Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman, is a writer, lawyer and academic. This interview is an in-depth discussion of her work Finding Eliza: Colonial Power and Storytelling.
Larissa is the Distinguished Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and at the Director of Research and Academic Programs Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research.
Larissa won the 2002 David Uniapon Award and a 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her novel Home. Her second novel, Legacy, won a Victorian Premiers Literary Award. She has also published numerous textbooks on Indigenous legal issues.
Larissa wrote and directed the feature films, After the Apology and Innocence Betrayed and has written and produced several short films. She won the 2018 Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Feature Documentary.
Larissa is on the board of Sydney Festival and a board member of the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Panel. She was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year.
ASTRID: Larissa, welcome to The Garret.
LARISSA: It's great to be here.
ASTRID: Now you are a highly accomplished individual. You are a lawyer, a writer, a novelist, an academic, a radio host, and you were the 2011 New South Wales Australian of the Year.
We could have a discussion about all of your written works, but today if you don't mind I would like to focus solely on Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, which he first published in 2016. Now, on one level this is a book about Eliza Fraser, but it's also a book that unpacks and critiques the stereotypes that are so deeply embedded in storytelling in Australia since colonisation, and then reflects on the problems with that and the consequences of those stereotypes and what it means for us today.
So, before we jump into all of that, do you mind starting Larissa by introducing us to Eliza Fraser, and explain why you were drawn to her story.
LARISSA: So, Eliza Fraser was a captain's wife, who was travelling with her husband in 1836 from Australia on a voyage heading back to England. And the ship sunk off the coast of what is now Queensland on the Swain Reefs, and after floating around for several weeks they came ashore on what's now called Fraser Island, where Eliza Fraser from her account was taken in by the Aboriginal people, or as she says captured by cannibals, until she was eventually rescued by people who'd come down from the colony in Morton Bay, so eventually rescued by white men from this ordeal of living with Aboriginal people.
So what drew me to deconstructing this story was I was actually living in Canada for a period of time, and I became aware that there was a lot of similar type stories on the frontier there, of white women who had been captured by First Nations or Indians and Métis, who had been then rescued by which white men. And the parallels in the story were interesting to me. And there'd been quite a bit of work done in Canada on deconstructing those stories. Actually, almost all of those stories were stories of white women who had had chosen to leave with First Nations communities, and the story of them being kidnapped, of the ordeal of being captured by savages and of rescue, were actually made up stories that became very popularised in the imagination, and obviously played a role in getting sympathy for the idea that the First Nations people were savages and therefore needed to be civilised, and their land should be taken, and part of that whole project was about protecting white women.
So, I became interested in Eliza Fraser story because it seemed to me that this was a similar story in terms of Australian national folklore. And obviously not one that was just around at the time of the frontier – Sidney Nolan painted Eliza Fraser and Fraser Patrick White wrote about her. So, it was a story that still had a role in the national narrative. And I became very interested in in unpicking that and analysing what that story meant and what its popularity meant.
ASTRID: So, as you just mentioned, you know, Eliza's story has been taken up by other creatives in Australia and you very much unpick their work as well, and look at the stereotypes and biases that appear in their works, and the stories we tell ourselves and let ourselves believe or be drawn into and influence our lives today. Can you explain to me what story means to you, and how the stories that we tell ourselves in our history, in our literature, daily in our own lives, actually matter and change things for us?
LARISSA: There's obviously… storytelling is a central part of what we all do as human and how we connect with each other. And we use it to entertain. But it's much more profound, and I guess for me too, coming from an Aboriginal heritage, storytelling is incredibly important. We were an oral culture, we didn't have books and we didn't ride, so our traditions, our knowledge, our laws were all handed down through stories. And what can sometimes be characterised as Dreamtime stories and are often told as children's stories are actually stories that have deep Indigenous knowledge and laws in them. They're much more like parables in a Bible than they are like children's stories. And so, I guess from that point of view, I had a strong respect for the power of story as a tradition. But when I became a lawyer, it gave me a deeper understanding of the tradition of story. I'd grown up in an Australia that still told a story of white men conquering the land, it still didn't recognise the Stolen Generations. When I was in high school the Mabo case hadn't come through, so there was still a story of terra nullius.
