Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History

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In recent decades there has been mounting controversy over the past, particularly the past of nation states. Conventionally, historical conflicts have been confined to small circles, primarily those of academic historians. This is no longer the case. In Australia, this controversy has been characterised by an unusual degree of intensity.

The controversy over the truth about Aboriginal history, which has been renewed by the publication of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) and the support lent to Windschuttle by a band of new conservative sympathisers, has once again focused attention on a very important problem: how should the Australian nation state and its peoples address or work through the burden of the Aboriginal past? And how can a nation’s peoples best negotiate their different historical narratives?

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Aboriginal and settler Australians have a common problem: a lack of legitimacy. Their moral status, and hence identities and rights, are denied by the other group.

Many settler Australians refuse to acknowledge that the status of Aboriginal people as the first peoples of this country should bestow upon them any aboriginal rights; many Aboriginal people refuse to acknowledge the right of settler Australians to belong in what Aborigines regard as their country. This impasse is not uncommon in settler societies – consider Israelis and Palestinians as an example.

The refusal of either group to accept the legitimacy of the other’s rights is reflected in the histories that each group tells about this country’s past. Many Aboriginal people and those sympathetic to their plight have told a story about the foundation of the Australian nation that seems to forever condemn settlers to the status of invaders.

This history implies that the nation state, and the laws upon which the rights of its settler citizens depend, can never be legitimate because the nation’s origins were fundamentally unjust. In effect the nation is deemed to suffer from an original sin that it can never expunge or redeem.

For their part, many settler Australians and particularly new conservatives articulate the traditional foundational narrative of the nation. This refuses to acknowledge that British colonisation entailed the abrogation of aboriginal sovereignty and rights, and denies that Aboriginal people today have any legitimate moral and political claims on the basis of being Aboriginal.

In the decade-long work of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (1991-2000), reconciliation and historical understanding were seen to go hand in hand, and so history work, primarily in the form of telling and circulating stories about the past, was regarded as one of its principal tasks. The Council presumed that Australia could only become a reconciled nation if both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples more or less adopted the same historical narrative.

The Council conceived of history in rather simple terms, regarding it as a single body of historical knowledge. The story they told would include empirically testable facts, especially the ones previously excluded by Australian histories, which would be added together and assembled as an accurate and hence truthful account of the past. By being taught to all Australians, it would provide the basis of national reconciliation.

This project of ‘shared history’ was flawed in several respects. Its premise that there could be a reconciled history was unduly optimistic, even naïve. It did not allow enough for difference.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted, both Aboriginal and settler peoples were expected to transcend the pulls of their respective group affiliations or identities in order to agree on the truth of historical injustice in the past. Yet, as long as any society contains at least two cultural traditions – one that identifies with the colonisers or the non-Aboriginal, and another with the colonised or the Aboriginal – it is probably inevitable that there will be conflicting attitudes, opinions, beliefs and feelings about that very past.

Reconciliationists failed to take into account the fact that the old settler history was the source of considerable meaning and value for many settler Australians. Not surprisingly, their attack on settlers’ allegiance to this narrative fueled resentment.

Too much of the history the Council told was cast in oppositional terms. It could have drawn more attention to those occasions when friendly relations existed between Aboriginal and settler peoples, the moments when the ideals and values of both societies cultures were upheld to the advantage of one or other or both, and the ways in which both peoples have drawn on the other’s culture to their own advantage. The Council could have done more to tell the story of compromise and convergence between Aboriginal and settler peoples that academic historians have been telling for some time.

Most importantly, the Council could have emphasised the project of ‘sharing histories’. This would have allowed more of the vital work of cross-cultural communication to occur, enabling people to understand and respect other people’s histories and history-making, even though they will probably continue to differ about the interpretations presented.

There are few nation states that do not have morally problematic origins. However, this has proven to be a particularly significant problem in Australia. There might be several reasons for this, but one seems to be especially important: in other settler colonies founded by the British, treaty agreements were made between the two peoples.

A treaty or treaties might provide a way of working through the impasse. At a national level, such an agreement could acknowledge that Aboriginal people are the original owners of this country; that they were dispossessed, displaced and devastated as a result of British colonisation; that the consequences of this continue to the present day and are the primary reason for the plight of Aboriginal people today.

It would also acknowledge that previous generations of settlers and particularly their governments bear considerable responsibility for this, and that the current generation of settler Australians are the beneficiaries of the dispossession of Aboriginal people and so have a responsibility (relative to their means) to support policies and practices today that seek to redress the impact of this and prevent any further acts of dispossession.

It would also outline that Aboriginal people have a right to reparations in some form or another until such time as the vast majority have recovered.

For their part, Aboriginal people might acknowledge all the rights of citizenship the Australian nation has bestowed upon settler peoples; the legitimate presence of settlers; and the responsibilities they have as citizens of the nation state.

The Australian nation has also struggled to grapple with the wounds of the past and the divided legacies it has left. Instead, it has repressed these, which has only made them worse. As Henry Reynolds more or less noted over 30 years ago, historical discourse in Australia swings between exaggerating, and underestimating, the extent of bloodshed.

What is required is an effective social process of mourning the events of the past, so that the Australian nation can acknowledge this reality and work through its aftermath.

It seems to me that there is no other alternative than telling the truth about Aboriginal history and dealing with its consequences. If anyone is going to take pride in what is truly good about their nation’s past, they must also be prepared to accept what is truly bad in it. Acknowledging the bad does not diminish the good. On the contrary: telling the truth about Aboriginal history can actually help one to pinpoint just what was good in the past, the conditions that enabled this good to be achieved, and the lessons this has for us today. A history to help realise a new future.

This is an edited extract from Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History (Allen and Unwin).

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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