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Opinion

Why is truth-telling so important?

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By Vanessa Barolsky and

Truth-telling is a key demand in the Uluru Statement and is seen as a vital step for a treaty. However, there has been ongoing debate as to whether historical injustices against First Nations peoples need to be addressed today.

Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer Teela Reid posed a question in a 2020 essay, is Australia ready to Gari Yala (speak truth) and reckon with its past?

Truth-telling can take the form of memorial and commemorative events, repatriation of remains and cultural artefacts, the renaming of places, and the creation of public artworks and healing sites. A recent example is the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s truth-telling commission.

We found when non-Indigenous people participated in truth-telling with First Nations communities, it helped build a deeper shared understanding of the past and the achievements of First Nations peoples. This is why truth-telling is a collective social responsibility.

But there is still much work to do. Many important historical events and First Nations achievements remain largely unrecognised. Sustained funding and support and the recognition of Australia’s difficult historical truths are crucial.

Our research focused on documenting community truth-telling that reclaimed First Nations sovereignty and self-determination, as well as recognising colonial violence.

In the MacArthur region of New South Wales, reconciliation group Winga Myamly worked to make sure the 1816 Appin massacre on Dharawal Country is recognised and commemorated annually.

In the massacre, at least 14 (likely more) Aboriginal men, women and children were killed by members of a British Army regiment. The regiment chased the group to nearby cliffs at Cataract Gorge where many jumped to their deaths.

The 2019 commemoration brought together Dharawal Elder Aunty Glenda Chalker, a descendent of Giribunger, one of the survivors of the massacre, and Sandy Hamilton, descended from Stephen Partridge, who served with the regiment that carried out the attack.

In Portland, Victoria, a towering gum leaf sculpture, Mayapa Weeyn (meaning “make fire”) was erected near the site of the Convincing Ground massacre. This is where between 20 and 200 members of the Kilcarer Gunditj clan were killed by British whalers.

The sculpture recognises all 59 Gunditjmara clans, many of whom were killed during the Eumeralla Wars that followed the Convincing Ground massacre. Gunditjmara Elder Walter Saunders, who designed the sculpture, spent two years building it and talking with local residents in an informal process of truth-telling.

Our study found truth-telling is more effective when it occurs through immersive experiences. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices, such as smoking ceremonies, walking on Country, storytelling and personal engagements with survivors, contributed to healing, dialogue and a deeper shared understanding of history.

Through these events Indigenous people deepened their connections to community, history and Country and non-Indigenous people learned about these connections from them. The increasing attendance at events such as the Appin massacre memorial, the Mannalargenna Day Festival and similar commemorations is evidence of the impact of this type of truth-telling.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long called for Australia’s history to be told truthfully.

While truth-telling does not guarantee reconciliation, the participants in our study stressed that meaningful reconciliation cannot occur without it. They emphasised the importance of reconciliation between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities because for some people these relationships have never existed, or are in need of repair.

Truth-telling is also crucial for political and social transformation. For example, the Queensland government is using truth-telling to help inform the path to Treaty. In Victoria, the Yoorrook Justice Commission is investigating historic and ongoing injustices experienced by First Nations peoples, alongside ongoing Treaty negotiations.

Community truth-telling can demonstrate the power of Indigenous identity and self-determination. It can also counter past attempts to erase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Australian history.

Truth-telling highlights the crucial roles and contributions of First Nations peoples. Their acts of bravery and sacrifice, resistance against colonialism and contributions to communities.

Although some local governments have played a key role in supporting truth-telling, more support for local initiatives is required.

 

Vanessa Barolsky is Research Associate and  is Professor of Race Relations, Deakin University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence

 

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