“Legacies of resistance we need to act upon”: PhD candidate Matteo Dutto

PhD candidate Matteo Dutto
PhD candidate Matteo Dutto

Sometimes dubbed the ‘black Ned Kelly', Jandamarra of the Bunuba nation is an iconic figure in the history of Australian Indigenous armed resistance to colonial invasion, and while Indigenous Australians have always shared stories of both Jandamarra's resistance and of other key Indigenous people, such as Yagan of the Whadjuk Noongar and Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal people, the wider Australian public remains largely unaware of this history and these stories.

Monash PhD candidate, Matteo Dutto, is currently researching the retellings of these stories, which take on various forms including oral accounts, theatre, film and children’s books. His research encourages greater responsibility and recognition for the diverse ways to think about the legacies of these stories, and about the connections between past and present acts of resistance.

Why did you choose to look, in particular, at these three figures?

There are so many stories of armed resistance, and even though there’s much work about these leading figures, they are not really part of Australia’s national history. I chose these three historical leaders because there is a corpus of stories produced by Indigenous cultural producers about them.

The idea was not to look at them only through a historical perspective, but also through an Indigenous approach, so doing that meant engaging with Indigenous retellings of these stories and the way in which they exist across a wide variety of media. There is of course the oral tradition but perhaps most interestingly for us and Indigenous people, is that there is quite a lot of work being done by Indigenous filmmakers, playwrights and writers to retell these stories to the wider public from their own perspectives. These include documentary films, historical novels, and theatre plays.

So for Pemulwuy we have oral stories, documentaries, theatre plays and the same goes for Jandamarra and Yagan. They are each quite different in terms of stories. They show different facets of resistance, different ways resistance was performed in Australia, the different approaches to retelling the stories because, of course, the Bidjigal, Bunuba and Whadjuk Noongar people and cultures are each so different.

That’s the main area of the thesis and the objective was to develop a decolonising framework for us, as non-Indigenous people, to properly acknowledge and understand what an Indigenous perspective on history is and the dynamic interrelationship between these stories of resistance and reclamations of sovereignty in the present. I did this by weaving methods of textual and historical analysis with original interviews with Indigenous cultural producers to analyse a wide range of retellings of the lives and legacies of Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan from the past forty years.

Is this why you use the word “legacies” as an ongoing concept rather than “stories” which infer something past?

Yes, these are stories that speak not just to the past, they speak to the present and they speak to the future, most importantly. These stories are in the present, for things like negotiation of treaties, land rights, and the reclamation of sovereignty against the ongoing colonisation in Australia.

These are not just stories of resistance, these are acts of resistance in the present – by retelling a story of resistance you are enacting resistance in the present. And of course you can do that in a variety of ways so the idea of having more stories was also to reflect how you can resist colonisation and aim towards decolonisation in different ways. There are works that try and pursue a more reconciliatory approach and build towards reconciliation and constitutional recognition, and other works that emerge from a different political background and focus instead on reclamations of sovereignty and on the demand for treaties. They share many of the same aims but they enact resistance in different ways.

This is why I, in the end, propose to think about these three stories [about Yagan, Jandamarra and Pemulwuy] not just as stories of resistance but as legacies of resistance.

Engaging with them through the works of Indigenous cultural producers and cultural activists allows us to understand how Indigenous historical knowledges operate across different media and epistemologies, embodying radical alterities through their presentation of the relations between past and present, between myth and history and between Indigenous countries and the settler colonial state. These are not just stories we need to learn about, but legacies we need to act upon.

Where did this idea come from?

You could say the main starting point was something that Tony Birch, an Indigenous academic and writer, wrote during the early 2000s during the ‘history wars’ when the very notion of Indigenous history and the legitimacy of Indigenous historiographies was being called into question by the Howard government. Reflecting on this political discussion, Tony Birch pointed at the fact that what was missing were Indigenous voices and perspectives because what he saw were non-Indigenous revisionist historians against non-Indigenous conservative historians. The idea was, let’s start from what Birch said, and what can we, non-Indigenous people learn, not from ‘official histories’ but from Indigenous histories?

I always thought it was interesting that there’s many ways of doing history but there is still a resistance, particularly in Australia, to histories that are done through other mediums and are not considered by many as ‘proper’ forms of history. I think there is still a reluctance even within western historiography to accept that these other forms, for example documentary, can do history just as well as historians can, so that history is not just confined to the university but done through many other disciplines. That’s why I incorporate a transdisciplinary approach.

I think what’s also striking is that there is still a linear modernist view of history that has framed Indigenous people as confined to a distant past – depicting Indigenous cultures as not contemporary. This approach was pivotal during the early years of colonisation and still being used today by the settler colonial state, to deny we live in the same day and age and that there can be different ways of being modern and being contemporary.

