Opening up the past to the present involves choices of method and form in the production of historical knowledge which are moral and political ones. Different ways of arriving at the past have put other people and stories ‘outside history’, to use Ashis Nandy’s phrase (64). On his terms, transformative politics only allows one option then, of bringing the ahistoricals into history. We call for alternative histories but rarely recognise any alternatives to history, which has been complicit in the construction of narratives of settlement as past that deny Indigenous people’s everyday contemporary reality of invasion. Different ways of experiencing and constructing the past continue to coexist with the discipline, even as it tries to expand its subjects and methodologies to incorporate new agents, popular practices, conceptions and emotions in response to questions prompted by contemporary concerns. In my own field, food history has provided alternative histories based on different sources and agents that have transcended national boundaries and contributed to contemporary debates about the food system. Food production, however, is a central element of colonialism and the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty, never ceded. In this article I want to consider alternatives to written history, ones that also do not relegate history to the past or elevate individual accounts over communal memory, reinforce national tropes about the country’s history and take the form of texts, whether as evidence or interpretation. A farm, Coranderrk, brings history into question, its methodology and practice. On a farm there is a past independent of historical discourse, inscribed on the land, encompassed within the interrelationships between human and non-human entities as a fundamental part of the land, and scope to see a future that is here and now already, and a past that is not dead, but “all about us and within” (Noonuccal in Tatz 315).
Invaders like to kill the original owners of the soil they intend to plunder, but even better than that, they like to humiliate them. Once that hard work is over their grandsons re-write the history of the re-named land and paint their grandfather as a benevolent visionary. (Pascoe 150)
Food production was the motivation for the expansion of the European empire and the justification for the seizure of land from Indigenous people, which they defined as ‘unoccupied’ by virtue of erasing the history of cultivation. At the time of invasion the most significant aspect of the world economy was the cultivation of lands to provide the European market with food. Australian agricultural history has been premised on a process of exclusion and forgetting. Inscribed on the land though, in written documents and in the oral traditions of Indigenous people is a long history of agriculture, both in a European tradition and Indigenous practices (recorded by Gammage; Pascoe). In Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident, Bruce Pascoe argues for a reconsideration of the naming of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians as ‘hunter-gatherers’, using the records and diaries of Australian explorers to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. He builds a compelling case for arguing that Indigenous food production systems and land management have been grossly undervalued, and for acknowledging history as a pathway to more equality.
The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginals did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity. (Pascoe 156)
The effect of that denial has been to deny Indigenous sovereignty and to exercise colonial sovereignty unimpeded. It also enables the continuation of relationships built upon the legacy of colonialism. Answering a question about what this denial meant in terms of the history of colonialism in Australia, Pascoe replied,
Well it means people were trying to deny Aboriginal agency in the landscape, probably trying to deny Aboriginal possession of the soil, probably trying to deny that Aboriginal people were intelligent enough to produce these systems and that would all be to do with trying to steal the land in the first place. (Pascoe in Marlow and Mandybur)
The challenge is that this story does not fit easily with the popular histories of Australia that have been constructed. Instead, history has played a central role in the development of racist stereotypes and the exclusion of Indigenous people from the national narrative in a way that protects white settler’s claims to national sovereignty.
