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Indigenous Biography and Autobiography

Indigenous Biography and Autobiography

Peter Read
Frances Peters-Little
Anna Haebich
Volume: 17
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Indigenous Biography and Autobiography
    Book Description:

    In this absorbing collection of papers Aboriginal, Maori, Dalit and western scholars discuss and analyse the difficulties they have faced in writing Indigenous biographies and autobiographies. The issues range from balancing the demands of western and non-western scholarship, through writing about a family that refuses to acknowledge its identity, to considering a community demand not to write anything at all. The collection also presents some state-of-the-art issues in teaching Indigenous Studies based on auto/biography in Austria, Spain and Italy.

    eISBN: 978-1-921536-35-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)
    Peter Read

    Our volume of reflections on Indigenous biography and autobiography is drawn from selected and refereed papers first presented at an international conference held at the National Museum of Australia in 2007. The principal sponsor was the Humanities Research Centre at The Australian National University (ANU).

    Forty-three people presented papers at this four-day conference. Speakers were drawn from Australia, Spain, Austria, New Zealand, South Africa, Botswana, the Ainu Islands and Taiwan. More than half were Indigenous scholars from around the world, and almost a quarter of the speakers were Indigenous presenters from mainland Australia and the Torres Strait islands. The very...

  5. Teaching and Researching

    • From the margins to the mainstream: towards a history of published Indigenous Australian autobiographies and biographies
      (pp. 5-28)
      Oliver Haag

      Published Indigenous Australian autobiographies have undergone considerable change over the last five decades.¹ From tentative beginnings between the 1950s and the 1970s, they saw tremendous growth during the 1980s and 1990s. Now, 50 years later, autobiographies have secured their place in overseas markets. This article reconstructs some aspects of this development.² More precisely, I first present an extended bibliography and then make a statistical profile to contextualise the statistical findings within a broader historical frame. ʹExtended bibliographyʹ is understood to incorporate several variables relevant to the statistical survey, including year of first publication, genre, gender, publisher, and production-authorship.³

      Any bibliography...

    • A path of words: the reception of autobiographical Australian Aboriginal writing in Italy
      (pp. 29-40)
      Francesca Di Blasio

      The words of Indigenous Australian women took me to Australia several years ago, and one could, therefore, take my title literally, and say that I reached this wondrous continent by following ʹa path of wordsʹ. However, being fully aware of the fact that ʹthe syllables / on the page are not / the land beneath the nameʹ, as Patricia Sykes puts it, I knew I had to see the land.¹ When I did see it, I had the extraordinary good fortune of meeting Jackie Huggins, whose works I had read, and whom I now consider my ʹguiding lightʹ in my...

    • Ethical approaches to teaching Aboriginal culture and literature in Spain
      (pp. 41-46)
      Susan Ballyn

      The teaching of any subject, regardless of discipline, at whatever level of education, involves a teacher taking an ethical stance both towards the subject matter and the students. There has to be a commitment by the teacher to an application of what he or she believes to be the best, most honest, ethical approach in the classroom and to enable open constructive discussions among students. Furthermore, the ethics to which a teacher subscribes should, I believe, always be at the forefront of any teaching and clearly visible to the students. There is often discussion regarding the fact that at tertiary...

    • Multiple subjectivities: writing Duallʹs life as social biography
      (pp. 47-56)
      Kristyn Harman

      The colonial archive is replete with accounts of the intimacies of life at the frontier in early New South Wales. In reading these records, it is readily apparent that the scribes who mentioned an Indigenous presence had a habit of situating such people at the periphery of colonial society. More often than not, Aboriginal people were cast as supporting actors to the white male leads valorised in accounts of early exploration and settlement. Despite their textual marginalisation, such archival records remain a rich resource for those wanting to appreciate more fully Indigenous contributions to early colonial New South Wales.


    • Oodgeroo Noonuccal: media snapshots of a controversial life
      (pp. 57-68)
      Karen Fox

      Many voices swirl around a famous life. Some of this complexity can be grasped through exploring those voices that leave traces on paper or microfilm in articles, quotes and letters in the pages of major daily newspapers. This paper focuses on one famous life in particular, that of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker).¹ Such biographical snapshots of Oodgeroo, often challenged by Oodgeroo herself, reveal the lack of coherence in popular narratives of one famous life while it was still being lived. While biography can appear to impose a fixed narrative shape upon a life that was experienced as fluid and...

  6. Indigenous Storytelling

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 69-72)
      Frances Peters-Little

      It is a difficult process to publish papers from a conference and try to recapture the event, the impact, the mood, the vast exchange of knowledge and friendships that were developed and load it all into one stand-alone monograph. Some may argue for starters that the faces are missing; voices cannot be heard and thousands of words have been cruelly left out. Some may even go so far as to say that there are some things in life that can only be lived and that no amount of writing can account for experience. Some may say it, but try telling...

    • ʹNever really heard of itʹ: the certificate of exemption and lost identity
      (pp. 73-92)
      Judi Wickes

      When I first heard the call for papers for the ʹIndigenous Biography and Autobiographyʹ Conference earlier this year, I felt that I was being offered a unique opportunity to share the genesis and the findings of my Honours thesis entitled ʹʺNever really heard of itʺ: a study of the impact on identity of the Queensland certificate of exemption for Aboriginal peopleʹ. I came to research the certificate of exemption largely as a means of finding answers to questions that I have carried around all my life. These questions concern my identity, my family history and information relating to my cultural...

