Monday, August 16, 2010

McBryde, Hoddinott and the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples

Another day, yet more election commentary.

Just at present I am trying to revise the Armidale paper I delivered on New England's Aboriginal languages so that I can circulate it for comment and then complete final revision for publication in the Armidale and District Historical Society Journal. As part of this, I have been rereading Records of times past: Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes (edited by Isabel McBryde, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978). I am also reading Isabel's Aboriginal Prehistory in New England: an archeological survey of Northeastern NSW (Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1974). 

Apart from assisting me in revising the paper, I hope that the two books will help me flesh out the first section of the my history of New England, that on the area during Aboriginal times. A long time ago, or it seems a long time - October 2008, The First Australians - a message for SBS re their web site recorded my initial reaction to the first episode of the SBS documentary of that name. Essentially I was disappointed that it said nothing about the area that I was interested in.

It's not quite two years since then, but a lot has happened, so much that its actually quite hard to recapture the feeling of the time. It really seems quite remote.

My own knowledge of Aboriginal history has advanced very substantially. In addition, working with Aboriginal people has affected my approach. I always felt that much Aboriginal historiography with its emphasis on black-white relations actually cut Aboriginal people off from their past. I hold that view even more strongly, yet I am also far more aware of the sensitivities involved.

We talk a lot about relationships between the Aborigines and country, yet I'm not sure that we properly understand just what that means. You see, the complex set of relationships between people and land were people and geography specific. This means, to my mind, that if you are really going to write about Aboriginal history, you have to be people and geographically specific.

Isabel dealt in part with this issue in her introduction to Records of times past.The essays in the volume including my own, are all concerned with Aboriginal culture in New England in the contact period and the last decades of the nineteenth century, the period of what Isabel called New England's protohistory, following the terminology of European prehistorians. This period was tragically short; traditional Aboriginal life-style and values could not withstand dispossession and culture shock.

The source material on which the essays are largely based are fragmentary, scattered, biased As Isabel notes, the detailed ethnohistorical sources in Australia generally belong to the periods and places of immediate contact such as Port Jackson. New England was settled too late to share in the historical record of detail, yet too early to benefit from the beginnings of serious anthropological investigation at the end of the nineteenth century. As with so much of New England's history, the region suffers from its isolation. However, that isolation and sense of identity were also critical to the drive that did emerge to record, document and explain.

The historical material that did survive within New England was often only known at local level. As Isabel notes, its very preservation was a tribute to local historians. When Isabel came to look at this material from 1960 as part of her interest in the prehistory of the region, she concluded that the careful collection and analysis of this material would not only salvage evidence otherwise in danger of destruction, but also provide study on a regional level to test Australia-wide hypothesis. "So began", she wrote, "a program of local ethnohistories as topics for research theses at honours and masters level". A similar program was begun by Professor Bill Hoddinott in the University of New England's English Department aimed at recording linguistic and mythological evidence.

I wrote of Isabel's work in Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England. There I said in part:       

Four years after Isabel’s arrival came the first thesis, Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers.

By 1978, UNE students had written at least 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD in 1967[24], laying the basis for a 1974 book, Aboriginal prehistory in New England[25]. This was followed in 1978 by book of essays, Records of Times Past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes[26] mainly written by her former students. This included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work. The story does not end there, for there were also journal articles and monographs, including her pioneering study with R A Binns, A petrological analysis of ground-edge artefacts from northern New South Wales[27].

The citation for her award in 2003 of the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology justly summarised her work this way:

Her work in New England was remarkable for its extent and depth, and Isabel's examination of the interface of archaeology and ethnography in the region shaped not only the approach taken by many later researchers but also prepared the basis for the arguments about upland regions created by archaeologists such as Sandra Bowdler and Luke Godwin[28].

Sadly, from the late seventies interest in New England studies began to decline. The reasons for this are complicated, but link to the decline in New England's sense of identity. However, that earlier work in ethnohistory, history and linguistics remains and provides a base for the current revival in interest. This leads to a new challenge.

New England is no longer a tabula rasa. The blank slate that existed when people like Isabel and Bill began their work is now covered with fine writing. This holds out the possibility of writing a new type of Aboriginal history, one focused on people and place, on the patterns of life.

Re-reading Records of times past after all these years, I am struck at just how unique this collection of essays was. I stand to be corrected, but I don't actually know of any other regional equivalent. Yet the book is, by its nature, a bit bitsy. It also deals with only part of the territory that I am interested in.

I am writing a general history, not a PhD thesis consolidating and updating earlier work. I cannot deal with everything. Yet I am constantly tantalised by the possibility that there is now enough material to write a new type of Aboriginal history, one that looks at the Aborigines as peoples across time and a specific geographical space.

The patterns are sometimes dim, the relationships uncertain, yet the people keep peeping through.

It is hard to believe, but it is now fifty years since Isabel came to UNE. Fifty years! It is twenty six years since Bill died so suddenly.

I sometimes despair a little at the limitations on time and ability that affect my writing. I know that I make errors.  Yet it would be nice to think that I could write at a standard that would recognise, extend, their work.

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