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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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The First Australians

Special report

Produced by Aboriginal filmmakers and over six years in the making, the forthcoming television series First Australians chronicles contemporary Australia from the perspective of its first people, Indigenous Australians. The series is supported by a website, an educational DVD, a CD soundtrack and a hard-cover pictorial book.

Often, Australia’s written history has left out Indigenous experiences and perspectives, focusing instead on non-Indigenous constructions of taming a ‘savage land’. When acknowledged, Indigenous peoples were usually summarised as ‘the Aborigines’, rather than being identified and respected for their diverse cultural practices and linguistic backgrounds. More recently, attempts have been made to change this approach. A core group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers, writers and historians have expanded this limited perspective by meticulously scouring records, compiling oral histories and publishing their analyses of events. The filmmakers of First Australians have drawn extensively from their work.

First Australians encompasses seven episodes.

Episode 1
: New South Wales 1788–1824 

The first Australians and the British, from the most powerful empire in history, come face to face in Sydney on January 26, 1788. Their differences are immense but apprehension quickly turns to curiosity. Friendships form, some between powerful men such as Governor Arthur Phillip and the Aboriginal Bennelong. However, uneasy relations turn to bloodshed as settlers spread out across the land.

Episode 2
: Tasmania 1825–1860 

The land grab moves south to Tasmania. It takes only about one generation to exterminate nearly all of the 6,000 people living in nine tribal groups in the island state. In an effort to stop the bloodshed, an idea is formed to remove the Aboriginal Tasmanians from the island. The Government enlists an Englishman, George Robinson, for the job and he is helped by a young Aboriginal woman, Truganini, who hopes to save her people. The promise of a safe spot on Tasmania is broken and Truganini has no power to save her people from ethnic cleansing. Truganini became known as the last Tasmanian Aboriginal. In fact, many pockets of Aboriginal people remain, including women who opted to become sealers’ wives and others who melted into white society.

Episode 3
: Victoria 1860–1890

With Tasmania conquered, the land grab moves to Victoria. In 30 years, the Indigenous population is reduced from 60,000 to 2,000. Wurundjeri clan leader Simon Wonga seeks land from the authorities. He soon gives up and leads his people to the banks of the Yarra River, claiming a parcel of land known as Coranderrk. With the help of a Scottish preacher, and inspired by the farming practices of the settlers, the community prospers – until the authorities step in and resist self-determination.

Aboriginal reserves could have become places where first Australians prospered, then proudly carried their differences into the world outside, but paternalism, politics and power struggles lead to the opportunity being lost.

Episode 4: Southern and Central Australia 1878–1897 

The introduction of a telegraph line brings missionaries looking for souls. They cause cracks in the Arrernte nation by bribing the first Australians into becoming Christians with food and shelter. Once the elders understand that this is religious warfare and begin to resist, the missionaries concentrate their efforts on the children.

Then there is the much more devastating battle for land and water. Backed by pastoralists and isolated from the white authorities, the police officer Constable Willshire brings murder and mayhem to the Arrernte nation until the telegraph operator, Frank Gillen, stands up to him. Gillen and scientist Baldwin Spencer leave detailed records of the Arrernte people’s way of life. Gillen calls their religion 'the dreaming'.

Episode 5: Western Australia 1897–1937 

The Kimberley region is the final frontier to be conquered. One man stands in the way: Jandamarra, a native policeman who turns on his sergeant and begins a rebellion that keeps the cattlemen at bay. When Jandamarra is finally hunted and killed, the continent is conquered. The Chief Protector of Aborigines, AO Neville, conceives of an idea to breed out colour to make the ‘problem’ of the First Australians disappear. His idea becomes national policy. It takes the government some 70 years to admit this policy was wrong and make an apology to the people whose families it destroyed: the Stolen Generations.

Episode 6: South-Eastern Australia 1937–1967 

Across the continent, the First Australians are governed by ‘protective legislation’ which binds them to reserves and controls their wages, residency and ability to marry and travel.

Yorta Yorta man William Cooper forms the Australian Aborigines League in 1933 to continue his lifelong campaign for equality. Two nephews also become political animals: Jack Patten and Doug Nichols, a Church of Christ pastor who becomes a champion for those affected by the Maralinga nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. A pan-Aboriginal identity is born as a national campaign gains momentum. The campaign culminates in an overwhelmingly successful referendum which coincides with growing international Black consciousness. Finally, it seems change is in sight.

Episode 7: Queensland and the Torres Straits 1967–1992

An unresolved land dispute once again becomes the centre of the battleground, but this time it is taken to the streets as a protest movement. Eddie Koiki Mabo fights for Australian law to recognise that his people own Murray Island, where they have lived for generations. In 1992, six months after his death and a decade after the statement of claim was first lodged in Queensland, the highest court in the land decides in Mabo’s favour. The outcome overturns Terra Nullius (the notion that the land belonged to no one at the time of white settlement).

First Australians tells history through individual experience. It is a loosely chronological story of significant Indigenous Australians whose lives could be pieced together from the records. In telling their individual stories, the filmmakers hope to illuminate the wider story of the Indigenous experience.

The series premieres on SBS on Sunday, October 12 at 8.30 pm.

Additional resources

The companion website to the series, www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralians, features each episode, plus a great deal else. Over six hours of video are organised into 215 ‘mini-documentaries’, making up an interactive journey across time and key historical events. The site also includes thousands of archival images sourced from institutions across the nation and the world, together with interactive upload and 'remix'  features which allow users to provide their own content (a video, an image, an audio item, or simply a text story) and create their own historical timelines to email to a friend, embed on their website or display on their social network profile page.

Study guides on each episode of the series are being prepared by the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM). The guides can be downloaded from the ATOM website at http://www.metromagazine.com.au/studyguides/study.asp


Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples