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Dr Richard West Jr, Professor Paul Tapsell, Dr Dawn Casey, Dr Richard Luarkie and Associate Professor David Garneau with ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue, 16 March 2016

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Geraldine Doogue and a very warm welcome to this special RN [Radio National] Saturday Extra event here at the National Museum in Canberra.


The Museum kicked off a three-day conference today called ‘New Encounters: Communities, Collections and Museums’ to coincide with the Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum exhibition. I actually saw the original exhibition in London last year and I know it’s been significantly re-configured here but I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be here, that it’s here, and I am too.

Joining me is a very distinguished panel of speakers. We’ll be exploring a lot of things: how First Nations people around the world think of themselves these days, how they negotiate their identities in their respective nations and their relationships to the kinds of collections that are here and why that can be a very vexed issue but also full of promise. To the wider community: how do these collections that are on display in this new Encounters exhibition, how do these collections and identities of the traditional pasts convey to us all a way of getting into the contemporary future. That’s how I am going to try to navigate this. There’s a lot to explore.

Let me introduce our panel very quickly: Richard West, Paul Tapsell, Dawn Casey, Richard Luarkie and David Garneau. Would you welcome them all, please.


Just so we hear all voices – I hate panels where you never hear somebody for 20 minutes in – we’re going to hear everybody. Just answer in about two minutes, and I will be mildly savage on time, how do they each consider that First Nations people negotiate the path between tradition and the future? What do you keep and what do you leave behind? It’s such a big question. And I will introduce each panellist in detail as we go.

First to you, Richard West. You’re a founding director and Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and President and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, and you are based in Los Angeles. You are a citizen of the Cheyenne Arapaho nation of Oklahoma and a member of the Society of Southern Cheyenne Peace Chiefs. So how do you answer that question? What do you discard? What do you keep?

RICHARD WEST: I don’t think you discard much of anything. The reason I feel that way is because we look at things like that as being cyclical, not along a straight line with a beginning point and an end point. So that which we do now and we engage the future just like everybody else. In that, is embedded lots of things from our past so that is the way we look at it. I think that any institution attempting to interpret native life and culture is duty bound to do the same thing, which is to say: look at native peoples as existing across a spectrum of time that has a deep past, goes right up to the present, acknowledge that they know something about their own past which we should listen to, and be supportive of the efforts of Indigenous people to do precisely that.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Even if, and I will come back to that, even if the ethic of the institution that is hosting it may not have quite that set of qualities?

RICHARD WEST: Well then the effort becomes one of through a constructive engagement to move them to that same position, because I think that anybody who is talking about native cultures has to understand that everything is across a long-term spectrum of time. To sort of lock it into the past is doing everybody an injustice, both those in the Indigenous community as well as those who want to learn anything about it.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: More to come on that.

Now Dawn Casey, you were the founding director here of the National Museum of Australia. You have also been at the Western Australian Museum, my home state, and the Powerhouse Museum. You are a descendant of the Tagalaka clan from North Queensland – you are a long way from home.


GERALDINE DOOGUE: What are your views on this dance, I suppose, if I can put it like that?

DAWN CASEY: Well, I would have to say I agree with Rick. The issues around our First Nations people in Australia that lend itself strongly to what Rick has just said is that we are still finding out information about our collections, our material culture, our languages. It is still unfolding for us, because there was much lost during colonisation and the subsequent long silence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. So it’s very hard to discard something that you’re still not aware of. I think the big issue that confronts some people in this country in terms of visitors – they can’t understand why we are dealing with the present sometimes and not understanding that the present museums aren’t only about showing objects for the sake of showing objects. But for First Nations people it is the link to our whole being, our links to our land, our links to our language, and links to our performances – so it’s hard to discard it. You must continue to show history is something that we’re doing today will be history tomorrow.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Okay. David, you’re an artist, you’re a curator and an academic from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan in Canada and you’ve recently co-curated an exhibition called Moving Forward, Never Forgetting, so obviously something very high in your thoughts at the moment. I am intrigued about how you think about this.