So, I guess growing up I was surrounded by stories that didn't reflect what my understanding of my own history from an Aboriginal background was. And when I became a lawyer, I guess I started to understand the persuasiveness of stories much more. I mean, in a way when you're in a court room and you're arguing you're telling a story you have to convince a judge or a jury of your version of the facts, so you take the facts and you construct the story that suits your version. So there's a whole lot of storytelling in that process, but it did make me reflect on the fact that those stories that I'd grown up hearing as a child through my education and through the mainstream media were coming into play in the courtroom in the biases of judges, in the biases of police officers, in the biases of decision makers in that system.
And so, you know, I think it's important to understand that we can see stories as things that are entertaining or a perception, but they also permeate into ways that shape the society we live in, the choices we make, the morals we embrace. So in that sense, I think questioning stories, contesting stories, understanding that there are different voices and different stories, understanding the power of story, is really important parts of what we need to do when we're thinking about what we're reading, what we're seeing, and the narrative we're constructing about who we are, and who we are as a nation.
ASTRID: Early in your book you write, and you are referring to Eliza, ‘She succeeded, reminding us that often there is a motivation, a politics, that accompanies the selling of any story’. Now, Eliza was lucky enough to get to tell her own story. She published a work called Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser. But she frames it terribly. She changes what happened to make it palatable or acceptable for the society that she finds herself in. Can you unpick what she did and why, and also the competing versions that were published about her story?
LARISSA: Yes. So, lines of Fraser's own account is interesting, because she published a book but she went on to continue to tell her story throughout her lifetime. And I think what she appreciated was that the more dramatic the story was, the more she was in danger, the more dramatic the rescue was, the worse the treatment was that she received from Aboriginal people, the more interest there would be in her story. Even when she originally told it, of being captured by cannibals and rescued, there was a great outpouring of sympathy for her that included gifts of money and clothing. And she was very entrepreneurial about that.
There were other people who then really fastened on to the story, either because they had their own agenda of wanting to impress upon colonisers that there needed to be a civilizing mission here, that people who were engaged in missionary work of Christianising what they would call savages, saw her story as a great vehicle for getting interest and support in their cause. So, some of the earliest accounts of her story came from that point of view where the real message was, ‘these are people who need to be civilized’. And then after that there are a whole lot of people who use this story to highlight the fact that Aboriginal people are savage, they need to be civilised, they don't really own their land, their land can be taken, in a way it's for their own good because they can be civilised… So that whole aggressive colonisation process is justified by that story.
I don't think Eliza Fraser had ambitions about the Christian mission or the colonising mission. I think hers was a much more personal gain as a motivation. She continued to tell this story in speakers tents as she travelled around. She went to North America and told the story, and if you look at the accounts there it's a chief dragging her off to the wigwam at the moment she's about to be rescued. So, she did really tailor her story for her audience, but others tailored her story for their audience too. And I think one of the criticisms we can perhaps lay at her feet is that she took no responsibility for the way in which her story was used, it didn't matter to her that the Aboriginal people who'd actually helped her when she was shipwrecked were then being demonized by people for their own purposes. So, she took very little responsibility about how devastating the long-term impact of that storytelling was on that community.
ASTRID: One of the things that you explore is that women of the time had very little control over how they were perceived in public, and Eliza, as you said, is quite entrepreneurial about how she told her own story, how she shaped it for her audience, but also how she insisted in her story that she's still meek and mild and pure and quiet and did the right thing, and is still very much, you know, an acceptable woman. And that of course contrasts to how Aboriginal women were perceived, which was lusty and evil and certainly not part of that narrative, even though the women were the people who looked after her for, you know, 50 plus days after she was shipwrecked. Can you talk to me about why that was, and how did that play into Eliza's narrative about her own story but also everybody else who chose to use it for their agendas?
LARISSA: So, there's a couple of things to think about in terms of the gender dynamics of Eliza’s story. The first is that one of the reasons why she was the figure who captured the imagination was importantly she was a middle-class white woman. So, she really embodied the notion of the empire, she was characterised as pious and demure and embodying the ideals of femininity that Victorian society embraced. And she played up to that, and the people who wrote about her played up to that. So, she wasn't a convict woman. She wasn't somebody who could have been seen as fallen as outside of that idealised image of what a white woman should be, and an image that's idealised by white men. So that was an important part of why she was such a figure that was fixated on.
