Standing in the dawn’s new light: truth-telling for settlers

At each Invasion Day Dawn Service, hundreds of people stand silently as a line of First Nations activists, young and old, take turns to read the name, the location, the year and the numbers of people murdered at each of the fifty-four known massacres in Victoria. With respectful gravitas, the long list, from the killings at Convincing Ground in Victoria’s west in 1834 to the brutal murders in far East Gippsland on the banks of the Brodribb River in 1850, are read out in the soft dawn light.

At one such massacre at Oxley in central Victoria, more than two hundred people were killed. Accounts of it are easily found on the Colonial Massacres website, a project by the University of Newcastle which has collated data on many hundreds of Frontier Wars killings across the continent with academic rigour.

Oxley is a place on the fertile plains of the King River near what is now Wangaratta. The huge Oxley massacre in 1842 is said to have wiped out an entire clan. It was a planned attack by settlers to cleanse a region of central Victoria for sheep and farming. One of the shepherds, James Howard, described the massacre to a journalist from the Argus newspaper as an old man, in 1883. ‘About 200 were killed on the spot,’ he said, ‘and others were pursued miles up the river, until all, with one or two exceptions, were exterminated.’ Howard said there were about 300 Aboriginal people in all. Some accounts estimate that hundreds more people were killed in the months after the Oxley massacre in what was most likely a coordinated and blatantly genocidal operation, with armed attacks on remnant families, campsites and hold-outs along the King River and its tributaries.  The scale and ferocity of this part of the Victoria’s history is shocking as is the fact that it is so little known.

Gunnai/Gunditjmara activist Robbie Thorpe’s decades-long calls for war-crimes investigations in Victoria make total, logical sense when reading accounts like this.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission—the nation’s first formal truth-telling process (Yoorrook is the Wemba Wemba/Wamba Wamba word for truth)—is currently taking submissions and holding public hearings in Melbourne. The Commission operates under the Inquiries Act 2014 (Vic) and has powers akin to a Royal Commission. It is investigating both historic and ongoing injustices committed against First People’s in Victoria since colonisation by both State and non-State actors.

It will likely fall a long way short from an internationally scrutinised war crimes commission envisioned by Robbie. Like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) it is partly modelled on, Yoorrook’s emphasis is on gathering evidence and uncovering information, and not on prosecuting individuals for past crimes—which is how the TRC differed from the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted Nazis in 1946.

The South African Commission was tasked with investigating human rights abuses committed during Apartheid from 1960 to 1994 and had seventeen Commissioners. Yoorrook in Victoria is looking at mass-killings and atrocities from at least 1833 until the 1850’s, then the use of what have been called concentration camps, which gathered the surviving populations into remote reserves, their treatment under apartheid-like laws for the next century and a half, including the state policy of child removal, as well as modern systemic injustices such as discriminatory policing, deaths in custody and over-imprisonment. It has only five Commissioners.

The task to do this comprehensively will be enormous. Very few of the known massacre sites in Victoria have been forensically studied. None of those who rode on horseback into camps and fired upon sleeping women and children were ever brought to justice in Victoria nor are they ever likely to be posthumously. Victoria’s truth commission, like its South African counterpart, won’t be able to punish perpetrators. But it will look at reparations and will be able to recommend redress in a variety of ways. It will make recommendations about cultural restoration and healing, public awareness and education, law and institutional reform. Many of its findings could end up as a core part of the Victorian Treaty process.

Every bit of post-conflict and peace-building theory tells us that Reconciliation can never come before the questions of Truth and Justice have been addressed. First Nations activists have long known this. It was why the government-enacted Reconciliation campaign of the 2000’s always sounded so hollow. And it was for this reason that the top-down ‘Recognise’ campaign was resolutely rejected in Victoria in favour of a Treaty process with truth and justice at its core.

Yoorrook marks a period markedly different to the ‘History Wars’ of the nineties and early 2000’s. The History Wars were rarefied and largely academic, waged in the pages of periodicals and lecture halls and occasionally by prime ministers clumsily trying to shape a national narrative. By contrast, this new era of truth-telling has largely been driven by activists, local communities and even local councils. It has been characterised by ceremonies, commemorations and vigils held on Country or upon sites of profound significance. Physical events that people can attend and participate in.

The first Invasion Day Dawn Service held in Naarm (Melbourne) in 2019 was an act of civil disobedience. It was opposed by authorities and police, but activists lit the large, smokey fire on the precious City of Melbourne grass at Kings Domain anyway and two hundred people silently gathered in a large crowded circle in the chilly predawn darkness.

Lidia Thorpe, now a Federal Senator for Victoria, said at the time that the idea for the dawn service was born out of the anxiety that surrounds the 26th of January, the racism that leads up to it and the need, not only to protest, but to reflect and mourn on this day in the way that the historic Day of Mourning, organised by the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1938, had expressed.

Like that first Day of Mourning in 1938, these modern Invasion Day Dawn Services are deliberate and strategic. The location was chosen to honour the deep history of the resting place at Kings Domain, where the remains of thirty-eight Victorian Aboriginal people lie, repatriated from universities and museums, as well as ‘collections’ across the country, after fierce campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s. It is currently the only officially marked mass burial site in Victoria.

It was also the site, in 2006, of the months-long Camp Sovereignty, instigated by the indefatigable Marjorie Thorpe and by Robbie Thorpe. It was strategically chosen due to its proximity to the seat of the British Queen’s colonial representative, Government House, and for the broad views it affords overlooking the city of Melbourne.

