Encountering truth: the real life stories of objects from empire’s frontier and beyond

June Oscar AO at the opening of the exhibition at the British Museum on 30 April, 2015.
June Oscar AO at the opening of the exhibition at the British Museum on 30 April, 2015.

On 29th of April, 2015 June Oscar AO, Bunuba woman and former AIATSIS Council member, delivered a lecture at the Centre for Australian Studies in London. The lecture was part of the opening of the Enduring Civilizations exhibition at the British Museum, and was widely regarded as a highlight of the exhibition opening festivities.

June and the AIATSIS Principal, Russell Taylor, were among a number of Indigenous delegates invited to participate in the exhibition opening events. Below is the transcript of June’s lecture, a deeply poignant and powerful speech that captured the audience. Drawing from her own experience and the rich cultural history of her Bunuba people, June spoke of the journey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,’ their resilience and reconciliation.


June Oscar AO 29 April 2015
King’s College, London

Thank You …….Good Evening ladies and gentlemen, I wish to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and other First Nations Peoples present here tonight . I would like to thank the Menzies Centre at Kings College for making the trip possible and inviting me to give this lecture. I also wish to acknowledge and thank the British Museum for their support in assisting me with this visit. As a former Council member of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, an institution of importance to Indigenous people and one that I am proud to be part of, an important keeping place of our stories and materials in Australia. I acknowledge the presence of the principal, Mr Russ Taylor present here tonight. Distinguished guests, colleagues, to friends, family and supporters, thank you all for coming tonight. To our young people, at home and here tonight, to Samuel, Josh and Mani- our future.

A clip of Bunuba country

Followed by an introduction in Bunuba : Jalangurru maningga balangarra: Wilawungay ngarragi ngarri thangani, Bunuba, Mathawulinyagu thangani ngarragi nhingi jandu yani. Nganyi birrmi biyirrangu jurali malngarri wadbirraginyi yarrangi yau muwayi. Ngindaji thangani burridi lingaara, gurrijgarra yaningi.

Bulba ngarragi yani nhingi British Museum yuwa bagawurragi, malgnarri ingga urugawunagi yarrangi nhingi muway ngindaji yawu, gamaliyawu muway. Ngindaji yani bulba, yingi biyirrangu bagari Bunuba ngarri thangani. Lundu, Rarrgi, Bilgi, burridi warawurragi, bagawurragi  yarrangi yuwa muway. Ngindi yani bulba bagawurragi nyana yuwa thangani, bagari bababirri biliga yulngarrawu, ngay walangalayadi biyirrangu.

Good evening all, I speak to you in my language, Bunuba, I will share with you stories from my people and what happened to them when white men came to our lands. We still remember this story. There are materials from my people at the British Museum. White men took these from our land and brought it to a foreign place, these materials have names in our language. The trees, stones, grasses still grow and still stand on our lands. These materials sit in a bigger story. They sit at the centre of that story forever. We will never forget this story.

What you have seen in that sweeping panorama, and what you have heard in the ancient words I have spoken, are greetings from my people, the Bunuba. We live in the far north west of Australia, in an arid and sub-tropical region known as the Kimberley.

We the Bunuba, are one of hundreds of different Aboriginal language groups living across the varied terrains of a landmass, which since British colonisation, has come to be known as the nation-state of Australia. For those of you in the audience who have been or know Australia you will have a sense of the vastness of its landscape. To give everyone else a full appreciation of just how great and diverse this continent is, and how many Aboriginal countries traverse its space,

  • Australia is 50% greater in size than Europe, and

  • 32 times greater than the United Kingdom.

  • My Bunuba homelands are the same distance from Sydney and the homelands of the Eora peoples as it is from here, London, to Moscow.

So I’ve travelled a very long way to be here tonight.

Aboriginal people use the term country to define how these immense terrains and interconnecting ecosystems, from the tropical salt-waters in the north, to rolling desert sand-hills and fertile river floodplains belonging to culturally and societally distinctive yet connected Aboriginal nations, each with its own language. The languages of our countries, like Bunuba, speaks to the intimate attachment we have to the land, and the deep knowledge of these unique habitats that we carry with us from one generation to the next since a time immemorial. Or in a western measurement of time, we have been living on our countries, with our ancestors for over 60,000 years.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians, we are the first peoples of the oldest continuous living and enduring civilization on earth.