The separation of Indigenous and colonial histories is an ongoing legacy of the British Enlightenment tradition adopted in the colonies, with a practical and utilitarian focus on progress (Offord et al.) and silences on those aspects of the past that might subvert the dominant narrative or ways of producing knowledge. Contrasting the intolerance of colonial settlers and their attitudes to the environment and native foods with the ethical and sustainable practices of today’s gourmets further separates past and present and constructs time as a linear trajectory towards a better world, expressed in eating practices without requiring actual societal change. The contemporary interest in native foods is presented as a revaluing of Indigenous flora and fauna and Indigenous people, without acknowledging colonial consumption in the past, or understanding how such practices may reproduce colonial understandings of culture and nature (Craw). Against the arguments presented by John Newton about culinary reconciliation, Craw critically examines the ethics of contemporary interest in native foods to complicate the sense of closure it suggests on colonial ideologies and practices. Understanding how legacies of colonialism inform food culture, historically and in contemporary practices, rather than presenting the two as distinct is part of a larger project that reflects some of the issues with historical discourse. Australian chefs who have enthusiastically taken up food foraging will admit that they do not have permission or know who might own the land they harvest from (McGuire). In contrast, Somerville and Perkins explain the Gumbayanggirr perspective, “In the intense engagement required to collect and eat food people learn the intimate embodied knowledge of their local places” (qtd. in Craw 17).
A growing interest in local food, as a product of concern for the environment and consumer demand, has been used to partly explain a renewed appreciation of native foods in Australia. However, as Craw explains in relation to packaged foods with native ingredients, notions of local are frequently conflated with the national, ‘Australian native ingredients’ with indefinite provenance (4). Added to this, attachments to the local have also been critiqued for their essentialism and romanticisation, neglecting attention to relationships between the local and global in political and economic terms (Ferguson, Kijas, and Wessell 15). The origins of ingredients and their connections with Indigenous Australian cultures and conceptions of place are often omitted, marginalizing Indigenous knowledges and conceptions of place. Rayleen Brown, co-founder of the catering business Kungkas Can Cook, advocates for extending the benefits available to Indigenous communities through the native foods industry. As she explains,
Many whitefellas just don’t realize that it’s so important to have Aboriginal people involved in the industry… If you lose that link between Aboriginal people and bush food, then you lose everything. It’s hollow. It’s nothing. (In Higgins-Desbiolles 529)
While some Indigenous chefs and initiatives have raised the profile of native foods and built opportunities for communities and knowledge sharing, the industry as a whole is dominated by non-Indigenous people. Engaging Indigenous communities, knowledge and histories, connecting the foods to place requires a decolonizing of culinary knowledge that acknowledges, rather than marginalises Traditional Owners. Skye Krichauff has also concluded that unsettling settler descendants’ consciousness of the colonial past and connecting Aboriginal people with people and places known to settlers in their everyday life can enable a connection Aboriginal histories and experiences . However, the historical elements that contribute to the identities of place have largely divided between Indigenous and colonial experiences and the past and present disconnected.
Foregrounding land and relationships mediated through the land as core to Australian history both past and present provides one alternative to colonial historiography, a notion densely woven into Aboriginal views of the world. For different reasons Ernest Scott proclaimed in 1924 that land is “the fundamental subject in Australian history” (Scott in Roberts x). Until the development of environmental history, however, the main thrust of this was celebratory, praising the struggles of white pioneers who overcame the challenges of nature in an alien and hostile land to develop its resources and found a nation. The introduction of European landholding patterns and philosophy is central to understanding the complex interactions of colonial settlers with the land, and thus the transformation of the whole nation, one parcel at a time.
In taking possession of Australia for the British Crown in 1770 without permission from the local inhabitants, James Cook put forward the notion that Aboriginal people, as a whole, “lived mainly on shellfish and did not cultivate the land or erect permanent habitations upon it” (qtd. in Day 26). He described the land as being in “a pure state of nature” and argued that there was not “one inch of Cultivated Land in the Whole Country” (Cook qtd. in Day 26). The philosophical justification for assumption of dominion over Australia by England was fundamentally rooted in a claim of the absence of cultivation, and thus, accordingly defined within English political philosophy, by an absence of Aboriginal land owners (see Banner; Borch; Connor; Frost). The creation of landed small-holders (and indeed some very large holdings in some contexts) was thus fundamentally associated with and textured by cultivation. The practice of sophisticated agriculture, aquaculture and land management by Indigenous people was until recently largely excluded from the dominant historical mode.
