Director’s Blog – The reverberations of deep time

One day in May, the earth shuddered. It was the year we call 2020, in the Pilbara, a remote part of Western Australia (WA), now rendered even more remote by the locked-down borders of this Pandemic year. The caves of Juukan Gorge, these special dwelling places, have stood in situ for millennia. In a matter of seconds, they crashed in on themselves and became rubble.

The massive explosion was a means of making it easier for the giant machines of the mining company Rio Tinto to extract ore to and send off to other continents. In 2013, the company estimated that it used 200,000 tonnes of explosives each year in The Pilbara region alone. Vibration controls were supposed to prevent any nearby ‘sensitive sites’ that might be affected by blasts. This sensitive site was nonetheless targeted.

Hamersley Range, Western Australia
Hamersley Range, Western Australia. Photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Creative Commons.
Juukan Gorge is in the vicinity of the Hamersley Range; the Tom Price mine is shown here. Photo by Anna Del Rio, Creative Commons.

The reverberations of that explosion continue. Last week, and we are now nearing the end of September, I was contacted by a talented reporter from NPR, the American public radio station. She had heard about the destruction of Juukan Gorge, and about Australia’s deep and tangible human history. For the moment at least, the time difference between GMT Time-4 on the Atlantic east coast and Australian Eastern Standard Time has defeated us.

46,000 years of Aboriginal occupation is not, however, a historical time span to defeat Australia’s Indigenous nations. Though at Juukan, they left their traces behind –pertaining to those expansive years of human ingenuity, people could observe tangible indicators of sustainable lifestyles across tens of thousands of generations. The Gorge’s richness as a site of Aboriginal occupation potentially served to document the deep historical past. Before the blast, some objects had already been removed somewhere nearby. It is vague as to exactly where the salvaged items are, how well documented they are, or the justification as to why they were removed in the first place. But we know they included a rare plaited hair belt dating back about 4000 years, several specially crafted stone knives 10,000 years old, plus a kangaroo bone tool dating back 28,000 years. Several of these were the earliest known examples of their kind.

When the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples heard news of the explosion, they were devastated. For those intricately associated with this site and its associated epic stories, its destruction represented nothing less than a personal and collective tragedy.

The Pilbara contains many deeply storied landscapes. This photograph shows Pyramid Hill, Gurrgara – and nearby Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma lands. Photo by Neil Brougham.

What lay beneath those surface objects, in the context of their time-telling stratigraphies, we will never know. In the remnants of their once stable cave-homes, the layers of deep time are now jumbled up, caved in. Before the explosions, Michael Slack, one of our project’s collaborating scholars and my former student, had been engaged to write the archaeological report. He assessed the site as of the highest archaeological significance.

Only weeks later, in mid June 2020, a cordon of armed New South Wales police stood around the statue of ‘Captain’ James Cook, lauded in its plaque as the great ‘discoverer’ of Australia in 1770. It was an anniversary year for him. In Sydney’s Hyde Park, the centre of a metropolis that saw first European occupation of the Australian continent, a Black Lives Matter (#BLM) march had Cook’s monument in their sights. Made of bronze and standing above other humans on a very high plinth, he fared okay.

Police surround the James Cook monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Photo by Elly Baxter.

When the world first heard about the death of George Floyd and the uprisings in the United States, Aboriginal Australians quickly reminded the public of how they continued to suffer discrimination, violence and even death at the hands of police. Despite their courage, at the time, I felt only despair. I recalled how, in the 1980s, Aboriginal people had marched, protested and cried out in heartfelt appeals. In the early 1990s the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established in response. So many tragic stories came out – unnecessarily lost lives, often way too young. Despite its hundreds of recommendations, however, the Aboriginal deaths continued into 2020. Imprisonment rates have increased.

Taking up the position of Co-ordinator of the History Project for that extensive enquiry in 1992, I had envisaged my role was to get a team together who would provide the Commissioners and the general public with a well-informed historical understanding of what Indigenous people faced when they saw a police officer. It didn’t take much scratching below the surface to find that police forces in the Australian colonies had been initially established to ensure that white colonizers would be protected from Aboriginal Australians – from those fighting for their own lands or for mere sustenance. Native police forces, often a coerced or forced labour, were established to divide and conquer competing Indigenous nations under colonizing assaults.

When the far-reaching recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were released in 1991, I had felt hopeful, like something of real social value had been achieved. But it was an optimism unrealized, as the shameful rate of deaths has continued. So, that’s why, when I first heard of #BLM, I felt so disheartened. I thought people might struggle hard for a time, enquiries might follow, but then it would go away. I’m pleased to say that it hasn’t. BLM has energised people across the world, including young Indigenous and many other young Australians. It’s rocked the academy too, with far more scholars suddenly sitting up and paying attention to its endemic racism.

Which takes me to the recent passing of Lorna Cubillo. Along with Peter Gunner, Lorna had the courage to take on the Australian Commonwealth in a test case arguing for compensation for the damage it did to her due to her removal from family and country. She was taken from the place she was lived and loved, known as Banka Banka cattle station. Hers was a story that became familiar to a wider audience after the release of the 1997 Bringing them Home Report which recounted the policies that had damaged the lives of so many of the people now known as the stolen generations. For much of the twentieth century, uniformed police, patrol and ‘welfare’ officers took away thousands of Aboriginal children from their families. In the Northern Territory, under the Commonwealth of Australia, they picked out the lighter skinned ones.