DAVID GARNEAU: It’s interesting, so I am Métis from the prairies of Canada. About eight years ago I discovered that I was Indigenous. What I mean by that –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Eight years ago –

DAVID GARNEAU: It was here in Australia. So as a Métis person I’m an Aboriginal person recognised by the Canadian government along with First Nations and Inuit people, but eight years ago the Canada Council brought a group of Indigenous artists to Australia and we became Indigenous. What that means is it’s a new class of people who are able to travel around. They’re Aboriginal people who recognise that they have something in common with the Aboriginal people in other countries, so I became Indigenous. What does it mean? It means that I have to be very careful not to lose my Aboriginality and my Métis-ness. I think we are going to agree with everybody on this panel –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Wait until I get started.

DAVID GARNEAU: But what it means is that as a Métis person at home, I have to be very conscious about the land, the territory and the people that I am a part of. When I move to a place like Australia, I have to remember not to forget those people and that informs my time. As was mentioned, time is not a linear thing, it’s more like a spiral and we keep revisiting ourselves like we visit the seasons. What to discard you’ll only come across it again later on in memory or in fact. These objects, these belongings in the Museum, remind us. So when I go to this exhibition I don’t have the memories of the people in them but I’m reminded of the continuity of cultures that are all around the world.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: I just have to take you up – so you think this word ‘Indigenous’ for you is quite a new thing.

DAVID GARNEAU: It is, yes, with a capital ‘I’. With a little i it just means something that’s of that place.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Like an adjective, but you’re saying it’s something much more.

DAVID GARNEAU: Right. With a capital ‘I’ Indigenous is quite different, it’s a consciousness that we all share collectively and we’re figuring it out as we go along. But it allows us through books, through internet, through travel – it didn’t exist at prior times.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Okay, that’s very interesting. I was not aware that that was sort of a prevailing thought.

DAVID GARNEAU: No, it’s not, I made it up.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Most thought provoking. Before I go to the others, some have written – in other words, without the linear time and attitudes of the conquering peoples, a lot of these wondrous objects that we’re seeing here would not have been retained. They would have been discarded because they were often tools. They were a functional thing used for the time they were used and they would’ve been thrown away. Isn’t there a small tension there, particularly for someone like yourself who revels in this? But it wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for the intervention of people with very different mindsets.

DAVID GARNEAU: You’re right, we’re grateful for the conquest.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: But it is a serious dilemma. I think it is a dilemma.

DAVID GARNEAU: It’s a dilemma but again I just want to echo what you said earlier. This is the teaching that I got from elders. When you think of the drum, that’s only half the story of the object. The other half is carried by the drum maker and this drum echoed that drum that made it before, and the drum that went into the past, but also the drums that go all the way into the future. The same with the body that made the drum. It goes all the way to the past and all the way into the future. So I don’t carry the drum. The drum goes to that place or this place. I carry the drum within me but I better pass it on to somebody else or the drum will be lost for sure, and all you’ll have is this dead object. How do we reconcile this? If we have this idea of history as a spiral we’re always going to be meeting that drum and if I forget the drum it’s interrupted, it’ll be picked up again. But I have less concern for the object that has become dead in the museum than I have with the living person who made the drum and the drums that they will continue to make.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: All right, good. Richard Luarkie, you’re a former governor of the Pueblo nation and a member of the Laguna tribe in New Mexico. You’re also a board member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian so you’ve absorbed yourself thoroughly I would have thought although, as you make the point, you’re not of the museum world you came via the side door as it were. So what’s your view?

RICHARD LUARKIE: First of all, [native language spoken]. I am thankful in my language that you’ve allowed us to come on to your lands and your ancestors have allowed us to get here safely. Thank you very much. In my mind as I’ve served as a governor and many of us that are parents and leaders or grandparents in our communities, in our respective community we’re taught as we refer to one another as wahanos ish, human spirit. In everyday life we say hano, just people. But in reality we’re all spirits. So in that world of spirituality, what brought us here allows us to exist today but will allow us to continue into the future. As I said in my opening remarks, [native language spoken] in acknowledgement of the ancestors. Wonahaya, those that have passed on, bayani, that are now in the mystery, that are now magical, kyadro, in that time. We’re going to always have that connection and we don’t have the authority to throw anything or anyone away. Someone in our community maybe may do wrong but as a father I can’t throw them away. Objects – they’re not objects; they are beings. [native language spoken] as they tell us that’s how everything has a purpose. The arrogance of humanity gives us the idea that we have control over given objects but as we’re told [native language spoken] your heart, your breath, that’s not our authority, that’s the creator’s authority.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Did you always think like this or is it something that you’ve come to? Because you came from the IT field, didn’t you originally – I don’t mean you came from it but you worked in it.