Ashis Nandy explains the dominance of the historical mode as a way of constructing the past as derived from the links history has established with the modern nation-state, the secular worldview, the Baconian concept of scientific rationality, nineteenth century theories of progress and, in recent decades, development (44). In Australia that translates to Indigenous histories being confined to the precolonial era, and developments since then, Indigenous perspectives and experiences of other themes and events considered to make up the national timeline, largely overlooked. The new Victorian Certificate of Education in Food Studies to cite one example, now includes ‘Food Origins’ as an area of study.
In this area of study students focus on the history and culture of food in Australia. They look at indigenous food prior to European settlement and the attempts of the first non-indigenous settlers to establish a secure and sustainable food supply. Students consider the development of food production, processing and manufacturing industries and conduct a critical inquiry into how Australian food producers and consumers today have been influenced by immigration and other cultural factors. Students conduct research into foods and food preparation techniques introduced by immigrants over time and consider the resurgence in interest in indigenous food practices, while reflecting on whether Australia has developed a distinctive cuisine of its own (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority 10).
The period prior to invasion is rendered timeless and non-linear, and thus outside history as Ashis Nandy would define it, and the interest in native food is a contemporary, rather than historical practice. The narrative moves towards the development of a distinctive national cuisine that includes the consumption of native foods, but not necessarily more local place identities nor recognition of Indigenous culinary and ecological knowledges.
Indigenous history relegated to the past or reduced to a mere perspective ignores both the ongoing experience of colonialism and defines it as an event, rather than a structure. As long as non-Indigenous Australians continue to live on land that was stolen and proclaim national sovereignty, colonialism continues to exist as a history ongoing. While not all settlers benefit equally from colonialism, “it is all of our responsibilities as settlers, especially those of us who descended from European colonizers, to challenge the systems of domination from which we benefit” (Unsettling Minesotta 45). History has been part of that system of domination and I have benefitted from both the dominant culture and the process of telling its stories. As Nandy reminds us, “There is no past independent of us; there is no future that is not present here and now” (64).
The work of anthropologist Dianne Barwick helped to frame the field of Aboriginal history and recast the conventions of historical research to bring contemporary needs and issues of Indigenous people to the fore (see Kijas's works). The establishment of the journal Aboriginal History with which Barwick’s name is associated was motivated by a scholarly concern to advance historical knowledge and a social and political function by responding to increasing public interest in Aboriginal history (Attwood, 130). The intention was for it to be accessible to a wider audience and to include Aboriginal perspectives neglected in the journals publishing Australian history at the time. The question of how white Australians understand Australia’s past and its relevance in contemporary society remains significant. In research supporting arguments for Indigenous history in the curriculum and Indigenous content across all subject areas, Catherine Koerner interviewed twenty-nine rural Australians self-identifying as white. She concluded that responses reflected a “delimited understanding of colonial history and a general inability to link this to the present, which limited their capacity to think cross-culturally in their everyday living” (29). Most of the participants had limited knowledge of local histories and understood Aboriginal history as one perspective on colonial history rather than being central to that narrative.
This is made more clear in the debate to #changethedate, with the Prime Minister suggesting “Australia Day, and its history, is complex for many Indigenous Australians but the overwhelming majority of Australians believe the 26th of January is the day and should remain our national day”. Turnbull criticised Yarra Council’s decision to drop all references to Australia Day and cancel its annual citizenship ceremony, accusing it of dividing the community. For Aboriginal people, like Ros Sultan, "This is about taking out the party element, because there is no reason for us to celebrate”. As Yarra Councillor Stephen Jolly put it, we need to “start listening to Indigenous Australians who see it differently” (Clure). It is incongruous that history inscribes the 26th of January as the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, and therefore invasion, and yet appeals to history are also made to maintain a national celebration on the same day, a clear reflection on the implicit silences in popular historical consciousness.
