Hard truths: Exploring Indigenous truth-telling in Australia

Media release

06 September 2023

A new report has found community-led truth-telling initiatives have contributed to a shift in the national narrative about Australia's colonial history, including a growing recognition of the frontier violence that accompanied colonisation.

The Recognising community truth-telling: An exploration of local truth-telling in Australia report, commissioned by Reconciliation Australia, found such initiatives helped to educate the Australian public about the significant contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to Australia's economic and cultural achievements.

Dr Vanessa Barolsky, the report's lead author and research fellow at the university's Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), said local communities across Australia had shown significant leadership in driving processes for truth-telling.

"The majority of the work has been led by First Nations communities and has required sustained effort over many years, often with few resources. This is an exceptional achievement," Dr Barolsky said.

"However, there is still much work to do, with many critical historical events and First Nations achievements remaining substantially unrecognised."

The report documents 25 community truth-telling projects, including 10 in-depth case studies that illustrate diverse grassroots engagement with the truths of colonial history, including more recent colonial violations such as the Stolen Generations.

These case studies provide easily understandable examples of what truth-telling looks like, what constitutes best practice and how to ensure safety and protection from re-traumatising.

The case studies come from across the continent and include the renaming of Moreland City Council as Merri-bek in Victoria, the 1816 massacre at Appin in NSW, the Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Training Home and the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in NSW.

It also includes the Freedom Day Festival, which celebrates the 'Wave Hill walk-off' in the Northern Territory and the story of Barbara Thompson, a young British woman shipwrecked in 1844 who lived with the Kaurareg on their Torres Strait homeland in Queensland.

Reconciliation Australia CEO Karen Mundine said her organisation was committed to facilitating communities across Australia to engage in truth-telling.

"Communities across the country have already shown enormous persistence in the task of truth-telling and we are determined to ensure these grass-roots initiatives continue and grow," she said.

"However, there is still much work to do. Many critical historical events and First Nations achievements remain unrecognised.

"Truth-telling is not just about Australia's violent colonial history but also about the timeless history of First Nations connections to and care for this continent and the vast contributions our people have made to Australia’s economic development, culture, and defence.

"This report tells us that truth-telling includes an extraordinary array of ongoing activity including community commemorations, festivals, memorial events, public artwork projects, repatriation of ancestors, return of land, renaming of places and the creation of healing sites."

Ms Mundine said community support for truth-telling was strong, with the latest Australian Reconciliation Barometer showing very high support for truth-telling among both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents (87%) and the general community (83%).

The ADI study offers important lessons for how the vision of truth-telling in the Uluru Statement may be realised and supported to build a fuller understanding of Australia’s history and the need for lasting structural transformations.

Ms Mundine said these lessons include the key role for local government and the importance of providing resources, emotional support, legal assistance, and access to historical records for individuals seeking to explore their own and their community's history.

"We must support communities, both First Nations and other Australians, to come together and recognise the often-brutal truth of what has happened in the past," she said.

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