GERALDINE DOOGUE: Yes, that’s right. By gosh, that’s a contrast with how you’re speaking now.

RICHARD LUARKIE: In my world that’s my upbringing, that’s my grooming. My grandparents raised me. I was born in 1969 so when I came into the world my grandparents were already in their 60s. My grandmother was born in 1903 and my grandfather in 1904 so I got to hang out with the old folks. It was a rich upbringing because the grooming really was about [native language spoken] those things that the creators bestowed us with. [native language spoken] When we’re born, we’re born with [native language spoken] the ability to love, [native language spoken] the ability to respect. [native language spoken] Don’t hurt each other’s hearts. [native language spoken] To be disciplined, [native language spoken] to be obedient not in the sense of crack the whip and you jump but reverence to a good way of life, [native language spoken] to be of family, [native language spoken] that is the purpose of our being and that has always been the foundation and the basis of everything I do.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Even when you were in the IT world?

RICHARD LUARKIE: Even when I’m in the IT world. I think it helps you in your decision making. It helps you in that old saying of ‘do the right thing even when people aren’t watching’.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: All right, thank you. Can I ask you to draw a small line on that for a moment because Paul Tapsell, I want to hear how you speak from across the ditch. You’re professor and chair of Maori studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand and part of your research interest is the role of cultural heritage in museums. So you must have really absorbed yourself in this.

PAUL TAPSELL: Thank you Geraldine. I join with my fellow panellists in providing first words to those on whose land we find ourselves talking today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people [Indigenous language spoken]. How can you discard what you never owned?

GERALDINE DOOGUE: What you never owned?

PAUL TAPSELL: Exactly. This is a philosophical underpinning for our people at least in that we belong to our ancestors, that everything which materialises from mother earth returns to mother earth, even our own being. So we are in a way we’re temporary but we are part of a chain of events or a genealogy of beliefs and practices and moments that reach back to the singularity that created the universe, to go to our western side of thinking; for us, back to [Indigenous language spoken] earth mother and sky father coming together and we are the manifestation and consciousness right now.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: So when you are navigating this modern – you’ve done a lot of competitive sport in your time.

PAUL TAPSELL: You’ve been doing your research.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: I just wonder, that was a foot in one world obviously which you loved by the sound of it, but did that inform you then that attitude about an incredible circularity and belonging to the past or did you lay that aside for a while?

PAUL TAPSELL: It’s always been there and within the competitive sport space it’s something that reminds you when you are in an extreme sport and death could happen at any moment, just the gift of being able to compete, being able to engage the world, and perhaps odd moments where you did silly things realising that someone, something, a spirit has watched over you and you’re here today. But it’s temporary and today will come to an end. This is part of the teachings of my people that your birth is part of a cycle of life and you will reintegrate back into the landscape of your ancestors, you will become the bones of mother earth.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: When you see objects such as we’ve seen here today at this wonderful exhibition, how does that play to you then in this quest to marry the two worlds? Maybe I’m putting that wrongly. You can tell me I am. But to get a sense of serenity that you’re displaying now, do the objects matter?

PAUL TAPSELL: The objects are the ancestors. It matters very much, especially if those ancestors have been ripped away from country. They are the portals back into relinking today’s generation to the values and the principles and the philosophies of the past generation. These are the things that must carry us forward. But if they are being recast within a museum context outside their original meaning from whatever country they’ve come from, then in a way they’re becoming orphans like our children are growing up in cities separated from their grandparents’ knowledge.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Do you see it like that, Dawn?

DAWN CASEY: I do. I see objects as a connection to our First Nations people and individuals, culture and heritage. I have seen First Nations people come to collections and look in the stores and have been aware by the descriptions by their grandparents about how they wove mats or how they made woomeras and spears. So they’ve been very emotional when they’ve seen those collections. They’re incredibly important. I haven’t been brought up to see them as beings but as being very, very important, connecting us to our ancestors.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: But you see, for instance, this is the dilemma. When I saw that Gweagal shield with the bullet hole in it in the British Museum, I cried. I knew the story but it made the most powerful impression on me. You might say it took you that long to get that impression, but it did make a powerful impression on me and opened me up more to the wider story. So if that hadn’t been there doing that, I would have missed that. Isn’t that worth holding on to about the collection of objects?

