Memoir

Writing back

A letter to Samuel Griffith from his great-great-grandson

SIR SAMUEL GRIFFITH was my great-great grandfather. He was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Australian Federation, a premier of Queensland, the first Chief Justice of Australia and intimately involved in drafting the Australian Constitution. This literary journal bears his name. Other ancestors of mine participated in the frontier wars in North Queensland to brutally claim, ‘settle’ and defend their occupation of Aboriginal lands. In response to the urging of Aboriginal colleagues, I wrote a series of letters to these ancestors for the book Unsettling Australian Histories: Letters to ancestry from a great-great-grandson (2020). The letters in this book also include contributions from Aboriginal Australians and Australian South Sea Islanders in order to articulate and honour First Nations resistances and reclamations. My hope is that these letters – created through cross-cultural friendships and partnerships – engage with the past in ways that foster action in the present.

Now, as Griffith Review reckons with its own connections to colonial authority, I find myself drawn to write a further letter to my ancestry.

Dear Samuel,

You’ll remember that I started writing to you twenty years ago when Jane Lester, an Yangkunytjatjara/Antikirinya woman, challenged me to connect with my ancestors. I was sitting in Jane’s kitchen and we’d just finished working together on a speech that she was soon to give – a speech called ‘Coming home’. It told the story of the impact of the stolen generations on her family and powerfully described many acts of reclamation and reconnection that Jane had been undertaking to link generations and to provide her children with knowledge of their heritage.

Early in her speech, Jane said:

My father was stolen. He was part of the stolen generation. His forty or so first cousins were also stolen. They made up one entire mission home. They weren’t allowed to talk their language; they weren’t allowed to eat bush tucker. They were removed a thousand miles from their Country so that they couldn’t be brought back home… [My grandmother] lost seven of her children; that’s all the children she had. She lost each and every one in four different batches of abduction… Even though she’s not living physically she’s still there in spirit. We can be honouring of her by honouring the blood connection we have, and by being able to sit on the land that she walked.

Jane described many acts of reclamation and ended with words of resurgence:

Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Indigenous cultures in the world. It has survived for so long. It was fragmented in a very short space of time, but people are now going back to where they come from. We are finding ways of addressing the cultural homelessness that has been imposed upon us. We must continue to find ways in which we can come home to our culture, to our land and families. Everyone will do this in a different way, to a different degree, but there is, I believe, a strong wave happening across the country. We are coming back home. We are reconnecting with our spirit places. Stories of homecoming are being told across the land. There is a resurgence happening and it will change this country.

I was overcome by both the sorrow and the extraordinary reclamations of which Jane spoke. It was then, over a cup of tea, that Jane turned to me and said, ‘If I am speaking about my family histories, my ancestries, and we are working together on this, then I think you should also be speaking about yours.’

At this point, I stumbled a little; I don’t remember exactly what I said. Perhaps something like, ‘But the stories of my family are so very different. My father was not forcibly removed from his family and nor were his siblings or his cousins. In fact, in many ways, the histories of my family could not be more different.’

Jane was persistent.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘many differences. But some things are the same. Neither of us would be alive if not for the actions of our ancestors.’

My doubts remained. Jane did not know much about my ancestry at this time. She did not know that you, Samuel Griffith, were my great-great-grandfather. She didn’t know of your intimate involvement in drafting the Australian Constitution that imposed foreign law over the hills and valleys, creeks and rivers of this continent, nor that you later became the first Chief Justice of Australia – the most senior white Law Man.

Nor could Jane know that other ancestors of mine – the Annings – had invaded and defended their occupation of Aboriginal lands in what is now known as North Queensland and the Northern Territory. They participated intimately in frontier war killings.

These histories were swirling around us unspoken as we sipped our tea and Jane continued: ‘If you are not connected with your ancestors, if you are not honouring of them, then it won’t be possible for me to trust you, for us to work together.’

‘But what if my ancestors’ actions caused profound harm to your people?’ I asked.

‘You must still find a way to connect with them, to acknowledge them. You will find a way.’

