BACKGROUND TO THE PROJECT
"After the meeting some of the group went to La Perouse, where Pearl Gibbs had prepared several memorial wreaths. These were floated out to sea in a symbolic gesture of mourning for the oppression and defeat of the Aboriginal nations which had began 150 years before."
PALMA BRENDA DESCRIBING THE EVENTS OF THE 1938 ABORIGINAL DAY OF MOURNING AND PROTEST QUOTED IN LIFE IN GADIGAL COUNTRY, EDITED BY ANITA HEISS (MARRICKVILLE: GADIGAL INFORMATION SERVICE ABORIGINAL CORPORATION, 2002), 80.
In Australia there is a lack in the nation’s memorial landscape which public figures have called out since at least 1979 and which has been the subject of significant civic actions by elders, activists and artists (1). This is the silence at the Australian War Memorial and in public spaces across the country about the frontier wars: the massacres and protracted battles between the First Nations peoples of Australia and European colonists and non-Indigenous Australians that occurred between 1770 and 1934.
This absence reverberates when the international scene is considered and the plethora of national memorials to genocide, to fascism and to state violence that have been created in the last twenty years. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires and the District Six Museum in Cape Town are just some examples that have introduced new visual forms to address the complexities of representing traumatic histories and account for the disappeared. Such monuments have played a crucial role in shifting public memory and cultural understanding.
Since the 1970s Australia’s brutal history of Indigenous dispossession and survival has increasingly received public attention. Conservative estimates indicate 30,000 first peoples died in massacres, battles and executions but there are plenty of accounts that indicate there were over 100,000 deaths (2). Community memorials mark massacre sites at Myall Creek, Bluff Rock and a handful of other sites. There were a couple of official enquiries into massacres and other events of frontier violence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, there has never been a national enquiry into the extent and impact of the frontier wars. The Aboriginal Memorial made by 43 artists from Central Arnhem Land was finished in the bicentennial year (1988) and is now housed in the National Gallery of Australia. It consists of 200 traditional hollow log coffins each representing a year of European settlement and the first peoples who died defending their land.
Yet the frontier wars encompass more than the direct violence of armed conflict. There is sexual abuse, child removal, incarceration, slavery: all the physical manifestations of controlling the first peoples in order to dispossess including restricting the movement of people under the reserve system. And there is structural violence.
The term “the frontier wars” is contested by those who reduce the massacres and the battles to sporadic clashes between the first peoples and the settlers (3). These are often arguments about historical evidence and the technicalities of language: What constitutes war? What constitutes genocide? Yet as Marcia Langton has stated, to understand this past is to realise that Aboriginal people continue to live with it: “It is not an exercise in historiography alone”(4). Language is also vernacular. In Australia there is not a common language to describe this history and its ongoing impacts including a visual vocabulary and so it remains grossly misunderstood by non-Indigenous Australians.
There is a growing consensus to officially recognise the events of the frontier wars and how the actions of the first peoples in defending their lands, and of the colonists in invasion, have shaped what is known as Australia today. This effort is thwarted by the silence surrounding the frontier wars that has structured Australian national culture, history and politics for most of the twentieth century (5). This lack of representation continues today as evidenced by the gap in the national memorial landscape.
Furthermore, the proposition for a monument that is national is problematic given that the Australian continent is actually made up of hundreds of Aboriginal nations. On a cultural level, the diversity of First Nations peoples brings a myriad of cultural practices relating to remembrance and mourning, as well as different frontier experiences.
The need for public remembrance of the frontier wars is a significant topic many Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, academics, politicians and grass-roots people have voiced in public. As ambitious as it seems, given the range of Indigenous voices with chronologically disparate effects of the frontier, the consciousness of the lack of memorials to the frontier wars is, to many, a hidden injustice. When Australians flock to international sites of trauma from Cambodia to Poland, and from government acknowledgement and action like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is unbelievable that there is not a comparable memorial to one of the most respected Indigenous cultures of the world and public healing is not allowed. The actions of grass-roots people require visibility in an institutional level to allow for the joining and sharing of similar histories internationally. Australia then may take its place in an international consciousness of historical remembering to de-colonise and begin to address in proper terms the “unfinished business” of invasion.
- Geoffrey Blainey 1979 quoted in McKernan, M, Here Is Their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial, 1917-1990, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1991), 293; For a recent account see Henry Reynolds, The Forgotten War, (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2013). Currently the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has a petition running to officially acknowledge the frontier massacres https://www.change.org/p/australian-war-memorial-acknowledge-the-indigenous-frontier-massacres-during-colonisation
- Reynolds, op cit, 134.
- Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/talks-speeches/national-press-club-address/ .
- Marcia Langton, “Marcia Langton responds to Alexis Wright’s Breaking Taboos” in www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/emuse/taboos/langton2.html, published 1998.
- W.E.H. Stanner, After the dreaming: black and white Australians – an anthropologist’s view, (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969).