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Introduction to Aboriginal Australia

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Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Shauna Bostock-Smith and I’m an Aboriginal Australian. I’m a descendant of the Bundjalung people of Northern New South Wales and my family’s ancestral home is Wollumbin Mount Warning.
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I just completed my PhD last August at the Australian National University and the title of my thesis is ‘From Colonisation to my Generation: An Aboriginal Historian’s Family History Research from Past to Present’. I traced my four Aboriginal grandparents family lines right back to just after settlement of Northern New South Wales. The scope of my thesis spanned five generations and it’s about my ancestors and other Aboriginal peoples lived experience on the colonial landscape.
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It moves with them from being witness to the continuing encroachment of white settlers to Aboriginal segregation on to Australian government Aborigines reserves, to control of Aborigines by the Aborigines Protection Board, to the eventual Aboriginal exodus from country towns to the city, to radicalisation and the fight for equality and land rights, to Aboriginal advancement and creative expression and onwards to the present day. So to summarise, my research focus is understanding the actual lived experience of Aboriginal people throughout all the areas of Australian history since colonisation. So it’s epic but I’m so thrilled that it’s behind me now.
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After tracing my family history back as far as I could go, I then moved forward in time and gradually filled in the history from past to present. But rather than trudge along on a boring past to present chronology, I employed the use of three methodologies and they were micro-history, macro-history and ‘big’ history. Using these methodologies make my thesis more interesting because I zoomed into the micro-history of certain spaces to examine them in detail, like, for example, the Aborigines reserve space or the mission space. In the photograph of Deebing Creek Aborigines Reserve, on the right hand side you can see a circle - two circled people - they are my great great grandfather, my great grandfather and my great great grandmother.
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So then I would zoom out to look at the broader macro-history, which was, for example, like looking at all the Aborigines reserves in New South Wales or looking at Australian government decisions and politics, the effect of those decisions. And it’s only when you zoom out into the ‘big’ history, which is like the universal history, which goes pre-colonisation as well as, you know, all the way forward to the present. It’s only when you see the history in that broader scale that you understand the cataclysmic effect of colonialism on Aboriginal people. I think it’s important that, you know, a few fundamental points about the historiography of Aboriginal history. History is defined as a branch of knowledge dealing with the past.
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It’s a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular person, people, country, period or era. There is an assumption that history is just a chronological collection of static, fixed stationary events. It’s important to note, however, that history is retold again and again over time, not only from the perspective of the person writing the history, but also from their specific vantage point at the specific time in history. After you begin to study history, you soon realise that the way we write history is an ever changing, ever morphing field of study. And this way we write history is technically called historiography.
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According to the Oxford dictionary, the actual definition of the word historiography means the study of writing about history. So we’re going to have a little study of the writing of Australian Aboriginal history, because I think it’s really important that, you know, things like the great Australian silence and how Aboriginal history has evolved in Australia before you begin to learn about Aboriginal history itself. So from colonisation right up to 1968, Australian historians generally paid only a little attention to Aborigines or the subject of Aboriginal people.
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In 1968, on the ABC, the Boyer Lectures were given that year by a celebrated Anthropologist, WEH Stanner, who spent a great deal of time with Aboriginal people and has written extensively about them in his long career. In one of his lectures that was called the Great Australian Silence, Stanner criticised historians lack of interest in Aborigines. He stated the inattention on such a massive scale could not be explained by absent-mindedness. He believed that it was a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.
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What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale. So this is now a very famous quote that has been repeated again and again in Australian and Aboriginal history. And this criticism, in a sense, triggered young historians who began to realise that they, like generations of Australians, grew up with a distorted and idealised view of the past. One such historian was a man called Henry Reynolds. He was like a pioneer of Aboriginal history research and writing.
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By 1970, Reynolds had read everything that he could find about Aborigines in all the history books he could get his hands on and he critically analysed the historiography. And he came to the conclusion that the cult of forgetfulness was a more recent phenomenon. Reynolds found that in the 1800s, Aborigines were pretty prominent in historical writing. But around the time of federation and its blossoming Australian nationalism, Aborigines began to vanish from historical works that celebrated the new nation of Australia. The publication of Reynolds first book The Other Side of the Frontier in 1991, profoundly changed the way in which we understand the relations between indigenous Australians and European settlers. And it inspired many other historians to research Aboriginal history.
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That same year, Peter Reid wrote a landmark paper called The Stolen Generations, which revealed hard facts about the Australian government’s removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the hurt that they endured and that their descendants still endure. The injustices inflicted upon Aboriginal people were suddenly revealed and it’s one of the most shameful episodes in our nation’s history. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, more historians wrote books about Aboriginal history, such as Lyndall Ryan’s book, The Aboriginal Tasmanians and Ros Kidd’s book The Way We Civilise and what they revealed was a sad indictment on the history, historical treatment of Aboriginal people in this country.
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A couple of years after Reynold’s Frontier book came out, my uncle Gerry Bostock and Alec Morgan produced a film called Lousy Little Sixpence which was a landmark documentary film about the early years of the stolen generation and the struggle of Aboriginal Australians against the Australian government’s Aborigines Protection Board in the 1930s. Not only was there a surge of academic writing about Aboriginal history, there was also a surge of Aboriginal authors, most of them women, who wrote autobiographies and historical narratives from the indigenous perspective. Behind the scenes of vigorous and commercially independent network of Aboriginal presses was consolidated with the new generation of Aboriginal authors, editors, publishers who worked alongside elders.
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Mainstream publishing also took a strong interest in Aboriginal authors and by the end of the 1980s, Aboriginal writing was firmly established as a burgeoning force in Australian publishing. But by the 1990s, attitudes about Aboriginal history began to change for the worse. Aboriginal history was bombarded with a shift in the way people thought about Aboriginal history and the revelations of negative aspects of Aboriginal history became known as the ‘black armband view’ of history. Later, historians and politicians engaged in heated debates over history, which later became known as the ‘history wars’.

Let me introduce you to Dr Shauna Bostock-Smith, a descendant of the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales. Drawing on her personal story, Dr Bostock-Smith will introduce you to Aboriginal history.

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