Just like the 1938 Day of Mourning, these first few Dawn Service events were almost entirely ignored by wider society at the time.

The first public memorial to a Frontier Wars event in a major city in Australia was the result of a decade of work by a small committee of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists who met every year on the site of the hanging of two resistance fighters in the early years of colonisation. Standing by Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, commissioned by the City of Melbourne to artists Brook Andrew and Trent Walter, now stands not far from the Old Melbourne Gaol. The Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner Commemoration Committee hold solemn memorials on the 20th of January each year as the quest to formally mark the location of their graves continues.

In south-west Victoria, the Convincing Ground massacre in 1834 was the first mass killing in Victoria of Aboriginal people by Europeans. Almost the entire Kilcarer Gundidj tribe were murdered by whalers over access to a beached whale carcass. A young Gunditjmara man, Chris Saunders, began organising small smoking ceremonies on the beach a few years ago. It has grown ever since. This year, around 400 people attended. ‘I don’t lecture or shove the stories at people,’ Chris has said. ‘I’m asking people to do their own research to learn the truth.’ It is one of dozens of grassroots, community-led commemorations of Frontier War events now happening around Australia.

In capital cities around the country, we now have the chance to march in solidarity in the increasingly massive Invasion Day March. Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance and other grassroots groups have built these annual marches in recent years to be the largest January 26 event in many major cities, often dwarfing the official government flag-raising events and jingoistic parades. This year, the Victorian government decided to discontinue its support for the official Australia Day Parade. The annual furore each January appears increasingly defensive, ignorant and naive.

None of this has come about by accident. It is the result of a political movement of resistance deliberately reclaiming and asserting itself in culture, and in history. Each of these modern acts of truth-telling has come about due to the work of activists and communities, working outside of institutions and official bodies but agitating and organising for truths to be finally listened to on a national scale. They take place as colonial Australia and its remaining cultural warriors are fighting a rear-guard action against this very truth.

No one is claiming the Yoorrook Justice Commission will be the final word. If done well, it could set the stage for significant political reform. If it falters, it may be because, as Djok academic and activist Jacqui Katona says, it places too much of the burden of truth telling upon First Peoples whilst letting non-Indigenous Australians off the hook. There is always the risk that the colonial state will simply see it as another form of absolution.

There are always dangers when movement-led initiatives are adopted by the authorities. Funding, formality and VIPs can quickly dull the political and radical edge. Yoorrook is formal, government funded and has so far remained distinct from the many movement-led truth-telling events and their accompanying demands for genuine change, but it is First Peoples designed and led and it can compel evidence.

This week, Yoorrook was to begin hearing testimony from Victorian Government ministers, chief commissioners and senior bureaucrats and examine their institutions’ role in historic and contemporary violence of the criminal justice and child-protection systems.  The government has delayed and the Commission held a directions hearings to examine the government’s ‘non-compliance with the Commission’s orders to produce evidence.’ The government now has until April 6 to produce required documents and answer required questions. As Yoorrook has reminded the government, failure to comply with a notice to produce documents without a reasonable excuse is a criminal offence.

Shifting the ‘burden of truth’ back on to the colonial state will be a critical step. To have senior decision-makers cross-examined about the role of their institutions in colonial violence and its systemic legacies is something that many people have been waiting for. Our colonial institutions have denied, distorted or conveniently forgotten their own foundation stories. It might just take something with the institutional power of a justice commission to shake them out of it.

Luke Pearson from IndigenousX tweeted sardonically:

There’s a paradox about being a settler in a stolen country. No matter when we arrived, we inherited the bounty of genocidal violence. Many of us are the beneficiaries of the intergenerational wealth-building that saw English, Irish and Scottish settler families grow rich on the sheep, timber, wheat and resources provided by stolen land. We have a profound responsibility to dismantle the ‘lie-telling’ because it shores up this legacy and the systems of colonial violence that continue in our lifetimes.

For people like me, descendants of settler-colonists, events like the annual Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner commemorations, the Dawn Services and the Invasion Day marches are profoundly important. Settler society needs events where the emotional work of honouring history is almost ritualistically enforced. You cannot stand in the chilly, pre-dawn dark and listen to the long gruelling death toll of local massacres without some form of emotional and physiological investment. This combination of ritualistic physical action, with deep listening, is how events like this create change. It’s different from reading texts or listening to lectures about history. Just like the 1938 Day of Mourning, truth-telling events become history.

It’s why the growing number of local commemorations, observances and ceremonies held at massacre sites are so critical to this work. People standing together on Country, being smoked, and honouring the fallen men, women and children who died on ‘Battlefield Australia’ by their physical presence. Many non-Indigenous people involved in Camp Sovereignty sixteen years ago became lifelong solidarity activists. Marching alongside, or standing silently on a beach where hundreds of people were killed, listening to descendants put words to the trauma of their ancestors, is a physical act of solidarity. Turning up at a Yoorrook hearing, viewing the livestreams, bearing witness to the profound testimony of descendants or to a Victorian government representative being cross-examined may be as well. Truth-telling at its core compels us to become part of it; not just to listen but to participate with our bodies and engage our hearts. As descendants of settlers or newly arrived this seems like the only firm basis for more authentic action on reparations, on Land and on Treaty.


Image: Invasion Day rally in Melbourne, 2020 – Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Kelly

Anthony Kelly is an Naarm-based activist, documentary maker and movement trainer.

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