In Aboriginal culture, healing after a conflict begins with a process of truth-telling. The Yolngu Matha term for this is Makarrata -- a peacemaking process. In Aboriginal ways of being, recognition of wrongs of the past sparks greater understanding on both sides of the conflict. From this, we can develop a resolution, and a coming together of the parties involved in peace.
As we celebrate NAIDOC week this year, the Morrison government has a unique opportunity to make history by dealing with our troubled history. The time is ripe to address Australia’s problematic past between settler colonials and the Aboriginal peoples through the process of Makarrata.
When we speak of Makarrata, what we’re talking about is a process that ultimately allows the restitution of wellbeing and happiness. The kind of healing that addresses the deep wounds created by unresolved colonial history. And we begin by acknowledging that this isn’t just an ‘Aboriginal problem’ but a shared scar that’s worn by the nation as a whole.
The progress so far
The recent appointment of Ken Wyatt as our first Minister for Indigenous Affairs has been a step towards the right direction. His mother is a member of the Stolen Generation so he knows firsthand the impact of history. Wyatt is also a steady and productive force who commands respect across many groups. He has a knowledge of customary law and the power it can wield to restore wellbeing. He is also proactive about meeting with Aboriginal cultural leaders.
Wyatt’s leadership could show that peacemaking practices can be powerful. The call for peacemaking is not new. For decades, there has been an official call for a Makarrata, most recently in the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle,” says the 2017 Uluru statement, “It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”
Indeed, it has been clear to the First People that this customary Aboriginal way of ensuring the differences and wrongs of the past are addressed appropriately has been way overdue.
The bias of ‘history’
History as we know it is a concept developed out of the West or the Global North. It’s often told through the lens of a colonial past and has evolved as a means to record the deeds of great white men. In this sense, western history serves a function to legitimise the building of nation states.
In this limited, inherently biased approach, incidences of murder, rape and other genocidal acts were often covered up or kept secret. They are minimised by the fact that the current nation-state was born of them. In some cases, these acts of cruelty and genocide are erroneously seen as ‘necessary’ and best forgotten.
This is not to say that there are only such biased accounts of history in Australia. The institution of history in Australia is marked by the large number of historians who have championed the Aboriginal case for a just and proper settlement over recent decades. They have worked on revising earlier inaccuracies, using documents and oral testimony to provide alternate histories that highlight the impact of colonial racist violence and the impacts of racial segregation.
But it can be argued that they are still working within the parameters of western history-making until they can incorporate Aboriginal ways of dealing with history. And we cannot hope for foundational changes to our relationship to the settler colonial state until we properly integrate Aboriginal theory, ethics, values and methodologies into this. This is what “Aboriginal history” is truly about.
The need for Aboriginal history
Aboriginal philosophy incorporates a very different theory and approach to history. For Aboriginal people, any difficult history is not forgotten until it is dealt with -- and then it is truly left behind.
History is with us, it impacts on our lives now, until it is addressed. And we will not belong to the nation state until our history is incorporated into the narrative of the nation and resolved.
Culturally, Aboriginal people have engaged in history in a functional way, in that it has not been used as a celebratory or foundational narrative. Stories are retained to ensure historical wrongs are addressed and when they are, they are no longer told. People with authority and knowledge lead the resolution of disputes, the wrongs are righted, including through ceremony, and then everyone can move on. The business of the past is then declared to be finished.
Aboriginal approaches to time and history are instructive. In this way, the methodology of the Makarrata is a way to address the injuries of the past – in order for all parties to move on.
Makarrata is about self-determination
The process of Makarrata needs to be led by Aboriginal cultural leadership across the nation, by those who understand the true spirit of this process that can go by many other names. It is important that the whole difficult history be revealed, that every Aboriginal person has the chance to speak to a Makarrata commissioner, whether in public or in private, be heard and with permission be recorded for later reference.
Aboriginal commissioners need to oversee the ways in which this information is managed. The end product should allow those events in which Aboriginal people were truly victims to be balanced by the development of other stories, of friendships, co-operation and understanding into the future. Self-determination is key.
Makarrata success stories
An example of this process is demonstrated in the documentary Dhakiyarr vs. The King whereby the Yolngu descendants of Dhakiyarr who disappeared, presumed dead, (on his way home from Darwin) retold and reinvestigated the events leading up to his death. They included the family of the policemen who he had killed, the Court House in Darwin where he had been denied justice. They told the story in full, incorporating the descendants of the people involved and performed ceremony at specific important locations, to acknowledge the true history and put it to rest.
The documentary has since been shown around the world to critical acclaim. It continues to be a powerful example of the way Aboriginal people can deal with the wrongs of history and allow everyone to move on with increased wellbeing.
Another example is the annual pilgrimage to the site of the Myall Creek Massacre in New England NSW, where Aboriginal and settler colonial Australians come together to acknowledge a very difficult history and put it to rest. This has proven to be a profound experience of resolving the injuries of the past for all who have made the journey.
As an Aboriginal historian, the prospect of using Makarrata to right historical wrongs is exciting -- a once-in-the-lifetime-of-a-nation-opportunity that would potentially lead to greater wellbeing, hope, and most importantly –- true healing.
Victoria Grieve-Williams is a Warraimaay historian and Adjunct Professor, Indigenous Research, RMIT University