contained a composite chapter covering the eighties, and this latest offering takes us to the close of 2001. Broome stands his ground on his first eleven chapters, finding upon re-reading that he does not disagree with his ‘former self too violently’. Even his third edition Preface repeats sentences and paragraphs from the former two, all reprinted here. But it also contains a more impassioned plea for all Australians to embrace the contradictions of their past – ‘a dark moment’ in Western colonial expansionism set against ‘the growth of an admirable advanced democracy.’ I am tempted to add that this has been one awfully long ‘moment’; and that the ‘admirable’ aspect of Australian democracy has, of late, lost a considerable degree of its gloss. Broome’s new chapter, ‘Aborigines Under Siege’, appears also to recognise this; for although he struggles hard to convey a sense of balance between achievement and oppression – and despite vital glimmerings of hope – this latest overview is predominantly a grim and sorry tale.

Bell’s Daughters of the Dreaming is also a third edition publication. Though Bell wrote in her second edition Forward almost a decade ago, ‘Were I to write Daughters now I would do it very differently’ she, too, has made no significant alteration to her original text, since adding a conscientious Epilogue answering her critics, in 1993. Apart from a new forward in 2002 and a moving dedication to her friend, teacher and colleague, Topsy Napurrula Nelson, whose painting of yawakiya Dreaming graces the front cover, nothing more has been added. When it first appeared in 1983, Daughters was controversial and iconoclastic within the anthropology profession for the new light it cast upon the importance of women’s power and knowledge in Aboriginal communities – like that of the Warrabri settlement Bell studied in the central desert region of the Northern Territory.

As an historian working upon frontier relations in Australia, what I found most problematical with Bell’s account in 1983 – and still do – was/is her argument that Aboriginal women’s sexual relations with white men were based upon choice, consent and personal enrichment. ‘Women today claim that their grandmothers entered into these relationships because their sexuality and their feelings were theirs to bestow as they wished’, she writes:

They say they willingly went to white men, that they enjoyed the love-making and the payments they received. Women exercised their own initiative, and secured goods, admiration and pleasure for themselves.

Aboriginal men interfered in this mutually advantageous situation by removing women from the gaze of white men, Bell continues, and thus limited the women’s strength and independence by the imposition of unsolicited ‘protection’. This analysis appears entirely innocent of the historical realities of frontier relations in Central Australia, and their oppressive, over-arching, inter-racial violence. This oversight is compounded in the book’s Epilogue, where the issue of ‘assault, rape and murder’ is finally examined. For the ‘gang rapes of young girls, being beaten to a pulp, and a death toll for women that exceeds the deaths in custody’ are all sheeted home to current Aboriginal male perpetrators, without any historical contextualization for this ‘terrifying pattern of abuse.’

Bell’s analysis stands in stark contrast to that of Deborah Bird Rose’s Dingo Makes Us Human, which is centrally informed by an historical consciousness of the matrix of ‘power and terror’ within which colonial relations are formed. Especially read in conjunction with its companion volume, Hidden Histories, Rose’s study of Yirralin and Victoria Down in the north-western reaches of the Northern Territory, bordering the Kimberley district, is a searing revelation of ‘the brutality of the process … the great Australian holocaust known as colonization’. Rose assesses that a pre-contact population of four to five thousand people were reduced by slaughter and disease in half a century to a mere 187 – an attrition rate of up to 95 percent. The forty-five or so remaining Karangpurra people, who in the 1880s had numbered around 1500, could trace their ancestry in 1980 back to one lone male survivor of three or four decades of ‘intense killing’. Apropos of Bell’s dismissive explanation of inter-racial sexual relations further to the south, Rose asserts:

Equally a fact of life was that Aboriginal women were not in a position to refuse European men, because of the latter’s greater power and because starvation ‘forced women into prostitution.’

Rose’s writing overall is marked by prescience and empathy, as well as a capacity to achieve a rare marriage between theoretical insights and a personalized expressiveness which plucks at the heart.