While history has been transformed by incorporating people and stories outside it within, challenging its methodologies and subjects, the task of bringing history to life, particularly for those people who have not been disadvantaged by its impact, requires recognition of the presence of the past, rather than its distance from everyday reality. Research undertaken by Anna Clark suggests that it is not only Indigenous content but also the way that history is taught which undermines student’s enthusiasm for history. In schools around the country Clark explained, “students describe being ‘over’ Indigenous history” (66), because it is marginalised and repetitive and the professional development of teachers to generate interested and critical engagement is lacking. Clearly, if more people are to engage with the notion and practice of history different ways of understanding and presenting the past and its relationship to the present are needed.
Finding alternative means to tell stories about the past has been important to the project of changing histories and engaging the public. Histories of Coranderrk have been presented in text, in oral testimony, in performances, photographs, painting and through shared meals providing creative improvisations on history telling that open up the past to new interpretations. Written testimony and media, oral histories, visual arts and land have been used as evidence to interpret the past in the context of it mattering. As Nandy exaplins, “Some scholars feel responsible enough to the present to subvert the future by correcting the past; others are as willing to redefine, perhaps even transfigure, the past to open up the future” (66).
Histories of Coranderrk have been written about by Massola, Christie, Barwick, Attwood and Broome. From the 1840s the Kulin sought to gain access to land that had been lost to colonisers. Woiwurrang clan head Billibellary first appealed for a grant of land for farming and his son Wonga in 1859 repeated this request to William Thomas, as Guardian of the Aborigines. Wonga explained his Taungerong kinsmen “want a block of land in the country where they may sit down, plant corn, potatoes, etc – and work like white men” (qtd. in Barwick 40). The Board were persuaded that the land would be cultivated and set aside 1821 hectares for a Reserve at Acheron. Despite their protests the Taungerong were forced to abandon the reserve after a year of clearing the land, fencing and planting wheat and vegetables and sustained pressure from pastoralists. When Coranderrk was formally established as an Aboriginal Reserve the following year the Kulin, with John Green as General Inspector of the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines, ensured that official confirmation was published in the Government’s gazette. Wonga presented his case to Governor Sir Henry Barkly in a public reception in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday, in his own language Woirurrung with William Thomas translating, asserting at the same time his sovereign status in dealing with the Queen’s representative (Nanni and James 9). A letter from the Queen’s Secretary thanking him for the address and conveying her promise of protection further confirmed Aboriginal entitlement to the land and the importance of written appeals and deputations to advancing their cause, which the Kulin would use later in disputes over its management and resumption. These records were available to earlier historians concerned with the settlement of the colonies and evidence of farming by Aboriginal people.
By the 1860s Aboriginal communities in Victoria were subject to closer management through a system of reserves and missions that provided the overarching framework of the colonial experience. Regulating where Aboriginal people lived, how their identity was defined, their employment, relationships with settlers, the legislation ultimately provided a means for the state to take possession of Aboriginal people and their land. Insatiable hunger for land, however, fuelled claims to expropriate even these reserves bolstered by narratives of free settlers on a land presumed vacant and uncultivated and an ideological framework of private property intended to create the conditions for the emergence of independent yeoman farmers. Land therefore lay at the heart of the colonial experience; “Settlers desired it for sustenance, independence, wealth and status. For Aboriginal people it was their bodily sustenance, their identity, spirituality and the very life essence itself” (Broome 43). History was a powerful tool of dispossession giving it coherence and legitimacy by denying Aboriginal sovereignty.
