Miranda Must Go a year on

Solidarity is hard work; it requires critical self-reflection and a commitment to action on the part of the settler population. Coming to grips with colonial privilege by acknowledging the role that us as settlers play in the maintenance of empire must be seen as a necessary aspect of the struggle to decolonise not only ourselves, but our communities and our institutions and this country.

Sina Brown-Davis, anti-colonial activist

On collective responsibility and memory work

The Miranda Must Go campaign launched a year ago. In this post, I want to reflect on how in this short period, a white vanishing myth’s inextricable link with Hanging Rock has begun to be dismantled and why non-Aboriginal people have a responsibility to tell the truth about Australia’s history of violent occupation.

Miranda Must Go’s aim from its inception has been to contest the dominant association at Hanging Rock with Picnic at Hanging Rock, a story of disappearing white schoolgirls. What is objectionable is that this fiction, that masquerades as truth, elicits more consideration and feeling in most Australians than the actual Aboriginal losses and “disappearances” that occurred in the region as a result of colonisation.

Encouragingly over the year, Miranda Must Go has attracted a wide range of supporters, substantial media coverage, and most significantly, some perceptible shifts in Hanging Rock’s narrative. There is evidence that some Australians are no longer comfortable blithely celebrating Hanging Rock’s white lost-in-the-bush myth. Accompanying this is a heightened attentiveness to the repression of troubling colonial histories in the Macedon Ranges region.

An indication of the campaign’s effect is that in 2017 Miranda Must Go has troubled and undercut the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Picnic at Hanging Rock’s publication. As opposed to previous years, references to the fictional story have often included a recognition of Hanging Rock’s Aboriginal and colonial histories. Some examples include:

  • In events or reports celebrating Picnic at Hanging Rock people have been mindful to acknowledge the traditional owners of Hanging Rock, the site’s “rich and tragic Indigenous history” and concede that Joan Lindsay’s renowned novel has participated “in the history of settler fiction, of violent dispossession being unrecognised, of cultural forgetting”. Commentators have also remarked on the incongruity of “obsessing over the ghosts of fictional white girls and forgetting the ghosts of real Aboriginal people”.
  • A blog post published by the National Library of Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock: 6 Suprising Things You May Not Know, notes the “success of the novel and Peter Weir’s movie overwrote the ‘true history’ of the area around Hanging Rock”. The library has also added posters and the website from the Miranda Must Go campaign to their collection.
  • Artists, writers and film critics are reassessing their attachment to the Picnic at Hanging Rock novel and film, asserting that Miranda Must Go “is a reminder that it matters what stories we tell”. Gomeroi poet, Alison Whittaker, offered an alternative perspective on the Hanging Rock myth in the prize winning poem, “Many Girls White Linen“. 
  • Miranda Must Go has been reported on extensively in news articles, radio programs and television segments, including a feature as part of the ABC’s Australia Wide program (starts in the link at 21:50). When the documentary series “David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema” was released on ABC iView, the Australia Wide story, which included interviews with Hanging Rock’s traditional owners, accompanied the series as an online extra.
  • Mary-Anne Thomas, MP Member for Macedon, has endorsed Miranda Must Go, contending that more acknowledgement should be given to the history of dispossession of Aboriginal people, and its devastating impact, in the region.
  • The Picnic at Hanging Rock Wikipedia page now includes a mention of the Miranda Must Go campaign.
  • The Macedon Ranges Shire Council will hold “a dance flash mob” in February 2018 at Hanging Rock to celebrate 50 years of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The event, called “Too Many Mirandas”, encourages local people to dress up as the novel’s main character “Miranda”. The blurb for the event, however, also includes a striking apologia that acknowledges that the region has been significant to the “Dja Dja Wurrung, Taunguraung and Wurundjery [sic] […] for many centuries”. The council concedes that: “Stories of being lost in the wilderness are indicative of the European migrant settler narrative. They were uncertain and naive about the Australian landscape. This was in stark contrast to the traditional owners who had lived harmoniously with the land for centuries”. Organiser, Arts and Culture officer of the Macedon Ranges Shire Council, Robyn Till has also indicated the event will be opened by a joint Welcome to Country ceremony involving all three traditional owner groups.
  • [UPDATE 13/2/2018] Malthouse Theatre will show a return season of Tom Wright’s adaptation of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in February this year. The Malthouse blog has posted an article reflecting on the Dja Dja Wurrung, Yung Balug perspective on Hanging Rock, with producer Jason Tamiru writing: “After speaking to family, the rightful name of Hanging Rock is Ngannelong. Picnic at Ngannelong. The truth is my people were hit hard during the frontier wars. The Western region is known to us as the Killing Fields. The naming of the Rock is with all those that come in my dreams. Australia is starting to learn that there is a black history in this country that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated”.

