June Oscar AO, CEO, Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women's Resource Centre, 17 March 2016
Good morning everyone. (Indigenous language spoken)
To the traditional owners of this land, my respectful acknowledgment of you, your ancestors, the descendants, wherever they may be, and your future generations. I wish to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and other First Nations peoples and their elders, their ancestors, and also to our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters and elders present here at this exciting and special gathering of experts and those with an interest and passion in this whole field.
It is a conference marking the penultimate chapter in the National Museum of Australia’s unveiling of a new encounter with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects and peoples, set as the backdrop for the closing of the Encounters exhibition next week. The formidable array of those gathered at this event, from community members and leaders to social justice movers and shakers sitting alongside curators, academics and museologists from around the globe. Some here are all of the above. It certainly reflects the ground-breaking nature of the NMA’s approach to planning and forming Encounters. Clearly, our variety of voices have not been brought together to keep the walls of this institution intact. We are no doubt shaking the establishment to its core. We are here to suggest new approaches to ask what comes next for museums. How do we work with them to make the history of this nation accountable to the truth?
After seven years in the making, we have seen two outstanding international exhibitions come to fruition: the NMA’s Encounters: Revealing stories behind the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum and its companion exhibition, the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation. Separated by almost 10,000 miles, these exhibits remind us that human beings from diverse cultures and heritages encounter and unite against all the odds. This project has been overseen and guided by a skilful and talented group of individuals, including the Indigenous Reference Group chaired by Mr Peter Yu, and I wish to acknowledge also Ms Gaye Sculthorpe from the British Museum. Both Peter and Gaye, along with countless others, have included me in many stages of this journey, which I have been humbled and privileged to be part of.
I have travelled the continent myself watching the concept of the exhibits take on physical form. It has been a restorative journey. In retracing the colonial travels of the objects I have felt them speak directly to the wealth of our civilisation emanating from a time immemorial to a time of violent upheaval and of continuing survival, strength and resilience. Through re-encounter with the items of our Indigenous heritage we are exposed to Australia’s multiple histories. These objects, along with many others in the safekeeping of the museums, bear witness to an epic past and, when revealed, only speak the truth. They make a conversation between now and then possible, bearable and reconciling.
At around this time last year on the eve of the opening of Enduring Civilisation, I said, ‘It is our triumph that, in the heart of London with the seat of government that once upon a time threatened to demolish us just down the road, our lives and our heritages have come to be displayed through our equal consent and involvement.’ Standing here in Canberra today, these words are more meaningful.
This continent is home to these objects. They have an intimate attachment to both our land and ancestors. When here, there is the potential to reshape our perception of the Australian nation state. And on that note I would like to congratulate and thank Dr Mat Trinca, the Director of the National Museum of Australia, and his team for bringing this all together, for daring to step beyond the norm of the institution, for not being afraid of the controversy that has followed in its wake. You have done an excellent job. So Encounters – old, reviewed and renewed – closes its doors on 28 March. The dismantling of this wonderous and often uncomfortable display in a significant step for our relationship with museums and with national institutions alike. It is moments such as this which re-awakens the spirit of reconciliation.
When the doors shut on Encounters, we all must remain open to how the experience of Encounters can be maintained. A reconciling moment is far too fleeting. Reconciliation exists in large gestures like these events and in everyday moments where stories and insights are shared across cultures. Wherever it occurs in public, private or intimate settings, reconciliation is powerful and penetrating.
Museums sitting at the interface of all these settings help us to carry each other’s stories and histories into our own lives. When we can ascribe meaning to the lives of others through a better understanding of their lived reality we can take the necessary steps to eradicate injustice and all forms of discrimination wherever it presents. There is no better place to commit to this journey than the buildings which house our nation’s stories.
Before I go on, I would like to continue for a moment in the language of my country and my people – Bunuba. (Indigenous language spoken)
What I have explained to you is my people, my ancestors and country’s interconnection to and between each other and all things – the birds, rocks, water sites, spears and coolamons, barks and plants. It is a system of reciprocity enabling a complex web of sharing, giving and learning. The rituals of exchange in material objects and gatherings of ceremony and song network our entire existence into clear protocols of interaction defining our language and behaviours in those instances of meeting.
