Reimagining the past to shape the future: Contesting dominant narratives in Indigenous history
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;
Story

Reimagining the past to shape the future: Contesting dominant narratives in Indigenous history

Stories/771 , Issues/First Nations
Canberra ACT
4th Aug 2020
Reimagining the past to shape the future: Contesting dominant narratives in Indigenous history
By focusing on the heroes of Indigenous history, we can centre identity, pride, and resilience over negativity and disadvantage.

"Aboriginal history can motivate people to act.”

At the current moment, we can see Doctor Lawrence Bamblett’s observation in full swing. Crowds have filled Australian streets to protest against Indigenous deaths in custody and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The history that White colonial Australia has attempted to eradicate demanding to become part of our historical narrative. Meanwhile, education minister Dan Tehan has announced the proposed university funding cuts to arts and humanities subjects including history courses. The announcement comes a matter of weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demonstrated the importance of knowing Australian history by claiming that, “there was no slavery in Australia” – only to clumsily attempt to clarify his statement once confronted with the historical record. 

These protests and cuts have combined to highlight the need for Australia to focus on and understand its Indigenous past. The stark figure of 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission of 1991 is a central theme. “But people protesting aren’t arguing about the number,” explains Wiradjuri historian Lawrence Bamblett, “It’s about the choices that are made and why people make those choices. How does someone who was singing ‘Who let the dogs out?’ end up dead?” History also centres people rather than numbers. Understanding history is an essential step in understanding why these deaths have happened and continue to happen. 

Contesting narratives 

High school textbooks portray an image of Indigenous people and history that is shrouded in negativity and disadvantage. Doctor Gary Osmond, Associate Professor specialising in sports history at the University of Queensland, explains that focusing solely on the negativity of Indigenous history excludes the more humanising aspects of the narrative. “Our history is our healing,” an aunty told him once – she had been one of the Cherbourg Marching Girls when precision marchers was a popular sport in Queensland during the 1950s and 1960s. Participating in this group activity allowed the girls to enjoy some increased autonomy and personal agency in an era of male-dominated sport and a colonial assimilation policy. Localised stories like these reveal how Indigenous identity, pride, and resilience were shaped in these communities.

Learning about Indigenous history also means valuing Indigenous knowledge. Western scientists have recently declared that humanity may have been born out of stardust. “All Wiradjuri creation stories say we come from the stars. What if it’s just a different way of saying the same thing?” Bamblett suggests. He flips the narrative on its head: “One day maybe science will catch up with Aboriginal history.” Highlighting these positive elements challenge the picture of disadvantage that is the dominant narrative in the media. “Aboriginal people weren’t passive victims,” asserts Osmond, “Sport was one means of retaining identity and pride.”

Heroes and champions

Centring the heroes and champions of Indigenous history is a way to reconfigure our dominant narrative snd give it necessary distance from tragic tropes. Indigenous athletes such as Nicky Winmar and Cathy Freeman have become symbols of Aboriginal resistance, but both Bamblett and Osmond point out other Indigenous heroes that have been left out of the spotlight. 

The story of Indigenous Tasmanian woman Walloa is one of determination and resistance: she escaped her sealer captors and became a resistance fighter in the 1820s. Red Kangaroo (Gambu Ganuurru) was a Kamilroi leader and warrior. Yet these two figures are rarely taught at schools. Even today,  Sam Newman’s attempt to undermine Nicky Winmar’s act of resistance demonstrates the widespread denial about the place of Indigenous heroes in modern-day Australia. Osmond explains that learning about these heroes is both important to Indigenous Australians themselves and also offers a pathway for non-Indigenous people to better understand Indigenous Australians.

The future classroom

From his first year of university, Bamblett found himself challenging the way Indigenous history was taught in the classroom. “That’s not what I see,” he would say to his lecturer. He ended up having to teach the rest of the class about his own experiences and showed them a video of Erambie, the mission where he grew up. “I resented a little bit that I had to take over,” he states. Even now, Bamblett finds that “You kind of have to teach all the time.” 

The announced cuts to humanities and arts degrees, which include history, can only exacerbate the narrative of Indigenous disadvantage if students are not taught otherwise. Osmond is concerned about the significant financial disincentive for prospective students to take history courses should the cuts make it past parliament. Yet this is not the first time that these degrees have been under threat and the move seems to be part of an on-going trend. “It feels like the wolf is always at the door,” admits Osmond.

Regardless, interest from the student body remains. Bamblett and Osmond still see students willing to learn about Indigenous history and stories. “People who don’t like history or don’t support the teaching or history often don’t support it because history rarely gives absolute answers,” says Osmond, “They’ll say, ‘it’s all just talk’ but in my opinion, that’s what it should be all about – keep talking, and letting other people talk.” 

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