DAWN CASEY: In terms of within museums?


DAWN CASEY: It’s a very vexed question. I think what’s truly moving about that –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Maybe you should just explain to people. This is a fabulous shield from a Gweagal man who met Captain Cook at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 when shots were fired. This amazing piece of artefact of the very earliest encounters which I had never seen before.

DAWN CASEY: I think what’s very interesting from that perspective, it’s a wonderful tool – and I will go to my First Nations interpretation soon on it – as a museum director and curator to show that, for those people who want to know more, who want to better understand colonisation of this country, the bullet hole in it resonates with visitors in that context. We heard today the descendants of the people who made that shield. It means something completely different to First Nations people. It is a part of them and seeing that their great grandfather got shot. So it’s two completely different meanings.

It was interesting your comment earlier on, which was very well handled in terms of museums; they wouldn’t have been protected had they not been looked after by museums. Well, had that not been the case, I suggest that we would be continuing to make spears and evolving so it wouldn’t be a big issue. But it is true that they were tools that were used and they would have deteriorated out there. But that’s not the case in terms of people have looked after them in some cases; and in other cases there are concerns about the toxic material and chemicals that we use to restore and maintain, which are beings to some people and living objects.

I think it’s very complex. Wherever possible, I think they should be returned to community or there should be museums or cultural centres, keeping places, where people can have access to their material culture because it does impact, as Paul was saying today, we have seen in Australia where people have been removed from their lands, put into these artificial communities, lost connection and are trying to build that connection. But it has resulted in social dysfunction and those [other issues], with the loss of material culture and culture generally.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: How do you think about this in the US, Richard?

RICHARD WEST: I can cut to the chase on this by just looking briefly at the federal repatriation laws that were enacted about a quarter of a century ago in the US. Basically what they did with respect to the kinds of objects that we are talking about, for the most part, is that they required the repatriation after due process of certain categories of objects to contemporary native communities. The judgment was simply made by the United States Congress that those kinds of materials which were essential to contemporary ceremonial practice should never have left the communities in the first instance.

There is this notion, and here’s what I think is the rub is without getting too theoretical about it. There is a conception of the museum sometimes as being a universal instrument where objects somehow that may be linked up historically to specific communities – in the case of the people who are surrounding you today, Indigenous communities – that somehow become ‘universal’ and they transcend those communities and they go somewhere else than universal museums. I think the judgment that has been made in the United States is that that is not the case where you are talking about living Indigenous communities whose very survival as cultures of the future depends upon association with these kinds of objects. That’s where they should be.

That kind of recognition does not prohibit necessarily if it belongs to a community [and] you’re seeing it in museums. Sometimes it will, depending on the kind of object it is. But it is simply a trade-off which is made. I think that we’re looking at a context where through colonisation which happened here, which happened in the United States, et cetera, where much of this cultural patrimony was removed from the tribe and from the native community, it left them in a very, very challenged position. Yet they are still here. It’s not that they are simply some ethnographic remnant of the past that has gone. So repatriation laws were based upon that. There’s lots of in between territory where museums and communities can work with one another about this kind of thing, but it begins with an acceptance fundamentally at the beginning of the process there are simply some things that sit in museum communities that should be elsewhere.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Let’s say, for instance, because there has been a great deal of cooperation, as I understand it, between the National Museum of Australia and living communities. That’s been a very important emphasis. I don’t want to get too stuck on whether they should get back and forth to the British Museum. But let’s say there isn’t a facility in say Broome in Western Australia, for the sake of argument, for something to go back there so that, by sending it back, there’s a risk even to the living community you’re describing. You’re saying this is a liminal space, is it, and you are happy with that?

RICHARD WEST: Sure I understand that. But I think that is where museums that hold such material have a responsibility to work in creative ways with existing contemporary and living communities, which is to say the tribes and communities are the first people to admit sometimes that they cannot hold this material because they don’t have the facilities –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: So you would ask them did you think they were capable of?

RICHARD WEST: Yes. What happened at the National Museum of the American Indian is that we took what seemed to me an eminently logical step which is to say that, contrary to what was then museum practice that you never have an object in your collection to which you do not have legal title, we simply changed the policy. We said under certain circumstances we will hold that material, if that is helpful to the contemporary community, even when we have formally transferred title to them.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: So it’s like a loan from them to you?

