The Statement from the Heart calls for truth-telling about the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Truth-telling is crucial to the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation in Australia.
The history, tradition and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their experiences of injustices following colonisation has been largely unknown. However, there is a growing momentum among Australians to develop a fuller understanding and awareness of our history.
Truth-telling was raised by the First Nations Regional Dialogues as being ‘important for the relationship between First Nations and the country’ and throughout the course of the Committee’s inquiry, there has been strong support among stakeholders for the concept of truth-telling.
The Regional Dialogues also emphasised that ‘the true history of colonisation must be told’:
… the genocides, the massacres, the wars and the ongoing injustices and discrimination. This truth also needed to include the stories of how First Nations Peoples have contributed to protecting and building this country.
Truth-telling is an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to record evidence about past actions and share their culture, heritage and history with the broader community.
It is also an opportunity to record the history and evidence of the impacts of colonisation and settlement for local communities, and issues such as massacres, dispossession and stolen wages were raised. The Committee also heard about the reconciling effects of commemorations of massacres at Myall Creek, Coniston and Waterloo Bay.
This chapter presents an overview of suggested approaches to truth-telling and shared histories including examples and evidence from local communities.
The importance of truth-telling
Truth-telling is not just about acknowledging the atrocities of the past, but is also an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to share their culture and language with their communities.
Touching on this, Dr Jacqueline Durrant stated that there is evidence of the ‘history of atrocities against Aboriginal people’ but there is also ‘history…out there for the wonderful and amazing culture that Aboriginal peoples have. It’s important that we look at both’.
Mr Mark Redmond, Chief Executive of Reconciliation Tasmania stated that ‘there’s real drive for acknowledgement, for all sides of the story in Tasmania to be told and heard and celebrated’.
Mr Redmond went further to say:
There’s a lot of history which has not been told, and I think we believe as Reconciliation Tasmania that a lot of unity and healing can be done through getting these stories out around what really happened in Tasmania. As you know, there was quite a significant impact on the local Aboriginal people and on the settlers and the convicts who were here too. There are a whole range of victims around that. But I think that truth-telling can come out and be told in a mature way and a sensible way–to our young people, particularly, who are now being educated in schools around better truth than our older generations–that is only going to add to a unity of our country. Our history has to be told in a fuller way than has been done in the past, and I think that view is held by our members and by Aboriginal organisations across the state in a very strong way.
But many stakeholders agreed that truth-telling is a means for Australians to acknowledge the historically negative impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of contact between them and other Australians.
Kingsford Legal Centre and Community Legal Centres NSW stated:
A truth telling process has the potential to provide a form of restorative justice, educate the Australian community and provide a path forward for reconciliation.
Similarly, the National Health Leadership Forum stated:
Truth-telling and acknowledgement of the past injustices will establish a sound basis for further progress towards health and healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The need for truth-telling for the nation to understand and address past and ongoing trauma is crucial.
According to Mr Thomas Wilkie-Black, an ANU student:
The Regional Dialogues suggest First Nations feel they have been unable to secure such a platform and the state has failed to sufficiently acknowledge frontier violence. By giving survivors of frontier violence the opportunity to share and have their experiences officially acknowledged for the first time, truth-telling can promote their healing.
Mr Wilkie-Black also suggested that truth-telling could contribute to healing for individuals who didn’t feel they had the opportunity to share their stories through previous processes including Royal Commissions or national inquiries:
There’s also scope to involve witnesses who have testified in prior inquiries, because the government’s response may have been inadequate.
Ongoing impact of past actions
Historically, there has been little acknowledgment throughout Australia of the negative effects of colonisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and how that has accumulated across generations.
Intergenerational trauma was raised by many stakeholders as a serious problem among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress) stated:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have experienced trauma for over 200 years as a result of colonisation, dispossession, destruction of culture, stolen wages, the Stolen Generations and paternalistic policies which have denied our autonomy and self-determination.
According to Dr Lyndall Ryan, ‘Australians today seem to know very little of the history of the violent encounter between colonists and Aboriginal people.’
The Committee heard many examples of how past actions of settlers continue to impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities today.
Many submitters acknowledged the damaging and ongoing impact colonisation and settlement has had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For example, Gilbert + Tobin stated that:
Throughout the almost 200 years after Australia’s settlement, largely as a result of both government action and inaction, Indigenous people:
were denied their Indigenous identities – their languages and their cultures;
died of disease and malnutrition;
were hunted, massacred and murdered – in Tasmania, almost wiped out;
were denied most of the day to day accessories of citizenship – the right to make choices about who they married, where they lived and to enjoy the freedoms of other Australian citizens including the freedom to vote.