And with those words began a journey. While I held many doubts, Jane didn’t seem to have any. That morning she conveyed some sort of knowing that was comforting, compelling and challenging.

As I reflected on how little I knew of my own family histories – and how they might link to events in this nation’s past – I made a quiet vow to trace those histories in the hope that in future conversations with Jane and others, the stories I discovered could in some way be linked and shared with theirs.

 

AND SO I went searching. I sifted through historic correspondence, news­paper clippings, diaries and memoirs. This search brought profound sorrow and much more: it changed my sense of place and even my sense of time. Warraimaay historian Victoria Grieve-Williams describes Aboriginal conceptions of time in this way:

You’ve probably heard of the expression, ‘everywhen’. This is the way that Aboriginal people perceive time. Western-educated people have the past, the present and the future. For Aboriginal people, these are all together. It’s everywhen. We have our lives we are living now, we’re in normal time, but eternal time is running along beside us; it’s always there and occasionally there are eruptions of eternal time into the present. And people with knowledge understand those eruptions.

Samuel, this concept of ‘everywhen’ has changed my relationship with you.

Throughout my search for you, I would return to Jane’s words. She seemed to be imploring me, and other non-Indigenous Australians, not to forget the past, not to turn our backs on our ancestors, but instead to remember you, to reconnect with your actions, their effects and their ongoing legacies. This is, I believe, a most generous invitation, because perhaps through this process we will come home to our own histories.

Within many First Nations cultures, within rich oral traditions, speaking about and to ancestry is a familiar practice. From what I can tell, people from such oral traditions are often highly skilled in telling stories that, while personal, also explore collective histories and responsibilities. Within my own culture, I was not familiar with ways of ‘speaking with’ ancestry, so I was relieved when feminist publisher Cheryl White suggested that I write to you.

Samuel, I can still recall the first letter I wrote to you: I read it aloud at an outdoor event here in Adelaide. On that day, we were welcomed by Kaurna Elder Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien; children from Kaurna Plains School sang in language; Jane Lester gave her powerful speech; and then I spoke to you across time.

Twenty years on, there is now a wider reckoning taking place. When I began writing to you, your name was uttered in the public sphere only in reverential terms. Your accomplishments were highlighted: your brilliance as a student (graduating from university at eighteen with first class honours in classics, mathematics and natural science), as a lawyer (rewriting the Queensland Criminal Code and drafting the Australian Constitution) and as premier and Chief Justice. Now, however, the university named after you is trying to work out how to respond to the colonial violence in which you were profoundly implicated. This journal that carries your name has rewritten its brief description of your life. And a historian I profoundly respect, Henry Reynolds, has called for wider action in reconsidering the actions and legacies of some of Australia’s prominent colonial figures.

These are public reckonings with your life.

 

WHAT A STRANGE place I now find myself in. This correspondence, which began twenty years ago as a personal engagement sparked over a cup of tea, now sees me – unexpectedly – invited into a broader public conversation. I don’t think I have any special part to play in this public reckoning. It seems to me that it ought to be the descendants of those most affected by the actions of your public life who determine how the stories of those times are told. I have no interest in publicly defending or publicly condemning you.

What Jane asked me to do was something different, and it’s to her invitation that I continually return: ‘You must find a way to connect with your ancestors, to honour them. You will find a way.’

Jane was right, you know. I have now found ways to relate to these histories. Over time, I have realised that there is no sense in moral superiority towards my ancestry because colonial violence in this country has not ended. There’s no place for hopelessness because First Nations resistance has never wavered. And there’s no time for paralysing shame because invitations to form partnerships are still being offered – if only we are open to them – and there is so much to be done.

Samuel, the cultural continuities of colonial violence are perhaps most apparent in the contemporary operations of police and prisons: the criminal injustice system. But ‘traces of history’ (as historian Patrick Wolfe has called them) are also present within current education systems, in what is referred to as the ‘child protection’ system and in many other realms, including the ‘mental health’ field in which I work. Tragically, psychological colonisation remains pervasive. All too often, psychological professionals apply pathological diagnoses from Western psychiatric texts created in the Global North to the lives of people of the Global South.

