Professor Claire Smith, Flinders University and Dr Peter Stanley, National Museum of Australia, 28 August 2009
ANNE FARIS: Welcome back to our second session today. My name is Anne Faris and I work here at the Museum in the Centre for Historical Research. Our second session of the symposium looks particularly at memorials and sacred sites and responds to the question: ‘How are certain places invested with spiritual significance or defined as places of memorialisation?’ Our speakers will be Dr Peter Stanley and Associate Professor Claire Smith, and following their talks, as in the previous session, we’ll have 20 minutes of question time.
‘The exact spot’: using the ground to tell a human story – 9 Platoon in the fight for Mont St Quentin by Dr Peter Stanley
ANNE FARIS: Firstly, I’ll introduce you to Peter. Dr Peter Stanley is the head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia. He was appointed to this position in 2007 after 20 years at the Australian War Memorial as Principal Historian. He contributes to historical interpretation in print and broadcast media, including the television series Revealing Gallipoli, Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery and Monash. He has written over 22 books, including two published this year: To the Far Side of Tears: Remembering the St Nazaire commandos [that was its working title but it is published now as Commando to Colditz: Micky Burn’s journey to the far side of tears – remembering the raid on St Nazaire] and Men of Mont St Quentin: between victory and death. His talk today will draw on the research he gathered while writing these books, reflecting on memory, memorials and sacred spaces. Thank you, Peter.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Anne, and thanks, Leanne, for the invitation to promote my recent book – I’m sorry, to speak at this conference. Good afternoon everybody. What I’d like to talk about is one tiny place in France, a place called Mont St Quentin. Those of you who are militarily historically inclined will know that, on the first of September 1918, Mont St Quentin, which is a hill in France near the Somme, was captured by the 2nd Australian Division. This is regarded as one of the triumphs of Australian military history, although I won’t be talking about it like that. When you do read the book Men of Mont St Quentin: Between victory and death, you’ll see that I regard this as a very contentious battle and I contest the received version that it was a triumph of Monash’s planning. But I don’t want to talk about that today.
I want to talk about one or a few of the men who were killed on that day – a man called Frank Roberts, who was an orchardist from South Sassafras in the Dandenongs – now a little town called Kallista. Frank’s father Garry – who actually was one of the people behind the move to rename it from South Sassafras to Kallista, but that’s a detail – Garry, as you would imagine, was traumatised by the death of his son Frank in that battle, and Garry’s response to this terrible event in the family’s life was to inquire into it and to document Frank’s experience obsessively. He created great thick scrapbooks which documented every aspect of Frank’s life and death, and he especially wanted to know the exact spot on which Frank was killed and then was buried. He gathered evidence from many, many sources, including contacting each of the eight survivors of his son’s 12-man platoon. As they came back to Melbourne at the end of the war in 1919, he badgered them and persuaded them and blackmailed them into writing down an account of what had happened to Frank.
So I want to look at a very specific site of memory. It’s one that, as you’ll see, was the site of intense interest, intense yearning on the part of Garry to understand what had happened, certainly from 1918 for the next decade – less so then but perhaps more so in the future because of this work. This is one of the books that Anne referred to called Men of Mont St Quentin. It’s on sale in the Museum’s bookshop and it tells the story of that one platoon on that one afternoon of September 1918 and then traces the survivors of that event through the rest of their lives through twentieth-century Australia. It’s really a study in Australian social history. It starts as military history and it becomes social history.
My interest in historical sites goes back a long way. But in this book which I published last year A Stout Pair of Boots [cover of book shown] – those are Manning Clark’s boots at the top, the boots in which Manning Clark tramped over many historical sites in the course of writing his epic history – I talked about historically hot places, places with historical radiation, and of course scientifically, it’s complete bunkum. You can’t run a Geiger counter over a place of historic interest. You don’t get anything. They’re historically hot because of the knowledge we bring to them, and that’s one of the themes of this talk.
If that’s the theme of the talk, the subject is the Robertses. Let me introduce you to the Roberts [image shown]: down at the bottom there is Garry and Berta, the parents, and their three children Gwen, Bert and Frank. Frank was killed at Mont St Quentin. This is them just before the war, and the war of course changed their lives. They lived part of the week in Melbourne in Hawthorn, in this house Eumana, and the rest of the time they lived at South Sassafras. They had a weekender up in the Dandenongs, and that’s where Frank Roberts lived all the time.
The building Eumana, as you can see, is still there today. It is not a site of memory, but it may now become one in the sense that the story of the Roberts family and what happened to them from 13 September 1918, the day on which the family learned of Frank’s death – and they learned of it here. So perhaps this will become a site of memory because of what we know about the story. The theme of this is the knowledge we bring to these places.
This is another place where the story begins – the Tramways Building on Bourke Street, Melbourne [image shown]. Garry Roberts worked in this building. He walked in to work at about 10 o’clock on 13 September, got to his office, had a chat with his staff, and then noticed there was a telegram on the desk. There’s the telegram – you might be able to read it [image shown]: ‘I regret to inform you that London advises that your telegram of the 14th of August addressed to Roberts as being undelivered, the addressee having been killed in action.’ That’s the very banal and cruel way that Garry Roberts learned of the death of his son, and that started an obsessive search for knowledge about this place and about that event.
Well, how do we know about this? Because of Garry’s obsessive documentation, and you can see the telegram was stuck into one of the scrapbooks. And here’s his diary where as you can see it says: ‘Friday, the 13th of September, the most awful day in our lives’. That’s where the book begins and it’s where this search begins. Garry had the desire to know more, and we can understand why.