Ms Annette Gainsford, a Lecturer at the Centre for Law and Justice at Charles Sturt University, identified that the effects of colonisation have ‘been felt and have affected Aboriginal people in different ways’. She said that ‘part of that is their loss of culture, their loss of language, their loss of land, their loss of identity’.
Similarly, Kingsford Legal Centre and Community Legal Centres NSW attributed ‘generations of trauma’ to:
… colonisation, dispossession, genocide, the Stolen Generations, Stolen Wages, over incarceration, removal of children to out of home care, prevalent discrimination and other human rights violations experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Ms Judith Ahmat, a Gunditjmara woman from north-east Victoria, spoke to the Committee of her family’s experiences during massacres at Lake Condah and the ‘historical unresolved grief that occurred’ within her family:
I did some research, over a nine-year period, with my family group down in the south-west of Victoria… The unresolved grief was from the losses that resulted from government policies and administration. Also, the oppression and the lack of trust experienced by Gunditjmara people is a result of the government policies which created profound and recurring experience of loss.
Ms Emily Carter, Chief Executive Officer of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre, told the Committee about health effects that intergenerational trauma has had on children and families in the Fitzroy community:
Communities have been suffering intergenerational trauma for a very long time, and we see that in our children, where families from years ago have been exposed to alcohol. Children have been born with brain based disabilities from alcohol, and the continued early life trauma becomes intergenerational.
Mr Wilkie-Black also stated:
In addition to those who have suffered abuse firsthand, many communities and individuals are still affected by historical violence. Colonisation, subsequent policies like the Stolen Generations and the resulting loss of culture, language and lands crippled many communities and traumatised a large proportion of the population. This trauma can be transmitted between generations whereby those with direct experiences of violence exhibit behavioural or other issues, which in turn traumatise subsequent generations.
Current truth-telling practices in local communities
The Committee heard many examples of how truth-telling is already taking place within local and regional communities and how truth-telling can take many forms. This section of the report details examples.
Ms Rhonda Diffey told the Committee of her experiences working with local elders on community projects:
In our north-east area around Wangaratta in particular there have been quite a number of various projects over recent years that have celebrated, recognised and articulated aspects of Aboriginal heritage. They have been created either by or in conjunction with local elders and they have given the community an insight into their heritage.
I’ve also had the privilege in my professional cultural heritage career of working collaboratively with local elders, elder Eddie Kneebone, elder Freddy Dowling, elder Sandy Atkinson and elder Kevin Atkinson, as well as the local Dirrawarra community, on various projects in our local area. During these projects they have shared a vast amount of traditional knowledge about country, which fits with aspects of other information that has been sourced through various historical narratives… these are both stories of first contact, the negatives, but also there were stories in our area of cooperation.
Mr Kevin Cameron, an elder and associate member of the Wiradjuri Council of Elders in New South Wales, told the Committee he has written stories about the ‘true history of the Aboriginal people in Albury-Wodonga’ in an effort to preserve their history.
Ms Frances Smullen, Correspondence Secretary at Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group, told the Committee of a ‘reconciliation column’ the Group prepares fortnightly for the local paper that sometimes touches on truth-telling in the area. It is sometimes written in partnership with Reconciliation Australia or Reconciliation Victoria; at other times it is ‘written by somebody locally’, and has covered a range of issues and success stories from within the community.
Mr Peter Harriott and Mrs Kaye Thomson from the Greater Shepparton City Council outlined several strategies the Council has previously and continues to undertake to promote truth-telling in Shepparton. Mr Harriott stated:
We also did an oral history document about 10 years ago. When I say ‘we’, the Fairley Foundation partly sponsored that, and council. That was a conversation with a whole range of elders and Aboriginal people. It recorded their stories about living on the flats and those sorts of things. So there are a number of ways that we try to understand the past.
We’re starting to use the word ‘massacre’ and those sorts of words and building those into our documents. We haven’t done that before.
We’ve also just been involved in an Aboriginal mural project, so we’ve got four murals here in Shepparton now, two of male elders and two of female elders. We have a statue of William Cooper in our major garden now. We also have a lovely mural of Daniel Cooper, who was his son. That’s our RSL memorial. It’s just taken a big step within our RSL to recognise the Aboriginal returned servicemen and the atrocities that occurred for them in not being recognised after they came back–if they did come back, as Daniel didn’t.