Barwick complained of a ‘pseudohistory’ that characterised the establishment of reserves as segregation that was used to justify the dispersal of those communities to attempt assimilation. Her own work drew on oral testimony as well as written records to record and interpret history. Barwick documents the growth of Coranderrk from 1863 to 1874 as the Kulin, together with John and Mary Green made it their home and cleared, drained and cultivated the land to move towards self-sufficiency. The Woiwurrung and Taungerong people were joined by families from the Dja Dja Wurrung and Wathaurong clans and reunited the Kulin who were joined by Yorta Yorta, Gunai/Kurnai and Burapper men and women. To key elements of their own culture and traditional patterns of land use and lifestyle were added European agricultural work and customs and christianity. This included writing and print as resources to further their cause (van Toorn). Rather than undermining oral traditions, writing functioned within traditional protocols of communication. William Barak headed the list of signatories on petitions, as a clan-head of the Wurundjeri people on whose land the Coranderrk was established. His vision was for Coranderrk to become a self-sufficient, self-determinant community, shared by John Green who was removed in 1874. As Barak explained to the Coranderrk Inquiry in 1881, “We want only one man here, and that is Mr John Green, and the station to be under the Chief Secretary; then we will show the country that the station could self-support itself” (qtd in Nanni and James vi).
Why do not the people do it themselves? [And] why don’t those whitefellows that want to break this station go and try and break some of the squatters’ stations? The squatters have got more ground in Victoria than we have. We have only got a little piece. Whitefellows ought to leave us alone. Whitefellows would not like us to come down … to take their land from them and move them out of their homes. We are a Christian land, and we ought to love one another with brotherly love. (Barak qtd. in Nanni and James 89)
The Coranderrk Aboriginal Station was part of a system of Stations and Reserves established by the Victorian Government’s Aboriginal Protection Act (1869) which operated from 1863 to 1924. Boucher and Russell argue that
Victoria became a historically condensed example of the creative destructions of nineteenth-century British settler colonialism in which land-hungry Britons ‘bred like rabbits and settled like bad weeds’ to propel what James Belich describes as a ‘settler revolution’. (1)
The campaign for the community’s right to occupy and self-manage the land they farmed has been preserved in a series of letters and petitions produced by residents as well as in the voices of Aboriginal people testifying in the 1877 Royal Commission and the Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Board Appointed to Enquiry into the Condition of the Aboriginal Station at Coranderrk in 1882 and press coverage of the disputes. The initial demand for land and its maintenance and the Inquiry were the results of a sustained campaign by the Kulin to ensure their peoples’ survival. According to Barwick decisions about the siting and use of the station, however, were made by a “handful of men who did not understand each other’s views of the past” (27). The outcome of the dispute over Coranderrk, she argues was only partly about ‘race relations’. “The participants acted in particular ways because of differing beliefs about land use, justice and power” (6). But it can also be seen that the primary concern underpinning the decision-making was a denial of Indigenous histories of farming and the elevation of a narrative that furthered dispossession. The people at Coranderrk remembered events differently and this was documented in investigations and in the press over the management and use of the land and in the records of the Reserve. This experience influenced the ways subsequent generations responded to planning by officials, who probably did not know or understand the history and resumed the land to make it available for sale to colonisers, on the grounds that it would be more profitable. Records of the farm development at Coranderrk and the award winning hops produced by the residents confirm its success. Moreover there were other motivations for downplaying the skills of Aboriginal farmers who were not paid equally for their labour. Subsequent histories and reports of Coranderrk would have to take into account the context in which such claims would be made.
The success of the farm was not necessarily welcomed by local farmers and hops growers eager to expand their land or mistakenly complaining about an unfair advantage enjoyed by Coranderrk. The Board remarked in 1876 that the Coranderrk hops realised that highest price of any offered in Melbourne and in 1881 they were awarded ‘first order of merit’ at the Melbourne International Exhibition (Nanni and James 16). The Inquiry observed however, that too much attention was paid to the cash crop at the expense of producing lifestock and vegtables to sustain the community (Argus 10). The settler population continued to grow with vested interests in the land at Coranderrk and Green’s opposition to persuading the Kulin to leave the station prompted the Board to remove him. A sustained campaign against mismanagement and pressure to abandon their home was termed rebellion. That resistance, which took the form of petitions and evidence resulted in the Inquiry into the condition and management of the station, which allowed the people the right to be heard in a forum of justice.