In recognising that neither colonisation nor colonial violence have ended – and that each day, as writer and academic Chelsea Watego puts it, is ‘another day in the Colony’ – I reckon my responsibilities involve taking action in the present. But not independent action. Instead, forming partnerships with First Nations friends and colleagues to redress current injustices that are in some way linked to ancestral legacies has become my calling. These partnerships are influenced by the ideas of Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese and the Just Therapy Team from Aotearoa New Zealand, who have

developed partnerships across issues of culture and gender… These are partnerships that are based on values of humility, respect, sacredness, reciprocity and love. They are also based on structures of accountability…we have found it helpful to agree to creative forms of accountability that address our…histories and consequent biases.

Samuel, it’s hard to convey what these collaborations mean to me. While you worked within the institution of law, my sphere of influence is within a different realm – within the fields and institutions of mental health.

The field of narrative therapy and community work, of which I am a part, seeks to provide an anti-colonial alternative to mainstream Western psychology. Initially developed by non-Indigenous Australian Michael White and Pākehā New Zealander David Epston, narrative therapy has been embraced and transformed by First Nations practitioners. The first Aboriginal narrative therapy book – Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger (2001) was written by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester. A more recent book, Yarning with a purpose: First Nations narrative practice (2020), contains hopeful stories from across the continent.

Narrative counsellors and community workers enable people to name their sufferings in their own words and terms rather than through the lexicon of psychiatry. As Aboriginal narrative therapist Tileah Drahm-Butler describes, this is a first step in ‘decolonising identity stories’ and re-authoring lives.

Narrative therapists do not pathologise or cast people, families or communities as problems and they refuse to claim knowledge about what is ‘healing’, ‘healthy’ or constitutes a ‘good life’ for others. In turning away from interpreting, evaluating or correcting the lives of others, narrative practitioners engage in a particular curiosity. This is a curiosity that resurrects local knowledges and skills of living that can be brought to bear on local problems. No matter the degree of hardship people are enduring, they will be responding to the situations they are in. There will be initiatives they are taking, and skills and knowledges they are using, to try to reduce or redress the harm and/or to care for and protect others. By exploring how the skills and knowledges of people enduring hardships can make contributions to the lives of others, the person is transformed from being considered the problem: instead, the problem is the problem, and the solution becomes not only personal. Stories are shared back and forth between communities so people can assist one another in dealing with current hardships.

Samuel, the idea is to refuse to impose expert knowledge and instead to honour and richly describe local knowledge – to facilitate what Michel Foucault described as ‘an insurrection of local knowledges’.

I think you can probably see why I am writing about this to you. If colonial violence continues to operate through the different professions and institutions of which we are a part, then one of our contemporary challenges is to create alternatives. Narrative practice seeks to provide an anti-colonial alternative to mainstream psychologising.

Aunty Barbara Wingard, the most influential Aboriginal narrative practitioner, managed to retire a couple of years ago – after many attempts! Before she did, she created a walking history journey around the Dulwich Centre, where I work in Adelaide. Her daughter and grandson recorded her stories so that people can now listen to them whenever they choose.

Samuel, I wish we could take this walking history journey together. I wish we could stand beside the table on which the Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas. See the building where the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement was started. Hear the stories of Kaurna language reclamation. While colonial violence continues across the country, so too does resistance and reclamation.

I also wish we could discuss this edition of Griffith Review. It’s an edition that is reckoning with your past – and this new nation’s past – and our present. One person involved in its curation is Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer Teela Reid. Teela continually highlights the colonial continuities of the current Australian legal system and was a key figure in developing the Uluru Statement from the Heart during a collective process that imbued it with unprecedented cultural authority.

Teela has described what it was like to be part of this process:

the heartache and triumph of centuries of Blak activism was captured through a cross-section of the First Nations community working towards a better future based on truth and justice and self-determination. The phrase ‘Our sovereignty has never been ceded’ echoed across the rooms, and the pulse of a people forever intertwined with this ancient land was palpable. It felt like our last chance to offer hope to a country that is simply not listening to the lore of the land.