There is also sign that the shift in sensitivities may lead to infrastructural changes at Hanging Rock. In the Macedon Ranges Shire Council’s “Draft Hanging Rock Master Plan Options Paper”, circulated for feedback in August 2017, it was acknowledged that recognition of Hanging Rock’s important cultural significance for Aboriginal people was limited at the site. The paper also noted that “further study and collaboration with the traditional owner groups in the area is required and highly recommended”.

Whilst these changes demonstrate a discernible and welcome shift in the discourse concerning Hanging Rock, these symbolic acknowledgements are not sufficient nor has the colonial legacy or decolonial future of the site been adequately parsed. Meanwhile in 2018, not only will the council hold a flash mob Miranda dance at Hanging Rock, but cable TV network Foxtel will air its new television adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, ensuring that the fiction endures in the minds of Australians, while few are familiar with the violent colonial history of the region.

Entrenched forgetting

Miranda Must Go was instigated because repressions of colonial history, and its destructive consequences, have become all too commonplace, and these omissions go too easily unnoticed and unremarked upon. When I first began research at Hanging Rock four years ago, I undertook a series of interviews with tourists and local residents about their associations with the distinctive geological landmark. In these interviews, Picnic at Hanging Rock evidently loomed large in people’s minds, whilst there were few mentions, unless prompted, of the Aboriginal significance of the site. Almost non-existent were recollections of a history that cleared Aboriginal people from the region. When interviewees did speak about these subjects they were vague about the details and expressed an anxiety that they knew so little about it. An edited compilation of these interviews can be watched in the video below:

Significantly in recent months, it has become common in commentary on Hanging Rock and the Miranda Must Go campaign for non-Aboriginal people to admit there is an absence of Aboriginal narratives and histories in the region. The recognition of absent stories, however, is accompanied by an admonishment that these stories are not non-Aboriginal people’s to tell. Luke Spielvogel, President of Friends of Hanging Rock, for example, told this to the Australia Wide program (starts in the link at 25:49) and Robyn Till said similar to ABC Radio National recently (starts in the link at 5:00).

It is noteworthy that non-Aboriginal people are sensitive to the necessity for Aboriginal sovereignty and leadership in matters concerning Aboriginal stories and traditional knowledge. Hanging Rock is located on the boundary of three Aboriginal groups, the Wurundjeri, Taungurong and Dja Dja Wurrung. The descendants of the people who met and held ceremonies at Hanging Rock for more than 26,000 years, before colonisers forcibly removed them from their lands, belong to these three groups. These traditional owners are the primary guardians and knowledge holders of Aboriginal cultural heritage for the site, and any effort to revive Aboriginal presence, names or cultural interpretation at Hanging Rock must be led by and centre their views.

Respectful expressions that underscore Aboriginal self-determination or the need to await Aboriginal leadership, however, have often become alibis for inaction – an excuse for non-Aboriginal people to change nothing and elide their own colonial past: the reason for the absence of Aboriginal narratives in the first place. Given Australia’s history of under-acknowledging the injustices of colonialism and its ongoing impacts – which include successive government policies aimed at the obliteration, dispossession, disenfranchisement and forced assimilation of Aboriginal people, entrenching prejudice at the core of the Australian nation – it is gravely insufficient to accept Hanging Rock’s cultural significance to Aboriginal people whilst avoiding collective responsibility for, and acknowledgement of, wrongs done as a result of colonial occupation.

Remember our troubling past

The destructive settler history of Australia is very much part of non-Aboriginal people’s story. Assigning this story to traditional owners only shirks the responsibility of telling the truth about our shared history onto already over-burdened, under-resourced Aboriginal communities and gives into a privileged position of passivity and inaction. Clare Land, writer of Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, has asserted it is non-Aboriginal people’s responsibility to change ourselves and our institutions and “the most basic way to show respect to Aboriginal people is to find out what happened here”.

In Decolonizing Solidarity Land discusses the importance for non-Aboriginal people to self-reflect and self-educate about settler colonialism, and its ongoing impacts, by taking advantage of “existing resources and opportunities rather than burdening Aboriginal people individually”. She explains that:

When non-Indigenous people develop collective responsibility with each other they potentially reduce the burden on Aboriginal people of such education work.

Furthermore, Aboriginal people themselves continually urge us to break the silence about our colonial history, as can be evidenced by the push to change the date of, or abolish, celebrations of Australian nationhood on January 26. Numerous Aboriginal scholars and leaders have stated this truth-telling is the key to addressing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in this country.