The subjects of the story [image shown]: here’s Frank and Ruby on their wedding day, and there’s Ruby with her baby Nancy who was born in November 1917, by which time Frank was off at the Western Front. There are lots of sadnesses in this story, and one is that Frank never knew his daughter.
These are like the men that Frank served with on 1 September 1918 [image shown]. If I told you that this was his platoon, several people in the audience would say, ‘Hang about, that’s not the right colour patch,’ and indeed it is not. These are men of the 24th Battalion and Frank was in the 21st Battalion – but it’s exactly the same. It’s the same group of men with the same range of weapons. They have both got two Lewis guns. They’re in the same trench. It’s Elsa Trench just below Mont St Quentin minutes before both units went over the top to attack Mont St Quentin.
These are some of the actual men that Frank served with: Les Baker, ‘Norrie’ Norwood in the middle and Godfrey Dobson. Each of these men has stories, which of course are told in much greater detail in the book. I’m not going to tell you their stories now, except to say that every single man in the platoon can be traced through the extensive records – not least being Frank’s diary: their Repat records, their AIF personnel files, and indeed the citations. You’ll see Godfrey Dobson on the right has a medal ribbon. That’s because he was awarded the Military Medal at Mont St Quentin, so there’s a citation for him. So you can see their individual stories which I won’t go into.
Of the 12 men that went over the top with Frank in his platoon, four of them died as a result of the battle – three of them on the spot; one of them six weeks later of a terrible stomach wound which eventually killed him – and four of his comrades were wounded. But of the eight who came back to Melbourne, six of them completed accounts of the day. This is one of the accounts that they wrote. You can see the type of documentation that you can get. There are about 10,000 words here that Garry Roberts managed to obtain typed by the Tramways Trust’s typists. Then, as you can see, Garry also edited it, went back to them to clarify and resolve inconsistencies, and constructed an account of the experience of this small group.
He hoped to write a memorial volume to Frank, but he was so overwhelmed with detail that in fact he wasn’t able to do that. But what he did do was to stick them in his record books, and most of the images I’m showing you come from the record books. He also gave a copy to Charles Bean, the official historian, who didn’t use them, but he did put them in his papers and that’s where I found them when I was searching for a way in to this event. So the platoon’s experience became the microcosm that I explored.
All of this is directed towards Garry finding the exact spot. Here’s a photograph of the exact spot at about 25 minutes before Frank was killed taken by the official photographer Hubert Wilkins [image shown]. That’s the summit of Mont St Quentin, its forest on the top almost completely destroyed by the shellfire, not just on the first of September but this had been a site of battle for the previous two years. But that’s the objective – that’s the place they attacked towards – and that’s more or less the same view today [image shown]. The forest has grown back; the village church has been rebuilt. The trench has been filled in, but you can just about trace where it was because it’s chalk soil and the chalk shows through the beet field so you can see where the excavations where.
This is the view that Charles Bean saw [image shown]. Charles Bean was the official historian, as I say. It just happens that he was standing on an adjacent ridge watching the battle. He arrived just too late to see Frank killed. But if you see that red cross on the left there, that’s more or less the exact spot where Frank was killed. The Australians attacked following the edge of that wood from right to left across the screen. Where that X was, was a quarry, which the Germans had turned into a strong point. Frank’s platoon attacked that strong point and, in attacking it, he died. I won’t go into the circumstances of his death.
We talk about memory: there are about four different accounts by eyewitnesses of Frank’s death. Two of them mention bullets, another mentions a grenade. All of them mention different times from when he was wounded to when he died, so it just bears upon the fragility of memory that Judy was telling us about.
That’s the view of the Mont today [image shown]. Some weeks later the Australian war artist Sir Arthur Streeton turned up. It was suggested that he painted the Mont because it was a scene of a great triumph by Monash and Monash’s men, and that’s what he painted [Mont St Quentin by Arthur Streeton shown]. If you look at it, it’s quite different from the scene I’ve just shown you. It’s from almost exactly the same spot – you can see the road running up the centre. Streeton exaggerated the height of the Mont to magnify the achievement that the troops had done. Here’s a bit of irony. Streeton’s picture is in the National Gallery of Victoria, and has been since about 1924. Arthur Streeton was a neighbour of the Robertses in South Sassafras. Sadly it seems that, although Garry was a friend of Tom Roberts the painter, he didn’t know that Arthur Streeton, another neighbour, had painted the exact spot that Frank had died. Given the degree of interest he took in it, it’s just extraordinary that he never found out.
There’s some of the record books [image shown]. There’s about 20 of them that are about a foot and a half thick. They’re absolutely chock-a-block with Roberts family memorabilia and documents, local history stuff, Tramways history, Victorian local history. They’re also full of this sort of page [image shown]. There are literally dozens of photographs of Frank’s grave taken by various visitors at various times and indeed of various graves, because Frank was exhumed and then buried in the war cemetery at Péronne just down the road. There are pictures of all these places in it – he was absolutely obsessed – including a plan of the battlefield drawn by one of Frank’s comrades Tom Wignall, I believe it was Tom Wignall, which shows the exact place. You see, you come back to this obsession with ground.
There’s even a photograph taken of General Monash and his daughter Bertha who visited the grave in May 1919 [image shown]. How on earth this happened – Monash, the great commander of the Australian corps, only visited two soldiers’ graves in France, one of them was Frank’s. How this happened is another story. But the fact is that this went into the scrapbooks as well. There’s a mourning broach that Garry commissioned to have made to remember Frank [image shown]. It’s a very sad story.