Still, the Inquiry was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, the nine commissioners each bringing their own prejudices and vested interests. Baron Frederic Guillaume de Pury was a Swiss consul who established a vineyard at Yering in 1863 bordering Coranderrk, which employed and sheltered the Woiworung. He was also in favour of extending the rail line to Healesville that the sale of the land would have funded. De Pury’s friendship with Barak has been the subject of alternative narratives of this history available in painting and food production.
We cannot keep [the cattle] in the place on account of the fencing. As fast as the fencing is put up it is chopped down [by local farmers]. I do not know why they should do it, but they do it. (Captain Andrew Matthew Adolph Page, Secretary and Inspector of the Board at the time of the Inquiry, qtd. in Nanni and James 113)
Containing animals from crops has been a constant problem for farmers, particularly where crop agriculture has been more important than livestock, as it was in Coranderrk. It’s a boundary also shared with neighbours and a point of contestation and negotiation. Sharing knowledge and experience and resources makes fencing a border; a meeting place as much as a line of exclusion. The relationship between du Pury and Barak reflects this complexity, retold in artwork.
The exhibition, Oil Paint and Ochre (2015) at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum at Lilydale examined that relationship. "I think first of all they were neighbours," said Brooke Collins, a Wurundjeri woman and the great-great-great niece of Barak.
They were also farmers. You have the de Purys with their beautiful grapes and you've got the people at Coranderrk with their award-winning hops... I'm sure there would have been with similarities affecting their crops and I'm wondering if they would have had to share resources and tips and tricks. (In Bell)
Their friendship endured for some time although de Pury joined three other commissioners at the Inquiry to advise that the reserve be sold and its occupants sent to “an isolated part of the colony” if discontent persisted (qtd in Barwick, 215). A new Act redefined Aboriginal people to exclude those of mixed descent who could then be moved off the Reserve, regardless of their loyalties and the prejudice they faced, diminishing the community. Barak’s painting of the vineyard suggests an understanding of the farming principles and the significance of land use.
We want only one man here, and that is Mr John Green, and the station to be [directly] under the Chief Secretary; then we will show the country that the station could self support itself. (Coranderrk petition, 16 Nov. 1881; qtd. in Nanni and James 17)
At the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy in Melbourne in 2016 a lunch inspired by the Yarra Valley friendship between Barak and the de Pury family brought together the concepts of terroir and country hosted by wine writer and author Max Allen and descendants of the families. Eel pate was served with Yeringberg lamb and the potatoes that formed a contested element in the dispute over rations at Coranderrk accompanied by Yeringberg wines and beer brewed in the Coranderrk style. The lens of food provided a medium to understand the past and culture. Increasingly food is understood as a factor in social and political issues and not just a means of survival. Food events, such as this, reflect and help to reproduce the increasing awareness of food’s significance in culture. The exclusion of Aboriginal people from agricultural history endures, however, to dilute that significance in the national narrative and justify dispossession. Looking for the rationale for the absence of recognition of native foods in colonial and contemporary diets, we need look no further than the claims to country any recognition of that would have diluted.
Food production was not something that happened alongside or behind the racial violence of the colonial frontier. Food on the frontier was not a meal cooked by a woman at the end of the day for a man who did the violent work of dispossession elsewhere. Food production was both the rationale for and the site of colonial expansion, and was inextricably gendered and racialised at all stages (Woodcock 34).
