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Reshaping History

Is our understanding of Australian history changing? This theme explores the evolving national conversation about Indigenous and post-colonial histories.

Events such as the 1967 referendum, the 1972 Racial Discrimination Act and the 1992 Mabo High Court decision marked official changes in government policy and engagement with Indigenous Australians. At the community level, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have become increasingly vocal within cultural, political, business, educational and sporting domains. As a result of these changes, Australians have an increased appreciation of Indigenous cultures and histories, and a deeper understanding of the impacts and disempowerment that flowed from colonisation.

At a recent conference at the National Library, Ngambri–Ngunnawal custodian Paul House delivered the following Welcome to Country.

All public events at the Library, and at a growing number of institutions across Australia, begin with either a Welcome to Country or an Acknowledgement of Country. Through such practices, the wider Australian community has the opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Indigenous cultures and languages.

Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong/Tasmanian Yuin man, believes that there is evidence of change in the community’s attitudes to Indigenous Australians and their cultures.

Pascoe’s comments reflect the attitudes and opinions of Australians from a wide range of backgrounds, perhaps suggesting a transformation in the national conversation about Australia’s history.

One historian who advocates the importance of engagement around these issues is Professor John Maynard, a Worimi man, who commented at a recent Library event:

We will always be a heavily marginalised minority unless we mobilise non-Indigenous support... We will have to reach out and get that support.

Professor Kim Scott, a multi-award winning Noongar author from Western Australia, believes that language could play an important role in this process. He spoke in 2019, also at the Library:

I’d like to think we can, in this beginning of a new era, utilise our Aboriginal languages to anchor a shimmering nation state, a shimmering settler colony, to this ancient continent through its home communities so that we can be in a position to be saying, in many languages all over the continent, that things are getting better

The 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage to Australia is a pertinent time to reassess the way we tell Australia’s story.

Activities

  • What message did you take from the video of Paul House? In what contexts have you seen a Welcome to Country and what was your reaction? What does the increased use of such a welcome signify about recognition of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history?
  • Bruce Pascoe suggests that ‘Australia has changed its mind’ about Indigenous and Australian histories. Do you agree with this statement? What evidence have you seen of such a change? What obstacles may there be to challenging the established way that Australian history has been told? What may contribute to reshaping history?
  • In what ways is the story of Cook an Indigenous story? In what ways is it an Australian story? In what ways is it a European story? Who should take responsibility for the way the story of Cook and Australia is told?
  • In 2020 it will be 250 years since Cook’s 1770 voyage to Australia. What do you think is an appropriate way to mark this anniversary?