Research Outcomes Part 1: Foundations

As the research team has set about distilling and shaping the findings of this research project we have become convinced of the need to revisit some of our society’s foundational understandings about evidence and memory. We have repeatedly observed ways in which professional frameworks and conceptualisations and legal definitions directly impact on the relationship between Koorie people and Koorie knowledge, particularly Koorie knowledge in archives.

The two foundations expressed in here aim to reflect the perspectives which emerged from the research team’s conversations with members of Koorie communities. They also draw on understandings gained from literature in the areas of Indigenous studies (particularly relating to orality and knowledge systems), archival science (particularly relating to archival systems in post-colonial societies) and community informatics.

They challenge many of Australian society’s evidence and memory paradigms and require the archives community to rethink many of its foundational principles and frameworks. However they are an essential platform for an Australian collective archive which is more inclusive of Koorie people.

Outcome 1: An Inclusive Understanding of Koorie Knowledge


Participant 6, Stage 1

"[If] someone that I respect highly in my family could more or less validate the story then I would believe it. If someone put a piece of paper in front of me the first instinct would be to say I "don't believe that". I want to hear it from someone who I believe in and that I could respect and trust."

Participant 62, Stage 1

"Our gatherings at funerals are quite large and some people may not have seen each other for many years, so that's where a lot of those sorts of things take place, those stories are passed on. Unfortunately that is how it happens. I just think it's a move from our traditions to more contemporary society in terms of context.  So in some way, shape or form, it is still happening but in a different way."

Participant 34, Stage 1

"For example my sister says to me, and my cousin even said to me: … "I suppose I'll have to sit down with Mum some day and really nut it out with her". I said, "No she'll tell you lots of stories when you're ready to hear." I think I find that with the younger generation, they tend to think they have to be sat down and told whereas it is not like that. It's an ongoing thing."

Systems and services for preserving Koorie memory and evidence need to be based on a recognition of the breadth and diversity of Koorie knowledge. Koorie knowledge includes knowledge contained in:

  • oral memory and associated traditions,
  • oral memory which has been captured using various Western technologies,
  • records created by Koorie people and organisations using the structures and forms of Western knowledge and communications systems,
  • records created by non-Indigenous people and organisations about Koorie people.

In highlighting these four knowledge sources it is not our intention to be circumscriptive – this is not an all-encompassing definition. Rather we are aiming here to highlight the relevance to Koorie people of both orality and text, to recognise the interplay between the two and to avoid preferencing Western expressions of knowledge over Indigenous ones.

Sources of Koorie knowledge

Participant 35, Stage 1

"I tell the story of Bunjil. He's my Maker. He's my Creator. So when I go out with my work again I go out and tell people I worship an eagle. Some people think I am a bit dopey. Then I explain my god's an eagle and Mindi made the land, the Rainbow Serpent, and Wa, the crow and you tell those stories.  They are cultural stories and they are relevant to this land and people need to be aware that they are stories of this land. So I tell those stories and they are very special. They're brilliant."

Participant 62, Stage 1

"There will be some stories that will not be told at all. There will be stories that will be taken to the grave for a whole range of reasons. … It could be fear of bringing shame to their family or community for whatever reason it might be.  We all say times have changed but in their eyes, it hasn't changed. There is that degree of cynicism, scepticism, uncertainty, lack of trust, all sorts of things, so that they would rather hold those stories and take them with them to the grave. And in some way, shape or form we have to respect their wishes for whatever reason it might be. But out of that, people start to interpret their own understanding of some of those and draw their own conclusions. So it's a bit of a hit and miss arrangement.  But that's just the way it is and you have to accept it."

Participant 26, Stage 1

"I believe there are a lot of things that should be recorded in the true sense of the way, recorded from the words of an Aboriginal person not the words of a non-Aboriginal person.  I think it's more true."

Participant 43, Stage 1

"Art work, yes. But mainly it is shared verbal communication of story telling. The public face is art work. The public face is books. The storytelling I'm talking about is purely verbal communication, entrusted."

Participant 9, Stage 1

"A lot of our stories have been documented but a lot of people don't understand them. If you go into where they're still practising their laws and customs, they have their rules for living and it's not something that's written down.  It's handed down. And that's through being alongside them and they actually teach you. So you actually go out bush, and we've done this here.  I've gone out with my brothers and their families and in that process of looking for bundi sticks the exchange of rules for living and behaviour is all there and you're passing it on and you don't even realise you are actually doing it."

Participant 17, Stage 1

"It's just as important to tell the struggles today as what it is to tell of the struggles years ago because I think that story's been told. As far as I'm concerned that story of "Lousy Little Sixpence" happened in my mother's time and my grandparents' time. We moved off the mission and went and lived over at Mooroopna.  …we moved into commission houses and said "Right we're going to live like white fellas now." And what a silly thing we did. Because then our kids were all scattered in commission houses. Our kids were scattered when they went to school. They soon found out that they were different and all the good will in the world will never change that. And so what we've got to do is to teach our children self esteem that we learnt as a whole heap of people together. When we had to struggle we struggled together."

Participant 62, Stage 1

"I can talk about a project I worked on many years ago and it had so many threads connected to it.  There was one central story that had many arms but there were many interpretations of it. Over many years I got different pieces of the story that added up. So it took about five or six years to make sense of it and bring it all together."

First, Koorie knowledge includes Koorie oral memory. This is not a static body of information passed down through generations. Rather it is a process of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next through spoken word, music, dance, performance and art. Oral memory involves the interpretation and reinterpretation of the past to ensure its relevance to the present. It both reflects and informs familial and community relationships. It is dependent on language, place and ceremony. Capturing it using any Western technology (from pen and paper to digital technologies) fundamentally changes its dynamic, cumulative nature. For it to continue to function as a foundation of Koorie cultures it must remain oral memory.

