Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Story One Pemulwuy
- Chapter 1 Pemulwuy as a pan-Aboriginal hero
- Chapter 2 Legacies of resistance in Rachel Perkins’ First Australians and Grant Leigh Saunders’ Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws
- Story Two Jandamarra
- Chapter 3 The three lives of Jandamarra: Archivists, copycats and custodians
- Chapter 4 Performing resistance
- Chapter 5 “Keeping story alive”: Screening the voice of Bunuba Country in Mitch Torres’ Jandamarra’s War and Keepers of the Story
- Story Three Yagan
- Chapter 6 Defacing colonial sovereignty in Sally Riley’s Confessions of a Headhunter
- Chapter 7 Breaching into the settler colonial city: Re-enacting crosshatch history in Kelrick Martin’s Yagan
- Conclusion Reflections from Yagan Square
- Series index
Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan
in Australian Indigenous Film,
Theatre and Literature
Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • New York • Wien
Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche National-bibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
A CIP catalogue record for this book has been applied for at the Library of Congress.
Cover image: Still from Yagan. Directed by Kelrick Martin. Produced by David Jowsey, Spear Point Productions, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 2013.
Cover design by Peter Lang Ltd.
ISBN 978-1-78874-541-3 (print) • ISBN 978-1-78874-542-0 (ePDF)
ISBN 978-1-78874-543-7 (ePub) • ISBN 978-1-78874-544-4 (mobi)
© Peter Lang AG 2019
Published by Peter Lang Ltd, International Academic Publishers,
52 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LU, United Kingdom
Matteo Dutto has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this Work.
All rights reserved.
All parts of this publication are protected by copyright.
Any utilisation outside the strict limits of the copyright law, without the permission of the publisher, is forbidden and liable to prosecution.
This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming, and storage and processing in electronic retrieval systems.
This publication has been peer reviewed.
Matteo Dutto is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. His current research explores how cultural producers collaborate with Indigenous, migrant and multiethnic communities to produce transmedia and transcultural counter-narratives of belonging and identity. His work has been published in Studies in Documentary Film and Fulgor and he recently collaborated on the production of the Australian Indigenous Film and Television (AIFTV) online knowledge sharing platform (aiftv-research.net).
About the book
This book explores the ways in which Australian Indigenous filmmakers, performers and writers work within their Indigenous communities to tell the stories of early Indigenous resistance leaders who fought against British invaders and settlers, thus keeping their legacies alive and connected to community in the present. It offers the first comprehensive and trans-disciplinary analysis of how the stories of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan (Bidjigal, Bunuba and Noongar freedom fighters, respectively) have been retold in the past forty years across different media. Combining textual and historical analysis with original interviews with Indigenous cultural producers, it foregrounds the multimodal nature of Indigenous storytelling and the dynamic relationship of these stories to reclamations of sovereignty in the present. It adds a significant new chapter to the study of Indigenous history-making as political action, while modelling a new approach to stories of frontier resistance leaders and providing a greater understanding of how the decolonizing power of Indigenous screen, stage and text production connects past, present and future acts of resistance.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Index←viii | ix→
These words mark my fifth year living in the countries of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I therefore want to pay my respects to all their elders past, present and emerging, who at different moments throughout these years welcomed me to their homeland. Most importantly, I want to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people’s ongoing and uninterrupted sovereignty and connection with their countries.
First and foremost, I wish to thank my colleagues and mentors at Monash University for their support and encouragement. Special thanks in particular to Therese Davis and Belinda Smaill who have offered their guidance and support from the very early days of this project, when we first met in Prato (Italy) during a conference, to its final completion. Their extensive feedback on many drafts and all the insightful discussions we had over the past years were crucial not just to push this book into unexpected and challenging directions, but for my personal growth as a scholar. My profoundest thanks to them both.
I also need to thank the Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural producers and sovereign artists who agreed to be interviewed for this project: Mitch Torres, Kelrick Martin, Sally Riley, Steve Hawke and Grant Leigh Saunders. This book owes a big debt not only to their time and helpfulness, but to their courageous works and to the opportunities they gave me to expand my thinking and reshape my sense of self in relation to the country where I now live.
Thanks also to my good friends and colleagues Dan Edwards, Shweta Kishore, Belinda Glynn and Felicity Collins. Working with them on the Monash “Under Construction” seminar series and postgraduate conference allowed me to continuously fine-tune my research and writing skills and their support and feedback has been essential throughout these years. Particular thanks here to my copy-editor Belinda Glynn, for going the extra mile in helping to shape the final version of this book. I am most grateful←ix | x→ also to the editor of this book series, Anne Brewster, for her work in furthering interdisciplinary approaches to the study of Australian history and culture as well as her interest and belief in my work. Thanks, too, to the team at Peter Lang Oxford for their support and patience in bringing this project to publication and to Studies in Documentary Film for allowing me to draw on a previously published article.
I also wish to thank my family for always standing by my choices, guiding me when I needed it and giving me the freedom to pursue my own interests when I wanted to. Finally, to my muse, companion and wife, Enza. Thanks for inspiring this project and joining me in this travel. This work would never have been possible without your powerful insight, our late-night discussions and your genuine love and enthusiasm for everything I do. Mercés.←x | 1→
Kill the legend
With your acute cynicisms
Your paternal superfluities
With your unwise wisdom.
— Kevin Gilbert, “People Are Legends” (1971)
It’s 16 July 2014 and I’m at the Sydney Opera House, thinking about the story of Jandamarra, the young Bunuba warrior who between 1894 and 1897 led his people’s armed resistance against the English invasion of Bunuba Country, today part of the Kimberley in Western Australia. The last notes of Jandamarra: Sing for the Country, Ngalanyba Muwayi.u, the epic cantata created by the Bunuba people of Fitzroy Crossing in collaboration with writer Steve Hawke and composer Paul Stanhope to celebrate the life and legacy of their leader, are still echoing across the concert hall as the audience rises to their feet, applauding the actors, dancers, singers and musicians with a standing ovation. I recall the words of Wiradjuri artist and activist Kevin Gilbert in his poem “People Are Legends” and consider that perhaps revitalizing Jandamarra’s legend is what Bunuba elders Banjo Woorunmurra and Johnny Marr had in mind when they founded Bunuba Productions Aboriginal Corporation, now Bunuba Cultural Enterprises, to retell his story “to the world through Bunuba eyes” (Bunuba Cultural Enterprises “Background”). Like many other stories of early resistance against the invasion and colonization of Indigenous country, the legend of this young Bunuba warrior was taken away from Bunuba Country, stripped from its roots and assimilated into the colonial archives as the story of Pigeon, the bandit who terrorized the Kimberley through works like Ion Idriess’ 1952 novel Outlaws of the Leopolds. Yet, through the work of Woorunmurra, Marr and of the many other Bunuba elders and leaders who followed in←1 | 2→ their footsteps, the story of Jandamarra has been brought back to his country and retold through historical books, plays, documentaries, songs and children and young adult novels created in collaboration with a variety of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and historians.1
The story of Jandamarra is one of the many accounts of the armed resistance that marked the early years of invasion and colonization in Australia and, like others, it is one with profound cultural, social and political implications not only for our understanding of Australia’s past but of its present and future. As Bunuba leader and current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, reflecting on the legacy of Jandamarra’s story, argues:
This history teaches us that no matter how much we lost during what is widely referred to in the Kimberley as the killing times, we were not defeated. When a stand is made that was as strong as the Bunuba, it is never final. Their call for justice, freedom and equality sings out across time. (“Encountering Truth: The Real Life Stories of Objects from Empire’s Frontier and Beyond”)
As explained by Oscar, these are not just stories confined to a distant and inaccessible past but legacies with a tangible impact in the present and part of the ongoing struggle for the recognition of Indigenous land rights, cultures and sovereignty in Australia.
As I exit the Opera House, I look over Tuhbowgule and the rest of the bay that shapes the country of the Eora nation.2 The story of Jandamarra←2 | 3→ connects with that of the Bidjigal leader Pemulwuy, who first fought against the British invaders almost a century before the birth of Jandamarra and who must have at some point looked over the same bay, perhaps from the same place where I now stand. I am a visitor from overseas, an Italian researcher with a profound love of storytelling and a particular fascination with stories of resistance, and it is in this particular moment that I fully understand just how these stories can shape our perception of the place we live and our sense of identity. I remember the Nigerian poet and writer Ben Okri, who has famously argued that “stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations” (112). Like Okri, I’ve always believed that stories do matter and the story I am telling here is about the need to modify the way we, as non-Indigenous Australians, listen to and frame stories of resistance to understand them properly and thus engage with their contemporary legacies.
Legacies of Indigenous Resistance looks at stories of Australian Indigenous resistance leaders and at how new retellings of these stories across different media by Indigenous directors, playwrights, writers, musicians and scholars counter colonial appropriations of Indigenous histories not just to retell the stories of these historical figures but to also restore their legend and celebrate their legacy, thus continuing the fight they began. To do this, I engage with the literary, theatrical and filmic incarnations of Pemulwuy, Yagan and Jandamarra: the Eora, Bunuba and Noongar “freedom fighters” (as they are known within their respective Indigenous communities) who, along with many other men and women, confronted the British settlers and local police forces to defend their countries from the early years of colonization up until the end of the nineteenth century. At the heart of my work is the central concern of the social power of storytelling. Much has been written about how stories shape understandings of reality and identity, what is remembered of them and why, and how people act upon this knowledge. I will address these issues in more depth←3 | 4→ throughout this book, but for now I would like to clarify my starting position by aligning it with that of political scientist Eric Selbin, who argues that “we are inseparable from the stories we tell” and that “in the end, stories are everything; and everything, in some form or another, is a story” (6). Selbin’s scholarship is concerned in particular with stories of resistance, revolution and rebellion and he proposes that these stories be understood as one, if not the most important factor, for the emergence of rebellions, revolutions and resistance movements, ultimately suggesting that without stories of resistance, there can be no resistance (78).
Building on this approach, this book explores how stories of Indigenous resistance can be understood not only as accounts of historical resistance from the past but as cultural and decolonizing acts of contemporary resistance in the present. My research shows that as acts of cultural resistance, these stories serve different purposes and embody different strategies depending on the person who retells them, the time and place in which they are retold and on the audience receiving them. What I have learned by reading, listening, watching and engaging with them is that they are strategically retold at various times to campaign for self-determination and sovereignty in the present, to educate and instil a sense of pride in the younger generations and to ensure that the legacies of these Indigenous leaders and freedom fighters are taken up by them. As such, they are a crucial part of the ongoing struggle for decolonization as well as a key element of the contemporary sense of Indigenous identity. These are not just counter-histories but stories that challenge non-Indigenous understandings of what historiography and storytelling is. They emerge from and operate across different sets of epistemologies and are the expression of a radical alterity in the way in which they present the relations between past and present, between sacred and historical elements and between Indigenous country and colonized land. As such, they have the potential to produce a shift in the way in which non-Indigenous Australians look not only at the past but also at the present and, most importantly, at the future of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.←4 | 5→
Resistance stories as cultural resistance
In what is one of the most original and provocative contributions to the debate on Australian Indigenous history, Indigenous scholar Tony Birch argues that the Australian “history wars” – the ongoing public debate about how the British invasion of the Indigenous sovereign nations of Australia should be remembered, taught and addressed – never sought to analyse and question the nature of Australian historiography as a discipline (“War on a History War”). This debate was instead a political struggle over “footnotes” that had no interest in re-establishing the “historical truth” of Indigenous experiences and the ongoing impact of that violence (21). He notes how the conflict was between one group of historians who sought the primacy of a national history that celebrated the efforts and exploits of white pioneers and another group that condemned the invasion and dispossession of Indigenous Australians by the settlers. In both cases, he explains, the discussion was conducted within a single cultural framework, that of traditional empirical historiography. Birch suggests that by keeping the debate within a strictly white history perspective and by denying legitimacy to Indigenous voices, the connection between past and present has effectively been severed, thus making it impossible, in his words, “to recognize the impact of ongoing denials of a history of state violence on young Indigenous people in Australia today” (26). As Birch argues, in an arena dominated by non-Indigenous historical practices and academics, the contribution of Indigenous-authored historiographies, motivated by the crucial social and political need for recognition of the present and the past, is too often overlooked or at best relegated to the role of “minor history” and thus re-accommodated into dominant positivist discourses.
