Whose stories?

If I were a historian, I’d probably belong to the black armband group. Those seek to challenge the dominant telling of Australia’s history. 

Much better wear a black arm band than put on John Howard’s (for the non Australian readers, conservative Prime Minister) white blindfold; choosing to remain ignorant to the fact that colonisation is barbaric and brutal, that much violence was inflicted upon the indigenous peoples and choosing to only tell tales of heroism and bravery. 


Even with my perspective, Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling had much to challenge me. Such as the concept of Aboriginality only being authentic and having native title claim if it close to traditional lifestyle. Obviously culture evolves and adapts, especially if faced with colonisation. Kind of one of those “slap your forehead” moments. “Of course!” Why should that exclude them from native title?

Other arguments had me nodding in agreement. The positive stereotypes of the noble savage being just as unreal and inaccurate as the negative stereotypes. But Behrendt takes it further and explains how the noble savage stereotype takes away their own agency and infantilises indigenous people. They can only be the beneficiary of white action. But even worse, any who do not fit the paradigm (angry urban Aborigines) are not seen as real and can be excluded and undeserving of support.

Don’t get me started on that drivel Mutant Message Down Under by the American bullshit artist Marlo Morgan. I know I shouldn’t be angered, knowing new age followers believe all manner of crap, but this particular rubbish with obvious fantasy and falsehood is just ridiculous.  If you bought that book, give yourself an upper cut for contributing to the financial success of a woman peddling shit and doing harm to indigenous peoples everywhere. 

Most challenging for me in Behrendt’s book is the idea that dissenting views of Australian history presented by the black armband in the history wars are still just about white identity; about what we want as our dominant narrative. (More like a “look at how tolerant and understanding I am”, than about Aboriginal experience and history.)

The rational but arguments presented in such direct and incisive manner, drawing on wide social and historical material, made this a compelling read. 

Edited to add: you know what I really like about this is it isn’t written in a pompous, “I’m an intellectual” style. No gobbledygook, no self conscious use of words no one really uses, no post modernist nonsensical bull, no having to read sentences a zillion times to make sense of it. It is straightforward. Writing with clarity, Behrendt lets the ideas challenge, not the language. 

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4 thoughts on “Whose stories?

  1. This sounds good. I have read books about Canadian Aboriginal life and colonization here, like The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, that discuss some of the same issues. I have no genuine knowledge of Australian Aboriginal issues and my impressions come from movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence. Sadly, Canada also had residential schools that separated Native children from their families and tried to “beat the Indian out of them.” What a horrific legacy.

  2. Some of the massacres that have happened are absolutely horrific to read about. I vividly recall being 10 years old and going through a phase where I was reading ‘The Age’ weekend section avidly. I was utterly traumatised by reading a horrendous account of what amounted to torture during one of the larger massacres. I’ve probably always looked at indigenous issues through that lens. It’s not hard to imagine the complete and utter sense of desolation that came with cultural appropriation. But I have no answers as to what to do about that now, in facing the terribly difficult heath and social issues in many indigenous communities. Such a perplexing and almost insoluble legacy of colonisation.

  3. Lucinda, thanks for that recommendation, I have added it to my library list. I have just read The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which has as its theme, ‘How did ordinary human beings become the individuals who took a hand in genocide?’ Because it suited their own ends, of course. Because we can justify all sorts of bad things if it is in our interest. This is a very good read – travelling from London to Sydney, then up the Hawksbury River with the novel’s characters was an amazing journey for me. I have recently discovered that I have convicts from the First Fleet in my ancestry, which made the story even more poignant and relevant..

    • I found The Secret River very moving. I can’t be as absolute about the “suiting own ends”. Humans are caught up in the tides of events, of societal beliefs, of group think. Post-justification always, I know, covers self interest with rationalisation and other reasons.

      It is an amazing journey. Both physically and metaphorically. I am first gen Australian. Both parents from overseas. Still I am always amazed at the story of the British sailing for months into the unknown with so little to sustain them. And then heading into the bush. How brave! Adventurous. And still brutal. And murderous. Still, they didn’t treat their own people very well.

      I wonder how non-Australians feel about The Secret River. Will it resonate with them?

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