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National Reconciliation Week: Why history matters

18 May 2018
Indigenous experts explain why understanding our history is vital
Ahead of National Reconciliation Week, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics from the University of Sydney explore how the theme - Don't let history be a mystery - is crucial to their work, and Australia's future.

From 27 May to 3 June, Australians across the country are invited to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, to share that knowledge and help us grow as a nation.

Here, University of Sydney academics explain why this year’s National Reconciliation week theme – ‘Don’t let history be a mystery’– is so important.

1. To celebrate our campus community

The Cadigal Green from above

The Cadigal Green - a meeting place

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Juanita Sherwood says the University has embraced National Reconciliation Week’s call to action.

“This year, for the first time, we’ll hold our flag raising ceremony and Hands of Reconciliation on Cadigal Green – formerly the marsh of Blackwattle Creek and a source of fresh water and fishing for Aboriginal people prior to invasion,” Professor Sherwood, a descendant of the Wiradjuri Nation, said.

“We invite students, staff, alumni and our local community to join us on 28 May, to reflect on the important ceremonial and spiritual connections this land held for its original custodians, the Aboriginal history of the University and what it means for us now and into the future.”

Ask us Anything: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Our students and staff answer anonymously submitted questions to confront myths and stereotypes about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

2. To achieve reconciliation

A plastic hand with 'I support Reconciliation' written on it

Understanding Australia’s history is essential for the reconciliation process, says Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, a Kamilaroi woman originally from north-western NSW and with the University’s Sydney School of Education and Social Work.

“Aboriginal history is Australian history,” she explains.

“It is a history that belongs to the world’s oldest continuous culture. It is rich, diverse, exciting and at times devastating. Ignorance makes true reconciliation impossible to achieve. In classrooms and beyond, we must recognise and embrace the full histories of this country to continue the work towards justice and equity for all.”

3. To attain a sovereign republic

“History tells us that the original doctrine of settlement – terra nullius – allowed the criminal takeover of Aboriginal lands,” says Dr Victoria Grieves from the University’s School of Social and Political Sciences.

“Colonisation was understood as a scourge that the United Nations sought to address in the 20th century, however settler colonial societies such as the USA, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and Canada lag behind,” Dr Grieves, a Warraimay woman from the mid north coast of NSW, added.

“History remains with us until we reach a just and proper settlement with the Australian state. This is most attainable through the development of a new sovereign republic based on Aboriginal philosophy, cultural values and ethics.”

4. To reach health equality

Abooriginal flag and a stethescope

Understanding historical context is vital to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health and wellness, and to develop preventative measures, says Dr Vanessa Lee from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

“The reasons why the determinants – social, political and cultural – are not being met lies in the historical way that policies have been developed and services have been delivered. Whether deliberate or by omission, the outcome has been the same,” Dr Lee, from the Yupungathi and Meriam people, says.

“Let’s all be part of the change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.”

5. To reclaim Aboriginal song traditions

“Since colonisation, an estimated 98 percent of Aboriginal song traditions have been lost in Australia, and just 13 of more than 200 Aboriginal languages are strongly spoken today,” the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Dr Clint Bracknell says.

We need to look at appropriate offline and online solutions to make archival song material accessible and useful to Aboriginal communities, Dr Bracknell – whose Aboriginal family from the south-east coast of WA use the term ‘Wirlomin Noongar’ to refer to their clan – explains.

“These records may prove especially important to Aboriginal communities because of the inherent connections between songs, language and the maintenance of Aboriginal identities and well-being.”

6. To discover our own history

Dr Lynette Riley, from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work urges people to find out more about their own history.

“Knowing who we are as a person and as a member of our communities, means understanding history and how it has influenced us all,” Dr Riley, a Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman from Dubbo and Moree, says.

“Not knowing our histories, means we are virtually keeping ourselves in the dark and aren’t allowing ourselves, our families and our communities to learn and grow.”