The scholarship of Birch and of other Indigenous historians like Larissa Behrendt, Gordon Briscoe and Bruce Pascoe draws attention to the exclusion of Indigenous perspectives on the past from the public and scholarly debates around Australian Indigenous history (Behrendt Finding Eliza; Briscoe; Pascoe). These scholars call for new ways of understanding the nation’s shared past that do not necessarily revolve around who holds the “true history” but that can instead facilitate the creation of links between←5 | 6→ stories of colonial violence and the continuing struggle for recognition and sovereignty. As Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains in her landmark 1999 book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, indigenous history-making practices are motivated by radically different reasons and expressed through forms that differ at an epistemological level from non-indigenous historiographies. As she puts it:
It is not simply about giving an oral account or a genealogical naming of the land and the events which raged over it, but a very powerful need to give testimony to and restore a spirit, to bring back in to existence a world fragmented and dying. The sense of history conveyed by these approaches is not the same thing as the discipline of history, and so our accounts collide, crash into each other. (29)
Furthermore, in the past, Indigenous history has been interpreted as a form of myth and/or marginalized as oral history and incorporated into Western accounts after being neutralized through the adoption of methodologies that pursue objectivity and truth and do not pay attention to embedded cultural values and to the impact that those stories have in the present (Beckett; Peters-Little “Introduction”). As a result of this, Indigenous people in Australia are routinely portrayed as “without history,” as if they were from another time, and/or relegated to the past as a distant chapter in Australian national history.
In response to this, Australian Indigenous artists, filmmakers, performers and scholars, such as Rachel Perkins, Mitch Torres, Kelrick Martin and Eric Willmot, have long collaborated with local Indigenous communities to retell Indigenous history from Indigenous perspectives through novels, plays and films. As Kamilaroi and Uralarai scholar and filmmaker Frances Peters-Little notes, film has been one of the most important mediums through which Indigenous voices were able to “make themselves heard” (“Introduction” 4). Film scholars Therese Davis and Romaine Moreton have poignantly argued that, through their use of Indigenous storytelling and Western filmmaking techniques, Indigenous films that engage with what Deborah Bird Rose identifies as the “hidden histories” of Australia’s past (Hidden Histories) hold the potential not only to recover those stories and present them to a larger national and international audience but “to achieve a cinematic experience that creates something temporally porous,←6 | 7→ a breathing between past and present, asking the audience to become involved and active in the process of remembering” (Davis and Moreton 222). Yet, these works are generally not regarded as “proper history.” As Michelle Arrow points out, the devaluation of film and TV as history can be partially ascribed to the way in which these two different storytelling modalities operate. Academic accounts are written for a restricted audience and emphasize values such as historical accuracy and evidence-based research while multimedia retellings visualize historical events in ways that try to involve a larger audience emotionally in the narrative and establish a connection between past and present (“Broadcasting Past”). Furthermore, Indigenous history in Australia was not only erased from the colonial record but was assimilated as part of a political nation-building effort in what Ann Curthoys defines as “narratives of reversal, placing indigenous people as the invaders and seeing the settlers as the defenders of their land” (“Disputing National Histories” 7). Thus, stories of Indigenous resistance to the invasion and colonization of Australia were transformed into stories of heroic non-Indigenous survival against the attacks of Indigenous outlaws who threatened settlers’ lives and property. Interestingly enough, this act of reversal did not occur only within “proper” forms of historiography but across a wide variety of media, including novels such as Ion Idriess’ 1952 Outlaws of the Leopolds, in which Jandamarra the freedom fighter became Pigeon the outlaw. The reasons for disregarding Indigenous cultural productions that produce and transmit historical knowledge as a proper form of historiography are, therefore, not only structural but are also political and thus bind any discussion about Australia’s past to its present.
Approaching and learning from Indigenous histories thus first requires non-Indigenous people to acknowledge how, as Birripi scholar, director and actor Liza-Mare Syron has noted, the transmission of knowledge in Indigenous cultures across Australia is not confined to specific or “scholarly appropriate” forms but instead requires the active participation of different and interconnected forms of cultural expression. She explains:
Historically, knowledge in Indigenous culture is not something to be learned theoretically; it must be experienced through the act of participating in performance, song and/or its visual representation. Through cultural expression, knowledge is revealed, and embodied. (“Afterword” 138)←7 | 8→
Approaching Indigenous histories from an Indigenous perspective requires a non-Indigenous audience to actively engage with a variety of different and interconnected forms of cultural expressions, all emerging from within a system of knowledge that Syron argues “is neither chronological nor predictable as it contains many levels of understanding, which not all participants are aware of or are permitted to know” (138). This “multimodal” approach to history-making is not limited to so-called “traditional” modes of expression but also extends across contemporary media, foregrounding the continuity of Indigenous historiographies as well as their political dimension.
Since as early as the 1960s, Indigenous cultural producers have utilized, experimented with and innovated a variety of different media forms to recover, contest and regenerate Indigenous histories of resistance and Indigenous history in general from the colonial archive in an effort to establish what Faye Ginsburg and Fred Myers identify as a “counter discursive Aboriginal imaginary that is crucial to their contemporary self-production and the creation of a ‘cultural future’” (97). As Ginsburg has drawn attention to throughout her writings, Indigenous media productions work to revitalize Indigenous cultures, languages and identities for an Indigenous audience and for local communities while at the same time contesting settler colonial power structures and their narratives (“Aboriginal Media”; “From Little Things”). Because of this, these screen media works are best understood as what Ginsburg terms “cultural activism,” a term that she explains
underscores the intertwined sense of both political agency and cultural intervention that people bring to these efforts to sustain and transform cultural practices in Aboriginal communities. These are activities linked to indigenous efforts to assert their rights to self-representation, governance, and cultural autonomy after centuries of assimilationist policies by surrounding states, part of a spectrum of practices of self-conscious mediation and cultural mobilization more generally that began to take on particular shape and velocity in the late 20th century. (“Media Sovereignty in the Digital Age” 582)
Recognizing the inherent connections between political and cultural actions has profound implications for understanding works that set out to redress histories from the past while at the same time using them to reassert←8 | 9→ agency and sovereignty in the present. Goenpul Jagara and Bundjulung filmmaker, scholar, writer and poet Romaine Moreton proposes conceptualizing contemporary Indigenous visual art and storytelling practices as crucial means of “reclaiming, revitalizing and reconnecting our sacred past in the present” (“On Survivance”). Reflecting on her own filmmaking practices, Moreton draws attention to how Indigenous visual art has not only the potential to liberate past histories from the colonial gaze but also to pull the energy of those same stories into the present, thus using it to reclaim identity and agency on its own terms. As Moreton argues, and as noted by Indigenous activists such as June Oscar, writing, performing, casting, painting and screening stories of resistance from the past is not just about setting the record straight through the use of media that can reach a wider audience but also involves building upon legacies of resistance to continue the fight started by leaders such as Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan.
Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan: The ongoing legacy of early resistance leaders
Making history, engaging with the past and retelling stories of resistance can be understood in itself as an act of cultural resistance; however, to do so raises the questions of what shapes resistance takes in Indigenous systems of knowledge and how it can be articulated. As Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson contends, non-Indigenous scholars such as Henry Reynolds and Andrew Lattas have productively engaged with Indigenous resistances and thus challenged dominant paradigms of knowledge production about the Indigenous “other” (“Knowledge in Action” 128). Yet, these theoretical frameworks cannot fully account for the complexity of Indigenous resistance practices that work to decolonize the very systems of knowledge and power through which non-Indigenous theorizations are produced. Learning from stories of Indigenous resistance requires non-Indigenous people to first understand how stories and history-making practices work in Indigenous systems of knowledge and also what resistance←9 | 10→ constitutes for the Indigenous storytellers who are sharing those stories with us. As Moreton-Robinson notes:
There is no single, fixed or monolithic form of Indigenous resistance; rather than simply being a matter of overtly defiant behaviour resistance is re-presented as multifaceted, visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious, explicit and covert, intentional and unintentional. (128)
Resistance is thus understood by Moreton-Robinson as ingrained within the way in which Indigenous people experience and act in the settler-colonial present as well as in their engagement with the past and in the strategies they deploy to decolonize their futures.
A similar understanding of indigenous strategies of resistance deployed through storytelling and history-making practices emerges from the work of Anishinaabe scholar Gerard Vizenor, who argues that while settler-colonial narratives construct Indigenous people as powerless, absent or as tragic heroes from a distant past, Indigenous storytelling instead incarnates and performs a dynamic and heterogeneous sense of survival and agency in the present, which Vizenor defines as “survivance” (Vizenor). While survivance is enacted not only through contemporary cultural productions but through the whole spectrum of Indigenous systems of knowledge, it is crucial to emphasize here the connection that many Indigenous scholars have drawn between Indigenous resistance, recovery and resurgence and the act of telling stories in the present and across different media. As Aman Sium and Eric Ritskes summarize:
Indigenous stories are a reclamation of Indigenous voice, Indigenous land, and Indigenous sovereignty. They are vital to decolonization. Indigenous storytelling works to both deconstruct colonial ways of coming to know, as well as construct alternatives – recognizing that these two processes do not happen in a linear trajectory; if we are waiting for the dismantling of colonial structures before we focus on rebuilding Indigenous and decolonial alternatives, we will always be too late. Indigenous stories are a creative force, grounded in rootedness and relationality. (viii)
What emerges from the Indigenous scholarship on resistance, storytelling and history-making practices is the direct connection between stories of past resistance and their legacies in the present as well as the complexity←10 | 11→ and heterogeneity of Indigenous strategies of resistance across time and space. So why focus on three “warriors” who fought to defend the Eora, Bunuba and Noongar nations during the “Frontier Wars” and on a particular “mode” of resistance?
In his recent reflections on the place that the frontier wars occupy in Australia’s popular memory, Henry Reynolds notes how, more than a decade after the so-called history wars of the early 2000s, the true extent of conflict and resistance in the early years of colonial invasion continues to be disremembered and disputed, both at an institutional and at a personal level (31–47). The tens of thousands of women and men who died fighting to defend their country from settler colonial invasion between 1788 and 1934 are yet to be commemorated in the annual ANZAC parades or in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra (Daley “Restless”; Gibson “Imperialism, Anzac Nationalism”). Debates over whether, as the then Liberal government treasurer Scott Morrison proposed in the 2018 Australian government Budget, it is necessary to spend 3 million for yet another commemoration of Captain James Cook’s first trespass into the Eora nation (Latimore), demonstrate the ongoing impact of what anthropologist William Edward Hanley Stanner had famously identified in 1968 as the “cult of forgetfulness” at the basis of Australia’ sense of identity (25). While I will address the various reasons for the continued enforcement of “imperialist amnesia” (Fletcher 25) across all levels of Australian settler colonial society throughout this book, it is important to stress here how colonization involves not only invading and occupying space but also redefining and controlling time. As Standing Rock Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr argues, the edifice of coloniality and modernity is built on linear conceptions of time that exclude and assimilate other ways of relating to the world, confining them to a distant and mythical past (63). The refusal to consider Indigenous people as part of the same lived reality of settlers and the ongoing dismissal of the frontier wars from public memory through what anthropologist Johannes Fabian has termed “denial of coevalness” (Fabian) was and continues to be a crucial strategy of the settler colonial project.
Stories of early resistance against the colonial invasion combat these narratives by forcing us to acknowledge the unceded sovereignty of First←11 | 12→ Nations across Australia and to question the legitimacy of settler colonial authority. Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan were not the only leaders to assert and enforce the sovereignty of Indigenous Laws, cultures and systems of knowledge. As an ever-growing body of research and of Indigenous cultural productions demonstrates, countless other men and women resisted colonization employing a variety of different strategies.3 The legacies of women like Barangaroo, Truganini and Tarenorerer, as well as those of men like Windradyne, Musquito and Dundalli have been explored in a number of different works by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and cultural practitioners.4 Still, the stories of Pemulwuy, Yagan and Jandamarra have produced since their death the largest corpus of incarnations across different media. Engaging with these three historical figures, rather than on a single one or on a specific author, allows us to build a mobile and affective archive of storytelling and to trace different narrative threads from multiple and heterogeneous perspectives (such as beheading and repatriation; sacred and extra-human powers; knowledge of country and interactions with the colonists). Furthermore, drawing connections between these stories enables us to model an approach that recognizes and engages with the heterogeneity of Indigenous history-making practices, as well as with the way in which they embody different political strategies and understandings of what constitutes sovereignty in the present. Finally, focusing on the history of three freedom fighters who fought to defend their respective nations during the years of frontier wars, requires us to address the source←12 | 13→ of the settler nation’s “cult of forgetfulness” (Stanner 25) and to recognize the enduring and unending power of stories to unsettle the settler nation.
