Their centenary country: Honest History First Peoples miscellany

‘Their centenary country: Honest History First Peoples miscellany’, Honest History, 20 May 2015 and updated

(Note: this article contains references to Indigenous people who have died.)

Updates: More from Frank Brennan. A further article from Nolan Hunter on recognition. Roslyn Carnes on issues surrounding reconciliation and Helen Irving on the chances of success for the referendum.


Some observers credit (or blame) the apparent failure of the Bicentenary in 1988 as a trigger for the government-sponsored return of Anzac as an Anglo-Celtic commemorative icon. It seems appropriate, then, in this Anzac centenary year to look at First People’s issues. Honest History keeps track of these issues as much as we can in the section of our website that comes under the heading of ‘First Peoples, Frontier Wars and the Queen’s uniform’. Here is a new collection of references, most of them recent.

The Department of Defence has a Directorate of Indigenous Affairs (DIA) within its Centre of Diversity Expertise (CoDE) within its Defence People Group. The DIA website looks pretty spiffy, though the highlighted material all seems to be dated 2014. Meanwhile, though, ‘Defence celebrates and commemorates the contribution of Indigenous Australians both past and present’.

At the Australian War Memorial, the attitude to Indigenous service, in uniform and not, remains complicated. Director Brendan Nelson, as summarised by the Guardian Australia‘s Paul Daley,

has expanded the narrative about Indigenous personnel in all Australian wars and conflicts (except those between soldiers, settlers, militias and Aboriginal people on the colonial frontier) and has commissioned a statue of a black digger (with a white comrade) for the memorial grounds.

Daley’s piece quotes Nelson at length; the Director does not waver from his previous position that the place to depict the Frontier Wars is the National Museum of Australia, not the War Memorial.

Previously in the Guardian, Daley spoke to Garrwa artist, Jacky Green, and his article is illustrated with Green’s work. Green talks about the Frontier Wars:

A lotta people can look at it these days and say you gotta forget about the past. But it’s very hard for Aboriginal people to forget about the past. I mean you don’t hear ’em talk about it a lot but it’s still in our minds, you know what happened because our people are the ones that say: “Oh this is where your grandfather got shot” or: “This is where your grandmother had thing happen” or: “This is where your people got chased out’, you know?”

Perhaps Indigenous reticence is part of the reason why the stories of frontier violence have not registered with non-Indigenous Australians; it can only be part of the reason, though.

Indigenous man, Scott Gorringe, from Mithaka country, reckons there is a problem in the way we frame Indigenous issues.

Deficit discourse [Gorringe says] describes a mode of thinking that frames and represents Aboriginal identity in a narrative of negativity, deficiency and disempowerment. When all the thinking, all the conversations and all the approaches are framed in a discourse that sees Aboriginality as a problem, very little positive movement is possible.

American-born Duane Hamacher researches Indigenous astronomy and writes about the place of the Aurora Australis in Indigenous oral tradition.

Aurorae are significant in Australian Indigenous astronomical traditions. Aboriginal people associate aurorae with fire, death, blood, and omens, sharing many similarities with Native American communities.

Noongar woman, singer-songwriter Gina Williams says every Australian should know some Indigenous words and she shares some from her south-western WA country.

Borda – “We don’t have a word for ‘goodbye’ in the Balladong dialect, because it’s too final. What we say is ‘borda’ which means ‘soon’. We believe whether we talk to you or see you again, we’re going to cross paths again soon.”

Indigenous editor, Chris Graham, late last year discussed issues of racism provoked by statements from Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. Graham skewered these common remarks by non-Indigenous Australians: Australia Day is the greatest day on earth; if we didn’t invade someone else would have; they’ve got land rights, what more do they want? they took the children away … for their own good; how many times do we have to say sorry? stolen wages, what stolen wages? that was all in the past; I had nothing to do with it; it’s time to move on. Graham’s article attracted dozens of comments.

On racism also, Indigenous woman, Natalie Cromb, shared her experience of a lifetime on the receiving end of it and Jacqueline Nelson and Jessica Walton examined the prevalence of ‘casual racism’ against both Indigenous and non-Anglo-Celtic Australians. ‘Our research demonstrates’, the authors say, ‘that racism can make people feel that they don’t belong in Australia, even if they were born here or their ancestors have lived in Australia for millennia’.

Will constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians help? Frank Brennan seems to hope so but notes progress has been slow.

It is now more than three years since the Expert Panel set up by the Gillard Government reported on how the Constitution might be amended providing recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Abbott Government has been waiting for some consensus to emerge around the recommendations of the panel. Progress has been slow. No one thinks it realistic to seek a constitutional amendment during the life of this Parliament. The best to be hoped for is a commitment by all major political parties to an agreed referendum question when going into the next federal election, with the understanding that the new government and the new parliament would proceed to put a referendum to the people, perhaps on Saturday 27 May 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum.

Meanwhile, opinion polls show a clear majority in favour of recognition. A joint parliamentary committee is at work and submissions to it are here. There has been an interim report and a further progress report.

Pemulwuy was shot dead about 1 June 1802 by Henry Hacking. George Suttor described the subsequent events: “his head was cut off, which was, I believe, sent to England”. On 5 June King wrote to Sir Joseph Banks that although he regarded Pemulwuy as “a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character”. He further wrote: “Understanding that the possession of a New Hollander’s head is among the desiderata, I have put it in spirits and forwarded it by the Speedy”. The head has not been found in an English repository to date.

J. L. Kohen, ‘Pemulwuy (1750–1802)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 May 2015


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