Moments of transaction are absorbed into a universal way of living. Our encounters with all these things are never fleeting; they are the connecting threads actively weaving our society into being. This is a deep and sacred process which in the Kimberley we call Wunan. Colonisation was a devastating disruptor to this system. My Bunuba ancestors were not engulfed by the tidal wave of first British settlement. Instead we felt the violent wash of frontier wars in the late nineteenth century.
Except for a few whispers of an advancing danger we had no prior knowledge that our countries connected to this vast continent had been pronounced terra nullius, a vacant land belonging to no-one. The first incarnations of the frontier laid down the battlelines between one system of knowing and another. Encounters were all too frequently misunderstood and confused, resulting in bursts of brutality. Sometimes, but rarely, did they evolve into an interchange of understanding and ideas that we could incorporate into our system of Wunan.
Our breadth and depth of knowledge of the land vanished beneath a conception of our people and the objects of our civilisation as flora and fauna ripe for domination. There are countless stories like this across Australia that remain untold in the layers of our national heritage. Until the entirety of this history is acknowledged we are denying the truth of this nation’s federation and, in doing so, we stall the progress of reconciliation.
This history, although traumatic to recall, teaches us that no matter how much we lost during what is widely referred to in the Kimberley as ‘the killing times’, we were not defeated as I and so many others at this conference across Australia and the world are proof. We have survived; we are resilient; and we continue to uphold the spirit of our warriors, the warriors who rose up to defend our nations to sing our stories across time.
In London last year, I told the story of Jandamarra, our warrior from the frontier. Some of his items are displayed beautifully in the exhibition bringing the energy and resurgence of our Bunuba resistance into the walls of the Museum. Last year in London on the eve of Enduring Civilisation, I reignited his courage and relentless belief in the importance of our people to breathe life into the objects of the exhibit and re-awaken our Indigenous histories.
I want to share an important thread of Jandamarra’s life with you all today to add weight to how far we have come together in celebrating within the walls of this institution the equal worth of our Indigenous and non-Indigenous nationhoods. Jandamarra in the late nineteenth century spent time with white society learning their ways. He didn’t see the dividing lines of knowledge. He had the foresight to understand the potential of worlds coexisting, of sharing knowledge and of entwining our ways of being.
But history was not ready. The governmental authorities of the time were motivated by the beliefs and values of an imperial system. To achieve domination they had to tell a story of conquest. During this period museums were the institutional structures to emerge as the grand collectors and collators of the British Empire’s colonial plunder. In Australia, museums were constructed out of a narrative of Western civilisations sweeping advancement across the globe. Even Jandamarra was used as a symbol of a new world order. When he was killed what was thought to be his skull was put on show at the Museum of Western Australia. Visitors paid to see the final resting place of this rebellious chief from a vanishing world. In this sense, museums were a distinct part of a colonial web of power, domination and conquest.
Today it is remarkable that the very institutions that were committed to a Western singular interpretation of history have diverged to tell multiple narratives. Museums have revolutionised their entire institutional frames and world view. In the spaces where Jandamarra was condemned, he has now re-emerged as a force of reconciliation helping to unite our narratives in overcoming barriers that never should have existed.
In retelling these stories we are not talking about blame; it is about being part of an ongoing journey and having a full appreciation of our complex foundation stories and the adversity that all of us have overcome over time. It was at first encounters where the process of reconciliation truly began. When we review our history, it is not to become fixated on a single point in time; it is about exploring the experiences that accumulate and define us in the present.
We ourselves are ongoing narratives that we can reshape and strengthen as we visit empowering points of our own journey. These are the parts of the narrative that, in amongst our heroes, fallen warriors and bloody battles, we often forget to tell. So let me tell you now, as part of a renewed relationship with this Museum, about my grandmother who was a young girl during the turbulent period of the nineteenth century. She lived beyond it, growing both my mother and myself up in my early life, she was not one of the lives taken during that tragic time. She lived with my great-grandmother and our extended family on our country moving from one living site to another in what the white settlers of the time termed native camps. These camps would have contained all that was necessary to live.
