7 Indigenous Books that changed the way we think about Australian History, by Jess Gately

NAIDOC Week and Black History Month are a time for us to reflect on the achievements, contributions and history of the Australian Indigenous People and to consider how we move forward towards reconciliation. This year’s NAIDOC theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. ties in with the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages and asks us to listen. It asks us to hear the voices of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to hear their stories. It asks us to acknowledge the truth of our colonisation and the wrongs that have been committed. For it is only with true understanding that we can move forward together.

With that in mind, this list recommends some of the most important works by Australian Indigenous authors that every Australian should read.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Let’s face it, this list was never going to start any other way. Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning rebuttal of the pre-colonial ‘hunter-gatherer’ myth has been such a success that it was recently re-released in a format for younger readers. Bringing together evidence from the diaries of early explorers, farmers and colonists, Pascoe argues that the colonial retelling of Aboriginal land management has been deliberately and severely misrepresented in order to justify the dispossession of their lands. It significantly changed the way we looked at pre-colonial history, and as such, colonial history itself.

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Although a work of fiction, Claire G Coleman’s debut fights against the idea of addressing Australia’s violent colonial history with subtlety and instead presents a blunt and dramatic commentary on what happened during Australia’s ‘colonisation’. A clever twist makes this story of oppression more than it seems and quickly pulls the reader from one viewpoint to another. It’s unsettling, surprising, familiar and new all at the same time.

Us Women, Our Ways, Our World edited by Pat Dudgeon, Jeannie Herbert, Jill Milroy, & Darlene Oxenham

Pulling together the voices of seventeen Aboriginal women in fourteen chapters, this collection explores the lives of Aboriginal women both historically and currently and sets forth their hopes for the future. It provides an in-depth look at Aboriginal spirituality, family ties, and country. There is an ongoing theme of strength and endurance in the face of a turbulent political history and intense adversity. What these stories aim to do is provide context and understanding for non-Indigenous people so that relationships can be formed and grow from a better-educated and better-informed basis.

Am I Black Enough For You by Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss’s memoir reflects on identity politics particularly for Aboriginal people in Australia and delves into the harsh, misleading and problematic world of stereotyping all with dry wit and unwavering passion. An academic, author and activist, her intelligence and way with words form a direct and easy to follow argument. There’s also something to be said for reading the reflections of a woman who played such an important role in one of the most important legal decisions of our time—the charging of newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt with breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. This book is a must-read for understanding life, racism and identity in modern Australia.

Talking To My Country by Stan Grant

Stan Grant entered the debate over Adam Goodes being booed at AFL games in July 2015. His piece for The Guardian catapulted his views into the limelight when they were shared worldwide over 100,000 times, his story hitting the mark with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. This book talks to all Australians, about their national identity, about Indigenous identity, and about racism and how it looks in modern Australia. It highlights the cultural inequality still in Australia today and encourages quiet reflection on how to make it better without necessarily offering all the answers.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

Another book whose fiction label doesn’t make it any less powerful, The Swan Book is a powerful reflection on the role of stories in Aboriginal culture, the reality of climate change and its impact on Indigenous people, and the continuing lack of agency experienced by Aboriginal people who have decisions made ‘for’ them by a government who does not understand them. Despite the heavy themes, this book is magical and humorous and Wright’s reflections on climate change are more pertinent than ever.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss

Fifty-one Aboriginal Australians lent their voices to this anthology published in 2018. A combination of well-known names such as Adam Goodes, Jared Thomas, Celeste Liddle and Ambelin Kwaymullina partnered with ‘everyday people’ to give a snapshot of life for Aboriginal people. These are stories of struggling identity, cultural battlegrounds, survival, and resilience in modern Australia. But they are also stories of country, family and connection. It is moving, devastating and uplifting. It’s real. It’s now. And it’s from here that we move forward.

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