So, in contrast to how she's seen, what you do see is the portrayal of Aboriginal women as savages. That they are vengeful, they are portrayed as being jealous of her, that they are mean to her. She refers to Aboriginal women as slaves, that she was a slave of slaves, that the Aboriginal women were slaves to the Aboriginal men, and she was their slave and they were mean to her because they were jealous of how sexually attractive she was to the men. And there was, I guess, even some lamenting by writers, male writers, that Aboriginal women didn't realize they could learn more from her, like needlepoint, that she had all of these things that they could have learnt from because she was a much more desirable and important figure of what it meant to be female than Aboriginal women.
And I think on top of that is another layer in terms of the gender politics of the story. There are no verifiable accounts of white women being abducted by Aboriginal men on the frontier. And even in this case she was not abducted, she was shipwrecked and then saved and sheltered by Aboriginal people. But there are countless accounts of Aboriginal women being abducted and raped and sexually abused on the frontier. In fact, there are a lot of frontier massacres that were triggered by the mistreatment of Aboriginal women by white men, and the conflict was about retribution over that mistreatment. So in a way, one of the very dangerous things the story does is try and highlight an instance that was an anomaly – and a fiction of a white woman being captured by savages – to erase the long tradition of Aboriginal women being abused on the frontier by white men.
ASTRID: Later in Finding Eliza you go very deep into this, and you actually include several passages from the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, which illustrate that the captivity on the frontier was white people as the perpetrators not the other way around, and Aboriginal women were often abducted by non-Aboriginal men, and they were raped, and there were many massacres. And that is not a story, that is not a history, that has seeped through the curriculum or seeped through the general public awareness, shall we say. This goes back to your point about the fundamental power of storytelling. Can you speak to me about how and if you've seen that start to change?
LARISSA: I think one of the things that was important for me in terms of looking at the very powerful stories within the Bringing Them Home report, the firsthand evidence of how people were treated, was it showed a continuing thread between what happened at the time of colonisation, of first contact, first call colonisation, to what is continuing to happen through Aboriginal society to today. And what I think those voices show is that there has continued to be sexual abuse of Aboriginal women, and in this context it was Aboriginal women and men who were subjected to sexual abuse when they were in state care, ostensibly there for their own protection.
But we also see… So, the other thing that I explore in the book is actually looking at legal cases that as an Aboriginal woman completely horrified me. Where either police didn't deem the sexual assault of Aboriginal women as an offence, using terrible language to describe Aboriginal women, and judgments that deemed rape of Aboriginal women as less punishable offences than if it was white women. And you know, these were cases in the 1990s. So that is a fairly strong line to be able to draw between those initial views you see around the time of colonisation, of that first point of colonisation, through to what we could say is still a colonial society today by that account. So that to me was something that was really important to explore, and to use examples where you see it come out in in in the words of judges.
ASTRID: We've talked a little bit about the women and their perceived role in society and how they are spoken about and stories are written about them. This is also of course true for men. Aboriginal men were also stereotyped, they were called violent and dehumanised. But there's also this fantasy of the noble savage. Can you outline what the noble savage is supposed to be?
LARISSA: Yeah, I guess for me I was very interested in exploring the concept of the noble savage within the book, because I think we can look back at the story of Eliza Fraser now, and it's easy to see what's racist about it, like it so overtly racist with its stereotypes. But I think what becomes more complicated is there are other stereotypes of Aboriginal people that are just as dangerous. And one thing that recurs a little bit in this kind of storytelling is the idea of instead of saying Aboriginal people were savages, you kind of paint them as these figures of noble savagery, that there's something noble about and very spiritual about them. And I use two examples of that in in the book.
One is, of course, Patrick White's account, which attempts to be a very sympathetic account by somebody who was very sympathetic to Aboriginal people, but then still falls into stereotyping and doesn't question the myths that he is perpetrating. And one of those is the idea of cannibalism.
Aboriginal people were always labelled as cannibals, it was almost shorthand for saying they're savages. There was no cannibalism within Aboriginal cultures across the country. And I look at that in my book, that actually the documented accounts of cannibalism in Australia were actually escaped convicts or shipwrecked sailors, and non-Indigenous people who didn't know how to survive on the frontier. But this was a real projection of the greatest fear that a that a white person living on the frontier might have, and they would project that onto Aboriginal people. So, Patrick White, instead of debunking the myth that Aboriginal people are cannibals, talks about cannibalism as though it's a spiritual thing, it's an act of trying to connect with ancestors. Completely unhelpful, because we're not cannibals. So that sort of negative stereotyping is very dangerous.