Those stories, that truth-telling, are now coming out into the community. The Shepparton News reported on the Daniel Cooper story. Little bit by little bit, that truth is coming out, and I think, little bit by little bit, more people care–not just superficially care but really care.
Mr Redmond spoke of some examples of truth-telling currently taking place in Tasmania:
… we’re working on a way to acknowledge Australia Day from the Aboriginal perspective, such as what happens in Barangaroo in Sydney now… We are working with state governments and Aboriginal communities around the state on how 2020–and also Australia Day next year–can be celebrated, because it remains a big issue for communities. There is an olive branch, hopefully, from both sides to acknowledge 26 January, without changing the date, as a significant date of impact on the Aboriginal community here.
Mr Redmond acknowledged that the ‘basis of reconciliation’ was for all sides of history to be told and provided examples of two projects that have been received ‘positively’ that assisted in a process of reconciliation:
We are running a youth program now called Speakout. We are having 40 students presenting to parliament in two weeks time. They have written stories about reconciliation. They are the culture change. They are arguing quite strongly in their speeches and artwork that we need to recognise the trauma that has happened but also the multicultural community we are now… White non-Aboriginal people live here, love this land and belong to this land. It’s really important to acknowledge their history and their forefathers’ history, because we have become indigenised–we have become part of this land as well and we respect and love it like our Aboriginal brothers and sisters do as well. So I think there is strong support for acknowledging the settler contribution–good and bad–and how there has been that melding of cultures across time, even though it was pretty dramatic down here.
Second, we’re having a storytelling memorial project, which has been developed through a couple of members… The youth project which we’re doing is a way of getting that documented. All the stories that are in that we’re going to have published, have on record and have available… We’re working with a range of organisations… to get fair organisational and strategic plans in place to acknowledge the importance of storytelling within their organisations and the importance of connection with the Aboriginal community… I believe, from what we’ve talked about with communities across the state, that there’s a real drive for acknowledgement, for all sides of the story in Tasmania to be tod and heard and celebrated.
Ms Meredith Walker, Convenor of Shared History seminars at the Sunshine Coast Reconciliation Group, spoke about truth-telling processes taking place in her community:
I initiated the [Shared History] seminars about truth-telling in Australian history in November 2015. We’ve had 11 seminars on the Sunshine Coast using recent research with traditional owners and non-Indigenous people speaking at each seminar, with Indigenous speakers in the majority usually. These seminars are very well attended and greatly appreciated by everyone. They’re emotionally demanding because often we have someone speaking, for example, about forced removals and then a couple of local people speaking about their families’ experiences. They’re very rewarding for the audiences…
In their submission, First Nations Media Australia advised the Committee of the ‘failures of mainstream media to accurately portray Australia’s history and represent the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’:
During that time, First Nations media organisations have been established across the country to provide a platform for sharing the voices, stories, languages, cultural knowledge and relevant information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The significance of these historical recordings to the truth-telling process is that the content has been collected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working in community-controlled organisations. Recordings from this perspective are collected and distributed in a manner that is culturally sensitive and alive to the impact of colonisation within communities. We offer a unique opportunity to contribute first-hand responses to political and social events from a First Nations perspective in truth-telling about our shared history, its impacts on Indigenous history and the contribution First Nations peoples have made to protecting and building Australia.
Personal experiences of truth-telling
The Committee heard many examples of the personal experiences people have had with truth-telling and how this has impacted them. In Wodonga, the Committee heard from Ms Ahmat about her personal experiences with truth-telling:
We don’t sit around the campfire as much as we should. It’s around our kitchen tables now. When I was a child, we used to sit around–we weren’t allowed to speak–and listen to the stories from my mum and from my aunties and uncles with regard to when they were little. My mum was seven years old at the time of the Depression. She was removed and put into a home and then she worked as domestic help in a family. Then she served in World War II.
One of my mum’s uncles, my Great-Uncle Alan, served in World War I. The family is now trying to put a headstone on his grave because it’s unmarked. He served in Egypt, Palestine and Gallipoli, and the recognition is not there.
Those are some of the stories that can be told about some of the things that happened over a period of time. I haven’t told all the stories, but those stories are really important because, if we don’t start telling the stories and making a noise about it, our grandchildren and their children will not know that Uncle Alan is buried in the Warrnambool cemetery, because he had no children.
