These stories are real, they did happen, and they provide the deep knowledge and history of what is now called Australia.
The Back to Brewarrina & The Old Mission Elders Gathering was a major component of Looking Through Windows, a research project about the removal, dispossession and ‘protection’ of Aboriginal Peoples in NSW. Over several months during 2017 and 2018, a team of artists and Aboriginal community project officers, led by Dr Lorina Barker, a Wangkumara woman from western NSW and researcher at UNE, conducted art-based workshops for Aboriginal community members — oral history, film-making, photography, music, language and sand drawing. These art-based mediums were tools to record Aboriginal memories, stories and experiences that Elders and community members wanted to share.
At all times, the project prioritised Aboriginal people being in control of their own stories, images, voices and artworks, and being able to control how their story is recorded, represented and in what media.
The research relied on oral history – a millennia long tradition in Indigenous communities, one that is intrinsically woven into Indigenous Peoples’ way of life, history and culture. ‘Indigenous people live it every day,’ writes Lorina, ‘it is a part of who we are, where we come from and who we are related to.’ Oral traditions determine the interconnectedness of Indigenous Peoples to land and water, rivers and skies, and to all living and inanimate things, in both the natural and spiritual worlds. These are living stories. For Indigenous researchers, oral history is an inherent and innate way of recounting the past, and for sharing cultural knowledge and history in the present so that it can be passed on to the next generation and to the generations to come.
Within the field of oral history, Indigenous oral histories have been, for the most part, dismissed as mere traditions, made up of myths and legends. However the ground-breaking empirical research by UNE researchers Patrick Nunn and Nicholas Reid (Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More Than 7000 Years Ago, (2016)) has tested and proven that Indigenous oral histories can be dated to at least 7000 years ago, to when Indigenous Australians witnessed the last glacial Ice Age. This research confirms what Indigenous Peoples have always known: that these stories are real, they did happen, and they provide the deep knowledge and history of what is now called Australia.
The material collected during the Back to Brewarrina & The Old Mission Elders Gathering culminated in a series of exhibitions across NSW. Looking Through Windows was a multi-media exhibition held at the New England Regional Art Museum in late 2017. The exhibition explored the removal, dispossession and ‘protection’ of Aboriginal People in New England and Northwest regions of NSW. Combining artwork, oral histories, language, music, film and photography, the exhibition captures stories of what it was like to live ‘under the Act’ on missions, reserves and on the fringes of society. To share experience of removal to places like the Cootamundra Girls Home or the Kinchella Boys Home. Together, old art forms and new technologies show how language, culture and histories can be preserved, reclaimed and passed on to new generations. For the Looking Through Windows project, Aboriginal Elders and community members gathered together to share stories, to reconnect to family, to Country and to begin or to complete their journey of healing from the legacy of inter–generational trauma of removal. These gatherings provide a culturally safe place to listen to Elders and community members’ stories. ‘In doing this,’ Lorina says, ‘we are Looking Through Windows into the past, only to see our stories reflected back at us.’ The project invites Aboriginal Peoples to look at themselves, their experiences, and their present — to rediscover, reclaim and reconnect to their history