Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, March 24, 2007

New England's Aborigines - Stocktake on Posts

I have recently written a fair bit across blogs on issues relating to Australia's indigenous people, a lot of it relevant to New England History. This post provides a stocktake as at 24 March 2007.

26 November 2006 Towards a History of New England - Introductory Post discusses in a preliminary way how to treat the story of New England's Aborigines within the history of New England.

This is an area where my thinking has been evolving with my writing. I would now place a lot more weight on the indigenous story in later history because a full history needs to present the Aboriginal experience back to New England's Aboriginal peoples.

One major theme is obviously the nature of the interaction between New England's Aboriginal peoples and the Europeans. However, I do not think that this should dominate everything else since the core focus should be on the Aborigines themselves.

I also do not want the story twisted by later "national" thought models. This is a regional story. New England's Aborigines have their own stories and experiences to be told.

Here on 30 January 2006 in The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring I used Judith Wright's poem as a device to highlight the difference between European and Aboriginal perceptions, in so doing introducing an example of major construction done by New England's Aboriginal peoples.

For somewhat similar reasons in an earlier post (3 November 2006) New England Australia - introducing mining I deliberately included the Moore Creek Axe factory to make the point that mining began in New England before European times.

The continuing importance of regional stories was a core theme in a 20 December 2007 post on my personal blog, Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post, a post that discussed in part the evolution of my own ideas about the Aborigines.

This led to a number of posts with both a personal and policy focus.

I first referred to the work of the Australian archaeologist and prehistorian Isabel McBryde on 14 August 2006 in a post on the writings of Patrice Newell. The reference to Moore Creek in my post on mining (see above) also linked to Isabel's work. Then 0n 17 February 2007 in Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 3: Australian Prehistory I looked in more detail at Isabel's work through the prism set by my own experience.

Isabel sits at the centre of a number of themes relevant to New England historiography in general, the Aboriginal experience in particular.

Just as the concept "New England's Aborigines" is a construct from European times, so too is the concept "Australian Aborigines", just more so.

Isabel recognised that Aboriginal life and history varied from area to area and had to be studied on a local and regional basis to be truly understood. She was the first Australian prehistorian to take a regional area - in her case New England - and look at it in detail. In doing so, she influenced my own continuing focus on the need to understand regional variations.

If you look at my posts, this emphasis comes through time after time as I fight against what I see as the pernicious tendency to impose simplified national or state constructs on thought, policy and life. However, this itself raises an issue: in talking about New England in the way I do, am I guilty of falling into the same trap?

I don't think so.

New England itself is a European construct. This has to be recognised. However, when we come to look at Aboriginal life before the European invasion, New England in combination with south eastern Queensland does appear to have formed something of a geographical entity, one small enough to see Aboriginal responses and interactions in a varying geographic context. In this sense, looking at the Aboriginal experience in this area becomes, as with Isabel's work, a small building block in the creation of a proper national mosaic.

After the invasion the position changes. The boundary between New England and Queensland split Aboriginal language groups, placing people from linked groups under different jurisdictions.

On 20 February 2007 in Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 4: Policy Interlude I pointed to the way in which different jurisdictions affected the Aboriginal experience. In the New England case, we need to understand the varying policies of the Sydney and Brisbane Governments and, later, the National government.

This holds today. On 2 January 2007 in Githabul People achieve Native Title Deal I reported on a deal between the Sydney Government and the Githabul people of north eastern New England. I also noted that the deal only covered Githabul territories on the New England side of the border, with the Brisbane Government refusing to participate.

Returning to Isabel, she began her work at a time very few academics were interested in the Aborigines. In my brief post of 27 January Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines on the pioneering work of Malcolm Calley I made the point that anthropologists rather than historians had pioneered Aboriginal studies, a theme I returned to a little later in the post already referred to on prehistory.

The relationships between academics and Aborigines has sometimes been a vexed one, complicated by the later addition of land rights where academic evidence on both sides can affect outcomes.

The Aborigines believe, correctly, that academics have been too ready to discount their oral traditions. On the other hand, anyone who has been involved with oral history knows that while oral history is very good in providing an emotional context, a feel for issues, it can be extremely unreliable when it comes to factual matters.

Many Aborigines also believe, again correctly, that academics write from a European outside perspective. Here we have an added problem in that so much writing is focused on, driven by, the wrongs done too the Aborigines. If you look at one post already referred to, The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring, you can see the juxtaposition between the European and Aboriginal perspective.

A further problem is that this outside perspective in fact feeds back into Aboriginal perceptions of their own experience and history, further distorting the story.

Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that wrongs have not been done, nor am I saying that we should not research or write on them. But to do a proper history of New England I want to write about New England's Aborigines as people, families passing down the generations, families living and coping with changing circumstances.

To illustrate my point, please look at the comments following my post on Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines.

Who were the Aborigines living in Armidale before the new arrivals came from the Macleay Valley? Why did the new arrivals come? What was their experience after they arrived? Why did Armidale's Aborigines achieve a degree of advancement earlier than in other places? I think that these are important questions if one is to write properly about the complex mosaic that is New England's Aboriginal experience.

However, whatever the weaknesses in academic writing, whatever the complexities in the relationships between academics and Aborigines, there is no doubt that Aboriginal studies has come a long way since Isabel began her work in the sixties.

An interesting feature of this is the role played by the University of New England and then later other New England universities. UNE was founded to be the lead university of the future self governing New England state. While we have yet to achieve this, UNE has had a profound influence on New England life, far greater I think than even UNE people realise.

So far as New England's Aborigines are concerned, we can look at this along two dimensions.

The first is historiographical. Isabel began her work in the sixties. In 1964 Sharon Sullivan completed the first honours thesis. By 1978 Isabel's students had written 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD - An archaeology survey of the New England Region, NSW - in 1967. In all, a fair body of work for such a short period.

Others, too, became involved in Aboriginal Studies. As an example, on 4 December 2006 in William G (Bill) Hoddinott & New England Aboriginal Languages I referred to Bill's work in recording details of languages, some on the point of extinction.

The second dimension beyond historiography and Aboriginal Studies is that New England's universities themselves form part of the continuing historical story of New England's Aboriginal peoples. Their influence here has been and continues to be very important.

As part of the writing that I have been doing on Australia's universities, another regular theme of mine, in Australia's Regional Universities and Indigenous Advancement (March 10 2007) I gave the rankings for Australia's top universities measured by indigenous participation. Both the University of New England and Southern Cross University were in the top five star group, while the University of Newcastle achieved four stars.

University involvement with New England's Aboriginal peoples has been extensive and deserves to be treated as a theme in its own right.

My post of 26 January 2007 Southern Cross University - Bundjalung Nation Mapping provides a current example. Here the University, the Bundjalung Nation Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Natural Resource Management Committee, Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority, and Department of Environment and Conservation National Parks and Wildlife Division have joined together in a new project intended to give indigenous communities a greater say on how their traditional lands are managed and preserving the wisdom of Elders.

My writing and thinking on the history and experiences of New England's Aboriginal peoples has been informed by and in turn informs my broader thinking on Aboriginal issues. I try to constantly test my thinking by pointing and counterpointing between broader issues and their on-ground effects especially in New England. In doing so, I have to be aware of problems of perception and bias.

I dealt with this issue in two of the first three posts (On History, On History, Causation and E J Tapp) on my then newly established personal blog. There I tried to make a clear distinction between topic selection and the approach that should be followed in analysing the topic. Here I said in part:

Now, and this drives to the heart of my point about method, whatever one's view about the role of the historian, all historians must write in such a way that the reader can understand both the evidence and the logic chain. That is, we must set up our arguments for later test by others.

I leave it to others to judge the extent to which I am meeting this test. But certainly I do try to make my own biases clear.

On 14 November 2006 NSW Ten Year Plan NSW - New England's Needs began a three part discussion on the Sydney Government's new ten year plan by setting out some of New England's needs as I saw them. Here I indentified indigenous development as one key issue:

New England has a major Aboriginal population, in some cases much higher than the NSW average. This group faces very significant problems. We need to address the opportunities offered by our significant Aboriginal heritage as well as the problems.

The next post Does the NSW Ten Year Plan meet New England's Needs? ( 16 November 2006) looked at the detail of the Plan against the needs identified in the first post.

Indigenous development was dealt with in the Fairness and Opportunity section of the Plan. Two objectives were set for indigenous development, one relating to schooling, the second to health. The Plan stated that the Government considered that its existing Two Way program would meet meet these objectives, so no further action was proposed. I concluded:

Given that New England has a significant Aboriginal population, these are important targets. However, it is not clear to me that they can be achieved in the absence of economic growth to address economic disadvantage.

At the time I wrote these initial posts I had not fully focused on indigenous issues, but this issue of growth and economic disadvantage was to become central.

On 20 December 2006 in a post already referred to, Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post , I gingerly entered the minefield of changing policy and attitudes towards Australia's indigenous people.

I will not repeat all the arguments in that post beyond two key linked points. I summarised the first point this way:

This lead me to a simple conclusion. We should stop talking about specific Aboriginal problems as though all Aborigines were a uniform group quite distinct from the broader community, but instead should focus on disentangling the facts so that we knew just what we were really talking about.