The three men who were killed on the Mont are buried together in the war cemetery at Péronne. There are also German graves down the road. This is not a site of memory in many ways, because the German cemeteries are neglected. They’re very bare; they’re very sad places. It always seems to be cloudy when you go into the German cemetery, and I don’t know why. But it seems that these places are not sites of memory. Although there may be families who come and visit, they’re not subject to the great tourist traffic that goes through Commonwealth war grave cemeteries.
Also on the top of Mont St Quentin was built a memorial. There’s some sappers hanging around on the side of it [image shown]. Very soon after the battle, within days, it was determined that a memorial would be built on top of the mount. You can see why it was captured. It’s a very commanding view. The sculpture that was erected on top of the Mont was done by a friend of the Robertses, Webb Gilbert. Charles Webb Gilbert was a friend of the family. He had sketched Frank in London just before he died and he told Garry that the face he put onto the statue was Frank’s, so Frank’s face turns up on the memorial.
If you go to Mont St Quentin today, and some of you may have, you won’t see that because the Germans came back in 1940, saw that a statue of an Australian bayoneting a Prussian eagle was not only an insult to the Reich but could also fund its foundries and they melted it down and took it away. It’s been replaced by this statue today, a more contemplative figure, but it remains a site of commemoration [image shown]. You can see on the left there the poppy, the flag and the koala, which indicate that Australians still come back to this spot in order to remember in various ways. And that’s the exact spot today [image shown]. It’s no longer a quarry; it’s been filled in.
The point about this is that if you go back to this spot and you can find it on maps – you can use maps that you can find in the war diaries, in Charles Bean’s papers, in Garry’s scrapbook and in the official history – you can triangulate where this place is. You can go there and stand on it. But if you go there and stand on it you won’t find anything; you find a very pleasant bit of field next to a French wood. My point is that it’s only because you bring to it knowledge, it’s only because you know the stories, it’s only because you’ve read those soldiers’ accounts that you can make any sense of this place.
So ask yourself what would’ve happened if Garry hadn’t collected that material, if he’d simply withdrawn into himself and perhaps mourned Frank for the rest of his life – he died in 1933 – but not written anything down. This place would be indistinguishable. Lots of people died at Mont St Quentin – French, Germans, Australians, British – but we know a lot about it because of this man’s consuming interest. So Frank and his platoon, No. 8 Platoon, become the subject of our research and reading not because of the site but because of the documentation. So in fact I’d argue that we work from the paper to the place and not the other way around. That’s all I wanted to say. My point is fairly straight forward. Of course I want you to read the book, but I very much look forward to your questions and comments later. Thank you very much. [applause]
Sacred sites, memorials and sites of memory in Aboriginal Australia by Associate Professor Claire Smith
ANNE FARIS: I’d like to welcome Associate Professor Claire Smith as our second speaker. She’s from Flinders University in South Australia where she commenced teaching archaeology in 1998. Her primary research interests are in Australian archaeology, especially rock art. While she has conducted field research with Aboriginal communities in Australia, Asia and North America, she mostly works with Aboriginal people from the Barunga and Wugullar communities in the Northern Territory and has completed fieldwork there annually since 1990, and she also works with the Ngadjuri people from South Australia. She has a particular interest in bringing about sustainable, long-term changes in community attitudes to Aboriginal people through the school curriculum and through enhancing community appreciation of the unique accomplishments of Indigenous Australians.
In addition to teaching, writing and editing books, Claire is the President of the World Archaeological Congress. She has been part of a project to support archaeological education and training in economically disadvantaged countries. Her talk today will discuss social issues around a range of memorials and sacred sites in the Barunga–Wugullar region of the Northern Territory. Thank you, Claire.
CLAIRE SMITH: For those of you who are attentive, you might notice that the title of my talk has changed slightly. I started off calling it ‘Sacred sites and memorials’ but when I was preparing it yesterday I wanted to move more into the present because I think there are some interesting things happening at the moment. So I’ve added in sites of memory, a little bit extra.
I work in Barunga and Wugullar in the Northern Territory. I work there with my husband Gary Jackson who’s an anthropologist. We originally went to Katherine in 1976. I worked as a barmaid, he worked at the meat works and we had all sorts of interesting normal lives long before I became an academic. Then in 1990, when I was looking for somewhere to do my doctorial research, I went through my local contacts there and went back and did my research there. We’ve been there every year since then. People come and stay with us; we stay with them. We also work in South Australia with the Ngadjuri. I would just like to say that I know the Barunga–Wugullar region very well because I work there all the time. Some of the things that I say can be extrapolated a bit, but some of them are really specific as well. I just don’t want to pretend to be an expert on all of Aboriginal Australia. I really should’ve called the presentation ‘Sites of memory in Barunga Australia or Barunga region’.
This is the general region where we are [image shown]. I have this to show you some of the linguistic diversity that’s there [image shown]. You can see the scale on the map. Barunga is down in Jawoyn country, but it also has a lot of Ngalkpon-speaking people, Rembarrnga, Mielli and others. The kind of linguistic diversity is the kind of linguistic diversity that you get in Europe and the kind of social sophistication is the kind of social sophistication that you get in Europe as well.
I work on Bagula clan lands of Jawoyn people. This is just a little example of the country [images shown]. These are the people that I work with. This is our camp. We’ve worked there for 20 years and this is our camp. It’s our little camp. The caravan is usually used as an office, and we sleep in tents around it and students come up and so on, but that’s our site of memory there.
