What Might Indigenous Records of Encounter Look Like?

Historians have traditionally viewed archival texts as the most credible primary sources of information on the person, culture or event they were studying. These sources include diaries, newspaper accounts, official reports and records, and are usually held in institutional archives, public records offices and state libraries. Accessing the European perspective on a topic such as encounters between Indigenous people and those who arrived unannounced and uninvited is relatively simple, as the Australian, British and even Dutch archives – and many online repositories – contain numerous accounts of early contacts between mariners and coastal peoples.

But what of the Indigenous perspective – the view from the beach? Europeans did record conversations with Indigenous peoples, their observations and their memories. We can also gain insight by reading the actions of Indigenous peoples through European records of the meetings – when confronted with intruders on their land, did they welcome, retreat, fight, share, laugh, express curiosity, show indifference, or participate in trade?

However, there is a limitation to European records. From the earliest Dutch examples right through to the mid-20th century, many unwittingly or deliberately perpetuated the colonial trope of a backward people, saved from themselves by a superior culture. And one of the key markers of this imagined inferiority of Indigenous peoples, which had direct implications for the way historical archives were built up, was a perceived lack of a written language. Early British observers in Australia looked for a written syllabary, to match their own understanding of literacy, and seeing none, declared Indigenous Australians as a people without written language. This trend was repeated the world over. And so for much of Australia’s history, there was an assumption by historians and other non-Indigenous cultural leaders that credible Indigenous perspectives on colonisation, and even pre-colonial life, did not exist.

It is a pattern in settler colonial states, where European powers invaded Indigenous peoples’ lands and imposed their own culture, that until recent decades academics have been slow, unable or unwilling to recognise Indigenous literacies. Mi'kmaq educator Marie Battiste observed in 2002, that Indigenous knowledge, including literacies, were traditionally invisible or undervalued by Eurocentric ideas around development and science, and as a result were not recorded in a systematic way. In the Americas, many examples of literacy, inextricably tied to and representative of Indigenous Knowledge, went uncredited. First Nations peoples recorded their histories and cultures using petroglyphs, notched sticks, wampum and marked trees. Helen Balanoff and Cynthia Chambers, in Do my literacies count as Literacy?, write of the value to Inuit of Inukshuks (stone landmarks), tattoos, food, clothing, drum dances and songs, names and naming, amulets, stories, string and other games. In South America, Andean peoples used quipu and weave to record and calculate. Across the Pacific, Ta moko or Maori tattooing tradition has long been understood to carry symbolic meaning as a kind of writing system.

This suite of literacies is also evident in the Australian context. Whilst oral transmission of culture was generally the means of passing on law, lore and history, Indigenous peoples across the length and breadth of the continent and its islands also wrote on landscape, plants and bodies.

Rock art is a one of the key areas of national heritage preservation and controversy, as seen with the public and shareholder outcry at Rio Tinto’s destructive practices at Juukan Gorge. Message sticks, as the name implies, relayed information, as did writing on a range of objects including maps carried on woomeras. Possum skin cloaks recorded rich cultural, cosmological, family and personal information, as did scarification, and body paint continues to be an integral part of cultural events and personal milestones. Indigenous Australians modified trees, arranged stones and probably left astronomical records. Bruce Pascoe’s work has heightened public awareness of Indigenous Australian technological ingenuity. Ochre played an integral role in many Indigenous cultures, as a medium for ceremonial and cultural use, and tracing its movement, along with other desirable lithic matter, gives insight into traditional trade routes and practices. The use of bark paintings as communicative and cultural vehicles is well known, with the most famous example – the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which combines bark writing, written Yolngu, and written English – recognised as being of the highest national importance.

These varied examples of traditional literacies have the potential to inform historical inquiry around the early encounters between Indigenous peoples and outsiders. In the south-east of the continent, Koori artist Tommy McRae’s art recorded events which were important to Indigenous Victorians, such as William Buckley’s arrival in Wathurong country. In the north, rock art images in Kakadu record sailing ships, with one depiction of a Macassan Prau dating to the mid-1600s, and on the west coast on Wadjarri land,  a large art gallery at Walga Rock includes sailing ships.

Stories of encounters which have been passed down across single or multiple generations, as well as songs, remain another powerful resource of the Indigenous perspective of encounter. There are numerous records of the first visit by James Cook and the Endeavour, and these informed the Alison Page film ‘The Message’, which charted how reports of the Endeavour spread along the entire east coast of Australia.

The Gunaikurnai remember in story and song how Boondjil Noorook discovered Cook, and the Endeavour resembled a greedy pelican to the Yuin. The Dharawal speak back to the colonial record by critiquing errors made by Endeavour scribes, and the Gweagal Shield documents the violence of the Endeavour visit, Indigenous resistance, and the ongoing issue of repatriation.

In the Queensland Coast town of Seventeen Seventy – named after the Endeavour visit – the Gooreng Gooreng today can pinpoint exactly where the Endeavour crew collected fresh water. On the other side of the continent, the Bardi have retained knowledge of William Dampier’s landing at Karrakatta Bay for 330 years.

Oral accounts, handed down over many generations, shed invaluable light on these coastal encounters. Along with traditional literacies, they make up a powerful archive with which to glimpse a long-silenced perspective on the earliest encounters on the beach.

Dr Leonie Stevens