Learning history from Indigenous viewpoint crucial to truth-telling

For most of my life, I have dedicated my work to the Yorta Yorta struggle for land justice, cultural control and Indigenous self-determination.

From my time as a principal claimant in the Yorta Yorta native title claim in 1994-2002 and many decades of taking students on Country to learn about our history and resilience as a people, I have remained passionate about truth, caring for Country and bringing others on that journey.

Dr Wayne Atkinson is a Yorta Yorta/Dja Dja Wurrung traditional owner and one of the commissioners for the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

But for every non-Aboriginal Victorian I have shared my knowledge with, there are countless others who continue to believe a false, or only a partial, history of our people.

I often refer to this in my teachings as “knowledge deprivation”. That is, it’s hard to know the proper history when you have been deprived of the real story. One can easily overcome that, however, by learning the history from the Indigenous viewpoint.

This is why truth-telling and truth-listening to the full story are such important processes for all Australians to enjoy. We need to tell our stories and share our histories, and work to ensure those accurate histories are embedded in government policy and at all levels of the education system.

As a commissioner for the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (Yoo-rrook is the Wemba Wemba word for “truth”), I am both proud and honoured to be at the forefront of this process for Victoria’s First Peoples. The gravity of this moment in history is one that I take seriously. In my role, I will continue to work for all First Peoples on our path to self-determination, particularly in the commission’s strategic focus areas of understanding, truth-telling and transformative justice.

I decided to get involved in Victoria’s truth and justice process because I felt I had a contribution to make in ensuring that Victoria’s true history is told. The multidisciplinary knowledge I have accumulated over many years is well-suited to the work of Yoo-rrook. We must, and will, work towards amplifying community and Elders’ voices.

When I talk to my fellow Victorians, I share the histories and cultures of my ancestors as it helps them gain a true understanding of Country and what actually took place here before and after the impact of colonisation. But sharing my knowledge one-on-one can only go so far towards addressing the false histories that have been told about our people for centuries. I’m hoping that will change through the important work of Yoo-rrook.

In understanding our teaching history, I try to avoid making judgments about non-Aboriginal people lacking knowledge or being unaware of our rich and diverse history. I’m painfully aware that most Australians have been born into a system which has failed to educate the general population on the true historic and continued occupation, enjoyment and connections with ancestral lands.

That is no excuse, however, for lacking knowledge and it is important we do something about this together for the future. The main aim of Yoo-rrook is to examine past and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria in all areas of life since colonisation.

Yoo-rrook aims to commence a public conversation on the true history and it will make recommendations for future reforms that will see Victoria prosper and celebrate the rich diversity of First Nations cultures in this state. As Australia’s first truth and justice commission, I am committed to these aspirations as achievable outcomes.

Last week, we announced the Yoo-rrook Strategic Priorities which clearly sets out how we will work and our priority areas of work until June 30, 2022. One of our priorities is to honour our First Peoples’ Elders and preserve their knowledge which is of vital importance to retaining histories and cultures for future generations. It is for this reason Yoo-rrook wishes to first hear from Elders and others with vulnerabilities as our priority, to ensure we capture their contribution to Yoo-rrook.

While confronting past injustices may be traumatising for many people in our Community, it is a crucial step to healing. We want to reassure all First Peoples and other Victorians that creating an environment for listening and healing is our priority; and that our data sovereignty will not be compromised. This is critical to our work in achieving truth and justice for Victoria.

Through the Yoo-rrook process, we will uncover our state’s true histories and gain a shared frame of reference through which we can all view and appreciate the histories of our Country. This shared understanding will allow us to raise a new generation of First Peoples and other Victorians who can view our histories through the same lens, breaking a harmful cycle that has lasted for generations.

Yoo-rrook will bring to light past and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples and importantly highlight that despite this history, our strength, resilience, compassion, connection to kin and country and our sense of humour prevail. This is a step forward for our state and for our people. We can only heal Country through uncovering the truth, and that is what we are commissioned to do in Victoria.

Dr Wayne Atkinson is a Yorta Yorta/Dja Dja Wurrung traditional owner and commissioner for the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission.

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