Taken-For-Granted: Maps, Stories, Disruption

Jen Saunders

I live in a coastal NSW tourist town, where the historical narrative—presented in museums, tourist information, public art and civic infrastructure—is one of white settlers, agricultural success and genteel progress. This is not unusual and most Australian towns have versions of this peaceful settlement theme, in which pioneers are celebrated but the frontier is kept in soft focus. In my town, for example, one gap in the narrative is the pioneering patriarch’s interest in robbing graves of Aboriginal people and his collection of, and trade in, Aboriginal remains. For the past two decades I’ve been examining these types of evasions and erasures in South Coast NSW local histories, first through visual art, poetry and sound-works, and now via a Creative Writing PhD at University of Wollongong. I aim to disrupt the grip that the settler success story has on local histories but when I say disrupt, I don’t mean undermine, replace or deny  the settler stories of hard work and ingenuity which often make up local histories. Rather, I disrupt to ‘rattle’ those stories, to see what else is folded within or left out altogether.  

The works of Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Professor Mark Rifkin have provided ways to think through why disruption of local histories is necessary. Moreton-Robinson demands we “name and analyse whiteness in all texts to make it visible in order to disrupt its claims to normativity and universality” (2004, p. 87). Rifkin’s ‘settler common sense’ is the taken-for-granted, unmarked normality of settler claims to and possession of Indigenous land (and histories) which “saturate quotidian life” (2013, p. 323). The work of these two scholars helps me to make visible the ‘invisibility’ of settler knowledge production, of which I am—as a non-Aboriginal researcher and writer—a part.  It is the whiteness of local histories, unacknowledged and constantly reiterated, that Moreton-Robinson and Rifkin’s writing allows me to make visible and re-view through a combination of creative nonfiction writing and counter-mapping. This mixed methodology uses the self-reflective research-based requirements of creative nonfiction alongside the possibilities of GIS (geographic information systems), digital mapping and content analysis to tell more complex, difficult and layered local history narratives.

One version of my counter-mapping [Figure 1], shows three ‘layers’ of information about Aboriginal artefacts in south-eastern NSW. I have de-identified specific locations of sites, but the size of the ‘dots’ gives an idea of the concentration of recorded sites. Green denotes archival newspaper stories, blue is NSW State Government Fire Management Strategy documents, and red is drawn from cultural heritage assessment reports which are required for major NSW development applications (State of NSW 2010). All are settler records of Aboriginal material culture.

Figure 1

In an earlier project, looking at how Aboriginal objects are used in local museum collections to support a white settler point of view (Saunders 2019), I noticed that three words came up again and again: ‘curio’, ‘relic’ and ‘unearthed’. These three terms suggest rarity, age, excavation, or perhaps ancient treasure. The prevalence of these words in descriptions of Aboriginal objects in museums seemed too strange to ignore, so I ran them through Trove as my search terms and found over five hundred news items on Aboriginal artefacts in NSW, published between 1855 and 1992. To filter this result to the South Coast, I chose to base my ‘boundary’ on the definition of Yuin country in Jindaola: An Aboriginal way of embedding knowledges and perspectives (Kennedy et al, 2018) as that which stretches along the southeast coast of the continent between the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, and Mallacoota entrance in the south, bounded by the Pacific Ocean in the east and the mountains to the west. The decision on this ‘edge’, while informed by Jindaola, is my own, made for the purposes of analysis. Definitions of the Yuin nation are contested and, as a white researcher, my knowledge of Yuin country is not embodied or inherited. Mapmaking—an inherently selective process—therefore forces me to question my decisions and continually re-evaluate them as the map grows. I map to disrupt maps and stories, including my own.