Also in Wodonga, the Committee heard from Mr Brendan Kennedy, Cultural Activities Officer at the Burraja Cultural and Environmental Discovery Centre cultural hub. Burraja is a community-based organisation that provides programs to support youth in the region. In particular, Burraja ‘link[s] them back with culture and to provide someone in the community or a place in the community where they can feel at home and at ease with their situations and their dynamic’.
Mr Kennedy discussed the importance of sharing cultural knowledge with youth in the region and stated that ‘holding on to language is a big key of that truth-telling’:
… showing them what part of the country they belong to, and why they’re in someone else’s country, as part of that identity process. From that we can start to get to know the kids and start overcoming some of the issues that might be seen as a barrier to them.
Dr Lyndall Ryan spoke to the Committee about her involvement in the ongoing development of a digital map of Aboriginal massacre sites that occurred across Australia between 1788 and 1960. To date, the map identifies up to 250 massacre sites. Dr Ryan stated:
… it’s kind of bringing people on board to look for themselves on the map. We’ve seen that modern technology such as digital mapping has been a great tool for reconciliation. The map can be put up on anybody’s computer. They can access it in their own way and in their own time.
Making the map accessible and interactive, and making the process collaborative, has meant that it has generated both local and global interest. Many individuals have provided information about particular sites or information about new sites to ensure the map is ‘as accurate as possible’ and individuals ‘can see that the map is something that they understand, and they want to contribute to it and be part of it’.
Dr Ryan stated that this is an ongoing, cumulative process that ‘starts a discussion and it keeps it going… An ongoing conversation is sort of making people realise there’s a past that many ordinary Australians knew very little about’.
Commemorations and healing
The Committee heard about the memorial of the Myall Creek massacre (1838, New South Wales) as an example of localised truth-telling and a symbol of reconciliation within the community.
Professor Lindon Coombs, Co-Chair of Reconciliation New South Wales described the memorial as an icon for truth-telling:
… the national and state-heritage-listed memorial at Myall Creek, which for nearly 20 years has served as an icon for truth-telling in history and a means of encouragement for what can be achieved when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people work together towards true reconciliation.
Ms Alison Faure-Brac, Executive Director at Reconciliation New South Wales, continued:
This year was the 20th anniversary event… from memory they had 2,000 people at that event this year. They’ve now put in a funding proposal to build a cultural and education centre there because there are more visitors now than they are currently able to accommodate. That piece of work has generated a lot of momentum.
Mr Gooda spoke of how the memorial has led to healing among the community:
… I look at the Myall Creek massacre as the most perfect example of reconciliation. It was the first time that white people got hung for killing Aboriginal people. About 25 years ago, the families of the perpetrators and the victims came together. You can go to the Myall Creek celebration every year. There’s no rancour; there’s no resentment; there’s no blaming. It’s actually a celebration of what happened and how everyone survived that. I always dream of something happening nationally like what’s happened with the Myall Creek massacre: there’s been an understanding of what happened there, and then we move on.
The Committee is also aware of memorials to commemorate the Coniston massacre (1928, Central Australia) and the Waterloo Bay massacre (1849, South Australia).
The Committee notes the healing effect that these memorials have had on victims and perpetrators of the massacres, their descendants, as well as the broader community.
Suggested approaches to truth-telling
Stakeholders provided a number of suggestions to the Committee about how truth-telling could be implemented. These approaches are outlined further in this chapter.
Mr Redmond from Reconciliation Tasmania distinguished between storytelling and truth-telling, and acknowledged that both are ‘important to getting really good reconciliation outcomes.’
Mr Wilkie-Black made the following recommendation to the Committee:
That First Nations should be consulted as to whether the history of subsequent policies like the Stolen Generations should be included [in truth-telling].
Mr Wilkie-Black agreed with the Regional Dialogues that truth-telling should include genocides, massacres and frontier wars, but recommended that truth-telling also include ‘modern injustices’:
This could emphasise the ongoing impact of colonisation and account for the failure of previous inquiries and Royal Commissions to sufficiently [respond] to survivors’ needs.
While the extent to which it does so will depend on the manner in which testimony is collected, the choice of events truth-telling covers can promote reconciliation by facilitating healing for Indigenous communities and individuals.