    • Biography as balancing act: life according to Joe and the rules of historical method
      (pp. 93-98)
      Aroha Harris

      The papakainga (homeland, community) of the Ngati Whatua people at Okahu Bay in Auckland is a place where the people and the land are so inseparable that each defines the other. It is also a place that signifies many familiar historical patterns: of colonisation, legislation and policy-making, attitudes and perceptions that rendered Ngati Whatua politically and economically powerless, wrested them from their lands, and devastated their culture and society. These patterns recur not only throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, but also throughout the indigenous world – coloured and embellished by variations within and between tribes and cultures.

      By the end of...

    • The revelation of African culture in Long walk to freedom
      (pp. 99-108)
      Munzhedzi James Mafela

      Long walk to freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. The author recounts his life, but at the same time deals with those experiences of his people and events he considers most significant. Writers of autobiographies are concerned primarily with themselves as subject matter. As Abrams writes: ʹAutobiography is a biography written by the subject about himselfʹ.¹ This means that in an autobiography, the subject recounts his or her own history. The novelist Graham Greene says that an autobiography is only ʹa sort of lifeʹ. Any such work is a true picture of what, at one moment in a life,...

    • A Dalit and a First Nations Canadian speak of the women in their bones
      (pp. 109-130)
      Maria Preethi Srinivasan

      My engagement with research on indigenous womenʹs life writings with specific reference to the issue of ʹgaining a voiceʹ, left me wondering about the singularity of ʹvoicesʹ and the multiplicity of voices in ʹa voiceʹ. Bamaʹs Sangati and Lee Maracleʹs I am woman presented themselves to me as texts that have many interesting points of intersection in their respective presentations about Indian Dalit women and First Nations women in Canada. Both Bama and Maracle seek to foreground through their narratives the ʹdifferenceʹ of the women of their respective communities from women of mainstream society and the irrelevance of mainstream feminist...

  7. Principles and Protocols

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 131-134)
      Peter Read and Anna Haebich

      From this point the themes already taken up by the Indigenous writers grow even more complex. Each scholar is seeking answers to questions about appropriate protocols in biographical writing that seem so straightforward in theory but sometimes so murky in practice. First, quoting Frances Peters-Little, Michael Jacklin notes the difficulty of deciding who or what is the community one is supposed to consult, and what the benefits may be to that community when the biographical project deals with only one individual. Ethical Clearance Committees, without whose approval no fieldwork is supposed to proceed from within a university, should be able...

    • Consultation and critique: implementing cultural protocols in the reading of collaborative indigenous life writing
      (pp. 135-146)
      Michael Jacklin

      Anyone working towards the publication of indigenous life narratives is aware of the significance of cultural protocols to both the narrative exchange and the writing and editing process. In the telling and the writing of an indigenous life story, protocols determining what gets told – where, when, to whom, or for whom – influence and sometimes complicate decisions regarding the final published narrative. This is the case whether the subject of the life narrative is the writer or whether the narrative is mediated by others. Indigenous protocols – including authority and moral rights over indigenous narratives and culture, kinship rights...

    • Too much information: when the burden of trust paralyses representation
      (pp. 147-158)
      Kristina Everett

      This story is not a simple one, nor, very likely, an unfamiliar one to anyone who has conducted research in Indigenous contexts. It began when a long time Aboriginal friend, ʹAlmaʹ,¹ asked me to help her to write her story so that her children, grandchildren, future descendants and the general public could know about her life. Due to the educational conditions Alma experienced in her childhood, she believed that her literacy skills were not up to the task of doing justice to her complex and compelling story, so she asked me, a white friend with a tertiary education and a...

    • Pauline McLeod: The Magpie who became a Swan – finding salvation in culture
      (pp. 159-176)
      Simon Luckhurst

      Pauline McLeod was an Aboriginal performer, writer and storyteller who, at the time of her death at the age of 43 in 2003, left an archive of 34 boxes of writing: poems, diaries, notes, playscripts, film ideas and letters. Amongst the completed scripts and story drafts were also many examples of jotted notes and ideas, phrases and paragraphs, mostly undated. Also amidst the ephemera of her life were bus tickets, electricity bills and birthday cards, as well as a few letters, reports and reviews pertaining to Pauline but authored by other people. After she died her brothers cleared her flat,...

    • The dilemmas of knowing too much: writing In the desert – Jimmy Pike as a boy
      (pp. 177-180)
      Pat Lowe

      I wrote the first draft of a manuscript about the artist Jimmy Pikeʹs childhood in the late 1980s. For various reasons, the manuscript was never published during Jimmyʹs lifetime, and sat for a long time in my files.

      A few years ago my editors at Penguin wanted to know if I had any manuscripts in preparation. I mentioned the draft biography, which they were keen to have a look at. I sent it away and they offered to publish it. We agreed that the manuscript needed more work.

      It was many years since I had looked at the draft, and...