In terms of the social system, I wanted you to be aware of the moiety system, which is Dhuwa and Yirritja. These are the 16 subsections [diagram shown]. When you become part of the community you’re given skin. My skin is Bangirn, which is in the Yirrijta side. My husband – I have to marry a man of the opposite moiety, Gammarung, and so on. So at the first level of complexity there are 196 relationships held in the oral history, in the minds of people, and once you go to the second level of complexity, it’s over a thousand. And all this information about who you can sit next to, how far, who you can talk to, who you can’t talk to, who you can marry – that’s all held in people’s heads. This just gives you a little bit of an idea of who you can marry and who you can’t [image shown]
I am going to talk a little bit about sacred sites first. I will try to take Peter’s direction and talk less and leave more time for discussion. So if someone can warn me when I’ve got seven minutes to go, and then I’ll talk faster. The points at the beginning here are probably things that most of you know. It’s an informed audience so you understand that the Dreaming still exists today; you understand that the land is impregnated with meaning, that it’s a living landscape, that it’s a powerful landscape, that it can be a dangerous landscape, that if you go to the wrong place, you can get sick. That’s how people really seriously feel it. And I certainly believe it now, having been there. It’s a subtle and sophisticated social system [image shown].
This is Edith Falls [image shown], which is not a sacred site in the sense that you can’t go there. Obviously I can’t show you sacred sites that you can’t go to, because I can’t go there. But it’s a frill-necked lizard Dreaming spot and there areas around here that are restricted sites that sometimes only men, sometimes only women, sometimes one Dhuwa and one Yirritja person has to go that place. It’s so powerful that if a person of only one moiety goes, then they can get into trouble and have a problem.
This is a cockatoo Dreaming place [image system] very close to Barunga, with a little Sacred Sites Authority marker there. This is just there. It’s the goona of the white cockatoo, the faeces of the white cockatoo is the story. And there’s a trail and so on, but this is all an ochre spot.
This is a women’s site. I knew for about ten years only one little secret thing that ever got told to me and I thought, ‘I’ll just keep that to my little heart. I’ll never tell anyone this.’ And then I was in a minivan with a whole lot of young boys in the back and I heard someone say this secret thing. And then I found out all the kids know this. This isn’t so secret. I thought it was secret. It wasn’t told to me, ‘This is secret,’ but I thought it was secret. This is a bipi, a breast of a lady, and it’s an old lady [image shown]. There’s a young woman’s breast nearby. And this is physical evidence for people that these women went in this place. This secret thing that I kept to my little heart for ten years is that part of the proof that it’s bipi, a breast, is there’s a little spring at the top of it, and that means like when a woman gives milk.
This is a site which is not an initiation site for young men, but it is part of the initiation process [image shown]. This is Old Jimmy, who I work with very closely. It’s a mukmuk site. This is a Rainbow Serpent and it’s giving birth to these mukmuks, which are owls. As part of young men becoming adults, in the old days they would collect kangaroos and they would have a ceremony here at a particular time. And that meant young men were then able to go out to hunt kangaroos for their wives – they were more suitable.
This is a hand stencil at this place of a young man [image shown]. Again, we went to this site for maybe 12 years, and I knew this as a young mans’ kind of initiation site. When they had that ceremony the area was closed off for the ceremony, but then it is open the rest of the time so people can go there. And it’s quite open: white people can go there for swimming and so on.
After a long, long time Glen told me the story. She was often there. She said, ‘But you know how it really works, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, young men go there, the men do their men’s thing and the women sit at home and knit.’ She said, ‘Yes, but that mother has to provide those bones.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well those kangaroo bones down here, that mother has to provide those bones.’ So the young man goes hunting, he collects the kangaroo, he gives the bones to his mum, she looks after them and when there’s enough bones you can have that ceremony. So the mother actually has a lot of power there because she can find those bones, she can look after them carefully, she can lose those bones. She can say, ‘You know, you have that ceremony coming up. I don’t know where I put all those kangaroo bones you gave me. I don’t know where they are.’ There’s a lot of hidden power for women there that wasn’t there in the original story.
The point there is that that information only came out after working there for more than a decade, and working there continuously. I lived there for one year once and another time six months. People lived with us for eight months at a time sometimes. So there are many, many levels of stories that will come out after a lot longer. I just wanted to make the point that that site was open and closed; it’s not just that sacred/secular dichotomy that I am sure everyone here would be aware of.
In terms of sites of memorials, this sign was up for – I don’t know how long, but a long, long time. When we were first there we saw the sign saying: ‘No entry, Aboriginal ceremony in progress.’ So we thought ‘Oh, no entry.’ And after about a year and a half we thought, ‘Gee, it’s gone on a long time, that ceremony.’ Of course it was a memorial site, it was a memorial to that group [who conducted the ceremony].
I am going to talk a bit about memorials which I’m going to interpret in terms of dead people in this case. This is a funeral of someone we know [image shown]. This is actually a little bit contested because where he was buried was a highly contested thing. One part of the family wanted him buried up in the hills old way, and another part of the family wanted him buried the Christian way. The part that we’re closest to of that family is the Christian side – we heard both sides, but the Christian side was very upset because he got buried up in the hills at a place that women can’t go to.
These are lorkorns, which are burial poles where we are [image shown]. There’s one for each individual and their personal possessions go into that. And actually sometimes two people. One of these has two people, one at one end and one at the other. I think you’ve got some in the galleries here at the Museum that are done tourist-ways with lots of designs. Aboriginal people where I work do them two ways: plain way for themselves, for the community; but if you’re making something for tourists they have to be short – and not long like this although I know that they do them long in other places – and plain. This has to do with the moiety of the person, their skin and so on.
