Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2017): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

35 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

  1. Battarbee and Namatjira (a double biography) Martin Edmond Giramondo 2015 – brilliant!

    The Missing Man: From the Outback to Tarakan, the Powerful Story of Len Waters. Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot (Allen & Unwin – 2018) by Peter Rees

    Interestingly – I met John Ramsland just recently – a man generous in all kinds of ways – and with his writing on Les Ridgeway, too.

  2. Tracker is a wonderful and important biography because Alexis Wright makes us think again about what form a biography should take.
    The closest I can get to adding to your list from the top of my head is Douglas Lockwood’s (as told to) I The Aboriginal, though Two Sisters must be as close to autobiography as it is to memoir.

    • Yes, thanks Bill, I thought of I, the Aboriginal too Bill. Perhaps I should have included it.

      And yes re Tracker and “form’! It’s interesting that Wright calls it a “collective memoir” which points us to different ways of writing and seeing biography.

  3. I have a feeling if you looked at similar “Dictionary of Biography ” publications in other countries you’d find a similar dearth of indigenous people represented

  4. Driving along I was thinking of Aboriginal sporting heroes. Doug Nichols who is of course much more appears to have at least one biog
    Then there’s Polly Farmer (who has his own freeway), the Ella brothers, Evonne Goolagong and many more

    • Oh Gurrumul … great one Lisa. This was such a hard topic to search. I did think of various names to check individually but not enough obviously. As usual the brains trust has come up with some good additions!

      • No, I think you’re right…I think there’s very little available, and I’m wondering if cultural sensitivities have something to do with it? Just thinking of a book like Our Mob Served, which is a history of Indigenous service, the processes that were part of it were exhaustive. There was a whole chapter about the protocols, and although I didn’t record the whole process in my review, this gives some idea of the difficulties: “there are also silences in the text, silences which emerge from ancestors not wanting to revisit past trauma, but also because of cultural protocols that encourage watching and listening and discourage asking too many questions. Disruptions to family transmission of some stories are also a consequence of the Stolen Generations, but it also increases the demand to be heard now.”
        It just occurred to me to look up Faith Bandler at WP, and in the references at the bottom, it lists a bio by Marilyn Lake, (2002). Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-841-2. So that’s another one we can add:)

  5. This sounds like a very good idea. With that, I agree with you, book length biographies are the way to go. It is a pity that there are not a lot devoted to indigenous Australians.

    • Thanks Brian. The dictionaries of biography are significant in terms of overall national history and culture, but for the reading public, it’s really the book-length biographies that are read and remembered, I’d say.

  6. Lisa’s Gurrumul, is a beautiful book, and it also includes a CD. And. like Michelle. I am also reading Truganini..

    • Thanks Meg. Are you enjoying it? (BTW a CD wouldn’t attract me anymore – I’m all about streamed music, and I do have Gurrumul in my “library” as Apple Music calls it.)

      • Hi Sue, I am finding Truganini a bit disappointing and confusing. It is more about George Robinson, the supposedly “Protector of Aboriginals”, than Truganini. However, it is interesting to read about the sad events that occurred in Tasmania. There is a good timeline and index of characters which help in reading the information. I ‘m not into streaming – not very technically minded. I have a radio with a cd player inbuilt next to my bed. And my library of cds are closed by. So I often listen to CDs when I am reading in bed.

        • Oh that’s a shame Meg. I guess there’s probably more “documented” information about Robinson so we might expect that? I’ll have to read it myself.

          Streaming is pretty straightforward if you have a tablet or smartphone. I only listen to ABC RN by streaming now, via the ABC Listen app. That means I no longer need a radio! One appliance I can downsize out of my home! I wish I could listen to music while reading but it always distracts me, no matter what sort of music.

  7. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2020 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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