Storytelling and sovereignty: Decolonizing past and present in Indigenous cultural productions
Telling stories and doing history across a variety of media are crucial strategies of resistance in the current struggle for land rights and sovereignty as they reinscribe an Indigenous presence over terra nullius while at the same time foregrounding the historical agency of Indigenous people and the existence of other ways of relating to the land that cannot be framed solely through non-Indigenous notions of belonging and identity. While the landmark 1992 Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2) judgement recognized the persistence of traditional law over specific parts of Australia, it also maintained the validity of Crown sovereignty and reserved the right to extinguish native title rights through compensation. Formulating colonization as an “Act of State” that cannot be disputed in an Australian Court, the High Court effectively denied the right of self-determination to Australia’s Indigenous people, ruling out the issue of Indigenous sovereignty as non-justiciable. As Tanganekald and Meintangk lawyer and scholar Irene Watson argues:
In overturning the racist and imperialistic doctrine terra nullius we have not advanced the rights of [Indigenous peoples] because what we have replaced it with – the “Act of State” – is equally racist, imperialistic and Eurocentric in its view of international relations, and so is equally repugnant. The “Act of State” doctrine denies fundamental human rights and self determination to Indigenous peoples in the same way that the doctrine of terra nullius has done. (11)
Native title rights have to be negotiated within the current Australian law system and the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty would require a constitutional change through the introduction of treaties and bills of rights. Reflecting on the limitations that the Native Title Act and common law impose on the possibilities of governance, equity and economic access for←13 | 14→ Indigenous people, Fiona Nicoll has argued that they place a burden of proof on Indigenous people, privileging the anthropological view of traditional indigenous societies and not accounting for the modern dimension of Indigenous experiences and the impact of colonial domain (Nicoll). The idea that Indigenous claimants need to be able to prove their ongoing connection to country and the survival of pre-contact culture and traditional law in the face of the ongoing displacement and disruption caused by colonial policies is one of the key arguments used to criticize the current Native Title Act. As Stuart Bradfield points out: “In a cruel irony, it has turned out that the people least directly affected by colonization seem to have the greatest chance of having their land ownership recognized, while the most dispossessed Indigenous people tend to receive the smallest gains from the process of claiming native title” (207). Furthermore, the recognition of native title is also limited to pastoral leases, unclaimed Crown lands, reserves (either vested under the Conservation and Land Management Act or not) and is extinguished on freeholds, private and Crown property or any of the above areas in cases where mining interests are involved.
As many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have argued following the Mabo decision (Behrendt Achieving Social Justice; Langton et al.; Mansell; Moreton-Robinson Sovereign Subjects), an understanding of sovereignty that focuses on issues of property and territoriality does not account for what Indigenous people mean by sovereignty. Attempting to sum up a definition that could account for the various meanings that this word has for the different communities and individuals, Tony Birch has proposed that Indigenous sovereignty should be understood as a “multifaceted concept” (“The Invisible Fire” 107). According to him, Indigenous sovereignty is not defined only through European law but “is maintained through pre-existing, pre-European models of governance. Such models continue to be culturally and politically sustainable, regardless of the lack of legal recognition by Australian governments” (107). For Birch, sovereignty exists both in the now and in the sacred and is, at the same time, embodied, psychological and political. As such, it can be perhaps better understood as an expression of identity and as an act of self-determination that predates colonial sovereignty since, as Romaine Moreton articulates, “our body is the first sovereignty” (quoted in Brewster Giving This Country a Memory←14 | 15→ 61). Considered this way, Indigenous sovereignty is not a direct threat to the authority of Australian law, “but it does question the legitimacy of that authority” (Behrendt Achieving Social Justice 103). This definition also resonates with what Mohawk lawyer and writer Patricia Monture-Angus has to say in the Canadian context:
Rejecting a western territorially based definition of sovereignty is not to say that Aboriginal people do not aspire to having a land base that will make our nations economically stable and self-sufficient. It’s hard to be sovereign when you cannot even feed your own children from your own resources . . . [But] sovereignty (or self-determination) . . . is not about “ownership” of territory in the way that Canadian politicians and lawyers would define those words. We have a Mohawk word that better describes what we mean by sovereignty and that word is “tewatatha:wi.” It best translates to “we carry ourselves.” This Aboriginal definition of sovereignty is about responsibilities and not just rights. I have heard many other Aboriginal people from many other Aboriginal nations say that this is also true, or similar, in their language. (36)
As Monture-Angus argues, indigenous sovereignty claims are generated within indigenous discursive frameworks while at the same time incorporating non-Indigenous articulations in order to negotiate their independence and jurisprudence within a Western legal system.
Sovereignty is a crucial concept for understanding contemporary Indigenous cultural productions and a similar definition to Monture-Angus’ was given by Noongar writer and academic Kim Scott when he was asked by Anne Brewster whether he would define Noongar sovereignty as “the continuity of Noongar culture and people and connection with place.” He responded:
That’s a useful sort of metaphor. But sovereignty is a translation – it’s a metaphor and it’s strategic. It’s not a Noongar word. Noongars talk about birt or biirt or bidi in other dialects. It becomes birdiya. Birdiya comes from the root word, birt, which means “sinew,” “path,” “energy,” the “life force.” The orthography is not completely agreed upon. Birdiya, is one who’s mastered that or, at least, understands it. There’s a whole lot of things going on in there you know. (Brewster “Can You Anchor” 243)
Indigenous sovereignty can thus be best understood as a placeholder that can assume different facets depending on how and where it is strategically deployed. While discussions of Indigenous sovereignty are usually←15 | 16→ conducted within a legal and political framework due to the need to address issues of self-governance and jurisprudence between the colonial and Indigenous nations, the concept has a much broader scope and lies at the heart of the work of many Indigenous artists. It is not a coincidence that a scholar so interested in exploring alternative ways of doing Indigenous history, like Tony Birch, has emphasized in different occasions the potential that contemporary cultural productions by Indigenous artists like Kamilaroi filmmaker Ivan Sen have in re-addressing the continuing impact of the past in the present (“War on a History War” 25–26; “The Invisible Fire” 113–114). As Jarrett Martineau and Eric Ritskes argue, Indigenous art does not hold only the power to decolonize history and historiography on a theoretical or critical level but should be understood as a “generative” force that directly affects contemporary struggles for land rights, sovereignty and justice. As they put it:
Indigenous art reconnects us to the sacred and continued existence of Indigenous Peoples living and dying in struggle; yet, always resurging and creating art to build and rebuild, to learn and re-learn, to recover and remember. Indigenous art unbinds indigeneity from its colonial limits by weaving past and future Indigenous worlds into new currents of present struggle. (x)
Indigenous cultural productions continuously interact with Indigenous material struggles, emerging as the result of precise political strategies and directly contributing to the development of decolonizing actions. As such they can be best understood as what Seneca scholar Michelle Raheja has characterized as acts of “visual sovereignty” (Raheja). As she argues, through the use of film and other visual media, Indigenous artists have screened the multifaceted nature of Indigenous sovereignty, visualizing the sacred, psychological, embodied and historical aspects that are often excluded from native title negotiations and from legal discourse. Visual sovereignty can thus be best understood as a strategy that
offers up not only the possibility of engaging and deconstructing white-generated representations of indigenous people, but more broadly and importantly how it intervenes in larger discussions of Native American sovereignty by locating and advocating for indigenous cultural and political power both within and outside of Western legal jurisprudence. (Raheja 1151)←16 | 17→
As this discussion shows, many Indigenous communities and artists are using film, novels, theatre and multimedia projects to recover their histories and communicate them to a wider Indigenous and non-Indigenous public on their own terms. Therefore, what is clearly needed is a new way of approaching these stories that can move us beyond the old ways of thinking about Indigenous history by taking seriously hybridized and multimodal forms of history-making. In recent years, a number of historiographical and anthropological studies have focused on Indigenous historiographies and highlighted how they resist being assimilated into non-Indigenous modes of history, calling instead for collaboration between different history-making practices (Guntarik; Hokari). However, no study has tried to address this problem by looking at the ways in which the stories of Indigenous freedom fighters have been told by Indigenous cultural producers in literary, theatrical and documentary works.
Addressing this specific gap in non-Indigenous approaches to Indigenous historical knowledges and the general lack of understanding surrounding Indigenous history and history-making practices, Legacies of Indigenous Resistance adopts a transdisciplinary and multimodal perspective on the stories of Jandamarra, Yagan and Pemulwuy. It looks at how they have been portrayed through what I identify in the following chapters as pan-Aboriginal, sacred and crosshatch histories in the work of Indigenous filmmakers, playwrights and writers. My aims with this book are thus to trace a cultural history of the stories of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan, creating a method that allows us to analyse the different approaches used by Indigenous cultural producers to retell their lives and legends from an Indigenous perspective and to consider the consequences of their decolonizing and multimodal approach to history for our understanding of Australia’s past and present.
Method and structure
Due to its transdisciplinary nature and its aim of operating across different epistemologies, my work raises a series of questions in terms of methodology and in relation to the position that it can occupy within←17 | 18→ non-Indigenous systems of knowledge. What approach is best suited to tackle issues that have emerged across different disciplines, such as decolonial and critical Indigenous studies, film and TV studies, media studies, anthropology, history and cultural studies? How does my position as an Italian researcher working on Indigenous stories of resistance inform this book? And, finally, how do I avoid producing yet another act of colonization of knowledge and adopt instead what Linda Tuhiwai Smith has defined as “decolonizing methodologies” (Smith)? Scholars who pursue decolonial research practices, like Gloria Anzaldúa, Walter Mignolo and Ramon Grosfoguel amongst others, have long suggested how understanding “the epistemic response of the subaltern to the Eurocentric projects of modernity” (Grosfoguel 25) requires, as Mignolo puts it, non-Indigenous scholars to “delink” themselves from the enduring colonialism that characterizes the Western rhetorics of modernity (“Delinking”). This can be done only by taking seriously other epistemologies and recognizing the embodied and geographically located nature of knowledges. I will discuss the importance of these concepts further across the whole book; however, it is crucial to address from the very start how this need was translated and enacted into my research methodology.
As discussed above, the objective of this work is to track stories of resistance, following their movements and mutations to build a dynamic and heterogeneous archive of storytelling that can allow us to better understand the radical shifts enacted by Indigenous media historiographies. Delinking in this project thus meant for me blending close textual analysis with semi-structured interviews and historical and contextual research, while at the same time working across disciplinary barriers that do not account for the way in which Indigenous historical knowledges are produced, performed and received over a variety of interconnected media. This involved, most importantly, reacting against practices of cultural appropriation by respecting each story’s right to self-determination. To do this, I employed three main guiding principles.
Firstly, I approached the various retellings of each story by adopting decolonizing methods of textual analysis that locate these retellings historically and socially within Eora, Bunuba and Noongar cultures, histories and epistemologies and within the network of inter-Indigenous and←18 | 19→ cross-cultural relationships from which these retellings emerge. This was done to take into account what Ginsburg has productively described as the “embedded aesthetics” of Indigenous media (“Embedded Aesthetics”). She argues that Indigenous cultural producers, while interested in issues of form and narrative like all artists, are often also part of a much larger matrix of social relations and of social obligations, both with their community and with the other communities with whom they might be working (“Embedded Aesthetics” 368). Indigenous media productions cannot thus be addressed only through textual engagement but need to be framed within the larger historical, cultural and social context from which they emerge. Most importantly, approaching these bodies of works in such a way allows us to address properly the heterogeneity and fluidity of Indigenous politics as expressed through the works of these cultural activists by tracing the differences and connections of cultural productions that set out to decolonize the present both theoretically and materially and thus embody a varied range of political agendas.
Secondly, I conducted five semi-structured interviews with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural producers involved in the production of the key case studies I focused on. Each interview lasted for about an hour, with open-ended questions ranging from the circumstances that led to the production of each case-study, to the approach each cultural-producer used to work with the communities involved in the projects and to the impact that the stories and legacies of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan had on the personal life of each interviewee. At the end of the interview transcription, transcripts were handed back to the interviewees, who then had the opportunity to review, modify or delete any of their statements. This was done in recognition of the importance that authorship and custodianship has for these stories and to avoid colonizing Indigenous knowledges through the imposition of my research framework on them and on their authors.
