Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"Fighting with Our Tongues": The Politics of Genre in Aboriginal Oral Histories

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"Fighting with Our Tongues": The Politics of Genre in Aboriginal Oral Histories

Article excerpt

I want to begin this paper, which examines the politics of genre in Aboriginal oral histories, by offering a brief account of the context that provoked its writing. I do this in order to outline this paper's historical conditions of production. Similarly, I have retained the traces of its oral delivery at the Oral History Association Meeting in Anchorage, Alaska (1999), as this paper was produced for, and consequently influenced by, the context of that conference.

In 1995 the University of Wollongong, situated in the Illawarra just south of Sydney, Australia, embarked on a program to offer a series of distance education degrees as part of the Professional and Graduate Education Consortium (PAGE). My brief was to turn my Honours and MA subject, Critical and Cultural Theories, into a distance education module. As part of the project, I was required to produce a series of videos based on the subject's content to be screened on the national Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) television channel.

The subject, Critical and Cultural Theories, is primarily concerned with introducing students to a variety of critical theories and methodologies which question the fundamental relation between knowledge and power. The subject is structured in such a manner that it begins by introducing students to the basic components of particular theories and then proceeds to ground the deployment of those theories in specific sociocultural contexts, in order to allow students to examine the operational worth or practical value of the respective theories. For example, having introduced students to colonial and postcolonial theories--as espoused, for example, in the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Ian Anderson--the class proceeds to examine the applicability of such theories in the Australian context.

I had only just begun the process of planning the production of my educational videos when, unexpectedly, a former student, Barbara Nicholson, whom I had taught many years earlier at the University of Newcastle, contacted me. Barbara had phoned to say "hello," and to mention the fact that she had moved back to Wollongong, her home. In the process of the conversation, Barbara, who is of the Wadi Wadi people, the Aboriginal people indigenous to the area now occupied by the city of Wollongong, began to unfold a moving and very disturbing story. Barbara began to recount the trials and tribulations that her family experienced in attempting to bury their much-loved Auntie, Joan Wakeman. (The term "Auntie" in Aboriginal communities is a term of respect used for female elders; it transcends blood-relations, as an Auntie can also fulfil the role of mother to any Aboriginal children who come into the community. (1)) Auntie Joan, as one of the elders of the Wadi Wadi, was a towering figure in the Wollongong Aboriginal community. It was Auntie Joan who began the process of researching and recovering the Wadi Wadi people's Aboriginal history in the face of the violent processes of colonial dispossession and assimilation. Through her assiduous research and archival work, Auntie Joan had managed to gather enough evidence to mount a land claim for an area known as Coomaditchie, the traditional home of the Wadi Wadi. The land claim has been wending its torturous way through the law courts since the mid-1990s.

In her phone conversation, Barbara retold the racist discrimination that her family experienced in attempting to secure a burial for Auntie Joan. When the family approached the funeral parlour which had previously buried other members of the Wadi Wadi, the director of the funeral parlour announced that he refused to bury Joan Wakeman as another Aboriginal family, not related to the Wadi Wadi, had failed to pay the total amount owing for a previous funeral. The funeral director stressed he would only bury Auntie Joan if the family paid upfront the full amount before the burial--all this despite the fact that Barbara's family had used the services of the same funeral parlour for a number of years and had never left any outstanding debts for services rendered by the funeral parlour. …

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