Pathways into History: ‘Spaces become places by the meaning we give them’

CHANGING HISTORY: University of Wollongong PhD candidate Jodie Stewart is attempting to change Australia's view of the past. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
CHANGING HISTORY: University of Wollongong PhD candidate Jodie Stewart is attempting to change Australia's view of the past. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

“Spaces become places by the meaning we give them”, University of Wollongong PhD candidate Jodie Stewart said as she attempts to change our view of the past.

“I have always been interested in history as a cultural practice, particularly the ways that history is thought about, produced and disseminated outside of the discipline of history,” Ms Stewart said.

Ms Stewart’s work documents the development of the Bundian Way project as an important and potentially recuperative public history initiative, and she hopes to have her thesis Pathways into History: Exploring the Contemporary Aboriginal Past on the Bundian Way completed later this year.

“Aboriginal people are assumed to be a ‘people without a history’ because of the ways in which we conceive history to be,” the descendant of early European settlers said.

“History as it is traditionally conceived by western practitioners includes recourse to indoor archives and paper records.

“These ways of understanding Aboriginal culture have had a real impact on contemporary Aboriginal people; with covert and overt racism still a problem in Australia.”

Ms Stewart’s work is broadening this Australian definition of history.

“For example the pervasive notion that Indigenous people and their communities are in deficit, or are somehow morally and socially deficient is in part the product of dominant historical representation,” she said.

The insights and vast knowledge of activists and elders such as Ossie Cruse, Ben Cruse, Warren Foster Sr, Aileen Blackburn and members of the younger generations working on the Bundian Way have helped shape Ms Stewart’s research. 

“The young men saw that dominant representations of Aboriginal people and culture did not fit with their lived experience, and attributes including generosity, strength and ingenuity are often not attributed to Aboriginal people and culture,” she said.

“These men were interrogating dominant historical representations and presenting their own critical histories of early cross-cultural encounters to include these important qualities and attributes. 

“I read the critical histories being produced by these young men as vital history-work that provides new ways of understanding the settler and Aboriginal past. 

“As Ossie Cruse suggested to me ‘they will learn that we were not barbarians’.” 

Her thesis proposes the way in which society thinks about and utilises the past and present are varies, whether from books or local history magazines, or via social practice and engaging with people and place.

”When young women meet at Jigamy farm to propagate native yams they build, dig, water and yarn,” Ms Stewart said. 

“History as it is traditionally conceived is often an activity that involves particular practices of research and writing which often focus on the ‘science of the document’.

“Within this methodological framework what these women are doing would not be considered as history.

“Yet these women are drawing upon and connecting with the contemporary Aboriginal past by utilising cultural practices and enacting aspects of social life that have been passed on through generations of Aboriginal women.”

Ms Stewart argues this is a form of historical practice and a way of maintaining history through doing.

“This way of practicing history connects these women to a long history of women’s engagement with native yams but also with place, a connection to country that elder Aileen Blackburn explains is an important part of generating a sense of belonging in a complex and challenging world,” she said.