RICHARD WEST: Yes. All I am saying is that there is lots of middle territory here which I think can be explored and which was really explored in connection with the Encounters exhibit in terms of how you consult and you mediate these kinds of things. But it does begin with a proposition that, at some point at the very beginning, one simply has to accept – and that is the institution that holds the collection sometimes – that it is something that will be returned even if it may sit, as you are pointing out, in the museum. That is what was done by the United States Congress when they were enacting the repatriation laws.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Interesting. Paul?

PAUL TAPSELL: Within the New Zealand context and I will use Auckland Museum as an example, which I was former director Maori there. One of the things we did was, first and foremost, work out what the trajectory was of the ancestor and how this heritage object arrived in the museum. By distinguishing that, then you could work out what was the best step forward in terms of what Rick is talking about. There were taonga ancestors that arrived there by gift; then there were those that were purchased; then there were those that arrived that were on loan; and then there were those that arrived inappropriately.

The best thing that occurred during that time was we would go to the communities before they even knew that we were holding inappropriately acquired taonga and offer to return them and enter into a relationship. Immediately this relationship that develops from that is out of that communication and out of an understanding that the museum can act as a holding place. Literally all of our human remains that were there – we had over 1000 human remains during my time – they were all signed back to the communities but not all returned home.


PAUL TAPSELL: Because the communities will be ready when they are ready to receive home those ancestors. It is not something you just put on the back of a truck and drop it off. There is a lot of discussion that has to go on, not least that these ancestors have been sitting on the landscape of another tribe for almost 150 years. So a lot of discussion around the healing of the local tribe in which the Auckland Museum sat and discussions with the source community from which the Auckland Museum had taken inappropriately these ancestral remains and had traded worldwide. These were discussions that must occur, and out of that has come these amazing relationships that will be cross generational even after these remains, these ancestors, had gone home.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Let me ask you all about whether the young people of your various communities are aware of this really quite profound conversation that you are describing. Because museums and young people usually don’t go together, but you’re describing an ability to connect in ways that obviously are just simply vital to you all. Do you think it’s making a difference to young people’s sense of identification or not? Are they remote from it? What do you think, David, in Canada?

DAVID GARNEAU: In Canada, as in many other places, there’s a great effort to make these spaces into educational institutions not just repositories for these objects. That is essential. What we’ve learnt – you mentioned moving forward and never forgetting – is that we hired Indigenous people to be storykeepers in our exhibition. What happened was you would go into the exhibition and the storykeepers would be very assertive and come and ask you if you had questions. And if you didn’t, they would tell you the questions you ought to have. It was really a lively discussion.

Students, children, liked that kind of encounter because the museum is set up I say as an necropolis, this dead city, and when children come in, they’re told that they have some oils on their hands and if they touch things it will destroy the past and the future. So they’re very quiet. Finding ways through another human intermediary to break that down a bit so they can bring the stories to life is very important.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Does it matter if they do destroy the objects?

DAVID GARNEAU: I’ve already told you it’s okay. There are some objects that you can’t. I am just thinking of an idea. If you took the shield and you put it on a table and you had two other copies beside it, and you invited a member of the committee to touch it and tell them which one is the real one, that would be a terrifying thought.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: It certainly would.

DAVID GARNEAU: Because the object is not the thing itself ever, it’s always its interconnectedness. Everything is connected. When you were removed, you were removed because of the story that was connected to it, and someone told you what that was. You trusted the museum that they are not putting a fake in there. All these chains are really important. So why would we sever that relationship with children, the next generation? It’s the essential project that we have to be engaged in. As has already been mentioned, we have failed culturally in so many ways. But part of it is – I don’t know what it’s like here – for many generations my family didn’t go to Indian residential school for Métis so there is this big loss. People are trying to learn these things again to follow that circle and reconnect. So when you are asking if people had these things their whole life, you were very fortunate if you did, but most of us are learning these things as we go along. That reconnection is central. So we feel a great duty to work with children to have them connect as well.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: How does it work in the Pueblo nation, would you say, Richard?

RICHARD LUARKIE: We have 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and I can’t speak for all of them. I can speak for my Pueblo. But in our Pueblo one of the ways we engage our young people – and it is very important that we include the young people. A lot of times something as basic as when adults see one another we say ‘Hello, how are you? How are doing?’, but the little kid is right there and we don’t say nothing to the kid. We need to make sure that we acknowledge the young people in every aspect.