Still, coming from a civilization with a historical track record that is unbeaten the world over, I have had  a yearning to visit your country. Not just to prove that the time has come for the “Empire to strike back”, but because this place has its own rich and diverse history in its own right. And by some remarkable feat of exploration and empire building over recent times your country has become entwined with ours, and shaped so many of our contemporary ways of being. Tonight I am honoured to speak at such an esteemed academic institution.

So close to the flowing waters of the Thames, the gateway to the murky ocean road that set in motion a course of events that saw our distant worlds collide, and in many respects unite.

Over the last two days I’ve had the pleasure of exploring this area within the city of Westminster. I’ve wanted to gain a sense of how two centuries ago this capital was able to transplant its entire governmental and judiciary system to the other side of our planet. 1778 marks the first time in human history that colonisation took place at such a great distance from the home shores of the colonizer, 9,420 miles away to be precise.

Aboriginal people use our land as a plain of spatial and temporal navigation. Our earth is imbued with the voices of our ancestors, their lessons from across time and space help to situate us in the present. I have found that this cityscape is just as full of ancestral voices as my own Bunuba country.

I walked from here, through Whitehall past military buildings and memorials, government departments and ministerial headquarters, into Westminster the seat of British government. I saw the new building  of Scotland Yard, your beacon of central law enforcement and surveillance. I watched Big Ben chime, its ticking arms keeping a watchful order. I leant on the walls of the embankment and saw the heaving flow of people going about their daily working lives either side of the Thames. And then behind where we are now, I wandered into the Royal Courts of Justice, a grand statement to the judgement of ruling overseers.

This place remains an outstanding testament to London’s web of Imperial power. No wonder the most expansive empire ever created and known to human kind was conceived here.

So we are in a perfect location to set the scene in telling my story tonight. It is also a great opportunity to be here on the eve of the launch of the ground-breaking British Museum exhibition, “Indigenous Australia; Enduring Civilization”.

The exhibition is an extraordinary move on behalf of the British Museum. Because unbelievably and significantly it is the first time in the United Kingdom that an exhibition of its scale has been devoted wholly to the history and culture of Indigenous Australians – both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. Seven years in the making, a collaborative effort between the British Museum and the National Museum of Australia. It has all been overseen and guided by a skilful and talented Indigenous advisory committee. Two of its members is sitting in the audience tonight, Mr Peter Yu a Yawuru man from the Kimberley, who also shares my Bunuba heritage, a great friend, working ally, an inspiring political advocate for Indigenous rights, who’s  played a prominent mentoring role in my life. And from lutruwita, Ms Gaye Sculthorpe, a palawa kani woman from north east Tasmania, curator and section head of Oceania Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, at the British Museum. A woman who I respect and greatly admire.

We know that each object displayed in the exhibit dug up from the depths of both British and Australian museum collections, has conjured a range of contradictory emotions for Indigenous people across Australia - joy and wonderment at our remarkable living cultural heritage, and pain, outrage and resentment emanating from the colonial wars, never fully acknowledged by the Australian state. Wars that saw countless violent deaths causing profound cultural and societal loss and intergenerational grief. I know these emotions first-hand, I have been a part of this exhaustive and meaningful journey every step of the way.

Needless to say, whenever an institution dares to step beyond the norm, controversy surrounds it.

Still, tomorrow, in one of the most eminent institutions in the world, objects that are so precious to defining who we are as Peoples will be unveiled to speak the truth of our long existence as flourishing societies, and enduring ones at that.

The objects at the British Museum, represent survival, resilience and productive dynamism born from the meeting point of our Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural realities, they provide an insight into complex relations forged in first encounter frontier societies. It is a breath taking display of Indigenous recognition, and I encourage you all to visit. And it provides the props to bring my narrative alive.

There is no better place to open this exhibit than in the throbbing heart of London, where it all began. A vibrant place, a boiling pot of languages, mixed heritages and national fusions. London can boldly hold claim to being the most multicultural cityscape on earth. This cultural wealth is the strange and wonderful repercussions of Britain’s Empire, greedy to consume the worlds of others.