Rather than advocating wholesale changes to the text of the Constitution you drafted, the Uluru Statement from the Heart proposes something different:

the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution; a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations; and truth-telling about our history.

Three profound invitations.

Samuel, in your time, you and other political leaders had expansive vision. You imagined the Federation before it came into being. You forecast the creation of a nation state and demonstrated the leadership to bring it into being. There were real hazards in these expansive visions, but their audacity offers a contrast to the meagre visions of our current political leaders.

What did they do in response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart? Well, having established a process to explore constitutional recognition and having requested that Indigenous people consult over its direction, they then dismissed the core tenet of enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution. This act of callous, racialised violence had little justification other than that the Voice was not seen by the government as desirable or capable of winning acceptance at a referendum. Samuel, sometimes our people’s banal brutality in the present shocks me more than the horrors of our collective past.

Fortunately, the First Nations people of this land are wise. As Arrernte/Kalkadoon writer and filmmaker Rachel Perkins explained:

The one thing we have learnt is not to give these statements to the government. They haven’t earned the respect to receive them. When they rise to the aspirations in the Uluru Statement, then it may be given to them.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was not addressed to political leaders; it was addressed to the Australian people. So it is up to us to embrace it and accept its offer of partnership. And as I write this letter, efforts continue to bring the Voice to life.

 

IN THIS, SAMUEL, it may surprise you that I take comfort from your words during the National Australasian Convention Debates of 1891:

Sir SAMUEL GRIFFITH: We have to devise a constitution that will work, that will have within its bounds sufficient scope to allow of any developments…it is well to have a constitution so elastic as to allow of any necessary development that may take place.
Mr DEAKIN: Capable of being amended!
Sir SAMUEL GRIFFITH: Everything is capable of being amended.

Your words echo down the ages.

Clearly, you expected us – your descendants – to see what you could not see in your time and to amend what needs to be amended. I appreciate the trust you showed in us. I hope we live up to it. That is what it means to me to honour ancestry: to form partnerships in the present to redress what you could not see.

And future generations? If any descendants down the track take steps to form partnerships to redress the harms that I and my generation are doing now? Well, Samuel, I would feel only gratitude and respect. I hope that is the same for you.

Yours sincerely,

Your great-great-grandson

David

References

Aunty Barb History Journey, https://vimeopro.com/user5404188/aunty-barb-history-journey

Denborough, David, Unsettling Australian Histories: Letters to ancestry from a great-great-grandson, Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Foundation.

Denborough, D, Koolmatrie, C, Mununggirritj, D, Marika, D, Dhurrkay, W and Yunupingu, M (2006), ‘Linking stories and initiatives: A narrative approach to working with the skills and knowledge of communities’, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 2, 19–51, https://dulwichcentre.com.au/linking-stories-and-initiatives.pdf

Drahm-Butler, Tileah (2015), ‘Decolonising identity stories: Narrative practice through Aboriginal eyes’, in Aboriginal Narrative Practice: Honouring storylines of price, strength and creativity, by Barbara Wingard, Carolynanha Johnson and Tileah Drahm-Butler, Adelaide: Dulwich Centre, 25–46.

Lester, Jane (2000), ‘Coming home: the voices of the day’, Dulwich Centre Journal, No. 1&2.

Kiwi Tamasese, Taimalieutu (2000), ‘Talking about culture and gender: An interview with Kiwi Tamasese’, in Working with the Stories of Women’s Lives, Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 18.

Mayor, Thomas (2019), Finding the Heart of the Nation, Melbourne: Explore.

Official report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, 4 March 1891, Sydney.

Referendum Council, Final Report, 1.

Reid, Teela (2020), ‘2020: The year of reckoning, not reconciliation – It’s time to show up’, Griffith Review, https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/2020-year-of-reckoning/

‘Thinking the country’ (2019), Victoria Grieve-Williams on ABC-RN’s The Philosopher’s Zone, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/thinking-the-country/11278558, 7 July 2019.

Watego, Chelsea (2021), Another Day in the Colony, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Wolfe, Patrick (2016), Traces of history: Elementary structures of race, London: Verso.

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