Finally, this book adopts a transdisciplinary approach to the study of these multimodal cultural productions, moving across and presenting different Indigenous and non-Indigenous theoretical frameworks and methodologies in each chapter. This approach was chosen in order to address the connections existing between different incarnations of the same story,←19 | 20→ recognizing and tracking their movements and their fluidity while at the same time respecting the specificity and the language of the media through which they emerge. The works at the centre of this book do not simply establish relations and connections with either the Indigenous or the colonial version of these stories of resistance but hybridize their sources and emerge from the intersection of multiple sites of knowledge and through forms that combine traditional and contemporary, Indigenous and non-Indigenous practices, aesthetics and narratives. These are contemporary works of art that require non-Indigenous viewers/spectators/readers to acknowledge Indigenous world views and history-making practices as legitimate and contemporary rather than lost in a distant past. For this reason, these stories of resistance need to be approached with a methodology that reinvents itself for every retelling, drawing from performance studies, literary studies, film, media, cultural studies and history while maintaining at the same time its decolonial outlook, interacting with critical indigenous studies and with the interviews with the cultural producers.
This approach is also reflected in the overall structure of this book, which is divided into three main “case stories”: Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan. These constitute the three main sections of this work, each opening with a brief historical overview of the life and legend of the Indigenous resistance leader before addressing its case story across separate embedded chapters. Story One takes us to Eora Country and to the life and legend of Pemulwuy. Chapter 1 charts the earliest efforts of Indigenous writers, academics and activists to reposition stories of Indigenous resistance to the British invasion and colonization at the centre of Australia’s history by producing heroic narratives that could restore what was omitted in official history. I focus in particular on the work done by Indigenous writer and scholar Eric Willmot on Pemulwuy in his 1985 Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) TV series Rainbow Serpent and in his 1987 historical novel Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior. In both of these works, Willmot enacts alternative ways of doing history and generates what I identify here as counter-histories of pan-Aboriginal heroes by using an Indigenous narrative framework that reframes the story of Pemulwuy as an Eora legend to interpret colonial history, rather than the opposite.←20 | 21→
In Chapter 2, I look at two recent documentaries by Indigenous filmmakers that build on Willmot’s legacy to regenerate Pemulwuy’s connections to the present while pursuing at the same time very different political agendas. First, I reflect on how the Bidjigal leader’s story was framed as a crucial part of Australian national history and of the process of reconciliation in the 2008 documentary series First Australians, created by Arrernte and Kalkadoon director, producer and screenwriter Rachel Perkins. I then look at the work of Biribi filmmaker Grant Leigh Saunders, who in 2010 retold the story of Pemulwuy in his two-part documentary Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws. Here the Bidjigal warrior is presented through a critical engagement with previous retellings that opens up a new discussion on the shape that his legacy should take in the present, inviting viewers to question the politics of recognition and reconciliation and the official commemorations of Pemulwuy’s legacy enacted by the settler colonial state against which he actively fought.
Story Two takes us to the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia and to the life and legacy of Bunuba freedom fighter Jandamarra. Chapter 3 provides an overview of the early incarnations of his legend in the works of Ion Idriess, Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo5 and Banjo Woorunmurra. I first discuss here how the story of Jandamarra has been appropriated and neutralized by the colonial archive through the work of the “archivist” Idriess in his 1952 novel Outlaws of the Leopolds. I then move on to reflect on how Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo uses this same story in his 1979 novel Long Live Sandawara to expose the failure of “copycat” historical approaches to resistance. Finally, I discuss how the custodian Banjo Woorunmurra has passed down the Bunuba version of the story and look at the unique traits that the Jandamarra story assumes in his retellings.←21 | 22→
Chapter 4 is dedicated to the Jandamarra play, produced by Steve Hawke and by the Bunuba community of Fitzroy Crossing in 2008 and in 2011. Here, I focus on how the play incarnates transformative ways of doing history that do not move from past to present but rather present the life and legacy of the Bunuba resistance leader as a collective and participative Bunuba performance. The sacred elements that could not be included as part of previous retellings are at the heart of this incarnation of the Jandamarra legend and Bunuba language plays a key role in re-performing this story through Bunuba eyes.
Chapter 5 considers how in her 2010 and 2011 documentaries Keepers of the Story: Jandamarra and Jandamarra’s War Nyikina filmmaker Mitch Torres achieves the Bunuba aims of retelling Jandamarra’s story from a Bunuba perspective to a large audience through the employment of a hybrid modality of documentary-drama and close documentation of the storytelling process and, further, argues that the success of this project marks a historical turning point in Australian history as a renegotiation of the terms by which this story can and indeed must be told.
In Story Three, I move from Bunuba Country and the story of Jandamarra to Noongar Country and to the story of Yagan. Chapter 6 builds upon the connections between past and present resistance that emerged in the previous chapters to explore how Indigenous films about Indigenous resistance in the past connect their stories to present forms of Indigenous resistance as a way of reasserting Indigenous sovereignty over Indigenous country. To do so, I look at the 2000 short drama Confessions of a Headhunter, directed by Wiradjuri producer and filmmaker Sally Riley. The short film does not tell the story of Yagan directly. Instead, it tells the story of Frank and Vinnie, two Noongar cousins who retaliate against the 1997 beheading of Yagan’s statue by becoming modern day “headhunters,” embarking on an interstate road trip to collect the heads of symbolic figures of colonial power such as James Stirling, Queen Victoria and James Cook.
In Chapter 7, I then reflect on the space where stories of resistance unfold and draw a connection between the contemporary struggle for land rights in Western Australia and stories of past resistance. Here, I look at Kelrick Martin’s documentary Yagan (2013), where the Ngarluma, Bunuba and Gooniyandi filmmaker has the story of Yagan unfold against←22 | 23→ the background of contemporary Perth rather than in a distant (and forgotten) colonial past. I argue that in doing so Yagan enacts what I identify here as a culturally specific “crosshatch history” where the past breaches the present to screen the continuity of Noongar culture and sovereignty in the face of the colonization and subsequent urbanization of their country.
Finally, the book’s concluding section takes us to the recently inaugurated Yagan square in Perth to reflect on the different ways through which Indigenous cultural productions work towards a decolonization of historical knowledge while being involved at the same time in the material decolonization of the settler colonial state. Here, I draw connections between the various formal and political strategies employed by the Indigenous artists at the centre of this work and the history of Indigenous politics in Australia, reflecting on the different ways in which these stories continue to be deployed in the present not only as histories from the past, but as legacies that shape contemporary acts of resistance and reclamations of sovereignty.←23 | 24→ ←24 | 25→
1 Spelling of “Indigenous” in this book follows the Australian Federal government Parliamentary Counsel Drafting Direction No. 2.1 on English Usage (March 2016), Part 4, Spelling of “Indigenous” – section 34: “Always capitalise “Indigenous” when it refers to the original inhabitants of Australia – as in “Indigenous Australians” and “Indigenous communities.” It needs no capitals when used in a general sense to refer to the original inhabitants of other countries.” (<https://www.opc.gov.au/sites/g/files/net2056/f/dd2.1.pdf> accessed on 12 August 2018).
2 The Eora nation extends over the larger metropolitan area of Sydney and is just one of the between 350 and 750 sovereign Indigenous nations of Australia (including the Torres Strait Islands) (State Library of New South Wales et al.). While the borders across these nations are more fluid than what western mapping techniques suggest, a map that attempts to include all the language, tribal or nation groups of the Indigenous people of Australia is available on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ website (<https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia> accessed on 12 August 2018).
3 For more on how stories of resistance were gradually recovered in non-Indigenous historiographies, see Lorenzo Veracini’s 2006 paper “A Prehistory of Australia’s History Wars: The Evolution of Aboriginal History During the 1970s and 1980s” published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History. Minoru Hokari also provides a detailed overview of the development of the discipline of Indigenous History in Australia in his landmark study of Indigenous historiographies Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback (2011).
4 See for example: Inga Clendinnen’s book Dancing with strangers : Europeans and Australians at first contact (2005), David Hansen’s essay “Seeing Truganini” (2010), Mary Coe’s historical novel Windradyne, a Wiradjuri Koorie (1989) and Libby Connors’ recent book Warrior: a legendary leader’s dramatic life and violent death on the colonial frontier (2015).
5 Colin Johnson renamed himself Mudrooroo Narogin in 1988. His claims of belonging to the Bibbulmun people of southwest Western Australia were publicly contested and repudiated by Noongar elders in 1996. To acknowledge the controversial nature of his works and his African-American heritage, I address him as a black writer and as “Johnson/Mudrooroo” throughout this book. For a more detailed account of the debate surrounding Johnson/Mudrooroo’s Indigenous identity, see Maureen Clark’s book Mudrooroo: A Likely Story (2007).
Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
— Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), “The Past”
In her 1966 poem “The Past,” the renowned Noonuccal poet, activist and educator Oodgeroo Noonuccal, still writing at the time as Kath Walker, interrogates non-Indigenous understandings of Indigenous history as something relegated to a distant and lost past, presenting it instead as an embodied experience that lives on in the ongoing political struggle against the settler colonial state. Like much of her oeuvre, Oodgeroo’s poem is concerned with the role that history plays in shaping Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of the present and provides a powerful critique of non-Indigenous perceptions of “This little now, this accidental present,” which stands in contrast to her powerful dream of the past as a vital source of energy and identity. While “The Past” is not directly concerned with reclaiming specific stories of past resistance, it speaks to the importance that Indigenous history generally and stories like those of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan in particular had for the Indigenous poets, writers and artists who first started publishing their works in the 1960s. The use of these histories of past resistance in the cultural productions of Indigenous artists raises a series of questions. How can a story of resistance that was erased from the colonial archive be recovered and retold across other media? What forms does it take and why do Indigenous cultural activists and producers turn←31 | 32→ to stories of past resistance leaders to reclaim and redeploy them as part of the fight for land rights and sovereignty?
This chapter focuses on the earliest efforts by Indigenous writers, academics and activists to reposition Pemulwuy’s story and stories of Indigenous resistance to British colonization in general at the centre of Australia’s history by producing heroic narratives that could restore what was omitted in official history, adopting alternative ways of doing history and generating what I identify as stories of “pan-Aboriginal” heroes who could speak at certain historical moments to all Indigenous people and to the wider public in the process. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the stories of Pemulwuy, Yagan, Windradyne and Jandamarra, among others, became central in Australian Indigenous literature with the release of books such as Mary Coe’s Windradyne: A Wiradjuri Koorie (1989) and Eric Willmot’s Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior (1987) as well as plays like Jack Davis’ Kullark (1979). Black author Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo also provided an essential contribution to these acts of recovery through his novel Long Live Sandawara (1979). These new narratives recovered stories of early resistance to colonization in what I argue was an effort to create heroic figures that could account for and contribute to the continued survival of Indigenous cultures and history, while at the same time questioning the supremacy of non-Indigenous historiographies and accounts of colonization. These heroic narratives can be understood as a significant site of resistance and identity negotiation and serve different purposes. Firstly, they constitute an early example of how Indigenous multimodal art sets out to decolonize dominant historical narratives by recovering stories of resistance from the colonial archive and retelling them through a different framework. Secondly, they are an intervention into the public and political discourse on Australian identity and land rights that points to the continuing state of war and to the absence of treaties between the Australian state and federal governments and the country Indigenous nations. This is particularly evident in the publications that preceded the 1988 bicentenary celebrations, which can be best understood as part of an operation of recovery of past culture, tradition and language that ties into a political project of pan-Aboriginal nationalism and shared identity. Finally, they signal a shift in the way in which Indigenous oral stories were framed in non-Indigenous←32 | 33→ systems of knowledge mostly as contents to be interpreted. Here instead oral history becomes a narrative framework, a way of telling stories that actively shapes the listeners’ and readers’ perception and interpretation of history and of reality.
In the first part of this chapter, I reflect on the connections between Indigenous politics, literature and history and how heroic narratives started to emerge from the late 1970s as a way of questioning official history and creating pan-Aboriginal heroes. I therefore look at the changes that Indigenous activism underwent between the late 1960s and the late 1980s and reflect on how the new rhetoric of self-determination and pride in Indigenous history and culture were taken up by Indigenous writers and artists. In the second part, I discuss Eric Willmot’s 1985 TV documentary Rainbow Serpent: Warriors and argue that while the series anticipates many of the critical approaches that will characterize future retellings of stories of Indigenous resistance across different media, its cinematography mirrors the colonizing gaze of history and forces viewers into a British perspective. To do this, I first reflect on the historical context that lead to the production of the series before analysing the disconnection between content and cinematography by focusing on a close analysis of the episode. In the third part of this chapter, I examine more closely Eric Willmot’s historical novel Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior, focusing my attention on his portrayal of Pemulwuy as a legendary icon and the way in which the novel inverts the relationships between history and myth as well as how it draws connections between past and present through its narrative to present an image of pan-Aboriginal resistance that celebrates the survival of Indigenous culture in face of colonization.