Koorie people interviewed as part of this project have strongly expressed view that both pre- and post-invasion stories are equally valued components of their oral memory. Indeed for many people the disjuncture between past and present is regarded as arbitrary and Euro-centric. For them it is a continuous and unbroken sequence between the here and now and the before. That is not to suggest that Indigenous people live in the past: many Koorie people recognise and embrace the ways in which modern information and communications technologies can support, not replace, the maintenance of oral memory. Over the last fifty years there have been many projects, some initiated by Koorie communities and others by non-Indigenous researchers, to record oral memory in text or audio format. Some of these have been in support of historical and anthropological studies of Koorie cultures and experiences. Others have had as their purpose capturing and sharing family stories and supporting the recovery of community, family and individual identity. Other projects have had an educational focus – supporting programs to teach Koorie cultures within Koorie communities and to the Australian and international communities.

Koorie knowledge also includes records created in textual or other Western forms (written documents, photos) by Indigenous people and organisations. Examples are family records and individual memoirs, records created by Co-ops or organisations such as the Aborigines Advancement League. There are many accumulations of these records held privately or by a variety of collecting institutions. Many are vulnerable due to fragmentation and the lack of any institution or program available to manage them.

Koorie knowledge also includes knowledge contained in records created by non-Indigenous people and organisations, including governments, religious and other welfare agencies, historians and anthropologists. These records are mostly about, rather than of or by, Koorie people (although records written by Koorie people, such as letters, are often accumulated by these organisations along with other documents). Such records contain valuable Koorie knowledge – perspectives on events which differ from those within Koorie narratives or which enable Koorie people to locate their narratives within a broader historical context. This is knowledge which once recovered from its non-Indigenous sources often becomes reincorporated into oral memory and/or Koorie knowledge in general. Further, in some instances institutional records represent the lives and experiences of the records subjects in powerful ways, being the instruments or bi-products of intense institutional intervention or surveillance.

Outcome 2: Koorie Knowledge, Koorie Rights


Participant 37, Stage 1

"I'd want to know what they are going to use it for and why. I don't want them to use it as a means to be against Wurundjeri people. I'd never ever give permission for that sort of stuff. I'll be very restrictive with the white fella because it's all about trust and knowing where they're coming from. For to us these stories are life."

Koorie people have a right to make decisions about the management of Koorie knowledge in all its forms. Outcome 1 of this report highlights that any attempt to conceptualise or define Koorie knowledge needs to recognise that it includes knowledge contained in records created by non-Indigenous people and organisations about Koorie people. It is this component of Koorie knowledge – much of which is in archival institutions – in which Koorie rights are currently given least effect.

Extending Koorie Rights to Archival Records

Participant 37, Stage 1

"I do not judge those stories. I don't want to. I'd feel funny if I did. To me it's quite disrespectful and rude if I did that. I just listen respectfully and I take it on board. No judgement."

Participant 32, Stage 1

"That's a bit frightening actually.  That's a bit scary. What if somebody does read your records and writes a story on you and elaborates as all writers do? Good God, what hope have you got. So it would be good to have some sort of control."

This section began with the assertion that Koorie people have a right to make decisions about the management of Koorie knowledge in all its forms. There is nothing novel in this statement: it is inherent in the principles of self-determination and cultural preservation at the heart of Indigenous human rights initiatives. For example, ATSIC’s 1999 Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights proposed a set of sixteen rights for Indigenous people, including:

  • The right to own and control Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property.
  • The right to define what constitutes Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property and/or Indigenous heritage.
  • The right to ensure that any means of protecting Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property is based on the principles of self-determination, which includes the right and duty of Indigenous peoples to maintain and develop their own cultures and knowledge systems and forms of social organisation.
  • The right to be recognised as the primary guardians and interpreters of their cultures, arts and sciences, whether created in the past, or developed by them in the future.

Located as it is at the point of engagement between Koorie communities and archival services, this research has paid particular attention to the framework of rights and obligations which govern the portion of Koorie knowledge which is found in Australia’s archival institutions. These include records created and, consequently, usually owned, by governments, churches and welfare bodies and other organisations and individuals, all documenting their interactions with Koorie people. If we are to accept that such records contain Koorie knowledge, we must find ways to extend the principles expressed in ATSIC’s report, above, to the systems, definitions, professional understandings and legal frameworks used by archival institutions and practitioners.

Towards new understandings of authorship and ownership

Participant 11, Stage 1

"When you think back, when we went through our land claims it makes you wonder about the access the government lawyers had to our families was unreal.  It really opened our eyes when we couldn't get it ourselves. … There was stuff that I don't think should have come up in the court about a lot of our people, because there were things there that we didn't know about. That was sacred to the families alone to know.  I think it was a disgrace the way some of the stuff was handled for the families that went through the court."

Western frameworks for information policy and law, in particular those concerned with intellectual property, public records and privacy, all view the individuals whose experiences are described in records as records subjects. Although records subjects are afforded some rights in this framework, they are excluded from the most significant rights – rights which derive from notions of authorship and ownership and which support decision- making and control over matters of access, custody and reproduction. These rights are most often exercised by archival institutions on behalf of wider institutions such as governments and welfare bodies.

Outcome 3 proposes an alternative to this model which involves repositioning records subjects as participants in the act of records creation. This view of records creation, in which the subject is in fact an active (if unwilling) co-creator of the record, provides a platform for a new paradigm for identifying and realising the rights of Koorie ‘records subjects’ along with those of other parties involved in the record.