Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Aboriginal Families, Knowledge, and the Archives: A Case Study

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Aboriginal Families, Knowledge, and the Archives: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Professor Mick Dodson has written that as "the fulcrum and the map of indigenous law and power" Aboriginal kinship and family structures have been the target of "the unilateral seizure of power and tiie uninvited encroachment of the state."1 As an Indigenous minority within the Western state, Aboriginal families experienced "constant structural conflict" (2). Subjected to "systematic violation" (2) through direct and indirect state intervention, they have been denied the right to "live according to their culture and to transmit that culture" (4) and to preserve their knowledge and educate their children " ' in conformity with their own convictions' " (2). British invasion and colonization during the nineteenth century took Aboriginal lands by force, decimated communities, and undermined the foundations of their cultures. The consequent erosion of kinship structures and knowledge transmission continued during the twentieth century through direct government attacks on the Aboriginal family: children were forcibly taken and reared in institutions to become menial servants, never to return to their homes; assimilation policies in the 1950s and 1960s sought to truncate extended families into nuclear units living the 'Australian way of life' within the Australian nation. Aboriginal extended families survived despite this onslaught due to their vital role in providing economic and emotional support and security in a punitive racist environment and as a site of Aboriginal agency, resistance, and survival.

In the bureaucratic apparatus set up to govern Aboriginal populations, the model of the patriarchal settler family provided a vital classifying unit and tool of management in the record systems built up in most states and territories last century. Many Aboriginal family surnames today can be traced back to early record keepers who replaced personal and kinship names with patronymic surnames (often derived from employers or place of residence) and in this way tracked and ordered groups of people related by kinship and place.2 Most families adopted these names as their own. New surnames given to children removed from their families also endured. These surnames provided the basis for organizing thousands of records containing vast amounts of information about the families and their members assembled over the decades. Governments organized and managed this knowledge to suit their own purposes in executing their responsibilities and duties to Aboriginal families and in controlling and monitoring their activities. By appropriating and taking authority over this knowledge, they further eroded the authority of the family. Until recent decades, few Aboriginal families even knew of the existence of these records.

What is striking about the archives is the degree of totalitarian control, overt racism, and absence of accountability they evince concerning the history of past treatment of Aboriginal people. One can, then, express little wonder at the actions of governments in Queensland and Western Australia to quarantine and destroy files and even threaten to take legal action against researchers.3 But what is the value of this information, produced through a Western bureaucratic system of knowledge-creation, for Aboriginal families today? Governments continue to validate the records, and Aboriginal people are obliged to draw on them in formal procedures to prove Aboriginal identity, to make claims for native title, and to seek compensation for Stolen Generations and Stolen Wages and for family reunions. Yet Aboriginal researchers warn against the inherent biases and contradictions of these records. Steve Kinnane and Lauren Marsh4 note their "inherent subjectivity [... ] these archives speak from the voice of a European." For Lynette Russell, the Western and Aboriginal knowledge systems are "incommensurable ontologies"; nevertheless, she argues that "communication and decision-making" between Aboriginal people and archivists may enable Aboriginal researchers to reclaim the information as their own. …

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