There is another kind of memorial to individuals, which in this case is to Willy Martin [image shown]. Some people here possibly know Willy because he’s a very strong and powerful man. We have some of these kinds of stones around the community. Again, this is a memorial to someone who passed away [image shown]. You put your hands with ochre and you go around that. There’s a little kind of ceremony that goes with that, and sometimes it goes around the car that held the dead people and those kinds of things. People who work in communities will be aware of all that.
I just want to talk briefly about hands as memorials to individuals, and that’s also crossing cultures a little bit I’m going to talk about. This was from a video that we made in 1992 where these old men were painting rock art [image shown]. This is Paddy Fordham Wainburranga. There’s Paddy Fordham stuff here in the Museum. I know because you guys bought some when I was up there. This is Jack Chatham. They were making these rock paintings, and I said, ‘Can we video them?’ Paddy wasn’t actually even going to be involved and then he saw the other men going off, and he jumped on board and came that day. These are kids visiting a little bit later that hand stencil [image shown]. Then this is Peter doing some other paintings at that time [image shown]. I can maybe tell the story of how Peter – he hasn’t really passed away; he walked away a couple of years ago.
That’s Paddy, and that’s his painting [image shown]. It’s beautiful art, but nothing there today – it all washed away because it was in an exposed place. And they knew that when they did it, although this is what Paddy says about hand stencils:
They [the hand stencils] can be there for a thousand years. No bush clothes or anything will remain. In a good cave it will be there for ever and ever. Your son can look, or your grandson. It reminds him of his grandfather, or his old uncle. He belonged to this country. I live here and nobody can shift me out.
So it’s a sign of right to be there, right to stay. We’re talking about people who’ve come from other countries and are now living on Jawoyn country. So they are in a sense always a visitor; they’re certainly not the owners. They might be custodians though.
This is the thing to make children remember. Not only Aboriginal children but all children where ever they live. To make children remember, so children can say, we’ve got history. Paddy Fordham Wainburranga, 1992.
I thought that was lovely. That’s Peter with school kids [image shown]. We were actually excavating at this site and we did some school tours. All the kids came out and he talked about country. It was really good, because he was saying things like, ‘Oh, these mununga, these white people here, they’re really weak, you know? You leave them alone in the country, they’ll die. They’ve got no ability to survive. But we can survive, we can survive here.’ So it’s very empowering to be teaching in country. That’s Peter going back another time, putting in a handprint this time on a separate visit [image shown]. And I’m thinking that this has continued in different ways. These are kids at school. We do some talks at schools and do some games, skin games and things [image shown]. Again, this is just in a house that was getting fixed up, but people had just put their hands there [image shown]. So this is a continuation of that tradition but in a slightly different place. This is a baby’s hand out at a site called Jerraewun.
Sites of memory – I’m just going to go through these briefly, because I do want to leave time for our talk. These are the Maranboy mines started in the 1930s, very productive [image shown]. Lots of people have worked there. It was their first contact with white people for a lot of people. Peter teaching in country [image]. This is the water pump from the Maranboy mines moved to the community [image] so it is in a sense a memorial to that time in the community. Names of streets [image of road signpost with Rambarrnga Street and Ngagodgol Road on it] as memorials to people.
But then there’s also things like this [image shown] of people just having a good time. What’s the physical evidence of that? Not a lot. Even just doing up houses [image shown]. People go past those houses; they’ve done up those houses. Those are important, and they’re very good for how you feel about yourself. My point here is the graffiti really [image of people standing in front of a wall covered with writing]. This is Wendy who I work with really closely. People write their names on things. It’s a way of putting their identity in. It’s mostly done by kids but it’s something. We actually took up the habit and we all wrote on our chairs, but I forgot to put that in there.
[Image shown] This is just way off in the bush, somebody’s bike that they loved. Someone set it up and it’s very careful. It’s also a memory of a good time. So rubbish can be a trigger for memory.
Sites of memory in the wider world, people know that we’re here. They know that I’m here talking today. And as you’re looking at them, they’re kind of looking out at you, too. So I go back and we talk about things [image shown of two ladies in the community looking at images on a computer].
This is my own home, which is like a little memorial – a site of memory anyway – because of all the paintings by old people [image shown]. This is an exhibition that we’re talking to the Smithsonian about getting up from the community [image shown], which is an exhibition that has already happened in Valencia in Spain. So the memories, or the stories, go out.
Living heritage – this is just to give you a sense of kids’ lives. These are images taken at the Barunga school – all those things that make you proud. This is a painting of the Barunga Sports and Cultural Festival logo on a wall – such a big event for us every year – and that there as a permanent part of community identity.
Briefly – I’m nearly finished – I’m going to talk about the Northern Territory Emergency Response that happened two years ago. You’ll know that James Anaya has been here for 12 days and he’s declared that it was racist, which I think we all knew, but of course it’s a problem where everyone’s worried about what to do in communities, black and white, everybody. People are trying, but maybe there are some problems. But the thing that made me sad was, maybe two months after the intervention came and people had seen things happening in Alice Springs and other places. The response of the community – and this wasn’t done by the managers, this idea was community people’s ideas – was let’s put up a flag. And the Barunga community put up two flags [image shown]: they put up an Aboriginal flag saying, ‘We’re proud to be Aboriginal’; and they put up that Australian flag saying, ‘Please don’t forget that we’re Australian.’ So when we went to the community, I nearly cried when I saw that.
Rubbish story – this is how the interventions are coming out on the ground stylistically. You can see the old rubbish bin, great for Aboriginal colours but not really very practical. Dogs get into it and pull rubbish out and everything. This is practical, but it’s kind of telling a different story [image showing old and new types of rubbish bins]. I’m not really criticising it, because there’s lots of parts of it working now – I have been very critical of the intervention, particularly in the early days – so I’m not as critical as I was, because I can see some of that is working. It still needs fixing in bits, but a lot of it is working on the ground – much more than I ever expected.