Any understanding of food production requires attention to the key imperative it formed in the colonial enterprise, the legacy of that in contemporary relations, the failure of history to engage the public. History for me is best understood when you take the words off the page and voice them. It is a reminder that all people have emotions and desires that drive our actions and words, which in turn creates our history, which in turn we hopefully learn from. (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, actor, Coranderrk – We Will Show The Country)
The Minutes of Evidence Project brings scholars together across different disciplines to understand and conceptualise structural and historical injustice, the significance of past injustice to the present and new conceptual frameworks to move towards a just future. The project responds to two key recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the 1997 Bringing Them Home Reports:
- The need to educate the broader population about Aboriginal history;
- The need to redress the full range of entrenched disadvantages [‘structural injustices’] arising from that history if widespread and long-term change is to take place [which we call ‘structural justice’ in the project] (Minutes of Evidence).
The broader research agenda draws on the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Coranderrk to encourage greater awareness of the effects of settler colonialism in Victoria’s past and present and ways of living together more openly in the future. But the project also seeks to expand the field of engagement with the notion and practice of history by creating different ways of understanding the past and its implications and how it continues to resonate. Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is theatre performance based on extracts from the official minutes of evidence of a government inquiry into conditions in the reserve together with excerpts of petitions, letters and newspaper articles from the time. (Balint et al.). The script was developed by Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, a playwright whose Yorta Yorta family were Coranderrk residents. The project goes further to include ways of involving the community, adapting the play for schools, developing resources and hosting public seminars and forums.
In the same spirit of collaboration that brought Coranderrk – We Will Show the Country to the stage, Rob Garbutt has been writing with Ros Sten, Jenny Smith, Dianne Harrington, Thelma James and Mickey Ryan. Writing histories together can shift the traditional division between the research and researched as objects of study that come to be known and defined as a way of understanding the world and disregarding other attempts to know differently. Decolonising methodology Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues, requires exposing its role and purpose, “It is also about rebelling against it; shifting the identity of its object so as to re-position those who have been objects of research into questioners, critics, theorists, knowers and communicators” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni).
Some of the ethnographic data and knowledge collected as part of the colonial project used to a different purpose can open up the past in new ways. Shooting the Past on Radio National looks at Australian historical events through a single photograph. In the first episode, “The promised land” Clare Wright considers the image of Wurundjeri leader William Barak at Coranderrk Station in 1897, with guests Aunty Joy Wandin, Senior Wurundjeri elder of the Kulin, writer and descendant of William Barak, Tony Birch, Historian, poet and author and Jane Lydon, Historian. Aunty Joy Wandin sees the river, the strength Barak shows, that he is ready for battle, that he is standing tall, prepared for anything, grace and composure, compassion and love; grateful for the photos and all the stories that have been recorded. Jane Lydon, a historian of colonial photography, explains that hundreds of photographers went to Coranderrk as the closest Aboriginal station to Melbourne that was part of a tourist circuit that included surrounding areas, to see Aboriginal people, buy crafts and artefacts and watch performances and displays as a “staged encounter” between white people and the Aboriginal residents. Photographs could be viewed as a tool of exploitation, taken without the subject’s participation or consent to its use and framed in ways that were disadvantageous to Aboriginal people. That assumption however, could also ignore Aboriginal people’s enthusiasm for participation and sophistication in understanding visual culture as well as their agency in working towards their own objectives. Copies of the same photographs were often used by residents as family portraits in their homes. Photographs, as Wright states, “appear to capture a truth about the past, yet are always open to interpretation, based on our present needs, hopes and assumptions.”
While we consider what history is and what it is for, attempts to bring it to life through art and food and drama, also challenge the disciplinary conventions that distinguish it from the present. History-making responsible to the present and the future has attempted to correct the past, but attention to the practice and form of the discipline, which also shape the narrative, is important. Learning our history is part of the project of colonisation as long as we are bound to repetition, whether we know it or not, by reproducing the discourses and conventions of the dominant historical mode. It cannot be enough to look from a single point of view for the purpose of realising, like other projects involving human beings, that history is ultimately a negotiation. The transformation or decolonising of history demands connections between different perspective, experiences, methodologies and forms as well as recognition that this past is not dead, but “all about us and within” (Noonuccal in Tatz 315).
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