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excerpts from Penny Taylor’s discussion of indigenous people’s perspectives on recounting the past

Taylor, P. ‘Telling it like it is’, AIATSIS, Canberra ACT, 1992

excerpt one

General histories of nations and states are important in affecting public attitudes and government policy. Personal, local and community histories are far more important for daily life. People who know the history of their own people, of their mob, have a strong identity with which to face the world .

We are all proud of the many well known Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people such as Doug Nicholls, Charles Perkins, Reg Saunders, Lois O'Donoghue, Justine Saunders, Lionel Rose, Evonne Cawley, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, David Gulpilil, Getano Lui, Pat Dodson, George Mye, Wenton Rubuntja, Ernie Dingo, Kevin Carmody and so on. Our local heroes, heroines and important elders are even more important at the community level. They are our immediate role models, people we can all be proud of.

Knowledge of our local history has enormous value in changing people's attitudes, in making white people recognise the wrongs done to indigenous people. Local history, taught in all schools to all students, black and white, can form a new basis for mutual understanding.

Local history has all important practical role to play. It plays a major role in land claims. Land rights legislation may he decided by state and federal governments, but claims often depend on local historical evidence for success.

Local knowledge plays a major role in keeping places and cultural centres, and helps in regaining items held in museums throughout the country. It can assist in the creation of parks, the protection of important sites, and encourage appropriate tourism.

Local history may lead to white guilt in some cases and guilt can be a destructive emotion if badly handled. How are white community members and their children going to deal with the facts of a grandfather's involvement in a massacre? How is a local station owner going to deal with proof that his forefathers dispossessed the local Aboriginal people. This is one of the reasons why the invaders have repressed local history and may try to resist it today. Should indigenous people hide this information for fear of upsetting local whites and their children?

Local history for up to 200 years, depending on the area we live in, has been two different but overlapping, histories. There is very little Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander history that does not involve the actions of white people. Equally, there is no Australian history that does not include the history of the First Australians. Only when this is recognised and indigenous history is reclaimed at the local level is there any possibility of the overlapping histories becoming a shared history.

Ruby Langford and Essie Coffey 'telling it like it is'

Ruby Langford, ABC radio interview discussing her new book, Real deadly,

2CN 19 3/92

I thought I should write these stories down, because nothing's been taught in the school curriculum much about Aboriginal history or culture, politics or anything, so there's a whole heap of people out there that don't know a thing about us. If I wrote these stories and told them how it really is from our side of the fence, and like we really are today, in the twentieth century, approaching the twenty-first, it might promote a better understanding of Aboriginal's a good hope to educate people.

Essie Coffey, Brewarrina, 1992.

White guilt is a hard question and I've got mixed feelings about it. We know all that information, the stories have come down the generations, we could give proof of the people who killed us, hunted us away. Part of me says to keep it quiet, it could be cruel at times, it could hurt the little kids who aren't to blame, it could cause a white backlash. But then I think our history has to be brought out into the open. Non-Aboriginal people have got to learn what happened, we've got to name names. When did white people ever care about hurting our children? The whole nation is responsible, but you've got to start at the grass roots level. The more people know what happened, the better it is for all of us, to help us seek a better future. People have got to learn to trust us to be fair, to do the right thing.

excerpt two

There are several major differences between the ways that oral and written cultures pass on knowledge and these are important for understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history.

Oral cultures tend to see the world as a whole. The worlds of education, work, play and family life are not put into separate compartments, and religious and spiritual knowledge is not separated from other aspects of life. Life is not time tabled in quite the same way it is in written cultures. Past events are related to one another and to the here and now, rather than being placed in decades and centuries.

People in oral cultures have to rely on their memories much more than people in written cultures who can write things down and look them up later. They, therefore, develop ways of enhancing memory and make great use of rhythm and rhyme, set phrases and sayings. They also use song and dance along with ritual which helps to reinforce important knowledge.

Since nobody can remember everything, memories that are no longer important to the present are dropped to make room for new ones and old stories get reworked to suit present needs. Stories tend to be of important ancestors and great events while trivial details are often left out.

In oral cultures, much knowledge is owned and controlled by the community and its older people. Old people are very important and their memories and wisdom are vital to the survival of the whole group. It is their decision to pass on information and they only do so if they think people are ready to learn and will use the information wisely to benefit the whole group. In written cultures, children are encouraged to be curious, to ask questions, to experiment, to find out for themselves, to go to libraries and bypass their own immediate elders. This is not the case in oral cultures where children learn by watching, by showing respect and waiting to be told by the only people they can learn from.

Knowledge in oral cultures is always transmitted face to face, person to person, and usually in a group through storytelling, dance or ritual performance. It means being part of a close society and strengthening the identity of the whole group.

excerpt three

A lot of people who walls to make oral history recording start off full of enthusiasm and then run into difficulties. Many of these are not technical problems, like handling the tape recorder, but more general concerns that can stop an interview going well.

There can be lots of different reasons for this. If the past is painful, not everyone wants to recall it and they can be made very unhappy if people try to make them relive experiences that they would rather forget. It is important to be sensitive to this and to respect people's wishes even if you think that their information might be really valuable.

There are sometimes events in people's lives that they would rather not reveal and they may worry that if they agree to be interviewed you will want them to discuss things they would prefer left unsaid. Reassure them that you will not push them on things they do not wish to talk about. Discuss who will be able to listen to it, where it will be kept and so on.

This can cause problems when older people are being interviewed by younger people. Old people lived through such different circumstances that it is often hard for youngsters today to imagine what it was like. Nowadays it is easier to stand up for your rights, and organisations like the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander Legal service can provide protection. In the old days if people stood up to the managers, they ran the risk of having their kids taken away, being driven off the mission, or forcibly transferred to another place. This meant that people had no choice but to accept a lot of the ill-treatment that was inflicted on them.

Old people are sometimes afraid that youngsters judge them for having allowed things (like the kids being taken away ) to go on. They find it hard to explain to younger people that they had no control over their lives, that they were not in any position to protest. It is important to put yourself in their shoes, to imagine just what life was like then, and to avoid making any judgments based on today's values.

Sometimes people feel more relaxed if there is another older person present at the interview, or even a group who can reminisce together. When Kathy Fisher was interviewing elderly people at Cherbourg, even though it was her own community she often took her father along as this made people more relaxed. She also asked everyone if they could tell any funny stories which soon broke the ice, as well as giving different insights into the past.

Some older people tell all kinds of wonderful historical stories to their families over the years, but as soon as a family member asks to record some of them, they are unwilling. They say things like: 'You don't want to waste your time recording that old rubbish' or 'My story isn't t important' . Sometimes this is because older people were taught by the authorities to be ashamed of their own culture. Or it can be because people see a difference between telling stories within the family, and telling them for the outside world. It's up to you to convince your grandmother or uncle of the importance of their information. One way of doing this is to show them your documentary research so that they can see that many of the written records are incorrect, biased and only tell half the story. That helps them to realise just how important their memories are, not just as family stories, but as the undocumented history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the area.

In many parts of Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory and in the north of Western Australia, people do not speak the names of people who have passed away, or look at photographs of them. This varies from place to place and may also depend on how long a person has been deceased and the manner and age of their death. Often, after a period of time, photos may be looked at but this is a decision to be made by close relatives. Community members doing historical research will understand this, but newcomers need to be very careful.

Great care needs to be taken in any interviews not to press people for the names of their parents or older relatives who have passed away. Old photos should not be produced without checking first.

This way of showing respect doesn't prevent people enjoying telling stories of the past and recording historical information.

Reproduced with the permission of the AIATSIS


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