And just things because I thought you might want to see how kids live. These are things there’s really not much physical evidence of. You go fishing and you got a fish. But these are really important sites of memory. There may not be much physical evidence, but that is going fishing, catching a bird, riding, doing animal tracks in the sand at Beswick Falls. Those kids have lit all those fires because that’s part of that firestick farming that people do, and kids just do it. They’re controlled fires. There is a soap tree just close by at Whitestones, and you just get those leaves and you rub them up and you can shampoo your hair and wash yourself. So all the kids are just doing that naturally – all this cultural stuff that’s part of day-to-day life.
Footie – going into town into Katherine, and the Arnhem Crows won. But also coming to other places – so this is when people came and visited us in South Australia, and we all went into town. We all went into Marian and had photos taken with Santa. So it’s all part of people’s lives. This is our camp, and you can see all the people – it’s kind of chaotic in a way, but I love it. And finally, I think somebody earlier finished on the photograph of the kids – I think it was maybe Anwar – really it’s all about the kids in the end, isn’t it? Thank you. [applause]
ANNE FARIS: Thank you both for those interesting and thoughtful presentations. Now I’d like open the floor up for questions and I expect there’ll be quite a few.
QUESTION: Leanne Dempsey from the National Museum, and I have a question for Peter about the beautiful house that you showed, Eumana. I was wondering about the family who currently live in the house. Have you had contact with them? Are they aware of the story that took place? I’m interested in basically knowing how that’s worked into their lives and their memories.
PETER STANLEY: I am now. Here’s an ethical problem: do you knock on the door? I drove around Melbourne for a day in February last year taking photographs of all the houses that all the men in the story had lived in, because even the Repat records will tell you where they were living in the 1930s and so on. So I photographed all the houses and I didn’t knock on a single door and say, ‘Hello, I’m from the National Museum writing a book about the people who used to live in your house,’ because I thought that was too complicated. So I took a photograph of Eumana.
It was only when the book was in press that I thought to myself, ‘I’m using a photograph of someone’s house so I’d better contact them,’ so I did. Hastings Street has been renumbered, so the letter went to a different house, but they said, ‘This isn’t our house, it’s the house two doors down.’ Anyway, they are aware now. I haven’t met them, but they are coming to the launch which will be held in Melbourne next week. And indeed the neighbors are now interested too – they’re more interested than the people living in it, it seems. The house is almost the same now as it was then, so the story which was unknown is now going to be known to them. The thing is: it’s not their family. They’re not related to these people. So I think there’s a much weaker historical connection. I’ll give them a copy of the book; it’ll be on the coffee table for a while. At dinner when people visit they’ll say, ‘Oh, this house has got a bit of a story,’ and they’ll tell the story and it’ll become a part of its heritage.
It isn’t anything like Jilba Geogarlis, the granddaughter of Frank and Ruby. She’s the one who’s got the mourning brooch and she’s the one who’s got the last of the scrapbooks, and her children will come along to the launch. So it’s a much stronger connection for them. There are different degrees of warmth, if you like, or the radiation has a much weaker crackle for some people than for others.
QUESTION: Peter, this is a question for you again. I was interested in the difference between the German graveyard and the one where Frank was buried and your experience of them, how those sites of memory are used by contemporary people, and how that might feed into constructions of identity. You didn’t elaborate on your idea about the popular history that’s known about the battle of the Mont but that you’re somehow kind of contesting that history in your book. So the ideas of that history and how that feeds into identity and our experience of memories of site and all of that sort of complexity, and then how the Germans aren’t doing that and why. I’m sure you’ve thought about all that.
PETER STANLEY: There are two questions, aren’t there, which is cheating a bit but let’s deal with them one by one. We take it for granted that war cemeteries are beautiful places where people are commemorated individually and that when you go there you’ll see flowers, inscriptions, wreaths and comments in the visitors’ book, and all of us who have been to the Western Front or any war cemetery kind of regard that as normal. We regard it as completely normal that the state, both the Australian government and the British Commonwealth, supports, maintains and opens those cemeteries. And with the British cemeteries and Australian cemeteries, the land was given freely by the French nation in perpetuity.
If you’re German, the experience is completely different in that you had to buy the land off the French, who gave it grudgingly. There isn’t a German government organisation that maintains the ceremonies. There isn’t all the infrastructure, and of course in Germany there isn’t the great sentimental attachment to the dead of the Kaiser’s Germany, still less Hitler’s Germany, that induces lots and lots of people to go overseas and look at these ceremonies.
So the two experiences are diametrically opposite. Ironically they both represent memories of the victims of war in that the Germans who died at Mont St Quentin weren’t really fighting for the Kaiser and can’t be condemned for doing that. They’re just victims as much as Frank Roberts and his friends are. So the national histories dictate the contemporary experience of the cemetery for symmetry.
But for Australians that’s even more different because Australians, as we would all know, have enormous emotional investment in the Great War. It’s connected to our national mystique. Even though the Western Front is less significant than Gallipoli say, it’s still becoming more important, and it’s still very important to us because it’s where the majority of Australians died.
So when Australians go to the Western Front, again, they bring with them this cultural baggage of understanding its importance before they get there. They may be shocked, saddened and surprised by their reactions to the magnitude of it, but they all know it’s important when they get there. One of the things that many of them bring with them – some people here perhaps – is that Mont St Quentin is a great triumph for Australian arms. And I have to say that my book began as a study of the battle and I got disillusioned with battle history, which is one of the reasons why I am here. I got disillusioned with looking at it as a military event and I wanted to understand it as a human event, and the root into the human event is the experience of this well-documented group.
