Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Waiting at the Border: White Filmmaking on the Ground of Aboriginal Sovereignty

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Waiting at the Border: White Filmmaking on the Ground of Aboriginal Sovereignty

Article excerpt

Introduction

There is a photo of Truganini, the so-called 'last Tasmanian Aborigine', with cropped hair and wearing a shell necklace, her intense gaze meeting the viewer's eyes, defying the colonial fantasy of her own or her people's passing. Her gaze demands a response.1 Jeni Thomley's poetic filmic essay, Island Home Country (2008), could be thought of as one such, albeit belated, response. Thomley is driven by the question of how she can connect the war against Aboriginal people with her peaceful family memories of growing up in Tasmania, Australia. As a documentary maker, she undertakes a filmic journey to learn about what she seemingly didn't know: the disturbing history of colonial Tasmania, erased during her own 1950s childhood. Thomley is confounded by how to negotiate ethically and affectively all that she has come to learn about her childhood home and Aboriginal protocols. Nearing the end of the film, the Palawa elder2 Jim Everett asks and answers, "Well, how do you become responsible?":

Well it's simple. It's like the old traditions where one Aboriginal group visited another, they waited at the borderline, the boundary of that cultural country, until they were invited in.3

I want to begin at the end: with waiting as a practice of responsibility and ethics. Waiting at the border is dependent upon some form of recognition of another country and sovereignty. The moment of 'impossibility' of recognizing the sovereignty of Aboriginal laws, Irene Watson writes, provides Australians with an opportunity to take responsibility and create an opening to a fiiture that has not existed before.4 What clues might Thomley's stepping onto tiie ground of impossibility offer up for settlers' becoming responsible? Engaging with the 'impossibility' of Indigenous sovereignty, Thomley says, "I lose my thread, the film is dissolving."5 Is dissolving different from, and more ethically productive than, white worrying and anxiety? I want to examine whether "dissolving' might be a way to unlearn and re-invent new models for knowing 'our' place, and in so doing forging anti-colonial modes of coexistence.

After Truganini, there were no Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Or so Australians were taught at school. (A strange acknowledgement of mainland Aboriginal people.) Tasmania was to bear the horror of colonialism for the rest of tiie country. Truganini, of the Nuenone people, died in 1876 in Hobart, and she was heralded as the last Tasmanian Aboriginal. Her passing ushered in the myth of the imminent extinction of all Aboriginal people. But, as Andrys Onsman writes, "her death began long before her final breath."6 The Black War (c.1828-32), was a time of mass killings by the colonists, and came close to annihilating the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.7 The Black Line, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur's initiative of forming a human chain of able-bodied male colonists to herd Aboriginal people onto the Tasman Peninsula, might have failed, but it succeeded in galvanizing the settlers and sending a message to the Aboriginal people that the colonial force was intent on dispossession and destruction. Except for a few, the Black War is undisputed by scholars, but the nineteenth-century scientific conviction that Tasmanian Aboriginals were a doomed race persists. As Greg Lehman writes,

For Aborigines in Tasmania, the period [over the last two centuries] has been about defending a place called home, and then, following profound displacement, reclaiming that place.8

Early in Thomley's film Island Home Country, the Palawa elder Jim Everett recalls:

We always knew we were blackfellas because we were treated like blackfellas at school and in public & stuff. But we didn't know what kind because my parents and grandparents wouldn't talk about where our roots as black people come from. And I always suspected, although we're at school, we're being taught there are no Tasmanian Aboriginals. So what the devil are we. When I got back here and met our mob on Flinders Island, I knew straight away. …

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