Still, in colonisations hunger to extract wealth the lands of others were dominated. In too many instances colonisation has driven conflict and destruction, it has forced societies just like mine to the brink of eradication. Whether this was the intention or not, it is the truth of what happened.

My Bunuba ancestors were not engulfed by the tidal wave of first British settlement, instead we felt the violent wash of frontier wars in the late 19th century.

When I was standing on the Thames embankments yesterday I imagined the ports with ships preparing to journey for Australia. Their maiden voyage, the genesis of my future identity. When I would no longer be wholly Bunuba, or collectively Aboriginal but also an Australian. My heritage was tied to yours the day ships set sail with a cargo of chained human-beings. Between 1788 and 1870 160,000 English and Irish men, women and children were transported to an Island prison. No other society in the history of humanity has forcibly transported so many of its own subjects to a distant colony.

I’ve learnt in the last few days that these people, our shared national ancestors, probably came from where I’m staying now, from the squalid overcrowded streets of an 18th century Covent Garden and Holborn. Just like rapidly growing urban centres today, London’s population boomed and the by-product was poverty. Inequality is dangerous. It breads fear and anger between the materially prosperous and powerful and the poor and marginalised. The result – the first displaced populations of Australia were condemned for the crimes of the impoverished, fighting for survival. When this population was released from the shackles of the crown, I imagine they advanced with trepidation and determination to conquer and prosper. They pronounced Australia Terra Nullius, so they could own what had always been denied - land. To them we were the flora and fauna, ripe for domination.

Australia has many foundation myths, but the truth of our origins remains submerged in the shallow waters of our national heritage.

Within this forgotten history the bloody battles of our nation’s federation continue to go untold.

By the time the unrelenting flow of settlers hit our countries in the far north, the continent was well on its way to being federated the Australian nation –state in 1901. The entire Aboriginal population had almost been reduced to a 10th of its size, while the new settlers swelled to a population of three million.

Still, when white people set foot on the rocky crevassed limestone ranges of Bunuba country, Australia was yet to be formally named as a nation. It remained six British colonies under the law making power of the British parliament, sitting in Westminster, just down the road.

There is a story we tell in my county which epitomizes this period of history for us today.

In continuing to tell the strength and resilience of the Bunuba we tell the story of courageous, defiance personified in one extraordinary man. A Bunuba man, who straddled the world of the colonizer and our traditional life. The white people called this fast, fleeting, trickster - Pigeon. This same man, we know as our rebellious warrior, a spiritually powerful fighter - Jandamarra. He has become the central figure in defining our resistance.

What I will show you now is one of the many present day incarnations of Jandamarra. What will play before you is a performance that saw Jandamarra return to the Kimberley in 2011. You have the majesty of Buckingham palace, and we have the majestic blood red walls of  Bandilngan – Windjana Gorge where Jandamarra and his people fought the largest single violent battle in Western Australian history.

At the base of one of Bandilngan’s fortress like cliff faces, Bunuba people today performed Jandamarra back into life. Our language sung, echoing across the country and reawakening our ancestors, in a play created and presented by our company, Bunuba Cultural Enterprises.

Clip Two: Wwarrior & Spiritual Leader a and b

What you have just seen is the briefest of insights into a man who’s short adult life was a product of the cultural fractures, frictions and fusions of the frontier. Jandamarra represents a people on the precipice of a new world order.

His actions were those of many at the time. He was born just before the malngarri – as we called the white men – first came to our country. As a child he lived both with his country’s people and on the newly established sheep runs. He learnt the ways of the malngarri - speaking English, riding horses shooting guns. As a young man he became a tracker for the imported colonial police force Aboriginal police tracker. This new form of law and order was overseen by a sub-inspector Harry Ord. He wrote in his journal 120 years ago,

“I had been stationed in the far North West on the arduous and unpleasant duty of arresting or dispersing the blacks out back from Derby, who were responsible for a number of murders of whites who were opening out new country”

Dispersal are the euphemisms hiding the death toll of the time. Before white occupation in the 1880s and 1890s our fertile country supported a population of up to 3,000 people, possibly more. The carnage that accompanied the invasion devastated the Bunuba population.

In 1934 an anthropologist calculated the number of Bunuba people on their country was just 309 people.

