Thursday, February 28, 2008

Contact with Sue Hudson

Sue Hudson, an archaeologist with an indigenous background, contacted me through Phillip Diprose's blog. She found me via a search that led her to a comment I had posted. She had been using my earlier work, she emailed Phillip, and now we are in contact.

Sue contacted me because I told part of the indigenous story at local and regional level in my early writings. Now I have someone who shares my interest in the detail, the nature of language boundaries in New England, the interactions between groups, the way in which we might be able to use combinations of evidence to bring the indigenous story alive as real peoples.

I cannot begin to say how wonderful this is. Sue is the first person I have met in years who shares some of my very specific passions and who has the knowledge base to force my thinking.

Of particular importance is the fact that we both believe that historians have neglected the way in which the combination of archaeological, ethnohistorical, historical and modern data can be used to bring alive the Aboriginal past in a way still to be properly explored. This will only happen, however, if we can tell the story at local and regional level.

There are some funny side-effects here because telling the story as it was affects modern Aboriginal perceptions and positions.

I am not sure how far I want to go into this at this point, except to note that I am talking about intra-Aboriginal relations and power structures.

How do I bring all this alive to you?

Well, the starting point is geography. If you do not understand the geography in an area, you cannot understand the pattern of Aboriginal life.

A second point is to look at the current distribution of Aboriginal people, where they came from. Current distributions are not the same as they were at the time of European intrusion, less so the further you go back into the past. But they can provide interesting insights into past linkages.

Then there is the ethnohistorical evidence, essentially the views of Europeans at the time they arrived, along with subsequent analysis.

Obviously this is partial. But it is still rich, because evidence can be interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of later work. The story of a tribal fight may be interesting, but tell you little. The same fight may come to mean a great deal if it becomes a building block in a broader story.

Then there is the official historical data. Record after record provides pieces of information that, like the settler records, can be interpreted and re-interpreted.

Oral history can be fitted in. While very imperfect, it provides further pieces of evidence.

Finally, we have the increasing volume of archaeological evidence.

All this may seem pretty dry. To illustrate, let me quote from one of Sue's emails:

I have a very good friend living in Ashford. She is Aboriginal and shares with me my love of all things cultural (tools, places and history). She told me several important things: Her grandmother (who was semi-tribal) told her all her life not to mix with coastal people, they were never to be trusted. When Anaiwan people went to Inverell for ceremonies, they always camped as close to their own boundaries as possible – they were not liked by Gamaroi people but kinship ties brought them together for important occasions. Everybody fought with them – I have the axes from the last great Aboriginal/Aboriginal massacre in Armidale, fought near the present day teachers college, these were given to me by the great nephew of the police constable who broke up the fracas. The axes have been sourced to Armidale area and Walcha (Daingutti).

Here is an example of oral history. What does it tell us? Rather a lot.

You need to start by remembering the geography of New England.

The New England Tablelands, Australia's largest Tablelands, forms the central core. High by Australian standards, this was a poorer area in food terms. It was also cold in winter. Aboriginal populations were relatively low.

Major rivers flow to the east and west from the Tablelands.

The eastern rivers flowing down to the sea formed resource rich areas combining a variety of habitats. These major river valleys were homes to different, large population Aboriginal language groups. Their territories extended up the valleys onto the Tablelands' headwaters.

To the west, the more open country allowed for expansion by a single Aboriginal language group, the Kamilaroi (Gamaroi) people. By the time of European arrival, the Kamilaroi occupied New England's western slopes and adjacent plains and appeared to be expanding into what is now the Hunter Valley.

The smaller Tablelands' groups were essentially squeezed between the big coastal tribal groups and the Kamilaroi.

Return to the quote from Sue's email. Ashford is near Inverell and in Kamilaroi territory. The Anaiwan were a Tablelands' group.

Sue's evidence shows that the small Anaiwan group round Uralla had a western focus; many of the creeks here flow west. This fits with the comments on the kinship links with the Kamilaroi. At the same time, we can see the distrust of the stronger Kamiliaroi among the weaker Anaiwan.

