Tag Archives: Black Inc. Agenda

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.

Where will I find authentic and reliable information about Tasmania’s aborigines prior to 1803?

This question has been asked because I am not concerned with researching European settlement or its impact on Tasmania’s indigenous population.

It seems that three categories of information sources might be used for my study:

  1. the written/printed word,
  2. material anthropology, and
  3. oral histories. Such histories might exist in association with the continuance of authentic movements such as dance and sound making.

As stated in an earlier post, the original settlers in Van Diemen’s Land, the descendants of non-indigenous peoples, and other non-indigenous people have left historical written/printed documentation. In addition, exploring visitors to this island before European settlement made written records. Each of these writers will have their own perspective, and so my challenge will be to remember what they write is not necessarily a fact. This means I will need supporting and corroborating evidence of other kinds; material artefacts and/or oral histories.  I do not expect to find any early 19th century documentation written by Tasmanian aborigines – but I would be very excited to read such records if I should find them.

James Joyce, in his essay “Fantasy Island” (Manne, 2003, Whitewash Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne) refuted the evidence of Keith Windshuttle’s book (2002, Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 Macleay Press, Sydney) when he declared ‘Windshuttle can impose his contemporary conclusions on Van Diemen’s Land history only by limiting the selection of sources …’.  Joyce’s position reminds me to stay focused and to explore broadly.

At the moment, I have started working through a mountain of freely available reference material seeking clues as to what I might need to follow up with careful research.  As yet, I have found very little that pertains to the Derwent River. These are early days during which I will come to an understanding of the limitations and challenges of my project.