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

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Discovering Aboriginal New England

In New England history 2010 I stated:

A second theme in my writing has been the history of Aboriginal New England. This was there before, but has become more focused. I find that there is a deep need among Aboriginal people to know more of their past. Not the generalised past so often presented, but the very specific past that relates to them. Too often, this is lost in the broader discussion.

The previous post, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 11: the Aborigines, provided something of an introduction focused especially on the second half of the twentieth century; my current focus is an analysis of general social change in this period. This post is really an aide memoir to myself on the work that I need to do this year on the Aboriginal side.

Geographic Coverage

By way of background for those unfamiliar with my major current project, a general history of New England, the territory covered by the book is the New England Tablelands plus the surrounding river valleys. This is a large but linked area, containing a variety of environments.

Integrating the Story of Aboriginal New England

The first section of the book will be called simply Aboriginal New England. Here I have decided to use 1788 as a cut-off point to avoid the earlier story being over-shadowed by later events. Discussion of European settlement and its immediate impacts then form part of the next section of the book, Colonial New England.

Beyond the moving frontier and those initial impacts, I am still unsure as to the best way of integrating the continuing Aboriginal story into my narrative in both Colonial New England and the last section of the book, New England in the Twentieth Century.

Separation between the two communities means that there are different if intersecting histories. While neither history has been written, the Aboriginal history is less developed. I cannot write both a full history and an Aboriginal history, yet I have to go some distance towards the second if I am to achieve the first.

The main thing I want to avoid is what I call the cameo effect, the almost mandatory inclusion of references to the Aboriginals too often written from a non-Aboriginal guilt perspective or, alternatively, from an Aboriginal response position. The end result, at least as I see it, is a series of stills, of cameos, of things disconnected from each other.

Regardless how I resolve the technical writing difficulties, I have set myself a simple objective. An Aboriginal reader reading the book should be able to follow the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples as a story. I won't get it right, but that will at least provide a new base for future responses. 

Past and present are inextricably entwined in the story of Aboriginal New England. It was true 300 year's ago, it is just as true today. This creates its own challenges, for anything written now plays into current debates.

Exploring New England's Aboriginal Languages              

My main research priority over the last fifteen months has been to increase my understanding of New England's Aboriginal languages. I chose languages because of the interface between language and life, history and culture.

To increase my understanding, I began preparation of a background paper on New England's Aboriginal languages. My thought was that I might be able to publish this as a stand-alone document in due course.   

The first part sets a context, looking at Australian Aboriginal languages in a broader sense. New England examples are used to illustrate broader points. This is followed by an overview discussion of the languages’ decline, linking this to history on one side, factors in language survival on the other. Here I attempt to show the linkages between social and cultural dislocation and language decline.

I then review those who recorded New England’s languages in one way or another. This interesting and polyglot lot includes explorers, settlers, missionaries and amateur ethnologists. Later came professional linguists and then, today, local Aborigines themselves trying to discover their linguistic past. The pattern of recording itself provides further insights into the history of New England’s languages in the post-colonial period.

With this background, the paper then reviews the actual physical distribution of the languages, along with some of their key features. This is quite a complex exercise. Language boundaries were linked to watersheds, but the relationship was not precise. In many cases, we simply cannot be sure.

The paper concludes with a discussion of modern language Revival Movement. Extinct and now dormant languages are once again taught. Yet despite the successes, the Movement itself is arguably locked into past mind-sets that may limit its success.

Early last year I also began work on a seminar paper on New England's Aboriginal languages to be delivered in Armidale in July to the Armidale & District Historical Society. To do this, I put aside elements of the broader paper.

My first priority this year is to revise the seminar paper for publication. I then want to update the general paper, although I don't intend to finish it at this stage.  Rather, I am going to let it evolve with input from other work.

I plan to publish a discussion draft of the seminar paper on this blog before finalising the journal article. 

Problems with Tindale tribes

I had always been aware that the use of the word "tribe" was quite misleading. However, I had not realised just how misleading it was.

In March last year I delivered a paper - Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England[1] - in the University of New  England's Classics & History Seminar series. Even then, I was still using the word "tribe", if in a restricted way.

Following that seminar I read James Knight's PhD thesis on Tindale tribes. This caused me to put a line through a fair bit of the work I had done looking at the distribution of Aboriginal languages. Just as bad, I realised that some of the material I had written on this blog was actually misleading. Woof, I thought! However, it gets worse.

Named after Normal Tindale who attempted to map "tribal" distributions across the continent, the Tindale tribe assumes that a "tribe" was a a group speaking a common language that occupied a defined territory that could be measured by a defined line on a map.