When you start to look into it, in order to understand the content of their experience you need to understand the ‘big battle’. And what I decided was that actually it was a chaotic battle that happened. I won’t go into the detail because we don’t want to know the tactics of it, but basically it was a chaotic success rather than a well-planned triumph. It wasn’t planned that way. And Monash didn’t win it. Monash wasn’t even there during most of the battle. So it happened in ways that Australians might be surprised to find out, because our national memory, our communal memory, is that Mont St Quentin is one of the great triumphs of the AIF.
When you start to unpick this memory, as we have here, we see that it’s different for different countries. Our experience is different from the Germans. And it’s different for us because the more we know the more we understand that it doesn’t fit into this triumphal mould, which Australians naturally fall into, and which people like Les Carlyon, Roland Perry and a bunch of other popular writers would tell us that it fits into. It’s really as a result of that dissection that we can get that nuance. Does that make sense?
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you.
QUESTION: Could I follow that up with a question to Peter? Gallipoli was a monumental disaster. Why is it that we’re so attached to it?
PETER STANLEY: Barbara, I think there’s a reasonably simple answer to that, although maybe there isn’t. Four times more Australians died on the Western Front over four times the period than on Gallipoli. But Gallipoli was harnessed and remains harnessed to this idea of Australian nationhood. It has been harnessed from before Gallipoli. When they landed on Gallipoli there was an expectation that those soldiers would in some ways stamp their mark on history. So it was a bit like Judy’s memories that can be altered. It was a very malleable memory.
So for nine decades since Gallipoli has had that inescapable connection with the great project of Australia in the twentieth century: the establishment, the identification with, and the celebration of an Australian nation. So of course Gallipoli has attained that priority, and it’s for all sorts of reasons. I don’t want to detain you by talking about the epic trajectory of Gallipoli, but it’s a neat story of hope, struggle and noble failure – which is a lot more palatable or comprehensible than the Western Front, which is one damn battle after another which nobody can tell the difference between and which results in a victory which looks a lot like a defeat because there’s so many people dying. So Gallipoli has all of those sorts of epic qualities that the Western Front messes up by so many people dying in such a short time in such a small space. I think the question really ought to be: how come Australians haven’t investigated and understood the Western Front more than they have Gallipoli? But I think that obsession with nationality and nationalism that we’ve got is partly the answer.
QUESTION: My question is for Claire. I just wondered if you could explain what you meant by ‘that he hadn’t passed away, that he’d walked away’ when you were talking about the artist.
CLAIRE SMITH: Yes. In April of the year before last, I think, Old Cochuck just picked up his pillow. Someone had cooked him dinner, but he didn’t take that dinner. It was nearly ready. He picked up his pillow. He didn’t say goodbye to anybody. He just took a little walk. But he was never found. We were down south and the police called us because people said to let us know, and my husband Jacko went up. You looked for about two weeks with the police, didn’t you? They had quad bikes and all sorts of things, and Jacko was looking for a week after the police had given up. And they didn’t never find him.
And it’s the same for – some of you will know David Blanasi. He was a painting man. He did the same thing. So those old men kind of have this thing of – they decide they are finished and they go and hide somewhere until they die. I think they sing themselves to death or do something that they do. I don’t know what they actually do, because obviously that’s their secret business. But he just walked away.
And I will tell you what: we’re still cranky. He didn’t have too much eyesight but he wasn’t sick. There was nothing wrong with him. Our first reaction was that he wouldn’t do that. And then afterwards we all put it together. The last time he was in Adelaide he brought his son and he said, ‘I’m not coming back. Next time you’ve got to take Cedric.’ So you put those things together in retrospect but at the time you think, ‘Oh, he is just being grumpy.’ We walk around sometimes and call out, ‘Come on, Cochuck. I got rid of all them kids. My camp has got no kids now. You can come visit now,’ but nothing – a kookaburra one night, that’s all.
QUESTION: Thank you, Claire, for that insight. Al Bridges from the Australian War Memorial. My question is really from my own ignorance. I have believed that the Aboriginal stories have been handed down over a long time – interpretation of their paintings as well. I guess I am being a bit of a devil’s advocate here. I am a little bit concerned that now that we are actually recording those, will we be stopping the further development of those stories? Why should we record them now and stop that further development?
CLAIRE SMITH: Yes, that’s a really good question. And it’s hard because I can see the reason for not – things are interpreted. One man had an accident and he killed the young girl in a car up in Wimurrl. There could have been a lot of trouble between the families over this. This could have been something that really caused murder. And Old Peter said, ‘No, no, it’s OK. The devil took his hand and made that wheel go like that. It wasn’t his fault.’ So the authority on high said, ‘That’s not that young man’s fault,’ and that meant that people could mourn the girl without having to do something to the young man. That interpretation that old people do – we do it in our culture too. We look for our elders to tell us how to interpret or if we are doing the right thing, and so on. I think of John Mulvaney here as our elder. And different people have different views. So you capture it and that becomes canonical, and that’s a real problem – I agree. I just don’t know the answer to that.
QUESTION: Thank you, Claire and Peter. Either of you may like to take this: in the case of the Western Front there are grand, solid memorials, monuments; in the case of Aboriginal culture there is just as strong memory but nothing to particularly designate it. How do you suggest that we engender respect for those sites when there’s nothing physical to actually see?
CLAIRE SMITH: Can I have a go?
PETER STANLEY: Yes, absolutely.