The making of pan-Aboriginal resistance heroes
The heroic historical narratives that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s reflect and intersect with the larger changes in Australian Indigenous politics and activism that characterized the post-1967 referendum era.←33 | 34→ As historian Russell McGregor argues, those years saw a “substantial shift of emphasis whereby building a pan-Aboriginal identity and solidarity came to take precedence over the incorporation of Aborigines in the wider Australian community” (“Another Nation” 343). Early Indigenous activism promoted the inclusion of Indigenous people and cultures within the wider mainstream Australian nation and community, campaigning for equal rights while at the same time stressing the importance of self-determination, maintaining their cultural identity and obtaining land rights (345). In contrast, the new generation of activists and intellectuals that emerged in the late 1960s and gathered around the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 had a completely different outlook on the order in which those same priorities had to be considered and communicated to the wider Australian public. Rhetorics of integration, equality and inclusion were thus replaced by anti-colonial approaches that established self-determination, land rights and culture at the centre of the political discourse. As Julia Martinez observes, the early influence of white organizations in Aboriginal politics, such as the church and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was supplanted by that of the US civil rights movements and, in particular, by the agenda of the Black Panther Party with its message of militant Black Power (139). Tensions between the younger generation of protesters and older activists eventually lead to a split inside the Federal Council for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), one of the leading national organizations for Indigenous advocacy, when in 1970 a motion that sought to gain a stronger control of FCAATSI’s political agenda by demanding all office positions to be reserved to Indigenous people was rejected. As a consequence, many Indigenous participants, including key figures such as Kath Walker, Dennis Walker and Bruce McGuiness, left FCAATSI and founded a new Indigenous-controlled organization, the National Tribal Council (NTC) (Pittock). While the NTC experience was short lived, the split at FCAATSI signalled a historical shift in Indigenous politics, as it was the time in which, as Gumbainggir activist, academic, writer and actor Gary Foley puts it: “Younger activists in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide decided to develop their own ideas, methods and organisations” (“A Short History” 14).←34 | 35→
These new strategies have been interpreted by McGregor as forms of “cultural nationalism” aimed at renewing and strengthening the sense of pan-Aboriginal identity and unity that previous generations of activists had already started forging through a stronger focus on the “cultural and moral regeneration of a national community” (“Another Nation” 344). This renewed impetus took form in the creation of Indigenous-controlled organizations like the Aboriginal Legal Services and the Aboriginal Health Service, both of which started as community-driven initiatives in the Sydney suburb of Redfern before eventually spreading across the rest of Australia (Burgmann 55). The organization of high profile and radical protests like the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 also played a key role, bringing the fight for land rights to the world stage while at the same time nurturing the sense of pan-Aboriginal identity that Indigenous activists had been trying to solidify since the interwar years. Still, as Martinez argues, no form of nationalism, even in a cultural and anticolonial form, can hope to incite a renewed sense of identity, pride and belonging if it does not set out to write its own history and create its own national heroes (143). The pivotal role that history and culture played in the creation of a pan-Aboriginal sense of identity is also addressed by Ian Keen who, reflecting on the work of Peter Sutton, draws attention to how the struggle between Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians was not just about the content but also the way in which historical accounts were told and their function. He states:
The interest of urban Aborigines in Aboriginal history has to do with the constitution of that Identity. But where differences between Aborigines and non-Aborigines are somewhat indefinite this history creates identity as much as explains it, so it is very similar in function to the Dreaming: the past is also the present and underpins present reality. This role of history, in Sutton’s view, explains the clashes between Aborigines and non-Aboriginal historians, and Aborigines’ attempts to control the writing of their own history. (Keen 21)
It is not a coincidence that most of the leading activists that emerged in the early 1970s were also artists, writers, playwrights, actors and directors, who McGregor aptly describes as “cultural innovators” (“Another Nation” 358). The poems of Kath Walker and Lionel Fogarty, the novels of black writer Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo, who was then still considered an Indigenous←35 | 36→ author, and the plays of Bob Maza and Kevin Gilbert were fundamental in establishing a sense of identity and of a shared history within this renewed political landscape. As Adam Shoemaker, a leading scholar in Indigenous literature, notes:
[A]mongst the Black Australian community, public spokespersons far more frequently are writers, or are influenced by them. What is important here is that Aboriginal authors are very frequently highly motivated in a political sense and are influential both among their own race and, to growing extent, among the larger Australian community. (Black Words 27)
The links between Indigenous literature, politics and history can be dated back to the late eighteenth century. As Penny Van Toorn points out in her overview of early Australian Indigenous literature, the use of non-literary writing as “a means of resistance and political negotiation” (26) was not new amongst Indigenous leaders and artists. Van Toorn identifies a long strand of political writing that dates back to the early years of the colonial invasion, continues through The Flinders Island Chronicle, Australia’s first Indigenous newspaper published between 1836 and 1837 and William Barak’s petitions in the late nineteenth century to reach the present. An important part of this tradition was The Australian ABO Call: The Voice of the Aborigines, a newsletter published by the Aboriginal Progressive Association (APA) in the late 1930s, which, as Van Toorn argues “played a vital role in building a national pan-Aboriginal political constituency” (27). Over the course of the six issues published in 1938, the Abo Call reported on contemporary issues, featuring writing about the conditions of Indigenous people across Australia and reports on the APA activities and assemblies. Space was also dedicated in each issue to the history of Australia’s colonization, with articles that, as Van Toorn puts it: “fiercely contested the dominant white myth of Australia’s peaceful settlement, thereby raising white people’s awareness and giving Aboriginal readers a shared sense of their own history” (27). However, articles like “Without a Shot Fired” (Patten and Aborigines Progressive Association), which provided a brief list of the killings perpetrated by the British colonists and three separate articles on the massacres in Victoria, Bathurst and Myall Creek published between August and September 1938, were all taken from the←36 | 37→ colonial records or from history books written by non-Indigenous people and accompanied by short commentaries. As such they did not provide readers with an Indigenous perspective on the history of colonization, offering only “brief glimpses of their common historical experience” (Van Toorn 27). Interestingly enough, these six issues also anticipated the role that literature and poetry would play in the following years for Indigenous activism, publishing excerpts from Xavier Herbert’s 1938 novel Capricornia which focused on Indigenous or “half-caste” characters as well as poems from Henry Kendall and Ian Mudie, again all white Australian authors. The ABO Call was first published by the APA in the same year in which the organization released their famous manifesto “Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights” to protest against the sesquicentenary celebrations by declaring a national Day of Mourning. Fifty years later, the connections between Indigenous history, literature and activism that the ABO Call first made apparent reached an even wider national audience during the protests organized against the bicentenary celebration of 1988 and with a number of historical novels that set out to tell the history of colonization from another perspective and with different heroes. This time, though, they would be all authored by Indigenous writers.
The years that lead to the bicentenary celebration in Australia saw a plethora of books dealing with the history of the first settlement being published. History, coffee table books and historical novels inundated the market, with works like Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1986) quickly turning into bestsellers. Following on the path established by historians such as Henry Reynolds, Hughes’ work is in a sense exemplary of the attempt by a number of non-Indigenous historians and writers to re-inscribe the Indigenous presence and participation into the story of the early years of settlement. White narratives produced in the 1980s (both fiction and non-fiction) were slowly starting to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into their retellings of Australia’s history. At the same time, Indigenous protesters had declared 1988 to be the Year of Mourning, a year-long protest against the “celebration of a nation” that culminated into one of the biggest Indigenous protests in Australia’s history. On 26 January 1988 more than 40,000 people (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) marched in Sydney to advocate for land rights and sovereignty and to protest against←37 | 38→ bicentenary celebrations that excluded Indigenous voices and painted a picture of Australia’s history that started with the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, excluding any recognition of what came before then. The intersections between power, history and political struggles where further emphasized by Gary Foley shortly after the 26 January march. As he put it: “People have to look honestly at their own history. I don’t believe enough non-Aboriginal Australians know much about the reality of the Australian historical experience; about our history; about the two and where they connect” (Foley “For Aboriginal Sovereignty”). Just a few days before, on 21 January, protesters had thrown copies of John Molony’s Bicentennial History of Tasmania into the Sydney Harbour waters to protest against the book’s representation of Tasmania’s Indigenous people and to challenge official versions of colonial history (Brown). While William Cooper, Jack Patten, William Ferguson and the many other Indigenous activists who had organized the first Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938 had demanded inclusion into Australian national history, the organizers of the 1988 protest sought instead to rewrite that history using their own forms of expression. As Jack Davis and Bob Hodge point out:
For all Aboriginal writers, history is more important, more inseparable from literature, than would be the case for white writers as a whole. After all, for white writers history is in safe hands, white hands, and they can take it or leave it alone. Aboriginal people have been excluded from the pages of white history, and denied access to the records of their own people … Although archives and historical documents are white inventions, Aboriginal writers have developed a stronger historical sense than their white counterparts, along with a more intense concern for social reality, the existence lived by Aboriginal people today and in the past. (5)
One of the many forms in which this interest in history took form, along with poetry and life-writing, was the historical fiction genre.
In the years that lead up to 1988 Indigenous writers had been working on contesting dominant representation paradigms that, as Emmanuel Nelson argues, actively worked as “instruments of cultural destruction” (31) through fictionalized and non-fictionalized stories of resistance to colonization. Indigenous writers like Jack Davis, Mary Coe and Eric Willmot, as well as black writer Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo, reinscribed the stories←38 | 39→ of Jandamarra, Yagan, Windradyne and Pemulwuy into Australia’s history through historical fiction in print from as early as the late 1970s. The approach used by each writer differs greatly. Johnson/Mudrooroo and Davis inscribed the story of Jandamarra and Yagan within bigger narratives and weave past and present in Long Live Sandawara (1979) and Kullark (1979) respectively, while Eric Willmot and Mary Coe wrote instead fictionalized historical biographies of Pemulwuy and Windradyne. However, despite their different form all of these works demonstrate an interest in recovering stories of Indigenous heroes of the resistance and subverting dominant historical discourses through the combination of fiction and history. The significance of these operations is also demonstrated by the publication in 1988 of the first edition of Paul Newbury’s Aboriginal Heroes and Heroines of the Resistance, an edited collection of articles and reviews celebrating the resistance of Indigenous leaders and organizations to colonization, from Pemulwuy to the Tent Embassy. Each of these works mentioned here insists on the figure of the resistance hero, leading to the questions of why they do this and how do they differ from historical accounts? Reflecting on the absence of Indigenous history from Australian history, Kevin Gilbert makes an interesting point when he says:
Ask white or black Australian kids to name a heroic Red Indian chief or a famous Indian tribe and most will be able to do so because of comics and films. Ask them to name an Aboriginal hero or a famous Aboriginal tribe and they will not be able to do so because Aboriginal history is either unknown or negative. (Living Black 8)
Drawing on Gilbert’s words, Shoemaker suggests that this fascination for heroic figures of the past can thus be understood as a desire to “fill this cultural void with positive historical images of Black Australians” (Black Words 130). As discussed before, stories of Indigenous resistance were in some cases actively erased from the colonial archive, surviving only in the oral tradition of their people or, in other cases, appropriated by non-Indigenous writers who used them for their own historical novels. This opens up the question of, to echo Johnson/Mudrooroo’s famous essay, how exactly Indigenous writers could use white forms to write about Aboriginal content (Narogin). From its very beginning, Indigenous literature has always been self-aware of its own aesthetics and canon. Many Indigenous writers have been prolific←39 | 40→ authors of literary criticism in an effort for self-determination that had to negotiate the reality of being Indigenous artists working in English for a non-Indigenous and Indigenous audience. The same creative tension is at work in the realm of historical fiction when authors recover Indigenous histories by reading against the grain of the historical archive to contest it while at the same time relying on their knowledge of Indigenous oral history.
