Stories beginning to be told

30 September 2020

Warriors, stockmen, orators, leaders, matriarchs, rainmakers, cultural custodians. There are over 60,000 years of Indigenous Australian stories, yet few are known. 

To change this, the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography project in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), is bringing together a collection of biographies that give us a deeper understanding of Indigenous historical figures. 

In 2017, the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography project was a major focus for Giving Day, and received tremendous support from donors enthusiastic to ensure the stories of Indigenous Australians were told. The ADB received a total of $22,405 from the Giving Day campaign as well as additional funds from The ANU Fund, making a total of $96,382. The National Centre of Biography at ANU, which produces the ADB, employed a research editor, dedicated to telling the stories of Indigenous Australians identified for the volume. 

The project is well under way with eleven new biographies added to the ADB, 80 in process, and authors identified for 40 more. Their goal of 190 biographies will double the number of Indigenous biographies in the ADB.

Building this collection is crucial to representation due to a relative absence of positive stories about Indigenous people in Australian history. Dr Malcolm Allbrook, Managing Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography at the National Centre of Biography at ANU explained the implications of a lack of representation.

"Indigenous people have often expressed their dismay at the absence of their people from the educational system, including curricula. Many have thus internalised images of their people as disadvantaged and their contributions to history as mainly negative, and this effects long-term well-being".

One of the Centre's goals is to develop ways of getting these stories into school and university curricula, and in particular, to places where there are high proportions of Indigenous students, to address the lack of representation. The National Centre of Biography also aims to educate the wider Australian population on the varied ways in which Indigenous people have contributed to and benefitted the nation.

With a recent grant from the John T Reid Charitable Trusts, the Centre can continue to employ a research editor and extend the project until 2023.

"The Charitable Trust grant will allow us to build on the impetus created by Giving Day gifts and we are deeply grateful to the donors" said Dr Allbrook.

A fuller Australian history with richer stories

The already published stories are testament to the importance of the project as they show the many and varied lives and accomplishments of Indigenous Australians.

The biography of Old Moppy, tells of a resistance fighter whose sincerity, strength and skill enabled him to bring together many diverse groups for a common cause.

Peter Hippai, a stockman and cultural custodian who survived frontier violence and worked for settlers to maintain connection to his country, ensured his language, culture and law were passed on to his descendants by continuing to speak and practice them, all the while coexisting with new arrivals.

The documented moments of Kaurna matriarch, Maria Welch's life regrettably give more insight into the effects of colonisation on Kaurna people than her own world-view, leaving Maria lingering in the reader's mind, wondering, if asked, what would she say of her world.

In 1968, Mungo Lady reappeared and enlightened a doubting Australian public to the fact that Aboriginal people have lived on this land for thousands and thousands of years. By telling the stories of individuals, this collection of biographies acts as a reminder to today's Australians that our history reaches back over 60,000 years and is rich with the extraordinary lives, experiences and contributions of Indigenous Australians.

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