A little later I suggested that as part of my work in trying to understand and present New England on the New England, Australia blog, I had begun digging down not just into the past but also the current position of New England's aborigines. This showed me how little I knew. I went on:

Aboriginal New England was in resource terms a very wealthy area at the time the Europeans arrived. Reflecting this, the Aboriginal population especially along the humid coastal zone was very substantial. This means that today New England still has a far higher, and I think growing, Aboriginal proportion of its population than the Australian average. Lower than the Northern Territory, but still up to five times the Sydney average. Further, that population is especially concentrated in particular areas.

I suggested that this made Aboriginal issues and the Aboriginal experience relatively more important than in, say, Sydney. I concluded:

My frustration here is that the fragmentation imposed on New England by current systems makes it very hard to see and understand changing patterns.

In the absence of any integrated material I am forced to try to dig down location by location to discover the facts. Without these, anything I might say is likely to have little real meaning. Further, I have found little on some of the questions that I am interested in such as the nature of modern internal migration patterns. It becomes yet another total story that needs to be written from ground up.

Quite a bit of my writing since has simply been testing and amplifying these conclusions.

On 21 December 2006 in Australia's Aborigines - A Note on Demography I provided some initial demographic data. On 7 March 2006 in NSW's Aboriginal Population I provided data on the distribution of indigenous people across NSW, then on 9 March 2007 in Australia's Aborigines - another demographic note I provided some national data.

The NSW data provided in the 7 March post was drawn from the regional studies prepared by the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs during the development of the NSW Government's Two Ways program. I have already referred to this in passing in my comments on the NSW Government's Ten Year plan.

At the time I wrote this post I had not read either the regional studies or the supporting material on Two Ways. I will write about this in a later post. Essentially, while the approach does have its strengths, it also suffers from the same policy weaknesses that I have referred to previously.

From the viewpoint of New England history, however, there is some very useful material in the regional reports such as lists of former Aboriginal reserves or localities that provide a check list for future investigation.

I do not pretend that the initial demographic material is either complete or rigorous. Indeed, the paucity of data - the 2001 census is still the main source used by every one - is a real problem. However, the demographic data does support the broader policy points I have been developing, points that are relevant to the New England experience.

On 8 March 2007 in Aborigines and Public Policy - a methodological note I pointed to some of these issues.

My first point was that we needed to recognise and understand variations in Aboriginal conditions across space, not just talk in averages, state or national. This is a point that I keep returning to.

On 20 February, for example, in Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 4: Policy Interlude I discussed, among other things, Hope Vale and the views of Noel Pearson. Then on 9 March I discussed the PWC report into Australia's Aborigines and the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP). While I was critical of the report, it again drew out the nature of regional variation.

In my 8 March post I also pointed to further linked problems, linked problems that I again keep returning too.

The first is the the way in which particular issues come to twist and dominate the debate. This links to a second issue, the core need to properly define the problem to be addressed. In my view, misspecification of problems is the single most common cause of policy failure. Here I noted that one question that I constantly ask is is the issue in question an Aboriginal problem or a problem for our Aborigines?

By this I simply meant that is the problem unique in some way to Aborigines (an Aboriginal problem) or one shared in some ways with other groups in the Australian community (a problem for our Aborigines)? If the second, are there aspects to the problem that are specific to the Aboriginal community?

Now this is an issue of real relevance to New England in both public policy and hisitorical terms.

If we look at the demographic data, in 2001 there were an estimated 134,888 Aboriginal people living in NSW, comprising just over 2 per cent of the total NSW population and approximately 29 per cent of the total Aboriginal population in Australia.

Of the total Aboriginal population, 11,931 (0.54 per cent of the total population) lived in what as defined as Coast Sydney. From memory, I do not have the exact numbers in front of me, something under 2,000 of this total lived in what is today the City of Sydney, essentially Redfern. So seriously is this small group taken that they have their own Cabinet Minister, the Minister for Redfern. Yes, Frank Sartor as minister has other portfolios as well, but it is still a portfolio.

The position in New England is somewhat different.

If we look at New England we find:

  • Murdi Paaki (Far West - part). Aboriginal population 7,542 or 14 per cent of the total population.
  • New England North West. Aboriginal population 12,047 or 7.28 per cent of the total population.
  • North Coast. Aboriginal population 16,402 or 3.5 per cent of the total population.
  • Hunter. Aboriginal population 11,605 or 2.2 per cent of the total population.

So the total Aboriginal population in New England in 2001 was something of the order of 42,000 counting part of Murdi Paaki, ranging from 2.2 to 14 of the total population. This makes the Aboriginal population as a proportion of the total population much higher. Further, outside parts of the coastal strip such as Coffs Harbour that proportion is both rising and becoming more concentrated in places such as the bigger inland centres.