Reading Lorna’s story in 2020 brought back memories of the court case more than twenty years ago, and the cruel way that Lorna was treated by a brutal legal team questioning the veracity of her tragic story. The judgement relied upon the western legal notion of written consent – in this case the proof of an ‘X’ by Gunner’s mother to his removal, who could neither read nor write. Neither the crying and wailing of beloved kin, the family’s action in desperately chasing the trucks that took the children away, nor their long treks following the children were taken into account, let alone the wider power relations of a violent colonizing frontier. It appears that western courts of law still rule with a logic that defies the knowledge that historians have gleaned from researching the colonial archive. At the same time as Lorna was grabbed for a second removal, so too was a baby who was under one year old and still being suckled by its mother. Her lighter skin meant that little Queenie was taken away. Lorna’s relatives gave her the responsibility of caring for that baby and Lorna said she never left her side.

The state argued that they had good intentions, but as I argued during the case and before, in an aspiring white Australia, removing light-skinned children served as a cover-up for white men’s sexual relations with Aboriginal women. Lorna’s family had put charcoal on her skin to disguise her lighter colouring. She lived in fear of white patrol officers, and had ran away to hide, but was captured anyway. At least one patrol officer tasked with taking the children away was troubled by the inhumanity of this policy. In a heart-rending letter, he wrote to higher authorities pleading against it, pointing out how much the parents and children loved each other and how much they suffered, outlining the consequent pain and trauma for everyone. His name was Ted Evans. He was not alone. Around Australia, white women activists, newspaper journalists, and ordinary suburban mothers protested Aboriginal child removal policies, arguing that it was extremely cruel and even unchristian. In 1999, however, the Commonwealth government was still pleading good intentions and arguing that the wider public thought it a good thing. They were wrong. For Aboriginal families, the loss of family love, of language and the rupture from their country of deep and long connection, was irreparable.

Despite the overwhelming public push to confront and acknowledge the emotional cruelty of child removal and the child abuse suffered in an institutionalized life, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, refused to apologize to Indigenous Australians. This continued for ten years. Howard fired up ‘The History Wars’, attacking historians of Aboriginal-whiterelations as belonging to ‘the black armband school of history’.

Despite nation-wide marches and petitions, it took the installation of the Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to offer a national apology in 2008. This proved an inspiring moment of national unity forged out of empathy. Stolen Aboriginal lives mattered. History mattered. Eventually, people-power and the outing of suppressed historical knowledge had proved effective.

Yet still the deaths continue today. Sadly, African Americans and Indigenous Australians are being arrested and imprisoned in vastly disproportionate ratios to whites. Both groups were exploited as slaves and forced labour, while their ownership of land, enjoyment of citizenship rights and ability to keep their families together was constantly ruptured.

As historians, the best we can do is to point out the catastrophes and complexities of the colonizing and resource extractive past – including that of human flesh. In our current Deep History project, it is our privilege to honour the courage of the many people around the world who continue to hold strong to their lands, language and culture.


Collaborations across Time-zones

One of the positive aspects of the year has been that we have been able to keep in touch across lands and seas – at least virtually – with several of our Collaborating Scholars and past visitors. Despite the seemingly impossible time differences, in the Age of Zoom, we have enjoyed many chances to connect. I recently heard an excellent lecture on the black pharaohs of Egypt which reminds us both of the excellence of some of our Harvard colleagues, and the way the discipline of history has helped create vital propaganda to support racism – and in the case of Egyptian history, to argue the continuation of slavery in the American south.

Which brings me to a cheering anecdote shared by one of our Collaborating scholars, who as well as being an expert on American frontiers, is also a devoted travelling muso. He had been teaching Native American history via Zoom to international students exiled in various spots around the globe, including one student in London. Okay, I admit he tells the story better than me, but in the interests of privacy, I will keep him incognito. In one Zoom meet-up, his young student casually mentioned that his grandfather was greatly enjoying his history lectures too. They were on Native American history, with possibly some history of American music thrown in. When the said colleague responded by saying that he thought that sounded great, the grandfather’s hand popped up to wave. Then his smiling face momentarily appeared on the screen. It was Paul McCartney. Yes, that Beatles guy who wrote out beautiful lyrics on the back of café serviettes and scraps of paper now held in the British library. Grandad Paul, once the Paul of every girl’s dreams – well certainly my own… We might recall the inspiring words of Ebony and Ivory, then add his mate John Lennon’s beautiful anthem for world peace, Imagine. While we are thinking about music, there is the grand gift of black music – songs of historical pain, resistance and heaps of love, music that keeps many of us sane amidst this Pandemic. Pandemics, shattering explosives, what a world we are in.

It probably hasn’t been a Year of Wonders. Yet, incongruous moments such as Cook under siege during the anniversary of his discovery year should give us pause for thought. Usurping other people’s lands was legal under the ‘law of nations’, according to the doctrine of discovery. And, when you put that alongside the state taking away your children or the multinational Rio Tinto mining company ‘legally’ blowing up Juukan gorge…. Such moments splinter time. Beyond the shockwaves, and the seismic disturbances of geology groaning beneath the earth’s surface, perhaps the world may start to better appreciate the traumatic legacies of history. #BLM is not going away. Nor is history, and this history really matters.

As well as the horror we might feel watching the news, in this pandemic age of Zoom, however disjointedly, I hope that we will continue to share some time-delayed moments of historical empathy, followed by calls for justice and decisive action across the globe.

Our team and our wider collaborating teams are researching and writing about what we call deep history. In order to learn from the epic story of humanity, and the music, sounds, words and voices that draw upon the strength, knowledge and enduring power of being somewhere so solid over so much time, we need to listen closely. To the landscape as well as its peoples. Despite the earth-time differences, and even the forces of law and imperial power, deep human histories are not something that can be simply blown up and destroyed in an instant.