Searching for aboriginal history along the Derwent River; rethinking my approach

Thanks to the clarity of writing in Greg Lehman’s chapter ‘Telling us True’ (Manne, R Ed. 2003 Whitewash On Keith Windshuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne), I am rethinking my approach to ‘discovering’ and reporting on the ‘true story’ of aborigines living along the Derwent River prior to European settlement.

Whitewash book cover

Greg explains “In Aboriginal English, the word ‘true’ has a very specific intent, but a rather elusive meaning. ‘Aw – true!?’ will be a familiar phrase to anyone who knows blackfellas. It is a question of authenticity and at the same time of an apprehension of reality. The phrase encompasses much of what it is to communicate within a cultural space inhabited by Aboriginal people. This is a space within which ‘fact’, ‘reality’ and ‘certainty’ are secondary considerations to the act of communication. ‘Having a yarn’ is more governed by the protocols of respect, trust and companionship than by the imperative to explore the veracity of a statement. Rather than listening with an expectation of photo-accurate observations of a subject, hearers of a ‘yarn’ listen for meaning, nuance and metaphor. And only by knowing the person speaking – or at least her family – are you likely to get more than a minimum of what is really being said. For us, the ‘truth’ is made up of countless, contradictory, ironic and provocative elements, woven together into an allegorical, sometimes fictive documentation of what it is to live our lives.”

One implication of this comment is that all ‘facts’ cannot be known nor understandings developed in one meeting. Talking with people takes time and, of course, further chats take more time.  So I feel encouraged to slow down the process of my investigation to allow for a bigger picture to emerge, when I reach the research stage of listening to oral histories.

In addition when I read this comment, I was reminded that depending on our personal backgrounds and experiences we always ‘know’ or believe something to be true and we often then say ‘it’s a fact, I saw it, smelt it, felt it’, etc.  However, experience with friends, colleagues, relatives and strangers let us know that any of our truths is likely to be different from another’s. For example, when police ask two eye witnesses at an accident or crime to detail what they saw, their true stories will be different, even if similar.  So I am left wondering what aspect of aboriginal history can I ‘discover’ and report on without making an interpretation.  Will such a job be possible?

When Lehman added “The historic event, which contains real acts; the archaeological site, containing real artefacts; the human life, containing real experience, are just snapshots in history.  They are in themselves meaningless.  Without an observer or an interpreter, they have no life, no implication for the present and no wisdom for the future. The space between these snapshots is a vacuum that necessarily fills …” I can see that weaving a story around any ‘facts’ in order to make connections will be problematic if I hope to present a ‘true story’.

Further along in his chapter, Lehman notes “…sources of ‘social understanding’ are usually referred to by sociologists as authority and tradition.  But it is an error to consider these as fixed or providing a constant benchmark of truth …” Earlier postings in this blog indicate the start for my research project is the printed and written word of Europeans. To rely on this ‘evidence’ alone would be to forget that any ideas and comments represent limited points of view, and that any ‘truths’ would necessarily be fashioned from particular experiences and the constraints of the colonial environment. Lehman’s comments remind me that caution is required.

Disbelief in a single, privileged truth is what frees us from the power of prejudice.”  I hope I can remember to question every idea that I read, and all those which come to mind. In addition, I hope I will always consider the impact of my written words.

4 thoughts on “Searching for aboriginal history along the Derwent River; rethinking my approach

  1. RuthsArc

    Good luck with your research. I am looking forward to following your quest, a different approach to the history of this river and it’s people. interesting quotes about “having a yarn” and storytelling to reflect a fact or a true event.


    1. Tasmanian traveller Post author

      Yes it is a different approach. I guess I have always felt deep down that historical ‘fact’ was perpetually on the move – that the ‘true story’ varied depending on who got hold of which details. At the same time I know I have always wanted a fact to be true for everyone because it is ‘neater’. But facts have never been true to everyone and so I really must get over my quest for the one truth. It won’t be easy. And I suspect my search will be more difficult because other people may also want one absolute truth, and may even castigate me for failing to provide an unarguable truth. Ahhh … interesting times ahead.


  2. tawatja

    You write, ‘So I am left wondering what aspect of aboriginal history can I ‘discover’ and report on without making an interpretation.’
    I think the answer is none. But there’s nothing wrong with that. My view is that all history is known through interpretation – in the same way as all lives are apprehended through stories (even our own lives by the stories we tell ourselves).
    The vast majority of human history accumulated before the invention of writing. Oral histories would therefore seem to be vulnerable, mutable, unrealiable. Yet, ironically, oral histories last longer than written ones. The oldest stories that survive in human history come from oral traditions. Australian Aboriginal people have stories that refer to the rising of sea levels after the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. That’s a ten thousand year old story! Nothing from the written canon comes close.
    What I love is that oral histories are expressed in allegory and metaphor. They have rich moral fabrics. They are not neutral and objective, as conservative historians would say that history must be to have value. Oral histories have meaning on our lives. They MATTER!
    This meaning comes about precisely through the process of interpretation. Non-Aboriginal people interpreting Aboriginal history is an important part of this process.
    Greg Lehman


    1. Tasmanian traveller Post author

      Thanks for this Greg. Since I wrote that post, other projects have supplanted my interest in pursuing those ideas further. Reconsidering all of this part of history is not off my radar but is off my ‘to do’list in the immediate future. It has always been an idea of mine that when (if) I embark on further work in this area, you would be the first person I would ask to speak with. I look forward to meeting you at some stage. Regards, Helen



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