CLAIRE SMITH: My thought is that we should be teaching the achievements of the Aboriginal people in the national history curriculum, and the World Archaeological Congress and the Archeological Association did a 200-page submission to Julie Bishop on this – I don’t think she read it – and then we resubmitted it to Julie Gillard. But I think teaching people, even that little diagram of skin – teaching our kids about how the first maritime colonisation in the world was the colonisation of Australia. This is a big achievement. What do you think comes with the ability to build boats and colonise a continent? Certainly complex thinking, certainly symbolic thinking, possibly language.
We’ve got some of the earliest examples of cremation, some of the earliest examples of rock art. We’ve got some real human evolution firsts here in Australia but we don’t teach them to our kids. They should be taught. If you were in America you’d be flogging it off to everyone. You’d be flogging it off to tourists, to your kids, and you’d be proud of it. But somehow we’re ashamed of our Aboriginal heritage or in some way we’re not willing to – I really don’t know why we don’t do that. Anyway, that’s something we’re trying to do something about, and let me know in 20 years if we’re successful.
PETER STANLEY: Can I just seek clarification from Fay that you were asking about how you engender respect for sites and you were talking not just about Aboriginal sites but about Western Front sites?
PETER STANLEY: So sites like Frank’s, that aren’t marked. Well, history doesn’t exist independently of our making meaning. The big sites exist because war history has been sponsored by the ‘state’, and the Australian government continues to direct our gaze towards particular things to remember. But I think that diversity is really important and that people ought to make their own minds up about what’s important to them. That’s why it’s important to continue to research and discover things and find new meanings – decide that some new things are important.
But I don’t think we should develop a monument complex about this and go around building more memorials. There has been enough memorials built, which is why I was interested to find out whether the man who walked off – he can’t have a grave but does he have a memorial of some sort or does he only exist in the stories told about him? Because I think there’s a connection between the two, that we ought to tell stories about them and that’s where the true memorial is. But what’s his?
CLAIRE SMITH: He was very traditional and not Christian at all, but his wife’s family are Christians, so there was some Christian story for a while about maybe having a ceremony but then it just sort of died down – so really nothing, nothing at the moment.
PETER STANLEY: But he essentially will live in memory for as long as the memory survives.
CLAIRE SMITH: Yes, and I think that they will memorialise him in some way but they haven’t got to thinking about that. And certainly the graves, we’ve got a big difference in graves in the last ten or 15 years – we didn’t have gravestones and now we do and you can see the important families competing. Old Phyllis who passed away two years ago, her granddaughter just said she’s going to have a big marble grave, and her photo is on it now. Phyllis wanted every photo of her burnt when she died, and we had to put a heap in the grave with her, but now her photo’s going to be on that. But we all do what we do for dead people: when you’re dead you get the ceremony your family wants for you, not your own, I can tell you.
QUESTION (by Margo Neale): Would his story actually end up then in ceremony, and on the bark paintings and all of the other forms, not just oral? I know Paddy Fordham Wainburranga from way back, and that community of all communities knows about how to talk about Captain Cook and World War II and how that began and the missions by incorporating things that are considered not ceremonial, which is debatable, into traditional formats and styles, but content varies according to life’s evolution.
CLAIRE SMITH: That’s a good question, Margo – two things. One brief one is that he was talking once about those two sisters who were walking through that country and he said, ‘And they saw those white men up at the station and they had guns, and so the sisters decided to go another way.’ So they do incorporate contemporary events. His son Cedric Manabru lives out at Gorge Camp and he’s a fantastic artist – just beautiful art. But Cedric hasn’t done that kind of story yet. It would be interesting to see if it comes out. It might.
QUESTION (by Margo Neale): Which wasn’t actually my question –
CLAIRE SMITH: I’m sorry – oh no, you were saying about in ceremony. I don’t know because I’m never part of ceremony.
QUESTION (by Margo Neale): But there’s public ceremonies as well as –
CLAIRE SMITH: Yes. The men go off and do stuff up on the hill, and the women – we sort of play cards and stuff. And then after they’ve done all their important business we make them some tucker and there is stuff down, but not in the kind of stuff that I’ve seen.
QUESTION (by Margo Neale): What I was going to propose – there was a question about by recording stories are you actually stopping a tradition of the evolution of stories by writing it down, for example, or by putting it in technology that’s not traditional. There are two parts to this thing. My experience in traditional so-called Aboriginal communities is there is an incessant plea to do this, because the younger generation in many of these communities – the next generation at least – are not interested in doing stuff. They want to do hip hop and watch TV and videos. So there’s a real concern that they must be written or recorded for posterity in the event to be reclaimable.
The other point – and you would know because it’s really pervasive; it’s everywhere – but where I come from, which is southern Aboriginal, which is 70 per cent or more of the population, we have to do those sorts of storytelling in means that are not considered traditional. That’s a significant proportion of the Aboriginal population in this country. That might just throw a little extra light on that question.
CLAIRE SMITH: I can certainly confirm that people want stories recorded more than anything else. And I suppose maybe what happens with those stories when people want them back – they may not want them back for a while. I mean, you give them back to the community, but they may not use them. It might just stay in an archive in the library or something.
QUESTION (by Margo Neale): I’m sorry to take time, but I just recalled your idea of the flag saying, ‘We want to be Australian’. That’s another big thing. These stories are Aboriginal history. Other Australians, non-Indigenous Australians, have history written, recorded, and put in places like this – and they too want to be Australians in that way and have their history recorded in a way and put in places like this. That’s another very strong impetus.
ANNE FARIS: Thank you, I think we’ll wrap that up right now as it is 1 o’clock. Thank you very much to Peter and to Claire for their insights. [applause]
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Date published: 19 January 2010