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Some different histories

03 Apr 2019

Some different histories Image

By Meg Hill

“Aboriginal people are forever reminded of European history, but to find Aboriginal history either in the city or the country you have to really go looking for it.”

Daniel James pointed that out while we were sitting in Docklands, where white men created the harbour, wiping out the wetlands and fresh water lake here long before it.

He wrote his prize-winning essay Ten More Days in his Docklands apartment, overlooking that harbour.

At the end of last year, the essay, largely about inter-generational trauma, won the Horne Prize. The competition asks writers to focus on Australian life.

Sometimes going digging for Aboriginal history isn’t enough, often it’s simply taken from them – not findable until it’s handed back.

Daniel, a Yorta Yorta man, grew up in Euroa in north-eastern Victoria. He said his family always believed it was part of Yorta Yorta country. But the recent Taungurung Recognition and Settlement Agreement showed otherwise.

Euroa is bordering Taungurung and Yorta Yorta – the town’s creek separates them.

“The ironic thing is that the information you rely on is from the destroyers, the first settlers, colonialists, squatters, pastoralists,” Daniel said. “To clarify this stuff, you rely heavily on their notes, diaries and letters and what that has shown more and more is that there seems to have been a decision by historians to hide a lot of this stuff.”

Another example is Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which focuses on those primary sources to dispel the long-believed myths about Aboriginal culture and organisation which have been treated as fact.

Another part of learning history is learning, or facing, your family’s. It took Daniel three months on-and-off to write his prize-winning essay, which focuses partly on his father Billy.

“It was actually a very taxing thing to write and by the time I finished I was very drained,” he said. “I never really thought you could be drained from writing something. I was leaving it and coming back to it, but every time I hit the keyboard it was like a stream of consciousness.”

“I let it simmer for a long time, but then I sat down and wrote the first paragraph I thought okay I know where this is going now.”

A theme of the essay is Aboriginal identity as inherently political, whether you like it or not. This goes back a long time.

Daniel shares a blood line with Aboriginal activist and leader William Cooper, who protested incessantly for Aboriginal rights, but is most famous for taking a stand against Nazis when most in the West looked the other way.

Cooper led a delegation to the German consulate after the Night of Broken Glass in 1938.

When interviewing Daniel 81 years later the news was dominated by a massacre of Muslims perpetrated by a self-defined fascist.

There were multiple vigils and protests held in Melbourne in response. There is a more political culture here than other cities.

“As a community of people that are interested in issues I think Melbourne is the most politically mobilised,” Daniel said.

“The whole Aboriginal rights movement really started in Melbourne. But at the same time, for example, the State Library has a statue of Redmond Barry out the front.”

“He’s famous for hanging Ned Kelly, but he also hung a lot of Aboriginal people.”

Coming to terms with the different layers of our history is something Australia has struggled to do. Daniel described the recurring debates over January 26 as the never-ending hot summer.

A one-layer-at-a-time approach will only continue to write the wrong histories. Ten More Days helps to move us toward the right way.

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