Archives, cultural sensitivity and copyright: the publishing of Letters from Aboriginal Women of Victoria 1867-1926

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Author: Bryony Cosgrove
Date: Annual 2014
From: Melbourne Historical Journal(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,860 words
Lexile Measure: 1730L

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Correspondence from Aboriginal women in Victoria to the authorities who directed their lives, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, is filed in the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA) archives, held jointly in the Victorian Archives Centre by the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV) and the National Archives of Australia (NAA). These articulate and broad-ranging letters, written by women educated on missions and reserves, form part of a collection that provides nuance and detail for an era of white invasion, dispossession and control. The correspondence belies what might easily be assumed to be an almost total silence of Aboriginal women's voices from this period, an assumption that persists because the letters have been referenced only sparingly, and even then mainly in the context of political protest only. (1) The publication in 2002 of a selection of these letters in the collected volume Letters from Aboriginal Women of Victoria 1867-1926, edited by Elizabeth Nelson, Sandra Smith and Patricia Grimshaw, sought to address this neglect and to broaden the scope of their relevance. (2) However, the editing, annotating and contextualising of the letters proved complex and was affected by issues of cultural sensitivity, copyright and the publication process itself. The book has been out of print for over a decade and copies are now difficult to find. (3) It is rarely cited by other historians working in this field. (4) Yet this accessible and well-structured collection offers a way into an extensive and problematic archive, providing further depth and adding private voices to Indigenous Australian histories. Letters was a book ahead of its time in scope and in its emphasis on collaboration. It is deserving of republication and proper acknowledgement.

Letters are unique and sensitive historical artefacts, and should be valued for what they are as well as what they contain. In published collections, they acquire a coherent narrative structure that emphasises the writer's voice as much as the content of the letter. Having edited a collection myself, I am mindful of the need to remain true to the original material while also rendering it accessible for the reader. (5) This collection makes a valuable contribution to a complex and confronting period in Australian history, alongside explorers' and squatters' diaries and letters, missionaries' papers, the writings of ethnographers, and records from colonial and federal government bodies and parliamentary enquiries. These letters, in their eloquence and persistence, are an important Indigenous record in a largely European archive. They reveal resourcefulness, resilience, tenacity and emotional strength in these women's negotiations from an unequal position with white (male) authorities. The women, variously, sent letters to the Chief Secretary, to missionaries and station managers, local guardians, family members, newspaper editors, police, Members of Parliament, and the Governor of Victoria. (6) The period covered by the letters crosses key dates, including the establishment in the colony of Victoria of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines and the passing of the Aboriginal Protection Act in 1869, (7) the Aborigines' Protection Act in 1886 (which...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A394113317