The decade beginning with the election of the John Howard-led conservative government in 1996 was one of the more tumultuous in Australian history with regard to race relations generally and the Aboriginal struggle specifically. Howard, who cut his bigoted teeth on disparaging Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s, fired the first shots of what would become known as the History Wars in 1996, during his Playford lecture in Adelaide. It was on the Adelaide stage that Howard projected his ‘relaxed and comfortable’ view of colonial history, a position that refused the collective responsibility for the attempted extermination of Aboriginal people in Australia over two hundred years. In the following year, Howard further flamed the fires of populist racism when he spat and spluttered and harangued members of ‘the Stolen Generations’ at a gathering in Melbourne, following the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home report.
Teaching in the academy during the decade of the History Wars was both an invigorating and confronting experience. We were faced with a cohort of overwhelmingly young and white middle-class students, many of whom knew little or nothing of the blood washed from the hands of their forebears. Some of those young people responded with a level of maturity beyond their years, while others, when faced with the realities of colonial violence, resorted to hostility and denial. As teachers and thinkers working in the Humanities we were surrounded by a related challenge, a liberal-minded aristocracy; ‘Friends of the Aborigine’ with little will or political integrity when it came to taking on the forces of right-wing politics.
Into this cauldron strode the young and slightly built Tracey Banivanua Mar.
Tracey was a Phd student in the history department at the University of Melbourne when she began teaching with us in Aboriginal History. Her own research dealt with the shocking history of ‘Blackbirding’: the Queensland slave trade; the theft of Pacific Island peoples to work in the agricultural industry (largely sugar) commencing in the nineteenth century. Being a Fijian woman, Tracey’s research was influenced firstly by her own family and community history, but also by her dedication to human rights and social justice more widely. Tracey was a remarkably humble and quiet person. So much so that we initially worried about her ability to deal with those who set out to actively disrupt our attempts to bring truth and change to the university sector. We could not have been more wrong. Tracey did not need our protection. She demanded and won our comradeship through her powerful intellect, her undoubted courage, and clearly, although she never discussed it openly, her life experience of learning to stand on her own two feet.
She was not a confrontational person, and treated all students and scholars with a level of respect that she believed each of us are entitled to. But neither would she take a backward step when the time came to defend the rights of those who had been treated with neglect by colonial society.
Tracey would eventually leave Melbourne University for a position at La Trobe University, where she became a renowned national and international scholar. Her concerns remained with ‘her people’: communities and nations across the Pacific, women everywhere fighting for autonomy, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for whom she was and will remain a loved sister. In recent conversations with Tracey she expressed a major concern for the people across the Pacific struggling to maintain country, culture and family in the face of rising seas as a direct result of climate change.
Tracey engaged generously with Australian-born South Sea Islanders, and made it easy to work with her, because it was clear the work was for us.
Tracey wrote about Patricia Corowa, an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander activist, for Decolonising the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire, revealing the connections across Australian, Pacific-Indigenous communities and the pan-African diaspora, and the role of women in these counter networks. It was a lesson in impeccable ethics, interview sensitivity, and deep research. Patricia is not one to suffer fools. At all. Her practice in the politics of refusal, and her willingness to share her knowledge with Tracey shows her respect for Tracey’s intellectual rigour, and their shared understanding that Indigenous knowledges should be held by us, not the people that enslaved us.
Tracey’s recent ARC Future Fellow work included a project on the connections between Melbourne and the Pacific, especially through the blackbirding era. It was important to her that her children and other Pacific peoples living in Naarm understood this history, as a foundation for making their way in the world, off country, on unceded lands in a colonial settler society.
All of which emphasised the profound sense of bereavement we all felt at her sudden and untimely passing. To lose a such a valued colleague so young and brimming with potential is made all the more poignant and tragic with the knowledge that she left behind a young family, whose sense of loss can only be far greater than anything we might imagine.
When someone such as Tracey Banivanua Mar leaves a distinct mark on the lives of those around her, we must respond to the values she has left with us. We must, with the levels of energy and commitment she was able to produce, fight for climate justice; for the people of the Pacific, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations in Australia, and for all vulnerable and disadvantaged communities of this planet. Through our own fight for justice we will express our love for Tracey.
– After James Baldwin, Lisa Bellear and Epeli Hau’ofa
Write like there’s no tomorrow
A machete for the cane
A path through the pain
History is not the past
Tell it our way
Tell it our way
Feed like there’s no tomorrow
Roro for the brain
An axe to the chain
History is the present
Tell it our way
Make it our way
Fight for the next tomorrow
A boat through the waves
A song to free slaves
The ocean remains
Telling our way
Making our way
– Kimberley Kruger, 20 August 2017
Image: Tracey Banivanua Mar, 1974–2017, with Gary Foley / Kimberley Kruger