Stephens, David: From the Honest History vault: Three reviews of books on the black history of the wide brown land

David Stephens*

From the Honest History vault: Three reviews of books on the black history of the wide brown land, Honest History, 28 June 2020

Black Lives Matter. Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody at grossly disproportionate rates. Honest History has carried some posts on these and related subjects but not nearly enough. Four years ago, we had a comprehensive collection of resources marking the 25th anniversary of the report of the Royal Commission on black deaths in custody. In October 2017, John Shield wrote feelingly about Dylan Voller and the black inmates of the Kinchela home in New South Wales. (This was in the context of another Royal Commission, this one in the Northern Territory.) Eighteen months ago, we reviewed Frank Byrne’s Living in Hope, a Stolen Generations story that won an award for the Most Underrated Book.

Deep Time Dreaming (online)We have reviewed other books about the tracks of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across our land. Tjanara Goreng Goreng, a Wakka Wakka Wulli Wulli Traditional Owner from Central Queensland, wrote about Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, by Billy Griffiths, a collective history of the work of Australian archaelogists.

I was struck by the beauty of this book as a whole [Goreng Goreng said]. When I first picked it up I thought,

“I know nothing of archaeology, but I do know about our culture and its oral history passed to me by my mother and extended family, of our sacred sites, our song cycles, our Ancestral Beings and ceremonies. I know of my Central Desert family and their deep self-sovereignty and the way they hold the Laws and culture for the following generations, the places they treasure and the sites they protect.”

I was curious about why this man would want to write of such things. And then I couldn’t put the book down. It not only contains evidence of a deep, deep past, but it tells such beautiful stories of something many of us know nothing about, how archaeologists do what they do and the gift they have given our nation by preserving and developing an “Australian Archaeology”.

9781742232140_previewGoreng Goreng also reviewed Rebe Taylor’s book on the early archaelogy of Tasmania, and a collection edited by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan on the Myall Creek Massacre. Then, Ryan, chronicler of the Tasmanian Indigenous people and of massacres, reviewed for us Stephen Gapps’ book, The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the Early Colony, 1788-1817. She found that ‘Gapps deftly disposes of long held misunderstandings about the tactics used by the military forces’. Their experience against rebels in North America helped them deal with Aboriginal guerrilla warfare. As well, ‘the military forces in the Sydney region were well trained in the tactics of small scale engagements and punitive raids on Indigenous camps, as the most successful means of securing new territory for the Empire’.

Around the same time, David Stephens reviewed Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss.

It makes a lot of sense that this review is being done by a whitefeller born in 1949 [I wrote]. Australia is still disproportionately under the influence of Anglo-Celtic blokes born in the years between 1945 and say, 1970, the years of the baby-boom and the decade or so after. It is the attitudes and prejudices of men of this age group that still have more influence than they deserve – and that needs to change.

Our – baby-boomer whitefellers’ – childhoods and teenage years formed these attitudes and prejudices, including our attitudes to and prejudices about Aboriginal Australians …

9781743820421_FCWe – those young Anglo-Celtic “Lords of Creation” – accepted that Aboriginal Australians needed to be treated with paternalistic care if they were to be helped to “assimilate” into white society. We concluded, if Aboriginals backslid, that it was “the way they live”. We accepted – when we asked our parents “what happened to all the Aborigines?” – the answer that “they died out”. We saw nothing odd in history textbooks that told us the Australian story began in 1770 with the arrival of Captain Cook. We read about Truganini, the Last Tasmanian, and felt a little sad for a moment. That was the way it was in the Australia where bright, white Peters’ Ice Cream was “the health food of a nation”.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website.

First Peoples: posts 2014-18

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