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In 2018 historian Mark McKenna argued that:

After nearly fifty years of deeply divisive debates over the country’s foundation and its legacy for Indigenous Australians, Australia stands at a crossroads – a moment of truth. We either make the Commonwealth stronger and more complete through an honest reckoning with the past…or we unmake the nation by clinging to triumphant narratives in which the violence inherent in the nation’s foundation is trivialised (2018, p. 54 original emphasis).

Since this was written, much has changed. The status and meaning of ‘truth’ globally seems even more fractious. The current juncture in many ways appears to be another ‘moment of truth’ where the consequences of exploitative globalisation, resource extraction and environmental destruction have cohered to produce a pandemic. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deepening inequality of global neo-liberalism and the racist patriarchy that accompanies it. At the same time it may be opening up new possibilities and even new ‘imaginaries’ for what is loosely termed ‘decolonisation’. While the existing situation may seem to foreclose discussion of anything other than the pandemic itself, it is clearly critical we do so.  Like climate change, it is symptomatic of global systems of dysfunction. But this did not arise out of nowhere. It has been a long trajectory to get here. And colonial history in Australia, as elsewhere, is part of that story. 

Prior to the pandemic ADI had planned to hold an ‘embodied’ symposium on the call for ‘truth-telling’ in the Uluru Statement. We now intend to hold the event in October divided into four sessions over two consecutive weeks to avoid Zoom fatigue (exact dates in October to be confirmed).[1] The remarkable ‘new’ virtual space opened by the pandemic has created some novel opportunities. For us it has meant we have been able to include an international keynote in the first session in Week 1 entitled ‘Decolonising Truth’. This will be given by Jeff Corntassel  ‘a writer, teacher and father from the Cherokee Nation’ who is currently Associate Professor in the Indigenous Studies Department at the University of Victoria, Canada and Acting Director of the Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE). The second session will be a panel discussion between Victoria Grieve Williams (RMIT), Yin Paradies (Deakin) and Lorenzo Veracini (Swinburne). The historian Lyndall Ryan, who is well known in Australia for her innovative mapping of massacre sites on the colonial frontier, will be the keynote for the third session in Week 2 on ‘Decolonising history’. This will be followed by fourth session with a panel discussion between historians Shino Konishi (Centre for the History of Emotions), Jane Lydon (University of Western Australia)and a speaker to be confirmed. 

We hope the discussion will be as rich as it would have been in-person and aim to engage participants as much as possible before, during and after the event. We see this very much as the opening up of a conversation and warmly invite you to participate. 

The call for truth-telling and indeed processes of localised truth-telling long precede the Uluru Statement- the Myall Creek massacre site perhaps being the most well-known process. While many aspects of the Uluru Statement remain contested, the call for ‘truth-telling’ appears to be a unanimous aspiration. At the dialogues facilitated by the Referendum Council in the lead up to the release of the Uluru Statement participants expressed the desire to ‘tell the truth about history in our own voices and from our own point of view. And for mainstream Australians to hear those voices and to reconsider what they know and understand about their nation’s history’ (Referendum Council 2017, p. 17).  Critically this demand for truth was paired with a demand for sovereignty, truth as a route to the acknowledgement of colonial violence and the way in which it sought to extinguish Indigenous sovereignty. A participant in one dialogue argued, ‘If the government want to speak about “recognition” they need to recognise the true history, recognise the frontier wars. They need to recognise the atrocity of Maralinga’ (Appleby and Davis 2018, p. 506).

The records of another Referendum Council dialogue reported that ‘delegates spoke of the need to acknowledge the illegality of everything done since colonisation’(Appleby and Davis 2018, p. 503). In the absence of the possibility of a formal political transition in the ‘consolidated’ settler-colonial state, Indigenous Australians are arguably attempting to contest the terms of their inclusion in the political community and dispute the legitimacy of the settler colonial state through truth-telling, treaty and meaningful political representation. 

However, thus far discussion of what truth-telling might entail in the Australian context has been limited. Nevertheless, the dialogues with Indigenous communities held by the Referendum Council clearly provide some rich indication of the type of localised, decolonised processes Australians are calling for. In discussions about truth-telling, Indigenous Australians are reported to have ‘rejected a symbolic, truncated and singular statement of their truths’ and have instead asserted the need for ‘local understandings within communities of a shared history…led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working with non-Aboriginal people in that community’ (Appleby and Davis 2018). Thus this is ‘a dialogical and dialectical gift between partners’ (Senghor cited in Wilder 2015) in which Indigenous and settler communities (of all types) are equally implicated. This discourse about colonial history is necessary to trace and recover it from the ‘dustbins of history’ (Coulthard 2014, p. 108) in order to refute its ongoing power. 

How then, should a truth process be fashioned in the Australian context, how can it be moved away from a state directed exercise that allows it to declare the ‘end of history’ and finally legitimate the settler colonial state, rather than overturn it? This is indeed a challenge, particularly where the settler colonial order appears irrefutable. Nevertheless, Indigenous Australians have kept pushing back against the ‘negation’ of identity inherent to the settler colonial structure (Watson 2002, p. 263). They have asserted instead a refusal of this politics and an affirmation of continued sovereignty. We hope that these seminars will make a small contribution to finding a path, through truth-telling, to the aspiration for a decolonised Australia.  

[1] See website for more details and updates https://adi.deakin.edu.au/events/decolonising-truth-in-australia-symposium

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author

Vanessa Barolsky is an Associate Research Fellow with the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University (Melbourne), and a friend of IPCS.

References

Appleby, G. & Davis, M. 2018. ‘The Uluru Statement and the promises of truth’, Australian Historical Studies 49(4).

Coulthard, G. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

McKenna, M. 2018, ‘Moment of truth: history and Australia’s future ‘, Quarterly Essay 69.

Referendum Council, 2017. Final report of the Referendum Council Commonwealth of Australia.

Watson, I. 2002. ‘Buried Alive,’ Law and Critique 13.

Wilder, G. 2015. Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World  (Durham and London: Duke University Press).

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