Knight shows that this very modern European concept bore no relationship to the actual structures of traditional Aboriginal life. He also shows how the idea of mapping and of Tindale tribes affected research, policy towards the Aboriginal peoples, concepts of land-rights and Aboriginal responses. He coined the phrase Tindale tribes in part to define the creation of current structures and ways of thought; a Tindale tribe is a modern construct that affects the present, but may have little connection to the Aboriginal past. Woof again!

The Tindale tribe has now moved from what we might think of as an issue in historical interpretation to something that has to be written about in its own right, a player in thinking and policy responses, especially over the second half of the twentieth century.

This is trouble territory, but one I have to address. To manage this, I need to write something on James Knight's work as a stand-alone piece. 

The Aborigines in New England Thought

One of the issues in my general history is the changing way New Englanders' thought about its Aboriginal peoples. We can think of this along two dimensions: what did they think; and to what degree were those thoughts different from those holding elsewhere in Australia?

Tindale is an example here. He forms part of a broader thread that affected New England thought. But was the impact different? In Tindale's case, probably not. However, there are elements where New England thought was different, in part because the Aborigines were a greater proportion of the New England population.

Prejudice is one issue, but not the only one. The higher proportion of Aboriginal people meant, too, that New England was often at the cutting edge of change. I have to tease this out.

I am leaving this issue aside until I have better understanding of thought in the different areas of life affecting the Aboriginal peoples.

Prehistoric New England and the ethnohistorical story

One of my all time favourite history books is Geoffrey Blainey's Black Kettle and Full Moon, a history of Australian domestic life from the first gold rush to World War I. I would dearly love to do something similar for New England's Aboriginal peoples, to bring that past life alive.

There has been no general prehistory of New England published since Isabel McBryde's 1974 Aboriginal Prehistory in New England, and then her boundaries were a little different from mine. There has been no general synthesis since - the reasons for this are part of the New England story.

By its nature, prehistory is limited to the archeological remains. Here Isabel placed great emphasis on ethnohistorical evidence as a means of interpreting the past. In some ways, this was problematic. Aboriginal society was not static, so the picture gained from ethnohistorical material is just a partial shot at a point in time. Yet, with care, this evidence allows us to flesh life out in ways not otherwise possible.           

I have a long way to go in consolidating the latest archaeological evidence, let alone the ethnohistorical material, yet already there are fascinating hints that a broader interpretation is possible. We will never know the full story, but I think that we can do a lot more than we have done to this point.

Knowledge of geography is central to this. Here I need to know a lot more. We don't even know, at least I don't, about the on-ground effects of changing sea levels. Increasing my knowledge of the historical geography of New England is one of my core aims for 2011.  

Social Structures in Aboriginal Life

Some time ago, I started writing a general paper on Aboriginal social structures.

When I first looked at this issue as part of my honours thesis, I found the emphasis by anthropologists on kinship structures mind numbingly dull! I am more interested now because kin relations were part of broader social structures. I explored a little of this in an Armidale Express column, Belshaw’s World: A closer look at Kamilaroi and language, but that was barely touching the surface.

I think that the thing that interests me most is the possibility of telling a general story from the ethnohistorical material that links kinship into other aspects of social life including warfare. But can one do this without being misleading?

I want to push ahead with my general paper, but I also want to write some specific material and especially the story of the Red Kangaroo. I gave links here in Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi material goes on on-line.


Education is one major theme in the post European settlement of Aboriginal New England. This is also a them that brings in many others. Jim Feltcher is the main resource here. I wrote of him a little in "Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales. Again there is a UNE connection.

While I have read Jim's book many times, I need to do two things; write an overall summary so that I have the broad framework fixed in place for re-use; then look at the specific New England aspects.

Aboriginal Political and Educational Movements

I know far less than I should about Aboriginal political, cultural and educational movements. I also know less than I should about Aboriginal cultural activities and the way these have interfaced with Aboriginal life in the colonial period and beyond.

I am not going to attempt to address this in any substantive way at this point. If I just do the other things that I am talking about I will start to lay a base.

Family Reconstruction

The destruction of  Aboriginal social structures makes it difficult to understand properly just what happened to Aboriginal families. The approach that I have followed on this blog is simply to record stories of people. My feeling is that this will, in combination, build a picture that I can then use in a general sense. All I am going to do in the immediate future is just add some more stories.


Because I am writing a general history, I am not going to be able to do credit to the full story. My hope is that others will follow.   

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