In his submission, Mr Wilkie-Black also spoke of the need for truth-telling processes to accommodate those who may require special provisions:
Establishing links with Indigenous health organisations and groups like AHF could help the Makarrata Commission provide specialised support for vulnerable witnesses. The SATRC [South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission] model also underscores the importance of providing avenues through which testimony can be collected confidentially and in private for those who do not wish to testify at public hearings. This could be done by allowing written submissions and taking oral statements in regional offices.
Local, regional and national processes
A large number of stakeholders agreed that truth-telling is best implemented at local and regional levels.
Dr Durrant stated that if a formal structure were to be implemented then a national body might be necessary. However she asserted that there should also be programs at the local and regional level. This is to ‘take account of the diversity of the nations and their own historical experiences’ and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be engaged in the process of truth-telling.
In their joint supplementary submission, Associate Professor Gabrielle Appleby and Professor Megan Davis provided further detail about the importance of implementing truth-telling in local communities:
… Truth-telling must thus come from local communities, led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working with non-Aboriginal people in that community. This work might be undertaken in conjunction with local councils, local history societies, or other local community groups. Indeed, as Penelope Edmonds has explained, locality is key because so many individuals and communities are wary of attempts at reconciliation led by the government, viewing previous attempts as ‘state-based and top-down social program[s]’ that can be ‘repressive and reinforce colonial hegemonies’…
Mr John van Riet suggested that truth-telling could occur ‘by Local Governments inviting its citizens to meet with local Indigenous people in small groups and listen to their stories.’
In his supplementary submission, Mr van Riet referred to his previous involvement in meetings with local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Victoria to discuss the 1997 report of the Australian Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families:
Could not a similar process of truth-telling be encouraged through local councils and churches, inviting aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to meet in small groups and learn of the local history of aboriginal people, including any stories of massacres? Such truth-telling could also display historical exhibits and encourage signage at or near massacre sites.
Reverend Dr Peter Catt, Chair of the Social Responsibilities Committee, Anglican Church South Queensland, spoke to the Committee about the benefit of the church as a non-government organisation running truth-telling processes:
Churches are community based organisations, and the process itself–the desire for the process–bubbled up from the local level. It really started because of personal relationships between members of the parish and of the local Aboriginal community. I think the church and other civil society groups that are community based have a real opportunity to work out how it’s going to emerge in their particular place…it’s about really finding what the principles of dialogue and emergence are and then encouraging people just to begin that process.
Ms Judith Scarfe told the Committee that for reconciliation to be effective locally, non-Aboriginal people need to be engaged to gain a better understanding of the history of their community:
I think the healing that comes from those stories is a critical element that we have to start working with as well. The shame of the past, the guilt, the scars of the past, and how we live with that currently, are really important. And understanding that locally is important.
There is the challenge: how do we change that locally so that there is an acceptance and an understanding of what our history has been, what stories exist, where I am but also what healing I come to and how I as a white person living in a place come to an understanding of that locally and how I can create a relationship with the Aboriginal community.
When asked about the best approach to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader community to come to some common understanding about the interconnection of their histories, Mr Anthony Cavanagh, Chief Executive Officer of Ganbina, stated:
I think it is about taking up opportunities to share information and especially the historical stuff. It is creating that vehicle, it is social media or public forums, where people can feel comfortable coming along and just get the conversations and the dialogue going.
Rev. Dr Catt also discussed truth-telling at a national level:
At the national level, we do have, as I said, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council, and it has been helping the wider church come up with some broader principles. There was a motion sponsored by that council last year at General Synod affirming the Statement from the Heart and the policy, and then, at the ground-up level, it is shaped by the history–because at Buderim there was a particular massacre that everyone knew about, and that was focused on as part of the story.
Mr Bill Buchanan, Board Member of Reconciliation Queensland suggested that truth-telling at the local level can be improved:
… truth-telling can happen at a national level, and it has been happening for some time. The reality is: it has not happened at the local community level or the regional level. Here in this state, we sort of braved it a bit–we went out on a bit of a limb, with an initial what was a crazy idea, I suppose, to do some shared history events. We’ve driven those events at key areas of conflict within communities. We’ve been trying to get communities to have this conversation around areas of potential conflict, about how Aboriginal people are misrepresented in the history books, how Aboriginal people are not included in what’s happening locally, how we need Aboriginal place names; you will see a commitment from council to things like future dual-naming policies and things like that. All of this comes about because you work locally. It doesn’t come about because of a national priority.
