Indigenous Studies

For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).

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The Uluru Statement from the Heart was made at a historic assembly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at Uluru in 2017. It addresses the fundamental question of how Indigenous peoples want to be recognised in the Australian Constitution. The answer given is a First Nations ‘Voice’ to Federal Parliament protected by the Constitution, and a subsequent process of agreement-making and truth-telling. This process should be overseen by a Makarrata Commission, from the Yolngu word meaning ‘the coming together after a struggle’. Inspired by the values enshrined in the Statement, Victoria has established such a process through the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. ‘Yoo-rrook’ is a Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba word meaning ‘truth’.

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In early 2021, the Victorian government announced the creation of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission to investigate the harms done to Aboriginal people through colonisation. Named after the word for truth in the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba langauge, Yoo-rrook will be the first exercise of its kind in an Australian jurisdiction and one of the most significant responses yet offered to the call for Voice, Treaty and Truth issued by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’.

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In the process of British colonisation, Aboriginal people lost their country, kin, culture, and languages. They also lost their freedom. Governed after 1901 by different state and territory laws, Aboriginal peoples were subject to the direction of Chief Protectors and Protection Boards, and were told where they could live, travel, and seek employment, and whom they might marry. They were also subject to the forced removal of their children by state authorities. Exemption certificates promised family safety, dignity, a choice of work, a passport to travel, and freedom. Too often, in practice, exemption also meant enhanced surveillance, family breakup, and new forms of racial discrimination and social segregation.

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In 1985, following the publication of their collaborative works Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley and Reading the Country: Introduction to nomadology (with artist Krim Benterrak as co-author), Paddy Roe, possibly sensing that the young researcher would be of critical importance to his life’s project, suggested to Stephen Muecke that there needed to be a third book, The Children’s Country, about the rayi – the spirit children – and for human children to come. Muecke writes that he was unable to deliver the book at the time. Roe went on to establish the Lurujarri Heritage Trail following a songline along a ninety-kilometre stretch of coastline from Minyirr (Broome) to Minarriny (Coulomb Point).

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Bain Attwood’s Empire and the Making of Native Title is a welcome contribution to the field. Like many good historians of sovereignty and native title in Australia and New Zealand, Attwood stresses the importance of contingency and complexity in the first decades of British settlement on both sides of the Tasman Sea. His early chapters focus on the local and imperial contexts that shaped Crown approaches to Indigenous title in New South Wales, Port Phillip, and South Australia. The rest of the book provides a forensic account of the lead-up to and aftermath of the British assumption of sovereignty in New Zealand, and its shifting ramifications for legal arguments about Māori land title.

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In the wake of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, truth-telling has gained new currency in Australia. The Statement called for a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.  Although yet to be fleshed out in any detail, the renewed call for truth-telling has been greeted with enthusiasm by many First Nations peoples and their allies around the continent, who endorse the view that shining the bright light of truth into the darkest recesses of Australian history will contribute to a transformation in Indigenous–settler relations.

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Tjanimaku Tjukurpa: How one young man came good by the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council

by
January–February 2021, no. 428

At first glance, the slender paperback, with its cover drawing of dark-skinned men and boys, looks like a conventional illustrated children’s book. A few pages in, it’s clear that Tjanimaku Tjukurpa is something else. The version I have is in Pitjantjatjara and English. There is also an edition in Ngaanyatjarra and English. To anyone familiar with remote Aboriginal communities, the illustrations vibrate with authenticity – the landscape, the buildings, the cars, the appearance and demeanour of the people. This is a story embedded in the reality of community life. Told through the eyes of a concerned grandfather, it is a narrative played out in various iterations across the Indigenous world.

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The Aboriginal tracker is a stock character in certain Australian films, employed as set dressing, catalyst, curio. Although fictional trackers have been celebrated on celluloid, few real trackers have been given life within the national memory. Some people may recall Billy Dargin and his role in locating and shooting Ben Hall. Others might think of Dubbo’s Tracker Riley, or Dick-a-Dick, who found the missing Cooper and Duff children near Natimuk in 1864 when they had been given up for dead.

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It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.

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