Editorial: Aboriginal history just waiting to be discovered and understood

Professor Bain Attwood discusses his book The Good Country during the Bendigo Writers Festival. Picture: DARREN HOWE
Professor Bain Attwood discusses his book The Good Country during the Bendigo Writers Festival. Picture: DARREN HOWE

IN the classic film, Kicking Bird asks Dances With Wolves about the white settlers, and how many would be coming.

After some thought, Dances With Wolves responds: “There will be a lot my friend, more than can be counted. Like the stars”.

It’s easy to imagine similar conversations taking place between the Dja Dja Wurrung and the people of other Aboriginal nations to their north in the late 18th century, as they heard about the white settlers long before their arrival in modern-day central Victoria.

Unfortunately, the history of this period – like other Aboriginal history – was purely an oral history.

And more unfortunate still, this contact with other Aboriginal people during the colonial period helped to further spread smallpox which arrived with the white settlers. Between 1788 and 1835, the Aboriginal population of Victoria fell from 60,000 to 15,000, even before British colonisation began.

There were 2500 Dja Dja Wurrung people when the Europeans arrived, living in harmony through trade with their neighbouring nations the Djab Wurrung to the southwest and Barababaraba to the north, sharing resources as custodians of their land.

They had a collective sense of ownership of their land, which they would share with neighbouring people in return for something else.

But they were forced to watch as their land – carefully curated over millennia – was cleared in the space of a few years.

It is ironic that creating Aboriginal reserves was the only reason why Aboriginal people survived this period. All Aboriginal people with Victorian ancestry can trace this back to the reserves. None can be traced to Aboriginal people not on reserves.

The fact that the Dja Dja Wurrung have survived into the 21st century is remarkable and their culture deserves celebrating.

Bain Attwood’s book The Good Country details the complex relationship they had with settlers and protectors: one of the only books to focus solely on an individual Aboriginal nation.

Speaking at the Bendigo Writers Festival, Attwood said the world of Aboriginal history is still there, waiting to be discovered.

Learning it is the role of any true patriot.

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