And I use another example where this comes up, which is in new age literature, a very famous book that was on the bestseller list for over a year in the United States called Mutant Message Down Under, where a white woman claims she was taken by Aboriginal people, abducted, but these were people who took her because she was special and had a message. And she similarly came up with a whole range of fanciful myths about Aboriginal people – that we were telepathic, that we had some kind of foresight about what was going to happen to the world and in that sense were telepathic. And when she was challenged the author, Marlo Morgan, was challenged about the lies she was telling in this book about Aboriginal people, she said, ‘Well, these people aren't telepathic so they're not real Aboriginal people’. What she was able to do was to be able to then discredit people because they didn't fit into her noble savage stereotype.
Now that's an extreme example, but if you think of the number of times people might say, ‘Well those Aboriginal people, they don't look like real Aborigines, so therefore they shouldn't have Aboriginal rights’. You know you sort of say that it's a stereotype that starts to play out, that people have a view in their own mind about what an Aboriginal person is and then if Aboriginal people don't meet it they somehow think they're not worthy. That is just not a helpful way to construct anything. Aboriginal people are entitled to rights because they're human, and they're entitled to all of those human rights. There shouldn't be qualifications about how noble or how less savage or how telepathic they are that entitles them to have the benefits that every other human person has.
ASTRID: Absolutely. You also explore how this stereotype of the noble savage supports, you know, the Imperial mission, the colonial mission, to take land regardless of everybody who was already there. It has a missionary element. It supports colonisation, and I guess we could say it's still playing out today in this idea of exporting democracy around the world and all of that kind of stuff. So, I guess I didn't frame a question there, Larissa, but can you talk to me how the noble savage idea and stereotype links into that European idea of colonisation and imperialism.
LARISSA: Yeah look, in some ways I think when an aggressive colonisation has taken place it's much more likely Aboriginal people are framed as savages with no connection to their land. And it's been a… you know, the use of the noble savage symbolism is sometimes used as a lament, that we've done this terrible thing to these people, it's inevitable when civilisation – from their perception – moves forward, these noble savages will recede into the distance. There's a kind of almost a nostalgia that tries to minimise the brutality and impact on Aboriginal people, as though these were people who… As the Australian Story would say, when white people arrived they disappeared and moved into the ether because inevitably this other civilisation was coming.
We see it ignited a little bit today too in in terms of the connection between the importance of Aboriginal people in that noble savage way with the agenda around the environment. That's a very complex space, and I think it's absolutely true that the destruction we see of the environment is accelerated because there has been a disregard and a dismissiveness of what Indigenous people understand about sustainability and living on country. Aboriginal cultures were in Australia for 65,000 years, the longest and oldest living culture in the world. And in under 250 years white people have decimated this country in many places, and now start to worry about the environment and water as key issues, and have dismissed Aboriginal understandings of land management. So, there is obviously an element where failing to appreciate Indigenous knowledge is an understanding about sustainability and connection to country have been devastating. But there is in that space an oversimplification, you know, that if the Earth dies Aboriginal people will die, we're like the litmus test of how people are going. And it doesn't appreciate the broader ambitions of Aboriginal people in terms of wanting to own country, manage their own country, sometimes develop their own country, that they don't all want to just have their land back for it to be nature, to be conservation spaces. So, there tends to be a bit of conflict there. But you do see a bit of that falling into the noble savagery about equating Aboriginal people with the health of the Earth.
ASTRID: Let's go to the idea of cannibalism. You have mentioned cannibalism several times already, and you point out that Aboriginal people in Australia were not cannibals and the only documented instances of cannibalism came from European settlers, whether it's because they were trapped at sea or not, and this strange obsession that European culture has with the idea of cannibalism. I mean you know, you mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and the way the Romans persecuted the early Christians for cannibalistic rites. It is such a huge idea, and it looks like European storytelling is basically projecting onto everybody else. What were the thoughts and what are the thoughts of Aboriginal people about that fallacy? And it's just, it's so dehumanizing and such a strange thing to project…
LARISSA: I think, you know, obviously an element of the huge insult of it, the fact that that's what you're labelled with by people who are those who are actually themselves the perpetrators of violence. And I mean I guess there's also just the…
It surprises me that we still see so much of that fallacy as part of the negative stereotypes and racism within Australia. Pauline Hanson has spoken of Aboriginal people being cannibals. This isn't something that was just done at the time of colonisation. And it is still something that is used to say that Aboriginal people deserve to be treated as second class citizens, that our culture deserves to be dismissed, overlooked, destroyed, that we are savages. That lack of ignorance is still a very big part of the folklore.