Armidale is just fourteen miles north of Uralla. This is also recorded as Anaiwan territory. Yet Armidale appears to have been contested territory, with connections to the Dainggatti (Daingutti) of the Upper Macleay Valley. Armidale is in the Macleay headwaters. The Dainggatti were also strong in what is now the Walcha area to the south east of Uralla, also in the Macleay headwaters.

So was the last recorded tribal battle in Armidale a fight between the Dainggatti trying to assert control and the local Aniawan?

The answer is that we don't know. But I hope that I have said enough to show that we can write the history of Aboriginal Australia in new ways, to bring far more of the past alive than many realise.


Lexcen said...

It's about time somebody wrote a history without any political bias.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Lexcen. Glad to see that you are maintaining your ealy morning bias and that we are at our computers at the same time!

Bias is inevitable. But in the context we are talking about, I think that I would put it this way. In writing about what was we should write about what was, not about what we think about what was.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Jim, and I have heard an occasional similar story. It may also be noted that the movie Ten Canoes deals with such matters in another part of Australia, and is a good example of bringing the past alive in my view.

If you are obliquely referring to undermining simplistic "noble savage" or overgeneralised accounts of our Aboriginal past, you have a point. The book I have been reading, Frank Welsh's Great Southern Land, is a good example of what an overview history might look like when the writer is neither black armband nor whitewash, but concerned about what really happened. The more I read that book the more I admire it.

In writing about what was we should write about what was, not about what we think about what was. Not so easy to separate, but we have been there before...

Also, the oral history you have recently encountered is analogous to the stories so pooh-poohed by Windschuttle that preserve memories of, for example, the alleged massacre of Aboriginal people around Govett's Leap in the Blue Mountains. I think such oral history is valuable, but of course does have to be looked at critically by historians -- but not discounted.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good afteronon, Neil. You have picked me up with your reference to oblique. I edited this post to get rid of anything that might interfere with my key message

I dealt with oral history and the earlier failure to recognise its importance in my post on Malcolm Calley -

Oral history shows what people remember, believe, now. This makes it very unreliable. But it is wonderful for giving clues, providing an emotional context.

I agree absolutely with you re Ten Canoes, although my interest in what it showed about traditional Aboriginal gretly detracted from the story as a story.

I have read your reactions to Frank Welsh's book with great interest because it mirrors some of the ways in which my own exposure to external views has shifted my views.

It is obviously hard to separate one's own political views and value judgements from one's historical writings. My point, one that I do not think that you would disagree with, is that we have to try.

If we switch to modern times and some of our debates, one of my constant complaints is the way in which curent perceptions stop us thinking about the Aborigines as people.

One area where I was very careful about making comments, one that bears upon your Tasmanian discussions, is the nature of tensions within current Aboriginal communities. Discussions about history are difficult because they validate/invalidate current positions and power structures.

I will write about this at some point, but only when I can do so in a way independent of actual examples.

Caroline said...

Hi Jim,

I have heard that story of the last Aboriginal/Aboriginal massacre relayed in Armidale by White People. They may have picked it up here. I am only learning about traditional life however from my reading, tribal fighting had rules that ensured that minimal injury occurred. In a way it may have been more ceremonial, maybe to get through a grieveance withougt bloodshed. I am a bit sceptical about this 'massacre', particularly if it relys on a story passed down from a white man who had a couple of axes. As we know, these stories in families get embellished. As I said, I am only just learning about tribal life after concentrating my research on local Aboriginal history from the 1900s in Amidale and surrounds. Cheers, Caroline

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Caroline

Will be interested to see what you find out. The general evidence for what we might call warfare between Aboriginal groups seems pretty well established. Do a Google on war spears; they were designed to kill. The tales of the Red Kangaroo, the war leader of the Gunnedah mob, tell us a fair bit about Aboriginal warfare, including a war raid on what is now Bundarra.

Jim Belshaw said...

I should have added: is that our Caroline? If so, girls well. Helen is on exchange in Copenhagen for six months, Clare is studying ancient history at Macquarie.