One of the things that we have that is very beneficial to us in our Pueblo, and it’s coming up pretty soon right around Easter time, is we have a session that is called capedarme, and capedarme is when other menfolk in the Pueblo, we get together for four days. In those four days they tell the creation, the emergence, the migration – everything of how we came to be –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: They are handing it on –

RICHARD LUARKIE: They are handing it on, and we all go. The males are the ones that go, but then the females, we take those stories home to them. And the last day of that session is the leadership day. The governor is the one that presents on the last day. In the last few years, when I was still serving as governor, one of the things I started doing was sharing these conversations about ‘here’s what we’re seeing at the museums, here’s what’s out there,’ because of this French auction that was going on for many of our sacred items. Last night we were talking with some of the other individuals. One of the individuals that’s here – I don’t see him in the crowd, but Jim Enote is going to be speaking – he made a very good point yesterday that a lot of these items that are in these auctions are fakes, are replicas.

To be able to share with our young people ‘here’s how you understand what’s out there and here’s how you identify what’s ours’. But also in that very same token to not make things so sacred that we destroy –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Why does that matter?

RICHARD LUARKIE: As an example, in the 19 Pueblos one of the things that we do have in common absolutely is canes. When the different governments that were in charge of us over the many years left, they left each tribe with a cane, and that cane resembles and symbolises our ability to self-govern for sovereignty. So the first cane that we have was given to us by the Spanish crown in 1620. I served as the lieutenant-governor as well and in our Pueblo the lieutenant-governor carries that cane. So I carried that cane for four years and kept it in our house.

The second cane we have is from the Mexican government and that was given to us in 1820 right before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that basically ended the Mexican – American war. Then the last cane we have is the Abraham Lincoln cane. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln gave us canes. So the leadership over all these years have handed it down. So whoever the governor is, they carry this cane. It’s kind of our badge, if you will, of our authority.


RICHARD LUARKIE: Yes. There have been leaders in the past that say, ‘Don’t touch it,’ to the kids. ‘That’s the governor’s cane.’ But in my mind the way I see it is absolutely touch it. Those are your grandparents. Those are all that came before us. So that’s what I mean don’t make it so sacred that the children can’t participate.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: I wanted to ask each of you what object you would choose to have in your museum. Clearly there are very varied views about the visceral importance of these objects. That’s just such a wonderful story. That shield with the bullet hole, as I said, made such a powerful impact on me, and I know I’m not alone, but I wonder if I did ask you all what object by way of investing a story to it mattered such that you would do almost anything to have it in your collection? What would you say, Dawn?

DAWN CASEY: I’ve thought about this question all day. It goes back to your previous question which I will quickly deal with in the same answer. I’ve been raised, because we didn’t have any objects because our parents were removed and all of this story which is so similar right across our First Nations people, but what was instilled in me and my brothers and sister was – they didn’t use the word ‘ethic’ – be highly ethical or transparent and you have a responsibility to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in everything you do. That was from when you were a child; this was just placed on you.

The issue for me was seeing – as I grew up and taking on more responsibility for either finding a house for my parents from the age of 12 to other issues about making sure I could speak up at the school for what sort of education my brothers had to have or I had to have – was the need for and hearing all the issues that was brought about by the systems implemented and legislation implemented through colonisation about where our First Nation people could go, their lack of freedom, et cetera. For me it’s been a deep commitment and obligation for structural changes.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Rather than the – even though you ended up in the museum world, so that’s really quite a conundrum, isn’t it?

DAWN CASEY: For me, as I said, the museum is a way to create awareness in the greater community through collections, forums and places for debate. What was important, going back to the younger people that I saw over the last couple of years in my role as chair of the Indigenous Land Corporation, was the threat to the Indigenous Land Fund which was part compensation for native title in this country after the High Court decision around Mabo. What brought that about was the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia. Unlike my colleagues here, Australia has never had a treaty which we could rely on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We had nothing to rely on. There was terra nullius. Our young people – we celebrated 40 years last year of the Native Title Act and the Indigenous Land Corporation legislation et cetera. We had a couple of younger people on the board – when I say ‘younger’, they are about 40. But there were totally unaware of the negotiations for that native title settlement. So I made it my business – and Russell will back me in this – going around the country for two years trying to protect this land account in the land fund and doing bits around …


DAWN CASEY: So my point is what I would love to have in my museum is the actual piece of legislation that was handled by Gough Whitlam and our people on the Racial Discrimination Act, because it gave us the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a First Nations people in this country.