And it was quite an extraordinary exercise for me to go back to some of those earlier accounts and see how flimsy they were. That a white explorer going through the countryside and coming across a smoking fire and seeing bones in it says, ‘Oh, I must have I must have interrupted a cannibalistic feast’, on the basis of nothing. And then that that is actually then used as the evidence! There are no primary sources of this. There is no account from Aboriginal culture of these. They're all the most fraudulent self-interested second-hand accounts. And other academics have done a lot more work in this space than I have, but I found it an extraordinary thing. And what was fascinating to me was that that was the case across the world, that they were so many accounts of cannibalism that amazingly just disappeared the moment that white missionaries arrived. Actually, this was a very common tool to dehumanise people and just almost shorthand for savage, heathen, needs to be Christianised, land can be taken. And I guess the real, you know, the real shame on our country now is that that is still part of what people say about Aboriginal culture. It's one thing for that to have been a part of what people said in the 1860s or 1880s, it's another thing that they saying it in 2020.
ASTRID: It's an extraordinary narrative that has been… the European mind generated and then just pushed out onto everybody else. You've previously mentioned the danger of stereotypes, and I think that we all know that stereotypes are bad. But you specifically explore the danger inherent in a positive stereotype. Can you talk to me about what a positive stereotype is and also why it is also a terrible thing?
LARISSA: Obviously when we talk about a negative stereotype they're all the really bad things – Aboriginal people are drunk, they're lazy, they're very prone to commit crime. All of those things that people say in throw away lines knowing nothing about Aboriginal people, and actually that statistics and data would also say falsehoods.
So, when we talk about positive stereotypes, they are things that people might think positive things to say about Aboriginal people. So, they might be things like Aboriginal people are very spiritual, Aboriginal people have a deep affinity with animals and nature and are telepathic. So, it's almost like they build on things that aren't negative, but they take them to an extreme that are then also fanciful and unhelpful. So, it's a different type of mythmaking that happens when we call it a positive stereotype.
And there is the view that people will say, ‘Well if it's a positive stereotype what's the harm? If a new age writer talks about the fact that Aboriginal people are super spiritual and so connected with each other that they can be telepathic with that with animals and each other, what's the harm in that because you're not you're not saying bad things about them, they're good things?’ But I think the point many people would make is that those things are still made up, that it's a different thing to be talking about the positives of Aboriginal culture, like the fact that it promotes concepts of reciprocity and sustainability, which are very useful as lessons to take in any society, to say that Aboriginal people are somehow mythical, super spiritual, because inevitably a real person will not live up to those standards, so they become dangerous in a different way. So, we need to challenge mythmaking whether it's the negative side of it or the positive side of it, because at the end of the day we need people to have a truthful and real understanding of Aboriginal people, their experience, and culture.
And the one thing that becomes quite dangerous, one of the things that becomes quite dangerous about the positive stereotype, is it tends to come to cast Aboriginal people as incredibly stoic. Now, I always marvel at the resilience of Aboriginal people that I live and work with, with all they've been through, but the stoicism in the mythology of the noble savage is one that sees them not affected by the traumas that they've faced, and that means people don't have to acknowledge them. So, you know, there is a complexity about the concept of positive stereotypes that mean that you can't just say they're not going to be harmful just because they're not overtly aggressively racist.
ASTRID: In your work Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling you mentioned a lot of other works. Obviously we've spoken about Patrick White and A Fringe of Leaves, but there's Daniel Defoes’ Robinson Crusoe, there's Coonardoo: The Well in the Shadow, which I confess I haven't read, and I didn't know until I read Finding Eliza, and that's by Katharine Susannah Prichard. Can you talk to me briefly about the myths those books perpetuated?
LARISSA: So look, you know, I think Robinson Crusoe was the story that ignited the colonial imagination about savagery and cannibalism. So, it sits very much in the mythology that justified colonisation in its earliest form. Incredibly persuasive it was in that way.
And then I think you can look at another set of literatures like Patrick White and Katharine Susannah Prichard, who were seen as people that were much more sympathetic about Aboriginal people, that had a much deeper understanding about social justice and social inequality.