Both Bell and Rose appear again in new chapters in Peggy Brock’s edited Words and Silences. In this collection, Brock privileges the often neglected issue of women’s rights in land, as her contributors interrogate from various angles the gendered nature of Aboriginal societies. Through the observations of key Aboriginal informants, such as Maureen O’Donnell and Isabel and Barbara Flick, Heather Goodall constructs an intimate appraisal of the Western Women’s Land Council of New South Wales in the mid-eighties; but the core of the book is arguably once more the sterling contributions of Bell and Rose. Diane Bell since 1996 has worked doggedly with Ngarrindjeri women in their struggle against the bridge to Hindmarsh Island – a protracted legal battle which, Richard Broome quips, ‘had more legal turns than a lawyers’ car rally’. For Bell, however, the issue is no laughing matter, as she questions here why the twenty-five Ngarrindjeri women’s traditional knowledge was rejected as concocted by a Royal Commission in 1995, headed by a non-Aboriginal woman; and concludes that ‘the research on which the Royal Commission was based is flawed’.

Her forensic examination, much further elaborated in Ngarrindjeri Warruwarrin (1998), is a poignant case study of Rose’s central contention: that knowledge of sacred sites, particularly women’s knowledge, is in itself sacred – and sanctified principally by its aura of secretiveness. ‘Silence is crucial’, Rose writes: ‘control is exercised through judicious management – opening and closing, revealing and concealing.’ The power of the knowledge lies in its shielded exclusivity. Thus, as Bell states, ‘people only reveal as much as necessary to protect a place and do so at the last minute.’ European skeptics, like John Howard’s former speech writer, Christopher Pearson, view this as chicanery; yet, in reality, what is being played out here is the agonizing double-bind of being forced to protect a place at the expense of surrendering, verbally, its empowering knowledge, at the behest of what Rose has termed ‘deep colonising’:

a cluster of practices which … probe ever more deeply into the conditions of Aboriginal people’s lives and bodies, severing people from the sociality of connections within which they are embedded and reconstituting them as defenceless individuals.

Three other of these studies, all located in exploring Queensland’s racial history, further expound upon ‘deep colonizing’s’ deeper lineage. Elaine Brown’s Cooloola Coast, a study of Aboriginal-settler relations in the Noosa to Fraser Island coastal strip, appears to be marketed as a tourist guide. But it is a carefully researched race contact history of a comparatively thinly populated region, where the fate of the Dulingbara people is cautiously divined from frustrating fragments of European record. For instance, when she deals with three probable massacres of the Dulingbara by gun and poison at Murdering Creek, Teewah Beach and Lake Weyba, probably in the 1850s, Brown is prompted to comment upon how the absence of precise dates and details ‘illustrates the difficulty of obtaining direct evidence about alleged atrocities during the frontier period.’

The other two Queensland titles, Thom Blake’s A Dumping Ground and Ros Kidd’s Black Lives, Government Lies, are in the handier position of being able to call upon a plethora of precise information in compiling their studies, for under the aegis of segregating and assimilating policies, institutionalized Aborigines became the most bureaucratically policed people since the convicts. In the past the massive paper-trail which this intense surveillance has bequeathed to present generations was not easy to negotiate. Aboriginal peoples are not the only ones to understand the power embedded in enforced secrecy! Thom Blake engaged in a Ulyssean search through the Queensland State Archives during the 1980s in order to piece together the details of this forbidding story of oppression, criminal negligence and exploitation at Barambah (as Cherbourg was first called). Blake balances his documentary research with a score of in-depth interviews with Aboriginal informants revealing not only the personal impacts of authoritarian rule, but also daily struggles to offset and subvert it. These were devious and difficult resistances indeed; open, frontal mobilizations, such as those mounted by William Cooper and Jack Patten in New South Wales or William Harris in Western Australia, failed to emerge in inter-war Queensland.

Blake’s devastating examination of a single Aboriginal settlement acts as complementary microcosm to Kidd’s compact, macrocosmic essay on ‘the biggest social experiment in our history’ – the removal and incarceration of tens of thousands of Aborigines, not only children, but people of several generations over a period of some seventy years. Rather than trawling extensively for the largely damning sources, Kidd was in the happy position in 1990 of having the documentation all come to her. Marcia Langton, Jiman descendant and well-known scholar and activist, presented her with open access to Government files, ticking away like a dusty time-bomb, while serving in a Senior Executive position in the Queensland Public Service. ‘[O]ver 15 months of research’, Kidd recalls, ‘my senses were stunned into disbelief. I became determined that these scarcely believable machinations of bureaucrats and politicians would be as widely and as accurately exposed as my skills would allow.’ The ultimate outcome was the detonation of that bomb in the publication of Kidd’s blistering The Way We Civilize in 1997. Its reverberations are still being felt. This handier, abbreviated account of some sixty-four pages is a distillation of a litany of ‘deliberate and persistent breaching of State and federal laws, of decimated community workforces, of devastated social fabric, of pathological overcrowding and jeopardised health’. ‘How many preventable child deaths’, Kidd asks: ‘[H]ow many beatings, stabbings, jailings and ruined lives are traceable to these carefully, knowingly implemented policies?’ Though this is the shortest account in the batch, it stings like a bee.