My grandmother was carried in a coolamon (Indigenous language spoken) as a baby, similar to those on display in the exhibit. My grandmother was cradled into early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. She was a survivor. If it wasn’t for her strength and others like her, none of us would be here today. The stories of our survivors and what they have bestowed to us is not from a distant past. This is my living memory. Survival and a fundamental belief in the strength of our cultural heritage and knowledge existing beyond collective trauma constructs who I am. In the expression of my identity, in my imaginings of the future, it is the imprint of our heritage and the essence of my grandmother and ancestors.
I remember as a child how remarkable my grandmother was. She knew exactly where the water was located in our dramatic country of tall grasses spreading out across the endless plains, spiky spinifex and boabs that seem to lap at the feet of towering cliff faces and grow across the facades of the ranges hiding the networks of caves deep within. She knew every animal, rock and plant. She understood the interacting behaviours of the seasons and all creatures, small to big, on that land. She refused to let my mother be educated by white people. Inherently distrusting of their knowledge frameworks and institutions, she said, ‘I will teach you everything you need to know.’
This is the fundamental importance of our knowledge to existence. It is knowledge to live and survive by, to feel and experience the entirety of the world around us. It takes a lifetime to learn and a lifetime to pass on to the next generation. I have been exploring this relationship of learning, trust and respect that connects my grandmother, my mother and myself across the generations.
Recently my mother and I returned to a cave (Indigenous language spoken) on our Bunuba country that my grandmother would take her children. My mother can point to the place where they slept, where they would drop their digging sticks and tools, where they would make a fire. Standing there I could feel the presence of my grandfather’s return, bringing back with his sons the meat that had been hunted ready to cook. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, taste the sounds and the smells of their life. This is the sensation our country evokes. Layers of time are stripped away and in an instant the tens of thousands of years of our histories washes around us all at once. It can be overwhelming; it is always reaffirming.
I have taken visitors to similar living sites, caves set in the limestone cliffs where smooth spears of rock used for crushing ochre have been left, placed in hollowed out indents on the limestone surface. Etched into the top of table-like rock faces are straight grooves where spear heads would have been sharpened. I have seen first hand the sudden upwelling of emotion when people are welcomed to these places. I wonder if they think of the last hand to have crushed ochre here, to have put the rock where it sits now, the legs that stood up and climbed down from the cave, the feet that walked away never to return.
Our people, our grandparents, stood at this precipice. Many died defending our way of life and some climbed into the world order that marched in. We must never forget those that fell in battle but we live with the knowledge and the stories of those who carried on. Within a new world they never submitted. Instead, they learnt to adapt and incorporate other forms of living so our epistemologies would continue. These living sites, unmarked on Western maps, fill the coastal and interior areas of Australia and our covered in traces of former occupation.
Today, although people keep them alive and maintain our creation spirits, they have no permanent residence. Still the presence of the past pulsates within them. The history of these places, when exposed, is immense. The collective grief of loss at first encounters rises to the surface, but the force of reconnection to these sites begin to heal the wounds of the past. The country re-embraces us always awaiting our return.
In effect these sites are our museums. Our grandparents, parents and now us are the connectors to these places. Our voices are our audio guides, learning and retelling our stories to ensure that the next generation is able to navigate the spatial and temporal plain of our land. This is the reciprocal system of Wunan I spoke of earlier, where encounters are never momentary but help to establish an ongoing enriching relationship where knowledge shared in the right way connecting time and space to situate us in the present, keeping all things including ourselves alive, happy and well.
My grandmother and all our survivors lived to maintain this system. They were fierce protectors and custodians of our knowledge. With so much lost in their lifetimes, what remained was placed carefully in the minds and bodies of our families in fear that, in the wrong hands, it would be erased. They knew the power of learning. When the right stories are passed on, societal interconnections are strengthened. When stories are lost or misrepresented, the connections are weak and broken.