After this filtering, I ended up with 170 news items from Yuin country, the earliest from 1856 and the latest from 1971. A common theme in these is the age, rarity and surprise of finding Aboriginal artefacts. However, a paradoxical theme which emerged was that such artefacts, far from being rare, were commonly ploughed up in paddocks, dug out in mine shafts, washed down creeks, stumbled over on bushwalks and ‘unearthed’. Newspapers were reporting that Aboriginal artefacts were everywhere but the terminology used in the stories suggested they were rare oddities, exposed by unusual (and therefore newsworthy) accident. This apparent mismatch between what was being reported and the language used in the reporting, led me to examine recurring themes and the most prevalent were expressions of Aboriginal people as primitive, ancient or extinct, and white people as the experts on and owners of knowledge, artefacts, and land. The articles are not devoid of admiration for Aboriginal makers’ skill—stone axes in particular, still with a ‘keen edge’, attract the most positive remarks—but the 61 terms of ‘praise’ are far outnumbered by those relating to Aboriginal people as extinct (219 variations on the theme of Aboriginal people as long-dead, long-gone, bygone, defunct, departed, vanished, long since passed, and long forgotten) or primitive (234 terms denoting savagery, carelessness and backwardness).

Figure 2

There are only twenty-two inclusions of a specific Aboriginal person and the majority of these are in the past tense. Only once, out of 170 stories, is a contemporary Aboriginal person’s point of view sought on Aboriginal material culture. In a 1932 story, an unnamed South Coast man is consulted on how to use a particular stone tool: “He was certainly well acquainted with the implement, and informed us that it was used for cutting down wooden spear-points and for making patterns on possum skins” (1932 Sydney Mail). Outweighing the mentions of Aboriginal people, are the 705 references to white experts, owners, collectors and discoverers. Clearly, the news of the day was demonstrating white possessive logic: “an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state’s ownership, control, and domination” (Moreton-Robinson 2015, p. xii).

The news stories are written in racist white settler language but despite this, they continue to hold knowledge about Aboriginal lives which can disrupt and deepen local narratives. I don’t bring these examples of racism into circulation again lightly. While a non-Aboriginal readers of this project may find the blatant racism startling, this will not be ‘news’ to Aboriginal readers. But by re-viewing these stories, other versions of place can be made visible. For example, an item in the 1885 Australian Town and Country, describes a brass chest plate. These items, also known as ‘king plates’, were strategically given by white officials and settlers to conciliate Aboriginal people (usually men) considered to be influential in their communities. Donaldson, Bursill and Jacobs point out that the practice was not one-sided as Aboriginal people were well aware the plates were a status symbol and considered it “gracious and prudent” to accept them (2017, p. 27). The Nerriga example is said to belong “to an aboriginal named Fisherman Joe, who was at one time king of Narrawalla or Corraby—or Curraboi (Ulladulla) as pronounced in the native tongue—who lost the token during one of his periodical visits to Nerriga. Billy Boy, his royal highness’s son, is still alive, residing in the Ulladulla district” (1885 Australian Town and Country Journal).

From this brief story, several pieces of information can be gleaned: an Aboriginal man known as Fisherman Joe was, to some, considered ‘king’ of Narrawalla; Narrawalla (now Narrawallee) was known as Corraby or Curraboi, and even perhaps Ulladulla; Fisherman Joe moved regularly between the coast and Nerriga (where the plate was found, east of Goulburn); Joe’s son was known as Billy Boy and he lived, in 1885, at Ulladulla. Looked at through an anti-colonial lens, this short piece of ‘news’ is less about a white man finding a ‘relic’ and more about interconnections between South Coast places, language and families.

If I zoom in [Figure 3] my map appears to show a concentration of sites containing Aboriginal artefacts along a section of major highway. Another close-up shows sites which seem to follow a fire-fighting access trail [Figure 4].

Figure 3
Figure 4

The stories and records making up this ‘counter-mapping’ show that Aboriginal material culture is not the surprise ‘find’ that settler colonial discourse indicates. Rather than simply being rare ‘relics’ or ‘curios’, Aboriginal culture—material, intangible, historic or ongoing—is ubiquitous. Or, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people keep telling the rest of us: always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

By rattling the records, and re-viewing what gets shaken loose, I aim to look at what it is to be ‘a local’ in a productive anti-colonial way. As a methodology for re-viewing  histories of place and communities, this combination of GIS and archival research provides not only a useful disruption but, I hope, a path for complicating local stories of place further along the track.

Jen Saunders is working on a PhD project at University of Wollongong entitled ‘But wait there’s more: counter-mapping place to disrupt local histories’.

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