Johnson/Mudrooroo in particular has always been very critical of historical fictions presenting themselves as factual history. As he explains in his critical essay on Indigenous literature Writing from the Fringe:
In a sense when we talk of history we are talking of myth masquerading as objective history, and thus the so-called real people are not as important as the universal, or archetypes which are called upon by the present day writer. In this sense Captain Cook is as much an archetypal figure as Pemulwuy and archetypal figures are best dealt in the novel which does not masquerade as truth. (Narogin 169)
The opening remarks of activist and poet Roberta Sykes at the Conference on Black Literatures held at the University of Queensland in June 1986 anticipated Johnson/Mudrooroo’s concerns while also foregrounding what she saw as the key issue of the distinction between fictionalized and factual accounts and providing yet another perspective on the matter:
It’s true that many facts about our history have been concealed, have been destroyed, or are withheld from us. We’ve been doing a lot of agonising about it. So many of us – because we are writing in a climate of desperation – want to be historically accurate, and accurate in the contemporary. I’m suggesting that far too many of us – and I know there aren’t even many of us writing – but far too many of the few there are have become overly preoccupied with non-fiction. I’d like us to see some of us pick up the other tools that are available to use because in some areas, what can be accomplished in “fact” can be accomplished in fiction. I feel it’s an area we’ve ignored, and an area we should explore and exploit. I believe that at least half of the currently available, white authored “historical” accounts of what is termed Australian settlement and analysis of contemporary Australia is fiction. It would be a valid exercise for us to write fiction which is half fact. Our concentration on locating and validating black heroes for our children is great, but it’s only half the exercise. We can create heroes too. (Sykes 116–117)←40 | 41→
Willmot’s work on the story of Pemulwuy is in a sense emblematic of this unresolved creative tension. In both the Rainbow Serpent: Warriors TV documentary and in his historical novel Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior he sets out to recover the story of the Eora warrior from the colonial archive to create a pan-Aboriginal hero that can speak to the present generation of Indigenous people. While Willmot adopts non-Indigenous storytelling styles and techniques in his retelling of Pemulwuy’s story, he also experiments with the role that oral storytelling has in historical writing, attempting at the same time to recover Eora language whenever possible. In doing so, he produces a narrative that speaks to both past and present. Still, while Willmot’s works anticipate many elements that will later be taken up by other Indigenous artists in retelling their versions of the lives of Indigenous resistance leaders, they are also problematic for a series of reasons that I will explore in the following sections.
Embedding stories of resistance: Re-enactment and the colonial gaze in Rainbow Serpent: Warriors
Eighteen years after Stanner’s 1968 Boyer lecture,7 Eric Willmot used the same series of public lectures to reposition a history framed so as to “exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape” (Stanner 25) by including Indigenous perspectives on Australian history in the discourse and thus write what he called in the first of his six Boyer lectures “a different genesis” (Willmot Last Experiment 7) for Australia’s history. Willmot was the first Indigenous←41 | 42→ Australian invited by the ABC to present at the Boyer lectures, but this was not the only cause that made his series of lectures “Australia: The Last Experiment” a pivotal point in the historiography of Australian Indigenous history. Drawing on his diverse and extensive background in science, education and history, Willmot presented to ABC radio listeners a new picture of Australia in an identity-building story that had at its heart the heritage and culture of the original inhabitants of the land, their culture and history, their connections to country and their sovereignty. Conceptualizing contemporary Australia as a “polygeneric nation”; that is, a society “made up of human groups from different origins and with different race memories” (Last Experiment 15) and “a land of many heritages” (48), Willmot acknowledged the difficulty for such a society to identify with a single historical narrative.
In his lectures, Willmot identified two main obstacles for Australian society achieving a plural and inclusive sense of national identity (Rowse 264). The first one was the recognition by the mainstream audience of Indigenous sovereignty – the deep connections with the land held by Indigenous Australians and of the role that country still plays in shaping the life and culture of contemporary Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The second obstacle was “the ideology of Terra Nullius . . . the nonsensical notion that this continent was unoccupied, or that nobody owned it by right of occupation” (Willmot Last Experiment 48). To overcome these issues, Willmot advocated for changes at all levels to the “mono-cultural” Australian governing system and placed a strong emphasis on the importance of embracing the stories – as part of mainstream Australian history – of those who first fought to defend their country. In the fourth of his lectures, “Lucky Country Dreaming,” Willmot asks the listeners/readers to imagine a new starting point for contemporary Australia history before pointing them to 1802 when the ships of Matthew Flinders joined those of the Macassans in a small bay in Arnhem land before coming to shore to meet a group of local Indigenous people. Willmot argues that this first meeting between Europeans, Asians and Indigenous people “sets the scene for all the actors of modern Australia” (Willmot Last Experiment 33). He then recalls another important event which occurred on the same year: the death of Pemulwuy at the hands of the British colonists. Willmot←42 | 43→ briefly reconstructs the main events of Pemulwuy’s armed rebellion, placing emphasis on how his story was actively erased from official history and should instead be embraced by all Australians as the first heroic chapter in Australia’s contemporary history (35).
Broadcast on SBS television between September and October 1985, Rainbow Serpent is a documentary series composed of six thirty-minute episodes that explore past and contemporary Australian Indigenous cultures. Each episode focuses on different aspects of Indigenous culture, such as the relationships between country and culture; identity, displacement and sense of belonging; the role of women in contemporary Indigenous society; and Indigenous history and the relationships between past and present. Produced by SBS with the financial assistance of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Rainbow Serpent is the result of the collaboration between non-Indigenous director and producer Richard Guthrie, Willmot and renowned Indigenous actor and co-founder of the National Black Theatre, Bob Maza. Throughout the six episodes, viewers were introduced to the voices and stories of leading Indigenous actors, activists, artists and academics including David Gulpilil, Charmaine Green, Mum Shirl, Marcia Langton and Maryanne Bin-Sallik as well as to the stories of Indigenous elders and historical figures like Pemulwuy and Yagan. The names behind the scenes were just as impressive, with Indigenous playwright, poet and producer Gerry Bostock working as researcher for the series alongside academic Deborah Bird Rose. Rainbow Serpent was among the first public broadcast TV series that not only provided contemporary Indigenous content to a mainstream audience but was realized thanks to close collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
In those same years Willmot led a federal government taskforce in what was the first attempt to develop policies on Indigenous broadcasting in Australia and investigate the potential threat that English-language satellite broadcasting posed for the maintenance of Indigenous communities’ culture. Rainbow Serpent can be understood as a response to Out of the Silent Land, the 1984 report produced by Willmot’s taskforce, in which the embedding of Indigenous content into general programming was recommended to allow Indigenous history, culture and issues to reach the wider Australian audience. The report focused not only on the need←43 | 44→ for the introduction of broadcasting and receiving facilities in remote communities but also on the critical issue of setting up government-funded initiatives to encourage and facilitate the control and production of local media in local languages by Indigenous communities. Willmot was also involved in Eric Michaels’ landmark study of Warlpiri media practices at Yuendumu, in Australia’s Northern Territory, The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Australia 1982–86, financing the research project in his capacity of principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies). It is therefore not surprising to see Willmot involved in a project that can be better understood as a cultural and historical intervention that attempted to bring Indigenous histories and cultures to a wider mainstream Australian audience, at a time in which the 1988 bicentenary celebration was already shaping up to be another uncritical colonial celebration of the very people against which Pemulwuy fought. As Richard Guthrie explained in an interview with Mari Gibson:
“Rainbow Serpent” did not dwell on the atrocities – meted out to Aborigines by white settlers which included the deliberate introduction of small pox in an effort to wipe out the Aborigines – but instead presented the human face of Aborigines. (Gibson “Taking the Covers Off the Past”)
Still, the way in which the “human face” of the Eora people is framed in the “Warriors” episode bears a striking resemblance to the colonizing gaze of early reports like those of deputy judge advocate and lieutenant-governor David Collins and captain-lieutenant Watkin Tench. Structured around an extended discussion between Eric Willmot and Bob Maza, “Warriors” features an historical re-enactment of the key episodes from Pemulwuy’s life based on Willmot’s novel, still unpublished at the time. But, while Willmot and Maza’s retelling brings to life Pemulwuy’s story and interrogates sovereignty, along with the impact of colonialism and the legacy of the Bidjigal warrior, the portrait of Pemulwuy that emerges from the re-enactment tells a different story, one in which the warrior is presented mainly through the eyes of the settlers and is often crushed by the scrutinizing eye of the camera, emerging not as a hero but rather a victim, thus reinforcing the contested nature of this story.←44 | 45→
First broadcast on 23 September 1985, “Warriors” focuses mainly on the story of Pemulwuy while also touching briefly upon the stories of Yagan and Noongar resistance in Western Australia and of the Kalkadoon’s people campaign in Queensland. The episode opens with an extended shot of Sydney Cove at night. The camera pans to the left until an anchored British ship near a beach appears in the background. A small fire burns in the foreground and viewers watch as Pemulwuy, played by Alan Dargin, emerges from the darkness and sits near the campfire. But, while an excerpt from Willmot’s books crawls across the screen introducing Pemulwuy as a great warrior and leader, the feeling conveyed by the mise en scène of this brief opening is quite different. Space in the opening shot is dominated by the large vessel in the distance and by the fire in the foreground, while Pemulwuy appears as nothing more than a shadow at the edge of the frame, visually marginalizing him. When the camera finally focuses on him, he is behind the crackling fire and viewers can catch only a brief glimpse of his face when the subtitles finally fade away. While this scene draws attention to one of the main themes of “Warriors,” the mystery behind Pemulwuy as an historical figure and the difficulty of providing a clear picture of a man that as Willmot later explains “will always remain a puzzle,” it is also indicative of the colonizing gaze of the camera. As the story of Pemulwuy is reconstructed and explored through an alternation of re-enactments, archival images and artworks and voice-over narration by Maza, it becomes increasingly clear how the Bidjigal leader is constantly framed through the eyes of settlers while the in-depth discussion about the motives and impact of his resistance is left largely to the conversation between Maza and Willmot.
After this initial scene, Guthrie cuts to a shot of Sydney Harbour in the present and introduces viewers to Bob Maza and Eric Willmot. Maza immediately repositions Pemulwuy’s story by stating that, while the story might not be known by non-Indigenous Australians, all Koori have heard it and know about the Bidjigal warrior, effectively reclaiming his story as that of a pan-Aboriginal hero and reframing it before the discussion even begins. The clash between Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of what makes a resistance leader a hero is then explored through Pemulwuy’s story, with Willmot presenting him as one of the first guerrilla←45 | 46→ fighters in history and stating that Pemulwuy was one of the first people who challenged the notion of terra nullius and of no previous sovereignty by waging a twelve-year war against the settlers. The conspiracy of silence and the need to rewrite Pemulwuy into history occupies a large part of “Warriors,” with Willmot reflecting on how, even though Pemulwuy’s name appears in a number of private diaries, it was carefully kept out of the public record and of history books. The explanation that Willmot provides is quite interesting and anticipates themes that he would later develop in his novel. According to him, this erasure was not just about maintaining the illusion of terra nullius, but also about the inherent cultural clash that prevented the British from recognizing Pemulwuy as a leader of his people and therefore a hero, since they had not yet encountered someone who fought using the guerrilla tactics he adopted. The need to inscribe Pemulwuy’s memory in the present is also discussed when Maza notes that he and Willmot are having their conversation in Bennelong Point, named after the Eora prisoner of Governor Phillip who for years tried to act as a mediator between the British and the Eora and promote cooperation, while the memory of the Bidjigal warrior could not and still cannot be celebrated because, as Willmot argues in the episode: “Pemulwuy didn’t play their game. The British are quite happy to recognize a warrior yet they never recognized Pemulwuy as a warrior. What he was in fact was a bitter adversary of them and a very successful one.”
“Warriors” also touches upon the nature of Pemulwuy’s story and on the boundaries between myth and history. Early in the episode, he is introduced by Bob Maza as a carradhy (a clever man), feared by his own people for his powers and for his legendary ability of being immune to musket fire and of being able to turn into a bird to escape from imprisonment. This crucial element is further addressed by Willmot as he reflects on why he included those elements in the novel and how much of this constitutes truth. As he explains in the documentary:
That part of the novel is virtually simply based on direct historical reference because, Bob, not only did Pemulwuy and the Eora people believe that he was impervious to musket fire and the British couldn’t kill him, but the British began to believe it. This is recorded particularly in journals of British military people.←46 | 47→
“Warriors” thus complicates non-Indigenous understandings of who has the control over the domain of history and that of legend, showing how at least some white settlers of the time understood Pemulwuy drawing on Eora systems of knowledge. The relationships between the two societies and the fluidity and varied nature of the exchanges are also addressed by drawing comparisons between the story of Bennelong, who according to Willmot was used to dealing with the British authorities and had an understanding of their hierarchy, and that of Pemulwuy, who knew more about the convicts, the Irish, the bushrangers and the soldiers. Ideas of class division and social divisions within Eora and the settlers’ societies are only briefly introduced but immediately complicate the picture of the early years of the colony that Guthrie, Willmot and Maza are painting. This is further evident in what constitutes the most important scene of the whole episode: the meeting between Governor Hunter and Pemulwuy in which a temporary truce between the Eora and the British is negotiated.