Truth-telling in schools
Some stakeholders suggested that there should be further inclusion in curriculums to improve education of the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In an article ‘The Uluru Statement and the Promises of Truth’, Dr Appleby and Professor Davis stated:
There remains a level of dissatisfaction, disinterest and denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history in Australia, reflected, for instance, in the failure of the Australian educational curriculum to comprehensively and consistently teach this history.
Dr Appleby and Professor Davis identified how delegates in regional dialogues proposed truth-telling as leading to ‘ongoing change in how Australian history was taught in schools’.
The Committee acknowledges that for some submitters, learning more accurate history improved their understanding. For example, Mr Martin Pluss told the Committee:
I must admit, from my personal perspective, I thought they [dreamtime stories] were not real when I was a schoolkid in my education. I found that Port Phillip Bay has a depth of 30 metres below sea level. For 60,000 years stories have been told, and there is geological and archaeological evidence now that when the Dreamtime stories of that area of Victoria were told they were talking about a valley that existed there. That’s been passed down through Dreamtime stories through the years. For me, that was significant for the basis of truth-telling. As a non-Indigenous person, that enables me to understand the legitimacy and the background behind how the voice can be authentic.
A place of significance
There was support among some stakeholders for a ‘museum’ or ‘memorial plaques’ to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Mr David McLachlan stated that a ‘museum’ could ‘reflect the truth’ of the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as ‘their part in making what this nation…is today’.
Similarly, Mr van Riet stated that ‘memorial plaques’ should be erected to acknowledge local massacres.
Current and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners, Ms June Oscar AO, Mr Mick Gooda and Professor Tom Calma AO also supported a ’keeping place, a place of significance’. Mr Gooda supported a national resting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were frontier warriors, stating:
I think we should have our warriors in the national War Memorial. There should be recognition of the frontier conflicts as being real wars… I think one of the reasons we argue for a truth-telling process is that we can’t have full reconciliation in this country until there’s been a recognition of the truth of the settlement of this country. The truth of the settlement of this country has been the cost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have borne, and we should recognise the frontier conflicts as war. We should recognise our warriors Windradyne, Yagan, Jandamarra in the War Memorial.
Ms Oscar also discussed this idea:
…whilst it is a keeping place for remains of people who haven’t had a burial or when it’s unknown where they come from…it also must be a place of truth-telling and a place that acknowledges the living families who have suffered under past policies–the stolen generations. But it’s a place of healing as well.
The Congress also supported a ‘Keeping Place’, an outcome of the Truth and Justice Commission ‘where cultural information, artefacts, knowledge and testimony collected from the Commission would be kept’:
Keeping Places would be powerful educational tools about culture for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians alike. These are similar to memorials created to honour the soldiers after World War I.
For example, Keeping Places could tell interactive traditional stories from the local nation, or include examples of local art with explanations of its significance (where culturally appropriate). Local primary and high schools could go on excursions to Keeping Places to educate students about the history of their land, as well as the culture of its traditional owners.
Further, Keeping Places are a way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who have lost connection to their culture due to colonisation to reconnect and learn more about their heritage.
In June 2013, the Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation began consultations to seek the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other stakeholders on establishing a National Resting Place for ancestral remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with no known community of origin.
The Advisory Committee released a Discussion Paper (which included a survey), and extensive public consultations were held around Australia. In 2014 the Advisory Committee released the National Resting Place Consultation Report. The report made seven recommendations including that ‘all ancestral remains provenance only to Australia should be cared for in a National Resting Place’ (recommendation 1) and that the ‘National Resting Place be controlled and run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ (recommendation 7).
The Advisory Committee’s report noted the view of a number of respondents that holding ancestral remains in museums is seen as culturally inappropriate:
The establishment of a National Resting Place was seen as a powerful statement, moving the current process for care and storage of ancestral remains away from the museum sector, and vesting the future long-term care of these ancestral remains to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In her submission, Ms Diffey said that the ‘development of historical narratives in museums and keeping places fits with the notion of sites of harmonious cultural pluralism’.
Ms Diffey also cautioned the Committee that stories must be developed uniquely to each place and in consultation with ‘all local Aboriginal stakeholders’.
When addressing the Committee in Wodonga, Ms Diffey expanded on this saying that ‘the control of decisions relating to the management and protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage influences the development of historical narratives, museums and keeping places’:
These are sites where we expect to experience harmonious cultural pluralism. It is imperative that broad discussion and review occurs between all traditional local Aboriginal clans and adequate time is allocated to produce an inclusive, truthful public narrative, because, again, there is a lot of conjecture between the Aboriginal people, the Pangerang particularly, about some of the narratives that are recorded in various museums et cetera to do with their story.
