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Maintaining History: The Gurindji People's "Truthful Histories"

Ways of Maintaining History

Where does "history" come from? We know, by definition, that history comes from the past. But how does it come to us? To put it another way, how do we experience the past? History always realizes itself in the present because without human efforts to perform the events and experiences of the past, the past never becomes a history. History has been explored, crafted, expressed, and maintained constantly by people all round the world within the sphere of the present. The ways of maintaining history directly influence the shape of the past that we experience in present.

In many "Western" and "Westernized" societies, history-maintenance has been largely dominated and "authenticated" by professional academic historians. (Historical monuments are crafted by artists and museums are mostly managed by governments, of course.) In terms of identifying the "historical truth" we normally rely on professional historians’ work conducted in archives and libraries. A handful of professional historians are the mediators connecting a supposedly distanced and disconnected past and present. But there is an alternative mode of maintaining histories. While visiting Gurindji country to learn their law and history, I realized that the Gurindji people maintain their histories in a remarkably different way.

Many Gurindji people today live in Daguragu and Kalkaringi communities in the Gurindji country located in the upper reaches of the Victoria River of Australia’s Northern Territory. During my stay in Gurindji country, people taught me histories when and where the past spoke to them. When we were driving to the fishing spot and passing near the hill, for example, they pointed to it and told me that many Gurindji were killed there by whitefella’s shootings in the "early days." When my friend George Sambo visited the old Wave Hill station where his late elderly relatives had worked for the settlers’ pastoralists, he told me that he sensed their spirits coming to him and telling him not to worry about them. In the Gurindji country, the past is not disconnected from the present and waiting for someone to find it. It is actively connected (through the hill or spirits, for example) to the present. The present (the life of Gurindji people) is likewise actively connected to the past.

In Western societies, professional historians working in archives constitute the only"present." The present is active and the past merely passive. A clear binary exists between historians as subject searching for the past and the past as object to be searched for by historians. In Gurindji country, the process of crafting a history is more interactive; the past is as active as the present. "Historians" in Gurindji country do not look for the past, but pay attention to it. The past is constantly active around them and speaks to them in everyday life. To maintain history, they learn to connect themselves to the past and to interact with it. Deborah B. Rose (1999) speaks of the ethics of "taking notice" in the Aboriginal practice of caring for their countries. In many of her works (1992, 1996), Rose emphasizes the inter-connective reciprocal relationship among living beings (including both human and non-human) and the land. The interaction between the past and the present occurs in much the same manner in the Aboriginal (at least the Gurindji) historical practice. The past is not dead but alive quite literally.

Gurindji Colonial History

One of the favorite stories told me by Gurindji elders was the story of the Wave Hill flood. When we went fishing at Seven Mile Creek where kurraj (rainbow snake) lives, or when we had a heavy rain in the community, this particular past seemed to come into the present as people began to talk and share the story.

In February 1924, the first Wave Hill station at Lipananyku near the bank of the Victoria River was washed away in a big flood.1 It was one of those years that the Gurindji people were working for whitefella at Lipananyku. In that particular year, there was little rain for a long time in the area. There was no grass for buluki (cattle) and horses. A Gurindji man called Tinker was "a proper clever man [sorcerer, wizard]," and he decided to make a big rain. In order to make rain, you need a "rainstone." The Gurindji elders in Daguragu showed me some rainstones, crystal stones found in certain places on their land. The easiest way to make rain is to fill up water in a billycan and put a rainstone underwater ("cook’em rainstone"). The rain will then come. But what Tinker did at that time was much more elaborate. He went to the Seven Mile waterhole where a kurraj had been living. He dived into the water and found the kurraj. Tinker explained how dry the country was and then handed over the rainstones and asked the kurraj to make a big rain. The next day, rain started and it kept raining for four days and four nights. Soon Tinker realized that the rain was too heavy. He stopped it by warming both his hands at the fire (this is how rain is stopped), but the damage had been done. The old Wave Hill station was washed away. Tinker’s intention was to make rain for buluki, but he ended up drowning them. Giving rainstones to kurraj causes too much rain.

The elderly women discussed this and told me, "Give’m rainstone make’m too much rain. No good!" When Peter Raymond took me to Lipananyku, he told the story of the Wave Hill flood and said to me, "Karlipirri father [Tinker] no good." Though the Gurindji elders agree that Tinker did too much, they told me about Tinker’s "fault" with some amusement.