GERALDINE DOOGUE: I know David is going to have a very interesting circular argument about this and he is going to hurl back at me.

DAVID GARNEAU: I’m going to tell you a story before my smartass answer. I was thinking about the difference between Aboriginal and Indigenous and I just remembered a story. There were some Zen monks who came to my small city in Saskatchewan, and the first thing they did was they went looking for elders at the Piapot Reserve which is nearby. They were painting their sand mandala in the gallery and I was asking the head guy – I’ve forgotten his name now – ‘Why did you go to the elders? Why did you go to the First Nations people?’ He said, ‘Well, here’s how it works. We travel all around the world and we go to the elders first. If we agree on things, the nature of the universe, if we agree, that’s true. If we disagree, that’s cultural. It was profound to me. Here we are a gathering of Indigenous people. The Aboriginal is political – we won’t agree. But the Indigenous – this is freedom, this free area where we will all agree. Now my real answer: of course we want the land back. John Carty said very interestingly he went to one of the local communities and they said that the museum is our land. I don’t belong to a museum. I don’t have a museum, so we want the land back. That will be our museum.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Right. Thank you very much. Now Richard, how would you answer what object?

RICHARD LUARKIE: As you mentioned in the opening remarks, I don’t come from the museum world. So looking at it from the other end as a user, I would like to see in a museum a place to have the conversation about the object or purpose. We create objects –

GERALDINE DOOGUE: As a means to an end –

RICHARD WEST: … as a means to an end.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Right, I see your point. Paul?

PAUL TAPSELL: It’s a little perplexing your question. I probably would recast it and say: what is the object of my museum? And it would be the children. The young people need to reconnect, especially those who have grown up away from our tribal region, away from the privilege I had of accessing the stories of my old people. How can we re-engage them with those stories and reconnect their sense of belonging and identity back into the landscape of their ancestors, of earth mother, so they have a security of heart again – hope and faith that they do belong in this world.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: So it’s a venue for much bigger relationships.

PAUL TAPSELL: Yes. So the object that you talk about is that material thing; to me, the object is actually us, the living, because they are our ancestors. So we are the object of their gaze.


RICHARD WEST: I will be a little bit more literal in answering your question but hopefully there will be some poetics to it too. It’s a personal story. When I was a youngster maybe 11, 12, 13 years old, my father who is the native side of my family – my Mum was white – took us to see the collection of the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian in New York. It was my first trip east of the Mississippi; it was a big deal. My Dad talked to us along the way as to why he was taking us there and he said wanted us to see what was the most remarkable assemblage of Cheyenne material he knew of. That happened to be the collection which I oversaw at the National Museum of the American Indian. It was the Heye Foundation collection that eventually became part of the Smithsonian. So there was a very personal tie to it.

But I remember that visit and the objects – I love all Cheyenne regalia. If I do say so, it is some of the most beautiful on the face of the earth. What my eye fastened on was a shield, and let me explain why shields are of particular importance to me. It is not only literal but metaphorical too. Shields at least as made by Cheyennes, and I am sure this was true with others, were a very personal item. In other words, often what went on to the face of a shield was really the personal vision of the person who owned the shield. It was both his personal statement and yet it had to do with his connection with the community. So it wasn’t just to defend him personally, but it was to defend the native community.

Here you have a connection between individual and community that for me is extremely important, and it has remained my favourite object, quite frankly. Because in taking on the leadership initially of the National Museum of the American Indian I felt that museums themselves who have this kind of cultural patrimony sitting within their four walls should undertake that in a metaphorical way. They should try to protect those objects, not just as a museum but because of their powerful connections with living cultures that still relied on connections with those objects. In a way, I wanted the museum to fulfil that kind of function for living native communities. So I take it literally but I also think that, for me, it symbolises much else that has been important in my life both personally and professionally.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. I’m sorry we have to go but it’s very rich, as you can see, this debate and we’re going to keep having it. I would like you to thank Richard Luarkie, David Garneau, Richard West, Dawn Casey and Paul Tapsell. Thank you very much indeed.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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