Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Subversive Witnessing: Mediating Indigenous Testimony in Australian Cultural and Legal Institutions

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Subversive Witnessing: Mediating Indigenous Testimony in Australian Cultural and Legal Institutions

Article excerpt

Like many other nations, Australia has been engaged in a painful reckoning with a shameful past. In the past fifteen years, questions concerning the removal of Indigenous children from their families, known as the "stolen generations," the extent of frontier violence, and whether genocide occurred in Australia have been central to the public controversy over how the story of "settlement" or "invasion" should be narrated. Testimony has played a crucial role in this confrontation with the past, as Indigenous Australians have been called upon to testify to past injustices and their continuing legacies in the present. In the 1980s and 1990s Aboriginal women pioneered the use of personal testimony in memoirs, bringing into visibility "forgotten" practices of child removal.1 Aboriginal organizations such as Link-Up, which helps separated individuals locate family members, also published collections of "stolen generations" testimony (see, for instance, Edwards and Read 1989; Link-Up and Wilson 1997). It was not, however, until 1996, when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) conducted a National Inquiry into the policies, practices, and effects of removing children of mixed descent from their mothers and communities, to be forcibly assimilated into white Australian culture, that testimony achieved national prominence. In 1997, HREOC published its moving report, Bringing Them Home (Wilson 1997), which exposed the brutality, loneliness, and loss of family, identity, culture, and language that was experienced by children who had been removed. Although the report drew on international human rights law to argue, controversially, that child removal constituted cultural genocide, in foregrounding victim testimony, it participated in a global trend in which claims of historical injustice are articulated through personal stories of suffering.2

In court, testimony is subjected to an adversarial process of crossexamination, which is meant to reveal whether the witness is reliable, and whether there are significant gaps or contradictions in the testimony, which may invalidate it. By contrast, semijudicial processes such as truth commissions and national inquiries tend to take a dialogic approach, in which to testify is "to address another, to impress upon a listener, to appeal to a community" (Felman and Laub 1992, 204). In this conception, "witness" refers both to the person who gives testimony and to the secondary witness who receives it. Listening and acknowledging the other's suffering and loss are crucial aspects of the testimonial exchange. In asking Australians to "listen . . . with an open heart and mind" to stories of Indigenous suffering and trauma, the Bringing Them Home report presented testimony as a dialogic process with social, political, historical, and ethical significance, rather than simply a matter of fact-finding (Wilson 1997, 3). Predictably, some conservative critics and journalists challenged the legitimacy of the testimonies on the grounds that witnesses were not subject to a judicial process of cross-examination.3 The Australian public, however, responded to the call to bear witness, turning out in large numbers to express their regret by signing Sorry Day books, participating in reconciliation walks, and offering other symbolic gestures. As historian Robert Manne has noted, "No inquiry in recent Australian history has had a more overwhelming reception or ... a more culturally transforming impact. ... It soon seemed to many Australians that no historical question was of greater importance than the stolen generations" (2001, 5-6).

The National Inquiry held out considerable promise for the power of witnessing to heal Aboriginal individuals and communities, to unify the nation in confronting the past, and to contribute to the ongoing process of reconciliation. It also played a powerful role in legitimating Indigenous testimony as a significant historical and cultural form. For instance, it recommended that the federal government provide funding to collect oral histories from members of the "stolen generations," their adoptive parents and carers, and patrol officers and missionaries. …

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