It is obvious and rational in Gurindji country that Dreaming beings have been as active as humans throughout the colonial history. Kurraj is one of those active historical (and contemporary) agents. Even in January 1998, the Katherine township was flooded because someone killed kurraj. Since Dreaming has always been interacting with people, the Gurindji people have interacted with Dreaming all over the country, even under colonial rule. When heavy rain comes, people pay attention to the past that relates to kurraj. History there is maintained through multiple interactions--interactions between Dreaming beings and humans, between colonial and sacred geography, and between the past and present.

"Experiential Historical Truthfulness"

Histories from Gurindji country impress but confuse in two ways: the way they interact with the "active past," and the way they interact with "supernatural" beings. Such histories have not been long acknowledged by conventional Western/academic historians because the past, for them, is disconnected from the present and because the supernatural should never be an historical agent. They may call the Gurindji people’s histories myths or, at best, politely say, "I respect your beliefs but they are not mine." (See Chakrabarty, 2000)

We should ask, however, what Gurindji/Aboriginal historical practices mean to us. Despite the fundamental difference between Gurindji and academic practices, history-space is so plural that the Western mode of historical practice cannot monopolize the historical representation of the past in its entirety; as Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) suggests, we must acknowledge the "limits of history." A humble admission by academic historians that they do not fully understand an indigenous group is evidence of "cultural survival." If the gap is there, then "culture" survives.

And the story is still more complex. Because we are all living in an era of globalization and cultural interaction, the Gurindji people and many other Aboriginal people are facing the inflow of Western practice and information. The resulting hybridization in Gurindji country is so powerful and continuous as to be unavoidable. I am in no position to judge whether the influx of Western culture is desirable for indigenous societies, but I can say that such hybridization is one-sided; Western/academic history has refused to be hybridized. This lack of balance reveals the global and national power structure of Western hegemony. In this context, historians’ acknowledgment of the so-called limits of history is not good enough; historians must seek ways of bridging the gap between the different modes of history.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2001) calls for making a distinction between "historical truth" and "historical truthfulness." Historical truth has been assumed to be external, objective, and accessible by the historian. Morris-Suzuki argues that this assumption is illusory "not because there is no historical truth but because historical truth is inexhaustible." Historical truthfulness, on the other hand, is situated within "a relationship between the enquiring subject and the object of enquiry." The process of historical enquiry as well as the positionality and biases held by historians become the focus of critical attention.

Communication between history-spaces can be facilitated through historical truthfulness. The Western/academic/secular mode of history normally searches for historical truth in accordance with its empirical tradition. Considered objective and civilizing, historical truth is exclusive and colonial. Historical truthfulness requires of the historian openness and honesty about her present position and biases. Experiential historical truthfulness is open to the "other." Through this process, historians acknowledge a difference, but share it mutually. As Gurindji elders Mick Rangiari said: "Yes, you learn kartiya [whites/settlers] way and ngumpin [Aboriginal] way. Don’t matter where you from in the world, we should live together, work together. Very hard, but gradually, we understand each other."



1. The year this incident occurred was recorded in the newspaper. I acknowledge Darrell Lewis who gave me the information from documentary sources. It should be emphasized, however, that the Gurindji do not identify the exact "year" of an event.

I would like to thank the Aboriginal people of Daguragu and Kalkaringi for their generosity and support of my study. My fieldwork was made possible largely through grants from the research fellowships of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for Young Scientists, and the Northern Territory History Awards. Thanks are also due to Philippa Webb, Sujanti Pranoto and Jinki Trevillian for reading the manuscript and making a number of helpful suggestions.

Minoru Hokari is a postdoctoral fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and a visiting fellow in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. His doctoral project was oral historical research about the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory. He is currently researching the historical and contemporary relationship between Japanese and indigenous Australians.

References & further reading

Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (2001). Truth, Postmodernism and Historical Revisionism in Japan. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 2:2, pp 297-305.

Rose, D.B. (1992). Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Aboriginal Australian Culture. Cambridge, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, D.B. (1996). Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.

Rose, D.B. (1999). ‘Taking Notice’ Worldviews. Environment, Culture and Perspectives 3:2, pp 93-103.

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