This wasn’t just a police force subjugating a rebellion. This was a colonial power that through ruthless tactics and co-option were attempting to abolish and overthrow our civilization. And for a time Jandamarra was one of the co-opted. He tracked and captured his kin – his family and country men, cousins, uncles and elders. With his help the police almost bought the Bunuba to their knees.

But then, in the face of overwhelming domination, where Jandamarra himself had decided to accept the ways of the malngarri alongside his traditional life. Jandamarra in one decisive act  rejected the onslaught of white society.

Jandmarra did not just join the rebellion, he galvanised the dissipated energy of his people, pulled them together and mounted a resurgence. For three years the Bunuba fought a tactical, guerrilla  war  designed to hold their country. As the Bunuba swiftly leapt between limestone ridges and through hidden tunnels they alluded and mystified the police. The white men in their chase stumbled at every rocky outcrop. Their boots and hands sliced and shredded by serrated rock edges as sharp as knives. This was the nature of the country that had kept the Western world at bay for so long.

Then on the 1st April 1897, sub-inspector Ord had his way. In the darkness of a Tunnelled Creek, Jandamarra was shot dead. His head was cut off as a sign to the new settlers that the Bunuba resistance had been destroyed. This brave warrior was just 24.

Four years later Australia was federated, the British had sanctioned a new civilization in their distant colonies. As you all know the story didn’t end there, because, as I am proof, we endure.

This history teaches us that no matter how much we lost during what is widely referred to in the Kimberley as the killing times, we were not defeated. When a stand is made that was as strong as the Bunuba, it is never final. Their call for justice, freedom and equality sings out across time.

A year before he died Jandamarra stood on a limestone cliff top looking down at the police, with his rifle held high, he declared, this is Bunuba country. This call was heard again only recently in the Sydney Opera House, when the cantata “Jandamarra: Sing for the Country” was performed. In the great concert hall the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and hundreds of Children from the Gondwana Choirs joined artistic forces to voice the unending sentiments of my Bunuba people.

I invite you all to listen now.

Clip Cantata – final song

My people are doing everything in their power to ensure that the greater meaning of Jandamarra’s name will live on. In telling this history we can see from convict times to this very moment, our nations existing across the continents and oceans remain entwined.

To emphasise what I mean, and why the British Museum’s exhibit is so profound, let me finish by explaining my close attachment to this story. It was my one of my Grandfathers, Grandfather Wirrinmarra who was the custodian of the Jandamarra story. His father stood with Jandamarra and others in the final battle. Grandfather Wirrinmarra’s father hid out in the ranges after Jandamarra was killed. Grandfather Wirrinmarra was a survivor of the frontier wars, because he was taken to live with a white family on their cattle station on our  traditional lands.

As he grew, it was this white family named the Blythes who told Grandfather Wirrinmarra the story of Pigeon. In the strange dynamics of the frontier they were also heavily involved in the pursuit of Jandamarra. Grandfather Wirrinmarra enlisted me as a young woman to help reawaken this story within the spirit of our nation. He believed that as foundational history it would help us move toward reconciliation and away from conflict. So for the past thirty years the quest to take Jandamarra to the world has been a big part of my life and will remain so for a long time to come.

I have worked tirelessly, alongside both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people all who have been enraptured by this history, to understand through Jandamarra what happened at first encounters so as to establish a true sense of the settlement of the Kimberley.

That sub-insepector Ord, who I mentioned managed the police brigade against the Bunuba, also wrote in his description of dispersing the blacks, that he had accumulated - and I quote;

“a quantity of native weapons and thought that they might be of value and interest to the museum … the weapons are genuine native weapons of the type taken by the police from native camps” end quote.

I feel great angst as I speak these lines. I can easily imagine my great grandmother dropping her coolamons as the police raided and ravaged her world. She could have been carrying her daughter, my grannie, in that coolamon, or winnowing seeds. These props of my narrative, my family’s living history, are amongst the objects held at the British Museum. Even Jandamarra’s boomerang is on display!

Ord, shipped these items to Britain as the artefacts of a dying race overcome by progress and modernisation – this was the popular belief of the time. For him they were soon to be historical relics of a civilization that was ending due the domination of another.

Jandamarra’s ancestral voice, penetrating our present, reminds us that this is not the case. His life has reinforced our history, ensuring that these objects remain animated. However, as proof to the lasting power of Empire, these objects that are us, reside here. Even the head of Jandamarra is somewhere in your land.

