All cultures have a deep need to try and understand and interpret the past. While western cultures have tended to document past events in written form, Indigenous cultures share an oral or storytelling tradition in the way they interpret their history. Naturally, there is much debate about which form of interpretation is more accurate, reliable and valid.
In Australia, when we consider the historical experiences of Indigenous people since colonisation, this has led to wildly divergent views on both sides. Some of these views have been loosely termed the ‘white blindfold’, where there is a general denial of frontier violence against Aboriginal people because of a lack of documentation about such things as genocide, massacres, and the intent of government policy which denied Aboriginal people basic human rights and led to what we term the stolen generations.
The counter view may be termed the ‘black armband’ view of history which is characterised by the acknowledgement of colonial dispossession and cultural genocide. This view is characterised by admission of racism and imperialism and mourning, grieving and shame for the plight of Aboriginal people as their lands and lifeways were challenged and destroyed in the making of post-colonial Australia.
Both of these views of Australia’s recent history post 1788 deeply question the foundations of our nation’s identity and how we see our past. Today we have much to celebrate about our nation but we must also accept there are many wrongs to be acknowledged when it comes to our treatment of Indigenous people. It is what McKenna (1997) calls the fragmentation of our grand narrative.
The way history is recorded is often deeply flawed, whether written or oral is not just the documenting of events but in how these events are interpreted. Historiography – the methods historians use to report on a particular subject, the sources they use, the theoretical perspectives and their knowledge gathering techniques can contain deep biases. This means that in recording history, the past, even the recent past, remains a mystery. Whether we believe we view the past through a white blindfold or with a black armband is probably not relevant. It is how history shapes the present and our future that matters most.
Maybe it is time to view history differently.
The Iroquois seven generations principle applies perfectly to Australia’s current relationship to our Aboriginal people. Everything we do should be done to honour the three generations past, respect the present generation and in creating a better place for the three generations to come.
McKenna. M (1997), Different perspectives on black armband history, Research paper 5, Politics and Public Administration Group, Parliament of Australia