Writing Indigenous Histories Now

Miranda Johnson has an article in the current Australian Historical Studies. Her piece, ‘Writing Indigenous Histories Now’, is part of a forum on Settler Colonialism. She responds to Tim Rowse’s thesis in his leading article, ‘Indigenous Heterogeneity’: that a dominant settler colonialism paradigm emphasising a singular logic of elimination both fails to account for the differentiated experiences of settler colonisation, and narrows the possibilities of histories written within it.

Miranda points to recent historical scholarship of Indigenous pasts in Australasia and North America and shows that these fields are progressive, creative, and powerfully heterogeneous.

‘Indigenous heterogeneity’, I would like to suggest, is in fact being grappled with by historians and anthropologists writing in the context of settler colonialism in North America and Australasia. Historical scholars are considering the diversity of Indigenous pasts: I examine five new historiographical directions in explication of this point. Beginning with the writing of Indigenous histories in ‘unexpected places’, as Philip Deloria puts it, notably but not exclusively cityscapes, I take ‘heterogeneity’ to refer not only to Indigenous peoples’ cultural and historical difference, but also to the different ways of writing history that Indigenous peoples’ pasts and presents in settler countries such as the United States, New Zealand, and Australia have prompted. These include a deep engagement with the practice of oral history and family history. The second new direction I examine is significant revisions in more ‘expected’ histories of Indigenous peoples, particularly the effects of the imposition of settler law on collective life. I highlight new work in legal history that demonstrates the ways in which Indigenous peoples engage with law as well as being subjectified by it, and the new stories that arise from that engagement. Third, I turn to other domains in which the engagement by Indigenous peoples with key national institutions is leading scholars to rethink the formation of the settler state. I call these historical endeavours ‘hyphenated histories’, which emphasise relations of interdependency between Indigenous peoples and the state, albeit in contexts of sharp asymmetry. Where ‘hyphenated histories’ emphasise engagement, pushing us to revise our understanding of the effectiveness of Indigenous agency even at the regional or national level, other historians have written firmly in a tradition of ‘counter-history’ in which they carefully examine the resistance and autonomy of Indigenous peoples in the wake of invasive and intrusive colonisation. I focus in particular on the work and reception of the late Judith Binney, a proponent of the practice of ‘juxtaposition’ in writing tribal histories of Māori in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally and in brief, I turn to very recent history-writing that turns away from the settler state almost entirely and demonstrates how we might think about Indigenous histories in interaction with very different geographies and communities. These new routes being taken in research challenge the extant moral and territorial frameworks for telling Indigenous histories, frameworks that for so long have been determined by the dominant history of the settler nation.

Miranda Johnson, ‘Writing Indigenous Histories Now’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 43, Issue 3 (2014), p. 317.