Ms Diffey further stated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should ‘remain the custodians of their heritage’ and that ‘they produce the narratives for us all to share’.
However, the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council emphasised that any attempts to explain the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be genuine:
Critical to the process of Makarrata is the need to better explain our history, in a way that is accessible, and integrated as a continuous mechanism. It should not be a memorial, or simply a ‘black armband’ or ‘poor blackfellas’ view of history, but rather a genuine space that allows people to hear truth and tell truth, no matter how ugly or unappealing. This history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has not been properly told. It is important that truth-telling leads to a constructive conclusion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that they are able to seek amends through formal processes of agreement making.
Oral history as a form of truth-telling
The Committee heard a lot of evidence indicating that oral history is a significant part of truth-telling and that preserving oral history is imperative.
According to the National Library of Australia:
Oral history provides a unique and important opportunity for sharing stories and perspectives, building mutual understanding and fostering social cohesion…This important opportunity for truth-telling and an open dialogue would be an important step towards promoting reconciliation and strengthening Australia’s social fabric.
… one of the maxims of oral history is that it is as much about the present as the past and it’s bringing memories into the present from the past, and that’s something that can be done over time. In the same way, we can show multiple stories because people have multiple memories of those things and we also show multiple priorities of them as different events and shine different lights on different aspects of it. It’s a collection that continually retells the truth both by being reinterpreted and re-examined.
The National Library of Australia revealed to the Committee the ‘demonstrated value of well-designed and well-executed oral history projects, particularly in areas of long-term community trauma’. For the Bringing Them Home project, the National Library of Australia coordinated over 300 interviews, and stated some lessons learnt from this project that could inform a process of truth telling through oral history:
‘…the first is the value of having a program that is very well designed and that takes into account the needs of both interviewees and interviewers, particularly in terms of the sorts of cultural safety and the need for counselling services.’
‘…interviewing people in their own environment, in their own space, in a place where people are comfortable and in control of their own being’.
‘the person who’s being interviewed always has the right to determine access conditions for that oral history’.
Many of the participants of the Bringing Them Home project were reinterviewed by the National Library of Australia a decade after their original interview. The Library stated:
… the value of not thinking that what a person has to say in a truth-telling context at a given point is not the only thing they will ever want to say about it. This is really the value that we’ve seen in going back 10 years after Bringing them home and reinterviewing, and similarly with our Indigenous leaders oral history project where we go and interview people every seven years.
Dr Durrant emphasised the importance of having:
Indigenous people engaged in the whole process… there’s definitely a place for oral history, certainly from both non-Aboriginal Australians and Aboriginal Australians, but there’s definitely a place for archives, because you will find things buried in archives that are out of the living memory or even community memory of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
The Committee acknowledges that information about Australia’s history can be highly contested, however, there is a desire among Australians for fuller understanding of Australia’s past, and contested history should not be a barrier to truth-telling.
In north-east Victoria for example, the Committee heard that the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the area is disputed and it is very difficult to find historical information in archives. Dr Durrant stated ‘there has not been any comprehensive history looking at pre-white settlement Aboriginal Australia, let alone the period of invasion and conflict’.
When asked about how to deal with contested events in the process of truth‑telling, Dr Durrant replied:
I think it’s an acceptable historical practice to include all of the contested information and make it clear that it’s contested but leave it up to everybody who’s encountering the material to make of it what they will. I don’t think that because a historical event is contested it lessens the importance of it.
Mr Harriott of the Greater Shepparton City Council stated that to deal with contested history, ‘find a way around and move on.’
When discussing the digital map of Aboriginal massacre sites across Australia, Dr Ryan stated that at this stage, no particular sites have been contested. However, the approach to contested sites, should it come up, is:
We’ve got a very strict methodology, which we set out in the introduction to the map on the website, and we’ve got a number of [massacre] sites that we simply cannot put up because they haven’t met all of the criteria of our methodology... We haven’t had any comments from individuals or organisations contesting any of the evidence that we’ve put forward. Rather, people have been anxious to provide extra evidence or send us off in other directions where we might find it.
