Indigenous history should take precedence over Picnic at Hanging Rock mystery, campaign contends

An eerie pall has hung over Hanging Rock since Peter Weir’s film about an ill-fated school excursion was first released in 1975. 

The 700-metre high geological formation, situated a few kilometres from Mt Macedon, was the setting for his adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, which details the fictional disappearance of schoolgirls Miranda, Marion and Irma on Valentine’s Day in 1900.      

A half-century since the novel’s release, a Melbourne artist is calling for the rock’s cinematic and literary history to be put aside in favour of its Indigenous past.  

Amy Spiers said it was the public’s relationship to Hanging Rock – visitors nearly always associated the site with missing schoolgirls and a sense of foreboding – that was behind her Miranda Must Go campaign.  

“I’ve spoken to a lot of locals around the rock and they say they can always hear tourists yelling, ‘Miranda’,” Ms Spiers said.  

“They said it was cute at first, but now it’s just annoying.”

Ms Spiers believed Australia’s obsession with the story was not only cause for noise complaints, but had left Hanging Rock’s Indigenous heritage to languish. 

“Because of our neglect and our disregard, we've managed to overlook those stories and not spent time and resources recovering them,” Ms Spiers said.  

“When you put all this emphasis on a white fable, people are distracted.”

She said scar trees and traditional tools were among the historical finds at Hanging Rock.   

Rock goes way back

Aboriginal history expert Jim Poulter said the rock was the land of the Gunung Willam Baluk clan, a place where the Woi Wurrung language was once the common tongue.

His great-grandfather was raised by the rock’s traditional owners and taken there to join in a male initiation ceremony in the mid-19th century.

Hanging Rock would have once been the place young men were taught traditional dances and underwent ritual scarring.

Mr Poulter welcomed Ms Spiers’ campaign and hoped those who visited the landmark could be made aware of the Gunung Willam Baluk clan’s “behavioural protocols of respect” for Hanging Rock.  

“It would be great if non-Indigenous Australians could participate in these protocols, making an announcement at the base of the rock, ‘We come in respect for this place’,” he said. 

Miranda Must Go is one of a growing number of grassroots campaigns around the world seeking to topple monuments to colonialism. In 2015, South African students successfully argued a statue commemorating imperial politician and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes should be removed from their university grounds. 

Debate continues in the United States about the future of a Thomas Jefferson statue erected at the former president’s alma mater.   

Ms Spiers believed campaigns like hers would eventually result in a new date being chosen for Australia Day, saying so long as monuments to colonialism were preserved, so too would the perception that white people’s lives mattered more than those of people with coloured skin.    

Tried and tested trope 

The missing white person is a reappearing motif in Australian popular culture. 

Weir’s white-clad schoolgirls are reminiscent of artist Frederick McCubbin’s 19th century painting Lost, in which a forlorn child is seen disorientated in the bush.

The trope returns in film Walkabout, while real-life disappearances – the Beaumont children, for example – are still the stuff of tabloid interest. 

But the white disappearing myth was a “toxic” one, Massey University associate professor Elspeth Tilley said, believing it was an effort to justify the principle of terra nullius – or uncultivated land – as reason for colonising Australia.    

“It's not a politically innocent narrative,” she said. “The first thing that every vanishing story does is paint [the land] as a wildness.

“The characters’ fear justified the flattening of the bush or the putting in of a road, creating a landscape that was more European.”

These vanishing myths – Dr Tilley found more than 250 during her investigation – also portray women and Indigenous Australians in stereotypical ways, as helpless victims and noble savages respectively. 

“It’s a harmful narrative for all Australians and its not helpful to keep retelling,” she said. 

Dr Tilley will premiere a short satire of Picnic at Hanging Rock on February 14; Ms Spiers intentionally chose the the same date as the one on which Joan Lindsay set her story. 

‘Miranda lovers’, the term the artist has given to fanatics of Picnic at Hanging Rock, were taken aback by the plan. 

But she maintained putting Indigenous stories first did not mean the Rock could no longer be a recreation hub for everyone. 

“Everyone can admit that white Australians are attracted to Hanging Rock for same reasons as Indigenous people: it's a fantastic place to hang out, a great venue for sporting events and enjoying a day with your family. 

“It's fine to enjoy Hanging Rock, we should just enjoy it with an understanding of what it means.”  

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