I am sure our surviving ancestors were awaiting a time when they could feel the safety of sharing this knowledge again, to restore our culture to full health and vibrancy, and reconcile our world with white society. In their lifetime, museums were the gatekeepers of their worldly possessions. Our objects sat frozen on their shelves and in their cabinets. Caught in a distinct historical juncture they were empty of our heritage, dormant, waiting to be reunited with our Indigenous knowledges and stories.
Well, the gates have been unhinged and dismantled. The objects we see in Encounters have been retrieved from disparate collections. Today they have been rearranged and brought together in a constellation of association which explodes the linear confines of the colonial narrative and brings new meaning to all Australian lives and stories. My grandmother and these objects separated by distance are both vessels travelling across the generations. Her voice, continuing on in me, is able to re-animate the materials of our country, to pull them back into our universal system of being. My grandmother is alive in exhibitions like this, as are all of our ancestors.
In retrieving our objects museums have accepted their responsibility as one of the largest institutional repositories of our Indigenous objects. No longer confined to the dominance of Western discourse, they are taking their place in the intersection of societal and political transaction, discovering how to share information and knowledge from one cultural domain to another. What is being laid down before us is a reciprocal super highway of exchange.
Our countries, as I have explained, hold the markings of a history that was taken away: the tree that is scarred where the wood was removed to make my grandmother’s coolamon; the spear heads chipped from limestone ranges; the eroded rock platforms that have felt centuries of footsteps as people moved with their belongings from one living site to another – these objects residing in museums which have engraved our homelands traverse the landscape made from the materials of our country are reconnecting with these sites. Our material heritage has not been lost. Instead, it is being used to teach all of Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, about our remarkable worlds born from the longest continuous civilisation on earth.
Now, seen as equal partners in the exchange of historical truths, we are being incorporated more fully into our ever-evolving national narrative. We cannot underestimate the profound impact that this form of recognition has on us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Within the capital of Australia where for so long our voices were denied, our history and nationhood is being presented in museums as a testament of our strength and resilience and a powerful statement of truth.
Issuing forth from this display of recognition is an unfolding conversation between our Indigenous nations’ claim to self-determination and sovereignty and the Australian nation states governmental and legislative authority over the entire continent. While at the point of cultural translation museums are a facilitator for this dialogue to take place with the integrity and accountability that our system of Wunan sets out, the reconciling process of bringing our nation’s histories together is pivotal to the current debate of how we are to recognise our peoples either within the constitutional documents of this land or within a treaty.
This is far more than symbolic. When we were not recognised, when the national narrative was empty of our presence, our entire existence was threatened. As I said, through the eyes of imperial authority we were written into our founding documents as flora and fauna ripe for domination. To be recognised now is a driver for change. It heals wounds and helps us to confront, understand and overcome historical trauma. It has a transformative potential. For museums, it throws open the doors to a new phase of production to display our objects in exciting configurations of meaning. For Indigenous peoples, it restores an empowering sense of collective worth and a celebration of our rich cultural heritage.
As we embark on a new relationship, we as Indigenous peoples and the directors and boards of museums, have to continue working together ensuring that we are informing and educating all of Australia about our current lives and our past. Recognition brings with telling the right stories, with rewriting the national narrative so our Australian history is bigger, richer and more truthful. If we never let these stories settle, if we are constantly reviving them, we won’t repeat the trauma of colonisation and dislocation.
With my grandmother’s and ancestors’ knowledge at the forefront of our society, we are able to encounter each other and not withhold our knowledge – knowing that the protocols are in place to share our stories with integrity and respect; knowing that this is not reducing our rights or diminishing our people’s sense of belonging to this nation; knowing that it is actively making us all stronger by revitalising the worlds of our diverse and wonderous humanity.
This is a system of exchange which embraces the hope, the relief and triumph of our survival. It applauds the breadth and depth of our remarkable civilisation and the ongoing importance of our knowledge. It reflects the complexities of cultural dynamism both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and for institutions. The National Museum of Australia and museums around the world are entering into this system, unlocking the doors of their collections, breathing life into objects and paving the way for change for an ongoing reconciliation. And it is all in the retelling of our stories – no longer left unfinished at the first encounters. Thank you. [applause]
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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
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Date published: 01 January 2018