And I think both of those books were interesting to me because they were hailed as being very sympathetic towards Aboriginal people by non-Indigenous people, but themselves fell into the same kind of mythmaking. Patrick White perpetuates the myth of Aboriginal people as cannibals, albeit that he does it in a way that says cannibalism was just an expression of spirituality. So, to that extent his best intentions reinforce a negative stereotype.
And Katharine Susannah Prichard was interesting to me partly because I had had it taught when I was in high school. And I was unable as a teenager to quite explain why I felt so insulted by it. I reread it when I was a graduate student and was I think better able to then deconstruct what it was that made me so deeply uncomfortable. And the story there is really about how Aboriginal people are treated on the frontier on pastoral properties. There's a condemnation of white men who live openly with Aboriginal women. Sleeping with Aboriginal women is treated as a sin, as a transgression, and not because it's something that's done without consent in the circumstances of the book, but just because there is a view that somehow that Aboriginal women and white men are incapable of having relationships that are consensual and where Aboriginal women can have power. It is a different kind of patronisation version of Aboriginal women that seem to reinforce the negative stereotype of Aboriginal women as promiscuous when they do engage in relationships with white men, but also at the same time sets up an ideal of what an Aboriginal woman should be, which is one that engages in no sexual activity at all, and is ruined by any sexual contact with a white man, even if that is something that is consensual. So, there is a lot of agency taken away from Aboriginal women, and in its way loaded with the racism of its time, albeit that it's seen as a much more sympathetic account. In fact I think it was taught on the curriculum at the time because it was seen as a sympathetic account of Aboriginal women. So, it became very important to me to try and voice what it was about that that made me so uncomfortable, sitting in a classroom as the only Aboriginal person, and an Aboriginal woman, having my classmates see Aboriginal women in that way.
That's what they were learning about us, not from Aboriginal women but from a white woman who meant well but was reinforcing all of these myths. I got nicknamed Coonardoo within the schoolyard as a way of… I don't think because people understood, because children understood the complexities of the messages they were learning, but just because being the only Aboriginal in the school I was a novelty. So even having the name had a special kind of connection to me in terms of why I bristle so much about the interpretation of Aboriginal women in that book by a white woman.
ASTRID: You're challenging all of our perceptions. Everybody who reads Finding Eliza, you're asking us as readers to think back to all of the works that we read, whether they were attempting to be sympathetic or not, however they were regarded at the time that they were written, and whatever the motivations of the author, you are challenging us to look re-evaluate and do better. It's a really powerful work, Finding Eliza. So, congratulations Larissa. I really hope that this is taught in Australian schools.
Towards the end of your work you bring it into the present day and our politics now and you specifically refer to the black armband and the white blindfold versions or approaches to history. For our listeners, can you explain those two terms and what they mean today.
LARISSA: So, the white blindfold black armband dichotomy, which is an oversimplification and a politicising of how we talk about Aboriginal issues, came about really at the beginning of the Howard era at the end of the decade of Reconciliation, where we actually saw a large period by the end of the Paul Keating Government – we had the Redfern Park speech, the Mabo case, the Bringing Them Home report had been commissioned, it was the International Decade of Indigenous People, the starting of the real drafting of the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, native title being recognised in the Native Title Act and the National Native Title Tribunal being set up. So, an enormous amount of movement had happened in terms of bringing greater awareness to Australians about Aboriginal people's experiences and their aspirations in terms of wanting to live, how they want to live within the Australian state and on what terms. So, things like treaties were being talked about from that time, reparations for Stolen Generations, social justice issues, and of course the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, have come down not long before that time.
So, there was a great raising of consciousness about Indigenous issues, and almost as a backlash to that. There was a movement that came through not from not from academics but from particular elements of the media, from the right wing, that kind of had the view that this is all gone too far, and that any account of Aboriginal history from an Aboriginal perspective was really about just guilting Australians, that you shouldn't have to worry about things in the past and Aboriginal people shouldn't be talking about things in the past, was kind of the oversimplified narrative of that time. And they referred to people who wanted to highlight aspects of Aboriginal experience – particularly frontier massacres and the and the removal of Aboriginal children, two particular issues where they seemed to be a lot of antagonism about hearing experiences and truth about those issues. And that got labelled a black armband view of history, as though you were all in mourning about Australia because you were worrying too much about these terrible things that happened, most of which didn't happen the way Aboriginal people said anyway. So, there was not just a refusal to acknowledge the history, but a dismissal of Aboriginal experience and voice around it. So that got labelled, that approach got labelled a white blindfold, that you wanted to keep a white blindfold on.