Which brings us to the two volumes written wholly or partially by Aboriginal authors. Dawn A. Lee’s Daughter of Two Worlds is a family history and an autobiographical account which traces her heritage back to the union between William Willoughby, a Northern Ireland Peer and a young Kerrup-jmara woman, Susannah, from the Lake Condah region of Western Victoria. The reader discerns within a few pages that this is not conventional, mainstream history when John Batman, Melbourne’s acclaimed founder, for whom Willoughby worked as business manager, is depicted with his nose decaying from syphilis and so invalided by the disease ‘that he was pushed and pulled in a wickerwork perambulator around Melbourne by four Aboriginal servants’. Batman’s wife, Eliza, with whom Willoughby had an affair and later married, was subsequently reduced to prostitution and finally ‘beaten and kicked to death’ by an unknown assailant in Geelong.

Lee’s family story encompasses many of the themes touched upon already in this review – Aboriginal resistance, known in this region as ‘The Eumeralla War’, and the ‘armed settlers, police and poison’ which crushed it; the forced expropriation of Aboriginal women and the rounding up of the Gunditjmara people onto the oppressive Lake Condah mission – ‘Camp Concentration’, as Lee terms it. Her extensive family, on both its Aboriginal and white working class sides, suffer extensively across the generations deprivation, terrible illnesses, fatal beatings, removals and a death in custody. ‘I don’t know how they kept their sanity’, Lee remarks of her parents; but they did, as well as their sense of humour. Lee herself became a professional singer in the 1940s and an uncle, Norman McDonald, was the acclaimed Essendon half-back-flanker, ‘Macca’ – ‘the most decorated Aboriginal footballer ever’. Male family members also served as Anzacs in both World Wars. As a light-skinned woman, Dawn Lee has endured her own version of the Catch-22 of white racism in Australia. As a child, she was beaten up by non-Aboriginal children for being a ‘blackfella’; yet as an adult, her Aboriginality now remains continually in question due to her light complexion.

Finally, the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Indigenous Australia is another fertile product of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal collaboration. Three of the eleven-strong editorial team have Aboriginal ancestry as well as five-sevenths of the contributors. Over three years, a ‘screaming beast of a manuscript’ has been transformed into a travel companion with an arresting difference. In what other visitor’s guide to Australia would one expect to read: ‘This country is built on lies, massacres, genocide, imprisonment, poison, stolen children and the ongoing Bullshit of Western politics’ (Jason Davidson). ‘With this guide in your backpack or glovebox’, its Introduction assures us, ‘ you’ll find a very different Australia from the one most often presented to the world.’ You surely will! Yet while this thorough compilation hardly misses a beat in recording the sinister consequences of Australian colonialism (even John Batman’s probable ‘cerebro-vascular’ syphilis is noted), its strongest suit is in its identification of hundreds of sites of positive Aboriginal achievement, despite all the horrors inflicted by Western dispossession.

Ironically, chances are that overseas tourists, armed with this guide alone, will quickly know considerably more about Aboriginal Australia than your average local punter, or even that merry band of assimilators and denialists who presently inform/infest the mainstream Australian media. Apart from recycled versions of their own prejudice, I wonder just what do these people read? Certainly not enlightening books like these. How confronting this new knowledge must be to their rigidly expressed perspectives. And how comforting simply to consign it to oblivion with yet another blast of ignorant white noise.

[A fuller version of this review article can be found in Overland 168 (September 2002).
See Overland‘s website: www.overlandexpress.org]

Associate Professor Raymond Evans recently retired from the H
istory Department at the University of Queensland where he is still an Honorary Research Fellow. He is the author of many books and articles on Australian race relations.

   

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