When we think of how history can be done across media, we think of transmedia, cross-media, convergence, but for many Indigenous cultures across Australia, knowledge was always transmitted across media: song, storytelling, performance. It was always told across media so it doesn’t have to be conceptualised as ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’ – they work together. How we perceive and conceptualise history can trick us into thinking in certain paradigms.

These works I’m looking at break away from these paradigms and force us to consider different ways of doing history, and to understand these stories of resistance we need to change the way we think about history itself. It’s not just about knowing, but learning from these stories and reflecting on how and why they were told and at what time.

As someone from Italy, I’m curious, what stirred you to learn about these legacies in Australia?

I first came to Australia in 2009 when I was doing a Master of Comparative Literature and Post-Colonial Studies at the University of Bologna focusing on Australian literature, and that’s when I came across the Ned Kelly stories. I’d always been interested in resistance stories so I thought that would be an interesting topic and I managed to get a scholarship from the University of Bologna to spend three months here doing research, and so of course I came to Melbourne. At the time, I was focusing on the literary reincarnations of Ned Kelly and how his legend was built through various media, starting from the very first songs that were being written and sang while he was alive, up until books like The True History of the Kelly Gang [by Peter Carey] and a number of films.

Whilst doing that, I got in touch with Professor Adam Shoemaker, a key Australian scholar of post-colonial and Indigenous literature who was working at Monash University at the time, and then I got to know Mary Rose Casey, a performance scholar still here in the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre. That was around the time I came across the Jandamarra story.

I didn’t have much time to explore that in my master’s thesis but I conducted some research and wrote a bit about Jandamarra. I then ended up working in Italy for another four years before I decided to continue this research and applied for a scholarship from Monash to do this PhD.

You could say that I targeted Monash as I’d been here before and had a good experience, even though it was just for a couple of weeks. I knew how good a university it was and thought I could do more here so it was my first and only application for a scholarship.

How fortuitous to meet Mary Rose Casey. How then did you find your supervisors?

When I first applied for the scholarship I knew Professor Shoemaker wasn’t working at Monash anymore, so I didn’t have any contacts at the university. I just sent a blind application to see if anyone was interested and soon after I received an email back from Associate Professor Therese Davis saying that she loved the project and that she’d be happy to be my supervisor.

After that I met with her and Associate Professor Belinda Smail at the Monash Prato Centre, as they were organising a small conference there. It was great, we spent a couple of days together so I got a chance to meet my supervisors before I came to Australia. It took a couple of extra months for the scholarship to be approved, then that was it.

And now you’ve submitted your thesis. Can you share a bit about what you’ve found?

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories among the three is the story of Jandamarra. These stories were either actively erased after the death of these freedom fighters, or assimilated into the colonial narrative to maintain the myth of terra nullius, and the myth that Indigenous people did not resist or fight back. You either had to erase these characters by not speaking about them even though they are in the archives, or you turn them into outlaws and bandits.

Jandamarra became a bandit in a book written about him by Ion Idriess in the 1950s, ‘Outlaws of the Leopolds', where he made Jandamarra the villain who kills settlers with the settlers and police force as the heroes of the narrative. The Bunuba people, the keepers of his story, for years tried to repair this history and retell it through Bunuba stories and voices. In 1984 they created a cultural enterprise, Bunuba Cultural Enterprises, with the objective to tell the story to the wider public. The original idea was to turn it into a feature film, then it became a play through a collaboration with Steve Hawke, a non-Indigenous playwright who spent about 25 years of his life in Fitzroy Crossing. A most interesting aspect is that the play is performed in four languages [English, Bunuba, Kriol and Pidgin]. It then also became an opera that was performed in Sydney three years ago.

‘Jandamarra: Sing for the Country' made its world premiere with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House, 2014.

So what we can learn from this approach is that it was driven from the community and can be cross-cultural, and take different forms. You also get an idea of how important language is to convey certain aspects of history. The most important point is that it comes from the community and the ownership of the story remains with the community even when the story is opened up to a much wider audience, as when Indigenous director Mitch Torres retold it in her 2011 documentary Jandamarra’s War.

How did this compare to the other legacies?

Well, on the other end you’ve got Pemulwuy, whose story was first brought to a wider public by Indigenous academic Eric Willmott in 1987 when he was working for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). His approach was very much engaging with the historical archive and looking for what was missing in the official accounts rather than with the keepers of the story. These stories may have been erased from official histories, but if you look at the diaries of settlers and journals of the governors, there are mentions of these figures because they were, at the end of the day, fighting a war. So his approach was looking at the “white” archive and filling in the gaps, whereas with Jandamarra, as it was still alive as an oral history, things were driven by the Bunuba people then research from elsewhere was considered.