I suspect, and this is an issue that I had not focused on, that the Aboriginal proportion of New England's population has always been higher and that this has had its own historical dynamics.

On 10 January 2007 I wrote a post, New England's Aborigines - Moree Success Story looking at the remarkable work done by Dick Estens in Moree. I wrote this story as an example of the positives in the current Aboriginal story. That remains true, but there is a converse, and that is the past.

If you look at the Freedom Rides of the sixties - I do not have the reference in front of me - it is no coincidence that they had such a strong New England focus simply because that is where the Aborigines were a significantly higher proportion of the total population.

All this makes the issue of Aboriginal history as a stream in broader history as well as public policy towards the Aborigines important in a way that is simply not true in Sydney.

In public policy terms, the development of New England's Aboriginal peoples is or should be a core public policy issue, not one relegated to the ghetto of indigenous or Aboriginal policy. Further, to the degree that the problems faced by New England's Aboriginal peoples are a subset of problems faced by other New Englanders, those problems cannot be solved unless broader problems are addressed.

In New England's Poor Towns - a failure in public policy (4 March 2007) I commented with a degree of bitterness on the fact that nearly nearly all the poorest and most socially disadvantaged towns and villages in NSW described in Professor Vinson's national study were to be found in New England. I said in passing:

There is also , I suspect, a close correlation between the relative size of local aboriginal populations - the Aborigines form a much higher proportion of the New England local population than the national average - and the average measures of economic and social deprivation.

I extended my argument in another post on the same day, New England and the Immiseration of Public Policy. While I was angry when I wrote this post and therefore presented things in strong terms, I do not back away from my core messages:

Those living in Sydney where the Aborigines are just one per cent of the city population can treat Aboriginal issues as an abstract issue, something to be dealt with through the ghetto created by "Aboriginal policies."

Those living in New England - and in other parts of regional NSW - do not have this luxury....

I am not joking when I say that the way we handle Aboriginal advancement is perhaps the single most important policy issue in determining the future viability and harmony of many New England communities.

Here a core message across many blog posts has been the need for New Englanders to combine to address problems and in particular the need for broader economic development. We cannot improve the conditions of New England's Aboriginal peoples without this.

Update 17 June 2007

I have added several stories since writing this post.

On 6 April 2007 in a short note I recorded lists of former missions and reserves in New England.

On 23 April in Australia's Aborigines - the need to localise, a post triggered by search patterns on the New England Australia site, I talked about the need for better information at local level, suggesting that one simple thing that Governments could do to make the indigenous story more accessible was to fund the creation of web sites for each of the indigenous nations.

I followed this on 25 April with a post New England's Aborigines - the Birpai: web references setting out the results of a web search on the Birpai/Biripi people of the Hastings-Manning Valley.

Update 2 March 2008

Quite a bit has happened since my last update. I really need to rewrite this post entirely.

Perhaps most importantly, I have now started establishing entry pages to consolidate posts for individual New England language groups. So far I have put up two:

There are a number of other posts as well. I will try to catch up on these later.


Rhonda said...

Thank you for pulling all of your aboriginal posts together, it will make it easier for me to read up on the history. My mothers adopted family were based in the New England area and I always thought they were Biripi but was corrected by a cousin in Kempsey quiet a few years ago that they were in fact Daingatti, I haven't had the opportunity to really venture into the history as it is so difficult to trace. My gran was born in 1913 at the Railway Reserve, Walcha.

An interesting tidbit, when I was chatting to a family elder around the same time she told me that all of the births had been recorded on the wall of the old hall in Walcha. Have you ever heard of this or something similar?

Thanks for such an informative site.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Rhonda, and welcome to the weird and wonderful world of blogging! I am glad this post was useful, and I should do an update. Time is always the problem.

I read your comment and the linked material with great interest. I will come back to you at the weekend with comments.

Jim Belshaw said...

Rhonda, I found your story very interesting, including the legal adoption.

I know far too little about the history of the Aboriginal people in the Walcha, including the information about the old hall. No, I had not heard of this before.

I myself did not know that many of Armidale's Aboriginal people were in fact Daingatti coming to Armidale in the 1950s until a comment on a post - http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/2007/01/malcolm-calley-anthropolgy-and.html.

If I had thought about it, I would have realised that there might also be a Daingatti connection at Walcha.The linkage is the headwaters of the Macleay River.

Now all this raises three quite separate historical issues in my own mind.

Rather than going into them in detail in a comment, I think that all this warrants a full post. I will do that now.