That dichotomy became incredibly unhelpful because it just meant people were having that discussion rather than really diving into the very big complexities about the treatment of Aboriginal people and what that means for the kind of Australia we want to live in today. The much more important conversations that need to happen.
And I think it's interesting that as we say this new era that we're in now, and we are talking about treaty again, and we're talking about representation and voice again, we're still hearing about truth telling. That those experiences and those histories that were resisted at the time by a very small but powerful and vocal group of people, are still being challenged by the fact that Aboriginal people do want their experiences and their histories told.
And I think one thing I did try and explore in the Eliza Fraser book is that those things that happened on the frontier, like abuse of Aboriginal women, like the taking of children, like the over policing and violence used against Aboriginal people, actually aren't things of the past. We still talk about deaths in custody. We still talk about the fact that the rates of removing Aboriginal children from their families is much higher than non-Indigenous children and has almost doubled since the Apology. We still talk about violence against aboriginal women. So, you know, in a way that whole thing about we have to forget the past or not dwell on it ignores the fact that there is a legacy. And it also ignores the good work that gets done with Aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people in very positive ways. You know, there's a lot of exchange now about Aboriginal knowledge. There is a lot of Australians who are interested in Aboriginal history and see if they live on this country understanding that culture gives them a much deeper understanding of that, knowing more about Aboriginal history and culture hasn't been a source of embarrassment or guilt, it's been a source of fascination. And I think anyone who lives on this country, where there has been 65,000 years of a culture, would want to know what is that deep heart of the land they're living on, that is a part of the place they are living in, and having access to that and understanding to that should be a really positive thing.
And fixing the issues that face Aboriginal people again is something that will enrich the whole of Australian society. We will be a better country when we treat the most marginalised and the most disadvantaged better, whether it's Aboriginal people, refugees, whoever that is. If we're not treating the most marginal within the community the best we can then we're an impoverished society. So, doing good on these issues is something that all Australians should be invested in, and I think at the heart of it that's the message of why we say we should be looking at these stories and deepening our understanding of them.
ASTRID: You articulate that so well, Larissa.
LARISSA: I was getting off the track.
ASTRID: That is absolutely on track, and I think that the tools that you give your reader in Finding Eliza that outline the problems in how history has been presented and how stories have been told in order to understand why they were told that way, what agendas they were supporting, and what other questions should be asking, what other stories should be listened to is so fundamentally important.
Finding Eliza is obviously a self-contained work based on a lot of research that you've done. What would you say or what would you ask of a reader who gets to the end of Finding Eliza and wants to know more and do more? Where would you point them?
LARISSA: I think the big lesson in Finding Eliza is that people took the Eliza Fraser story on face value, and actually when you looked into it there was a strong Aboriginal oral history that told a completely different story, and a story that resonates much more truthfully and speaks to the connections we have as people, that when somebody is lost on your country you don't capture, them you support them, and even if they're very difficult and ungrateful, you make sure they are looked after and you get them back to where they're safe. And that is a human thing that we do.
So, going into these stories and deconstructing them, I think we find out much more about what connects us and our humanity. So, my hope is that when people have looked at that material and that story, they do start to question things and maybe not take it on face value or explore it a little bit more to see where the truths are in it and where the untruths are. And I would hope particularly they would do that in relation to colonial stories. And I think that, you know, I think curiosity is a really important thing for us to have. I don't think you can be creative unless you're curious. And I would hope that it makes people feel curious to find out more about the things they don't know about Aboriginal culture. If there are things that surprised you about Eliza Fraser’s story, imagine how many other things there are to be curious about.
I always think you just going to art galleries and seeing Indigenous artworks and trying to understand them is a great way to try and understand Aboriginal story. Engaging with performing arts like Bangarra Dance Company and other Aboriginal dance groups is another great way to just have a taste of Aboriginal culture. There are great walking tours there. There are places like all the botanical gardens have bush tucker and bush medicine tours to go on. Aboriginal rangers are a great source. So, there are lots of ways to be really curious about Aboriginal culture and learn more about this country and how we live on this country and those great knowledges, and also understand a little bit about ourselves.
ASTRID: Well said. Thank you so much for your time today.
LARISSA: Thank you.