I know this because the living grandson of the Blythes, Grandfather Wirrinmarra’s step family, has told us that through various police relations and arms trading networks at the time of federation, Jandamarra’s head was gifted to the Greener family. The Greeners were one of the largest gun manufacturers of Empire. Their factory was based in Birmingham and their guns travelled the world, known for their lethal force and dependability when it came to triggering the fatal shot.

The memory of Jandamarra’s skull sitting in the factories private museum has been confirmed in the oral testaments of ex-employees. He was displayed as a trophy, a symbol of conquest, where the production of guns marked the final frontier for the warriors resisting empire.

Little did those triumphant colonizers know, that Jandamarra is a magic man-a jalnggangurru. His voice is still being heard, even without his head. Jandamarra resonates with us today, he is almost tangible, because he is teaching lessons which are yet to be learnt.

As Aboriginal people, we view the world as cyclical, the concept of knowledgeable voices existing long after death, is fundamental to our societal existence. Everything on our country carries the voices of our ancestors - the coolamons, spears and boomerangs, the trees, animals and water sites. We know how to make tools, what to hunt and when and to survive in difficult terrains because we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. If we were to ignore our ancestral past we would lose precious knowledge, and the consequences would be devastating.

Just like Jandamarra grew up across cultural divides, the lessons that we all must learn from this story are singing out from our shared ancestry. The same framework of authority that came to rule our world at federation, imposed with absolute disregard for our societal worth, remains in place today. No wonder our present displays disturbing parallels to the time of the frontier wars.

You may have heard of our current government’s pronouncement of the forced closure of Aboriginal communities. Many of those communities surround the country that Jandamarra defended from colonial occupation. Of course Jandammarra’s story must continue to be told when we must continue to deal with a government making decisions for our future without us. A government that would prefer to repeat the trauma of our dislocation, than to sit and negotiate with us, to allow us an equal voice in planning for the future of our nation together.

Time and again when governments make non-negotiated and exclusionary decisions it is our humanity that they forsake. They justify their authoritative determining power with economic pragmatics and political necessities. They did this when they created a convict class, when they federated a nation on

the lie of terra nullius, and they continue to do this when they determine that Aboriginal people living on their country is an unsustainable financial burden.

It does not have to be like this.

We can learn to co-exist. Jandamarra began his life with white people by adopting their practices because he saw in them a great worth. But he gave them up, knowing the incredible value of his own society. He would not sacrifice one for the other.

Jandamarra wanted the best of both worlds, and this is still what we strive for today. In achieving this we cannot fail to grasp the deeper meanings of Jandamarra – that we are stronger when we act together. That we make better and smarter decisions when we do it together. When we acknowledge the wonderful, complex worlds of others we embrace our humanity we do not forsake it. This is the journey of reconciliation. In holding Jandamarra close, we can travel this journey with his spirit of fierce resistance, rebelling against all forms of injustice, domination and inequality.

The British Museum’s ‘enduring civilization’ is a powerful step toward honouring our living history. It displays items from the story I have told tonight that tell a greater truth of Aboriginal lives then and now. Both older and present day objects draw attention to the unsettled, and emergent dialogue that is ever unfolding between our Indigenous nation’s claims to self-determination and sovereignty, which we have never relinquished, and the Australian nation-state’s imposed governmental and legislative authority over the entire continent.

It is our triumph that in the heart of London, with the seat of government that once upon a time threatened to demolish us just down the road, that our lives and heritages have come to be displayed through our equal consent and involvement. Stories like Jandamarra prove that we can break the linear confines of history, so our lessons of justice transcend the bounds of time. Death on the frontier, was not the end.

If you have the chance to tour the exhibit, know that the things you are witnessing come from our shared history. Allow them to ignite your imaginations and find within them universal lessons and sentiments of how we can live more vibrant, inclusive and humane lives. Then one day, when we have learnt from our mixed heritage and accepted our equal Indigenous and non-Indigenous nation-hoods, we will be ready for these objects to be returned home. To be kept for prosperity, to exist where they rightfully belong, beside our ancestors as a powerful inheritance for the next generation of our people, born into a strong proud and remarkable civilization. Thank-you.