When asked about how contested history should be dealt with should it arise in the development of the map, Dr Ryan replied:
I think the most important thing would be to be very clear about how a massacre site gets on the map, for example. We do have a very clear methodology. If it meets that methodology and you’ve got very, very good corroborating evidence then I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I think it’s more where I haven’t put a site on the map because I’m not happy that the evidence has met all the criteria, or the evidence just isn’t strong enough. I think that’s where the issues will arise. I certainly understand your problem, but I think it’s not as great a problem as it was say 10 or 15 years ago. I’ve found in my work, as I’ve travelled around Australia, that people are wanting to know rather than wanting to contest–and I think there’s been a shift; I really do.
It might be that, further down the track, people might say that the story is not as it is on the map–that there’s another story–and if there is another story then we will include it. There’s some chance that there’ll be an Aboriginal story of how an incident happened and there might be a settler story. I think it’s our duty to put both of those stories on the map.
We’re looking for evidence. An Aboriginal story might confirm the actual site, or it might confirm how many people were killed. The settlers’ story might confirm how many settlers were involved in the incident. Often you need evidence from all the people involved–the victims and the perpetrators–as to how it happened. I think that’s very rich. It makes the story one that takes account of all sides of the story.
Regarding disputed oral histories, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia stated:
It is not our job to balance those stories. The job is to try to ensure that you get a representative set of interviewees and allow them to tell their story as it is…When you have hundreds of voices, that is when you can actually get that full nuance, so scale is important in a program like this as well.
Ms Diffey also commented that:
Aboriginal heritage is a living heritage. Historical narrative must acknowledge all changes that have occurred over time, but it must also honour the past. Today relevance is created through heritage interpretation; therefore custodianship responsibilities must honour the truth or give voice to many truths so that active participation, public debate and research can inform future generations.
Mr Redmond spoke to the Committee about the contested nature of the history of contact between Aboriginal people and settlers in Tasmania. Mr Redmond stated that numerous authors have written extensively and ‘authoritatively around factual records of what happened in Tasmania’:
I think there’s a united, clear and accurate record of our story about the frontier wars in Tasmania and it needs to be told… We believe that there’s a huge opportunity for that truth-telling to be done symbolically through monuments in some way–that’s another project we’re working on–but also through storytelling, which is what we’re seeking to do from an Aboriginal perspective but also from a non-Aboriginal perspective, which has a lot of room for peering as well.
Mr Redmond also commented on sharing the history of settlers as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
Settler history needs to be celebrated because there are some good stories about how they’ve contributed to the state. Convicts are at another level as well. There have been calls to set up a convict history memorial at Macquarie Point, for example… The whole story of the most recent settlement in Tasmania needs to be celebrated. That’s the basis of reconciliation–all sides need to be listened to.
Following his experiences of implementing truth-telling in Tasmania, Mr Redmond provided the following advice to the Committee:
Get local stories recorded now. Oral history–down here and across Australia–is the paramount way of collecting them. Let’s collect these stories effectively–that’s one. Second, let’s talk to different communities across the state, so it’s a broad mixture of voices that are heard. Third is to act on it and fund it… Get the grassroots stories into a log which is actually produced into something which is respected and acknowledged by the community as being real works from the community around their stories. Stories that happened around the state need to be resourced.
The Committee acknowledges that there is a desire among Australians for a fuller understanding of history, including the history, traditions and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and settler communities.
The Committee acknowledges the importance of truth-telling in empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and promoting healing. There is a role for truth-telling in enriching Australian culture and also building support for reconciliation.
Some of the history is contested both between different groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and between Aboriginal and Torrs Strait Islander peoples and the descendants of settlers. Contested history should not be a barrier; instead truth-telling should seek to provide an honest account of history from all perspectives.
There is some urgency in having these stories told, to avert the risk of the history being lost through the passage of generations.
Once established, local voice bodies may also consider truth-telling as it relates to local communities.
The Committee also supports the proposal to establish a national place of healing in Canberra. The Committee acknowledges views that such issues involve sensitive cultural considerations and should be developed after further consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as necessary.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government support the process of truth-telling. This could include the involvement of local organisations and communities, libraries, historical societies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander associations. Some national coordination may be required, not to determine outcomes but to provide incentive and vision. These projects should include both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and descendants of local settlers. This could be done either prior to or after the establishment of the local voice bodies.
The Committee also recommends that the Australian Government consider the establishment, in Canberra, of a National Resting Place, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains which could be a place of commemoration, healing and reflection.
Senator Patrick DodsonMr Julian Leeser MP
23 November 2018