Walking in a small empty space in the middle of Sydney’s busy central business district, which is soon revealed to be the spot where the First Government House used to stand, Willmot and Maza discuss a scene from Willmot’s novel, where Pemulwuy confronts Governor Hunter about Eora sovereignty and denounces the British theft of Eora Country, while the governor keeps repeating that before the arrival of the British the land was empty and belonged to no one, before snapping and proclaiming that, “If you continue to fight you will be wiped out.” Pemulwuy replies by stating that, “If you kill us this land will hate you. It will never be your land. It will kill your people it will kill your gurung.” Maza questions the veracity of this story. Willmot explains that, while fictional, this particular scene imaginatively attempts to sum up what would have been a series of meetings between Pemulwuy and Hunter and, while there is no record of this particular meeting taking place, his fictional reconstruction takes into account both the historical sources available and Willmot’s understanding of the two characters, thus blending fictional and historical elements. Guthrie then cuts to the re-enactment of the meeting, in which for the first time the irreconcilable cultural differences between Eora and British systems of knowledge are voiced through Pemulwuy. What Willmot and Guthrie draw attention to through this scene is the inability of British settlers to←47 | 48→ understand or recognize the concept of Indigenous sovereignty, as doing so would have undermined the myth of peaceful acquisition behind the whole colonizing enterprise and forced them to recognize the state of warfare. Pemulwuy’s last words in the scene and in the episode are “I hear this thing called peace, made by soldiers,” further revealing that he saw himself as an enforcer and protector of Bidjigal law and country rather than as an outlaw, thus reinforcing the idea that the conflict itself was perceived in very different ways by the two sides. But, while this scene embodies the radical distance between Eora and British approaches to sovereignty, denouncing the myth of terra nullius by revealing it as a fictional narrative, it also exposes what I described earlier as the colonizing gaze of Guthrie’s cinematography by aligning the viewers’ perspective of the meeting with that of Governor Hunter and thus portraying Pemulwuy not so much as a leader, hero and carradhy to his people, but rather a victim without agency.
From the very first shot of the re-enactment Pemulwuy appears to the viewers as an elusive presence, a shadow on the edge of an image dominated largely by the settlers’ vessel. While this might initially be perceived as a way of enhancing the aura of mystery behind the Bidjigal leader, it soon becomes clear how this instead occurs due to the result of representational strategies that confine viewers’ perception to that of the settlers. Another example of this emerges when, in a later scene, colonial life is introduced through a sequence depicting British life in a small settlement. The only evidence of the Eora presence in this scene is an Indigenous man escaping from a buggy while Bob Maza explains in voice-over how the Eora were pushed out of their own lands. Even scenes of conflict are positioned within this perspective. When Pemulwuy, played in this brief scene by David Gulpilil, is finally shown attacking a settlement, the camera lingers on the men and women defending their farm while the Bidjigal leader appears only as a shadow rising through the smoke spear in hand. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than when in a later scene Pemulwuy finally gets up to react against Hunter, but it is only for a brief moment and soon enough he is sitting again, while Hunter gets up to impose his truce. While Maza’s narration and Willmot’s comment provide viewers with a portrait of a pan-Aboriginal hero that foregrounds the agency of Pemulwuy and his ability to fight, conduct negotiations and lead a twelve-year guerrilla warfare←48 | 49→ campaign, Guthrie’s direction and cinematography in the re-enactment work to negate that agency by crushing the Bidjigal leader under the weight of the camera’s colonizing gaze and aligning viewers’ perception of the events with that of the British rather than that of the Eora people.
“Warriors” represents a pivotal moment in the story of Pemulwuy and in that of Indigenous resistance. It was the first instance in which the story of the Bidjigal leader reached a larger general public and the fact that it did so through a TV series is also significant. The episode uses many of the critical and visual approaches that were to be developed and built upon by future generations of Indigenous filmmakers and writers, like the ties between past and present, memory and archive, country and Indigenous history-making practices. At the same time, though, its cinematographic representation of Pemulwuy is evidence of what were the early stages of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers, producers and writers within an institution like the SBS in 1985, with Indigenous stories being retold through non-Indigenous aesthetics and forms that placed them firmly within dominant representation practices. Rainbow Serpent: Warriors is not only an important early representation of Pemulwuy and an attempt at creating a pan-Aboriginal hero who could speak to all Indigenous Australians but also, and perhaps most importantly, an act of cultural resistance against the celebration of Australia’s bicentenary and a clear request for recognition of Eora sovereignty and continuing spiritual connections with the land. The episode also raises many of the key issues that Willmot included and expanded upon in his book Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior just two years later, such as the blurred boundaries between myth and history, the need to reflect on the interracial and class politics of the settlement and the relationships between Indigenous oral history and colonial history.←49 | 50→
Reframing Pemulwuy: Pan-Aboriginalism and oral history as framework in Eric Willmot’s Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior
The “Warriors” episode of Rainbow Serpent provides only a brief account of the life of Pemulwuy and of the early years of the colony, focusing on a selected number of episodes in Pemulwuy’s life. In his novel Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior, Willmot paints a larger picture of the years between 1788 and 1802, weaving the lives of a wide cast of Eora and British characters, both fictional and historical, against the background of a novel that constantly alternates between fiction and historical/anthropological research (complete with references and an Eora language glossary). In doing so, the book extends, as Lyn Jacobs suggests, “beyond analysis of the immediate impact on the Eora people to comment on long-term consequences, nationally and globally” (90). As such, Willmot’s novel can perhaps be better understood, as Clifford Aidee Goori Watego suggests, drawing on the work of Eva Sallis, as a type of “research fiction” (Watego 108); that is, fiction that “to a significant degree, expresses the outcome of a body of research” and “is the culminating point of an investigation which could have been written up, at least in part, in academic prose” (Sallis). That is not to say that Willmot’s efforts in uncovering and retelling the life of Pemulwuy should be considered only as a piece of historical scholarship or that his interest in reconstructing and presenting aspects of Eora society and culture detract from the novel, but rather that his work is characterized by a creative tension between fiction and history that reflects the constantly shifting balance between history and myth that sits at the heart of Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior.
The story told in Pemulwuy spans an arc of over fourteen years and follows the life of Kiraban, a fictional young Awakabal man from the coastal area that is today known as the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. Kiraban is first introduced to readers as he joins a British ship travelling to Sydney, where he will spend some time getting acquainted with both the Eora and the British before eventually joining Pemulwuy’s party, after which hostilities between the two groups break out. While Kiraban, who is a stranger to both worlds, is used by Willmot as a way of opening the←50 | 51→ complex life of the early settlement to the reader, he is neither the main character of the novel nor its main focus. Willmot quickly introduces a large number of historical and fictional characters from what he calls the “Australian” world, which includes men and women from the various Eora clans, and the “British and European” world, which is populated instead by British soldiers, explorers and officers as well as by Irish convicts and bushrangers (Pemulwuy 18). Reframing the two sides of conflict from the outset of his novel, Willmot effectively reverses the social identity of the two groups, questioning the right of the “aliens” (a term used by the Eora characters to refer to the invaders from overseas) to call themselves Australians and their claims of sovereignty over the land. At the same time, he suggests that pan-Aboriginal understandings of identity emerged largely as an organic process in response to colonization. As Willmot explains:
The term “Australia” was coined by Matthew Flinders during the period covered by this novel. It was probably derived from the old name of Terra Australis. The author occasionally uses the term Australians to refer to Aboriginal Australians groups, which include more than the Eora people. At this point in Australian history it is only the native inhabitants of the country who could be legitimately referred to by this name. (Pemulwuy 17)
Pursuing historical accuracy for Willmot does not mean simply providing an accurate record of the past, but also re-establishing rights and obligations and questioning linguistic appropriation as much as physical dispossession. This attention to detail and to the way in which history is told is further reinforced by Willmot’s decision to clearly distinguish between fictional and non-fictional characters and to explain how he set out to find their historical voice in the brief introductory essay that opens the novel. There, he clarifies the relationships between real figures, like Pemulwuy, Bennelong and Governor Phillip, fictional characters, like Kiraban, the Bidjigal woman Narewe and the Irish convict Sean McDonough, and others who fall in between these two categories like British marine captain-lieutenant Watkin Tench and Kamergal man Koobee, who share the name of historical figures but whose lives are altered by Willmot to “portray a specific and intimate response to Pemulwuy” (Pemulwuy 18) by reading their actions against the grain of the historical records thus questioning the veracity of what was recorded and why.←51 | 52→
This vast cast of characters is handled by Willmot through constant shifts of perspective between the British and the Eora sides and characters. Throughout the novel readers gain access to both Eora and British perspectives and witness friendships, betrayals, love and conflict in and across both camps. Throughout the novel Willmot sticks to the third person narrator typical of historical fiction but, instead of assuming a didactic approach by taking advantage of an omniscient position, he limits his access to knowledge to that of the characters involved in each particular scene. This methodology generates, as Jacobs argues, a “de-authorising function” that “foregoes the option of overt authorial oversight in favour of characters who perform their opposition” to the content and style of colonial narratives (89). This approach is particularly evident when Willmot has characters perform their own culture, knowledge and relationship with the land in the novel. As discussed before, a crucial aspect of Pemulwuy is the recreation of the Eora experience during the early years of colonization. To do this, Willmot spends significant time describing Eora social structures and decision-making processes and ceremonies, but he does so within the text through the actions and dialogues of the characters rather than through his authorial voice. Estelle Castro notes an example of this when the young Kiraban shares with English soldier and friend James Cawley the story of the country in which they are travelling and explains to him how this story has allowed him to find good water (166). Similar cross-cultural exchanges are scattered across the novel, often varying in register from genuine attempts at understanding, like when the intercultural couple composed of McDonough and the young Eora woman Nargel discuss differences in religion and belonging (80), to moments of open conflict, as in the negotiation between Governor Macarthur and Pemulwuy, when the rift between Eora notions of custodianship and the British conception of property results in a fragile truce that will soon be broken and further aggravate the conflict (150).
The interaction between Eora and British epistemologies is not only performed in the retelling of the events through the relationships between different characters but it also provides the basis of the formal structure of the novel. While the narration of the events follows a chronological order, Willmot encapsulates the story of Pemulwuy within a much older←52 | 53→ Eora legend. Halfway through the novel, the Eora elder Yella Mundi tells a group of children the story of Yanada, a young Eora woman who was loved by two hunters, Yanlarree and Gonduwuy (117). Faced with a decision between the two, Yanada suddenly starts acting as if possessed by a spirit and is exiled from her people and country and thus condemned to not bear children. Yanada is then picked up by the Rainbow Serpent and ascends to the sky, becoming the moon. There she can bear a new child every month and give birth to stars. The story is told by the elder to teach children (and readers) that three truths can be learnt from a single story by shifting perspectives. The first truth is “that which we can easily see”; that is, Yanada’s sudden madness. The second truth is that “in the secret minds of other people” and is represented by Yanada’s people’s decision to exile her, fearing she has become possessed with a bad spirit. The final truth is not revealed by Yella Mundi, for “It is good for men, as well as children, to think of truth” (118). Instead, it is described by as Willmot “the secret truth within each person,” when he explains that Yanada had only pretended to be mad in order to spare her people from the violence that might have broken out if Yanlarree and Gonduwuy had argued over her. Willmot structures his novel around these truths, framing the main narrative in three separate sections and making a clear parallel between the story of Pemulwuy and the legend of Yanada from the preface of the novel where he explains that, like Yanada, Pemulwuy’s mother had to escape from her people to protect her child, who had been born with strabismus in one eye and was thus different.
The foundation of Pemulwuy’s story does not lie in his first contact with the British but in a much more distant past, within an older story that constitutes both the formal structure and the essence of Willmot’s retelling of the Bidjigal leader’s story. As Lyn Jacobs poignantly notes, the three parts of truth can also be read as three macro-narratives at work within the novel (94). The first part of the story showcases how the Eora and British characters hold different truths, while the secondo one focuses instead on how this causes a series of clashes and the ensuing war. The third and final truth is presented only in the ending, with Pemulwuy sacrificing himself to end the conflict and save his people (95). In doing so, Willmot questions the primacy of conventional western history over myth and frames the←53 | 54→ story of the man whose name means “man of the earth” as part of a different narrative, one in which his actions are not governed by the arrival of the British invaders and by the myth of terra nullius but rather by a much older and more powerful story that connects him to his country. As such, the truth of his story and the motivation for his actions cannot be sought only in the colonial archive; instead, it needs to be understood through his myth and through the Eora storytelling tradition.
