This paper will discuss preliminary findings of a new collaborative research project between historians and the Noongar community in Western Australia. ‘Ancestors’ Words’ aims to recover and analyse West Australian Aboriginal writing “captured” in the archives. The focus of research is on the Noongar people of the southwest of Western Australia whose writing predominates in the archives for the period of study: 1860s -1960s.These invaluable documents hold the words of Aboriginal people representing their concerns and interests to government agencies. They show the writers negotiating survival and challenging the status quo, drawing on Aboriginal values, justice and human rights frames and transnational networks. Working closely with a Noongar advisory group, research and community conversations aims to reveal the hidden activism in the archive, restoring silenced Noongar stories to the documents, and families, and promoting decolonization of the WA archive.
A challenge for Aboriginal researchers has been the archive’s subjectivity; so many archival documents speak from the voice of a European and state archives have ‘incommensurable ontologies’ of archival and Indigenous knowledge, as shown by academics and activists such as Lynette Russell , Mick Gooda and Steve Kinnane. These letters reveal strong examples of Noongar people expressing their stories and claims in their own words.
Tiffany Shellam lectures in History at Deakin University. She is currently involved in two projects: ‘Ancestors’ Words: Noongar writing in WA government archives, 1860-1960’; and ‘Collecting the West: How collections create Western Australia’. She is also writing a book on Aboriginal intermediaries and Royal Navy expeditions to the north-west coast of Australia, to be published by UWAP in 2018.