Willmott’s research into Pemulwuy was actually first aired as a documentary in 1985, as a teaser to his book while he was still completing the novel. The advantage of considering these different retellings as a corpus is that it allows us to reflect on how they move across time and across media. They might emerge at different times, but they are inextricably connected to each other and this also changes the way in which we often think about history as a single narrative. Pemulwuy emerged to a wider audience in the late 1980s and there’s a reason for that. His story was recovered right before the celebration of the bicentenary because it was being used by Indigenous activists to protest against the omission of Indigenous perspectives from the ‘celebrations’.

The Pemulwuy story is still maintained by the Eora nation or Darug people in Sydney. They were involved in Rachel Perkins’ 2008 documentary series First Australians by having Darug elders retell the story on their own terms, and the same was done in 2010 by Indigenous filmmaker Grant Lee Saunders. Looking at these different works one can see how Pemulwuy is portrayed in different ways by each cultural producer, with changes that reflect the way in which Indigenous activism and politics have changed over the past 30 years.

What about for the retelling of Yagan?

For Yagan, there was an oral history CD released just a few years ago as told by the Whadjuk Noongar people. Again a community-driven project, and it’s interesting how these stories are still being told and how crucial they are. We also have his story playing a pivotal role in Jack Davis’ 1972 play Kullark, in Sally Riley’s short film Confessions of a Headhunter and in a more recent documentary by Kelrick Martin called Yagan.

Through this story and his various retellings by Indigenous cultural producers we can also see how these stories of resistance continue to have an impact in the present. After Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan were killed, their heads were cut off and shipped to England to be exhibited in museums and that was a common practice that the British colonisers did across the world. The retelling of these stories is a way to advocate for the return of their remains, as well as for sovereignty and land rights. Having their remains returned to country is crucial in many ways for their spirit to be laid to rest and for their legacy to be taken up by a new generation.  Yagan’s head was recovered in 1997 and buried with a traditional Noongar ceremony in 2010, but for Pemulwuy and Jandamarra, there is still an ongoing campaign for the repatriation of their remains and these retellings play an active part in these fights.

This fight is still going on. These stories bring to light questions that need to be discussed with the communities: how do you commemorate these stories? Would Pemulwuy be happy to have a statue built of him by the state he fought against? How can we move forward?

So is this what your research ultimately hopes to achieve – a way to move forward?

The idea was to develop a decolonising framework that could account for the mobility, continuity and heterogeneity of Indigenous multimodal approaches to history-making. This was done not only with objective of facilitating the recognition of Indigenous cultural productions as valid forms of doing history, but to stress how learning from the lives of historical figures like Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Yagan requires a non-Indigenous public to engage with their incarnations across different media and across different times to truly understand what their legacies entail in the present, and how they are shaped by Indigenous cultural activists. We don’t just need to sit down and listen; we need to sit down, listen and engage and act upon them. There is a need to move forward.

It’s something that could be taken up with many other stories too. It’d be interesting to see other people engaging with the stories of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, Musquito, Dundalli and Windradyne [(each from different Indigenous countries)], or the role of Indigenous women in the resistance for example. In the story of Jandamarra the role of Jandamarra’s mother and wife were crucial in the fight, so that’s another direction of research.

I think it has practical implications for policy as well, for example the way the curriculum is taught – how are these stories taught and for what purpose? Do you just use textbooks or do you use film and art? I think it’s crucial to recognise the importance of not just ‘teaching’ Indigenous histories, but of doing so using also Indigenous ways of doing it, involving communities, as well as cultural producers and cultural activists to stress how these stories are still alive.

I suppose this might also have an impact for the new migrants coming to Australia as in: how much, as migrants to this country, do we know about the many Indigenous sovereign nations? As much as we might be considered minority groups and different from ‘white Australia’, we are still part of a settler colonial state, we still benefit from the genocide that occurred, so we are very much part of the system. We have a responsibility to engage more with these stories, to know them and to learn from them.

It’s not good enough to say, ‘why didn’t anybody tell us?’ We should be actively looking for this information and these stories are out there so it’s a question of: why don’t we act upon them? Why aren’t we in a position to see how important they are?

Even for new migrants to engage more actively to learn about the place you live in, not just the white history of the place. And it’s so much more satisfying, I feel privileged to have lived in a place for four years where we have the longest continuing culture in the world. There is so much to be learnt from it, if we only engaged a bit more.

Even for new migrants to engage more actively to learn about the place you live in, not just the white history of the place. And it’s so much more satisfying, I feel privileged to have lived in a place for four years where we have the longest continuing culture in the world. There is so much to be learnt from it, if we only engaged a bit more.