From the very first pages of the novel, Pemulwuy is presented by Willmot as a legend of the Eora people. Born with an eye defect and saved by his mother when according to Eora custom he should have been killed, Pemulwuy’s true nature remains a mystery to all characters and the readers for a large part of the novel. According to Bennelong, who in the novel is the main Bidjigal antagonist of the Rainbow Warrior, Pemulwuy is a gromeda, a spirit of death (67), and thus a menace to the future of relationships between the Eora and the British. Kamergal man Koobee portrays him instead as a clever man and a leader to his people (31) and the same conflicting view is reflected by the British settlers. Watkin Tench, the man tasked with capturing the Bidjigal leader, recognizes the valour of his opponent and compares him with Hannibal and Boadicea (143), whereas other settlers like Collins constantly downplay Pemulwuy’s victories and the threat he poses to the colony, calling him a “rabid dog” (217). Pemulwuy’s power, mystical aura and connection with the land are portrayed in the novel through repeated references to the legend of his invulnerability to musket fire. Willmot makes clear how this legend was sustained by Pemulwuy himself, who refused to use muskets and claimed to be invulnerable to firearms (73). Later on, the identification of Pemulwuy with Eora land is further revealed by Governor Macarthur, who proclaims: “Pemulwuy your name means earth . . . God! Have we actually made an enemy of the earth itself” (210). Thus, the Rainbow Warrior is portrayed not simply as a historical character but rather an icon of resistance that can embody multiple meanings and histories at the same time. As Watego articulates, Pemulwuy should be read as
a floating signifier: of the land, of the Indigenous people, and of anti-colonial British resistance. The narrator’s reinforcement of Pemulwuy as a secretive trickster-like←54 | 55→ figure, a consummate warrior, astute general, and a cultural visionary become vital in supplementing and correcting the historical narrative of the colonisers, whose prime objective appears not to accord the Eora warrior any status beyond a trouble-making brigand. (115)
While operating within clearly marked historical bounds, Willmot sets out not only to amend the colonial record by re-inscribing a suppressed story of resistance into Australian national history but also, and most importantly, to augment the resonance of a legendary historical figure by turning it into a symbol of contemporary pan-Aboriginal resistance.
In the novel, Pemulwuy is presented not just as a leader of the Eora people but as a pan-Aboriginal hero, able to unite different groups under his command. As the story progresses and the British expand their settlements over larger areas, Pemulwuy convinces people from different Eora groups, including Kamergal, Bidjigal and Kadigal men and women, to fight alongside him. This is achieved largely through Pemulwuy’s position and influence within the Bidjigal secret society Gro Mok (132), which allows him to exert leverage and secure support during the alodim, the decision-making meetings which involve one or several Eora groups. As Watego elaborates, Willmot does not go into detail over the exact nature of the Gro Mok and thus “forces the reader to deduce for him/herself the actual significance of the latter” (114). Pemulwuy’s gravitational pull attracts not only his fellow Eora but also Dharug and Tharawal people and, perhaps most interestingly, also escaped convicts. Throughout the novel, readers learn how Pemulwuy is able to express himself not only in a variety of Indigenous languages but also in English and French. Pemulwuy is thus able to speak not only to his fellow Bidjigal people but also to different Eora, Dharug and Tharawal tribes and to work alongside escaped Irish convicts like McDonough/Garrewe and the Afro-American bushranger Black Caesar. Most remarkably, though, Pemulwuy’s power and charisma do not work across space and different cultures but extend across generations to reach the present. As discussed above, the fictional characters of both Kiraban and Narewe represent entry points to the narrative for the readers and, as they get closer to Pemulwuy, it becomes clear how they were created to reflect on the impact that the Bidjigal warrior can have as←55 | 56→ an inspiring figure for the contemporary generations of Indigenous activists. As Willmot explains:
These two represent an act of faith by those modern young Indigenous men and women who hurt for a past that cannot be changed, and who would willingly have given their lives beside Pemulwuy if they had lived in his time. (17)
Furthermore, as Watego suggests, these two characters both play a pivotal role in the narrative, with Narewe’s chant freeing Pemulwuy from his captivity and Kiraban fighting and eventually dying alongside the Eora leader. As such, the two can be perhaps best understood not simply as fictional “entry points” to the historical narrative, but rather as “alter-spirits” of Pemulwuy (Watego 117), duplicates of a legendary hero. This suggests that “the fight for Indigenous sovereignty (land and the previous freedom to relate to it, spiritually and materially) can be carried on by future generations of Blacks” (124). Pemulwuy’s figure of the pan-Aboriginal hero is thus constructed by Willmot to operate not only across different Indigenous groups but also across past and present.
Pemulwuy’s stature as a pan-Aboriginal hero and his legacy in the present is further emphasized by Willmot by making him one of the only “victors” in his representation of the twelve-year-long Eora campaign of resistance against the British. Governor Phillip and Tench are both defeated by Pemulwuy and forced to return to England, while in contrast Bennelong’s plans for coexistence and cooperation with the British fail and he finds himself ostracized by both the settlers and the Eora upon his return from England. A truce and the plan for a subdivision of Eora lands proposed by the Kamergal people both fail to be realized and, in the end, Pemulwuy and Kiraban are killed in an ambush. Yet, the heroic status of Pemulwuy is not diminished by his ultimate demise, which is framed by Willmot as part of Yanada’s story and the last, hidden part of truth. As discussed above, throughout the novel readers discover how Pemulwuy functions as an incarnation of the land and of Eora connections with it. Towards the end of the conflict, right after the deaths of Narewe and Koobee and with Pemulwuy’s people decimated by the clashes with the British troops and by epidemics, Pemulwuy decides to prevent the complete destruction of Eora society by allowing the British to kill him. Yet again, his decision is not presented←56 | 57→ directly but rather through the story of Yanada and Kiraban’s reflection on what constitutes the third truth for Pemulwuy. Following the death of many of his companions, Pemulwuy grows increasingly distant from the remaining Eora warriors and is presumed insane (Pemulwuy 296). Only Kiraban recognizes the parallels with Yanada’s story and is able to track him down. When they finally meet, Kiraban recognizes that Pemulwuy is not mad but is instead tired of conflict and concerned with the human cost of it. By having Pemulwuy sacrifice himself for the survival of his people, Willmot stresses how he refused to surrender his sovereignty and to fight the British on their own terms, thus sacrificing further Eora lives. In doing so, Willmot specifically addresses the ongoing impact of colonization in the present, while at the same time celebrating the survival of the Indigenous people’s connection with their land. While the outcome of Pemulwuy’s story cannot be changed, Willmot provides readers with a different perspective on his life and death, one which foregrounds his agency even in defeat and the importance of his role as the first pan-Aboriginal and Australian freedom fighter. This is further stressed in the novel’s last lines:
Pemulwuy’s amputated head was placed in a jar of spirits and despatched from Australia aboard the ship Speedy. To the best of the author’s knowledge the head still lies somewhere in England. His body and his spirit have long entered the earth and the Australia for which he gave his life. (Willmot Pemulwuy 299)
As discussed above, Willmot’s novel can be perhaps best described as a piece of “research fiction,” characterized by a creative tension between the need to rewrite a forgotten chapter of Australia’s history and his desire to reaffirm the survival of Indigenous culture and history through the celebration of a pan-Aboriginal hero able to speak to and inspire the present generation of Indigenous activists. However, while Willmot goes to great lengths to ground his novel in historical research, providing readers with an extensive bibliography of reference texts at the end of his work, no Indigenous sources are quoted in the novel and it remains unclear just who the Bidjigal and Eora custodians of Pemulwuy’s story are, how this particular story has been passed down and how Willmot has set out to research the Eora perspective on the life of the Rainbow Warrior. Because of this, shortly after its publication the novel attracted the critique of fellow←57 | 58→ writer Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo, who saw Willmot’s attempt at retelling the story of Pemulwuy as constricted into the white form of the historical novel and thus unable to break away from the dominant colonial approach to history-making. He writes:
It [Willmot’s novel] is very descriptive and the black characters act like Europeans. It is difficult to know what to make of it. What seems to have been lost is the idea that there were two cultures and peoples in conflict. Pemulwuy conducts his resistance movement like a British general … If not for the narrative structure of the text, it might have been a history book. (178)
Similar criticism is made by cultural theorist Diane Molloy, who takes issue with the use of the colonial archive in the novel and with Willmot’s apparent inability to present a perspective different from the dominant one. She states:
Instead of challenging the official history to make way for an Aboriginal hero, Willmot loses the Aboriginal voice within the archive material, and instead reproduces and perpetuates the official narrative. The archive of mainstream Australia is taken as the definitive representation of the past with a single meaning: rather than providing a new interpretation of the past or inserting an alternative narrative, Willmot has sought to embed the Aboriginal character in Western discourse, an approach that ultimately fails. (53–54)
While both Johnson/Mudrooroo and Molloy raise valid points on the difference between fiction and history and on the form of Indigenous historiographies, their critiques of Willmot’s retelling of the Pemulwuy story overlook a series of crucial aspects of the work and the historical framework in which his work emerged. In his retelling of Pemulwuy’s story, Willmot spends a great amount of time reconstructing and contextualizing many different aspects of Eora’s society and, while Pemulwuy is portrayed by some of his adversaries as a general, Johnson/Mudrooroo’s critique does not take into account the many instances in which Pemulwuy refuses to fight the British on their own terms, either by allowing the use of firearms (129) or by accepting heavy casualties amongst his people as a necessary price for victory (142). The portrayal of the Rainbow Warrior as a leader able to speak and engage with different groups both amongst the Indigenous and settlers’ worlds is also part of a←58 | 59→ deliberate strategy aimed at the creation and celebration of a contemporary and actual pan-Aboriginal hero. Most importantly, while the novel is indeed a work of historical fiction, it does experiment with form and structure by framing the twelve years of conflict within the much older story of Yanada. It is through this experimentation that Willmot questions the supremacy of the colonial archive and its ability to first appropriate and then erase the resistance waged against the colonization of Eora land. As Watego suggests, it is through the story of Yanada and the inclusion of fictional characters that both provide access to and duplicate the historical figure of Pemulwuy that “Willmot is able to construct an Indigenous framework through which the reader is induced to reassess the validity and relevance of Western historical formulations in relation to Indigenous Australia” (108). Willmot questions the primacy of the colonial archive as the correct representation of the past through a deliberate strategy that seeks to embed Indigenous content and historiographies within the white form of the historical novel. This attempt mirrors the Rainbow Serpent SBS TV series two years earlier and both works can be best understood as the result of a larger critical tension between the urgency of recovering stories of past resistance heroes for a new generation of pan-Aboriginal activists and the need to protect those same stories from the scrutiny of dominant historiographies and legitimize them for a larger public by adopting, at least on the surface, white forms while at the same time working to deconstruct them from within by using the Eora story of Yanada to interpret colonial history, rather than the opposite.
It is important to note here the role and impact that the work of Willmot and of other Indigenous writers who retold these stories as decolonizing fictions of pan-Aboriginal resistance had on the following generations of Indigenous artists. As part of an emergent Indigenous voice of resistance, Willmot’s works laid the foundations for more retellings of Pemulwuy’s and other resistance leaders stories by Indigenous cultural producers. As I will discuss in the next chapter, filmmakers like Grant Leigh Saunders first approached Pemulwuy’s story through Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior and Willmot’s attempts to reframe the Bidjigal warrior’s story as part of a larger and longer story of resistance in Rainbow Serpent are echoed in the work done twenty years later by Rachel Perkins in her landmark documentary TV series First Australians.←59 | 60→ ←60 | 61→
7 The Boyer lectures is an annual series broadcast from September to December on ABC Radio National. Influential Australians are chosen by the ABC board to deliver lectures aimed at stimulating public debates on key issues. The Boyer lectures were first launched in 1959 as the “ABC lectures” by ABC chairman Richard Boyer. They were renamed in his honour after his death in 1961 and are still aired each year. For more on current and previous editions see the ABC Radio National website: <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/>.
- X, 244
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Book)
- Publication date
- 2019 (June)
- Legacies of Indigenous Resistance Indigenous sovereignty Indigenous film and media Australian Indigenous history
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 244 pp.