Writer and historian Tony Birch, for example, has written that “before dialogue for the future can be accomplished, Indigenous people who lie in the ground and the past they inhabit need to be recognised and commemorated” and this “can only be done when white Australia takes vigilant responsibility for its own past”.

Additionally, Gary Foley, historian and activist, has asserted that one of the most important things non-Indigenous people can do is find out “what happened to the people who lived on the place that you live now”. He stresses:

it’s not just a matter of knowing who they were, it’s a question of what happened to them … and as you gain a sense of that, you gain a sense of just how enormous your own personal ignorance is.

Aboriginal land rights activist, Robbie Thorpe, has also explained that exposing Australia’s myths and deceit, from Picnic at Hanging Rock to the settlement of the nation under the false claim of Terra Nullius,  is essential to coming to terms with “the real history of what this country is all about” which has denied the existence of Aboriginal people:

What happened here?

Certainly, it is difficult to educate yourself on a history that has been continually elided or denied and where no prompts for memory are included in the landscape. As I have noted in a previous post, there are few local histories that focus on the specific experiences of Aboriginal people in the Hanging Rock region. Fewer still are local histories that draw on Aboriginal oral testimonies or consider Indigenous perspectives on decolonialising research. Enquiry into what happened to Aboriginal people when Europeans occupied the Macedon Ranges remains under examined and under resourced. Ironically, this is in stark contrast to the obsessive archival work and investigation that has been dedicated to verifying if Picnic at Hanging Rock is based in fact. Yet encountering these difficulties and historical oversights should press us to question the colonial constructions that produce these absences in knowledge, and persist with the work of exposing our troubling past.

Relevant to the Hanging Rock region is that many historians have remarked on the cataclysmic disaster that colonial occupation of Victoria was for Aboriginal people. James Boyce has noted that after the establishment of Melbourne in 1835, a frenzied land rush followed that was brutal and unprecedented. According to Richard Broome it was “one of the fastest land occupations in the history of empires”. Patrick Wolfe has also described that “colonists set about removing Native people from their rich Victorian grasslands with unparalleled speed and ruthlessness”, and as a result, Aboriginal people in Victoria “suffered a demographic collapse”. Woolfe writes:

According to the official figures of the colonial government’s ‘Board for the Protection of the Aborigines’, 2,341 Aboriginal people remained alive in Victoria in 1861. Twenty-five years later, that figure had fallen to 806. But the most intense attrition had occurred before 1861, especially in the decade following White colonisation in the mid-1830s. The lower end of estimates for the Aboriginal population as it stood in 1835 suggests a total of around 12,000 people (a figure already substantially reduced by smallpox epidemics). Eight hundred and six being roughly 6 per cent of 12,000, it is misleading to talk of the Aboriginal population of Victoria as having been decimated, since the population level fell to well below 10 per cent. This is far and away the largest fact in Victoria’s history, one that dwarfs the campaign for the eight-hour day, the career of Ned Kelly, the holding of the first Australian federal parliaments or the staging of the Melbourne Olympics.

Vigilant responsibility

Arguably it is hard for non-Aboriginal people to fathom the scale of the suffering and loss caused by settlement considering the historical disregard for Aboriginal people, and their dehumanization under colonial structures and processes. To combat this indifference, we must reflect on our colonial history, confront “Victoria’s largest fact” and listen to and confer with traditional owners, Aboriginal community leaders, historians and activists in sensitive, informed ways. We must hear the stories of Aboriginal resistance and struggle against ruthless occupation and understand the devastating impact of dispossession.

Recently, non-Aboriginal residents of the Macedon Ranges have expressed a desire to adopt an Aboriginal name for Hanging Rock, and have looked to settler records to uncover the lost name. The word “Anneyelong”, inscribed beneath German naturalist William Blandowski’s 1855/56 engraving of Hanging Rock, has been referred to as a possible replacement. Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan and also a Woiwurrung Language Specialist at Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (V.A.C.L), has confirmed that whilst the recording of “Anneyelong” is evidence of a possible Woiwurrung name for Hanging Rock, it has been wrongly interpreted or transcribed by Blandowski. Nicholson has clarified “Woiwurrung words do not start with vowels. So the word […] would more likely be Nganneyelong”, however, the actual meaning of the word is unknown. Nicholson has provided the pronunciation of Nganneyelong [Ng-unn-eye-long] below:

While an Aboriginal name at Hanging Rock would encouragingly recenter Aboriginal narratives, non-Aboriginal people would do well to remember that the word “Nganneyelong” has a fraught history, it is a cultural fragment that has survived the attempted annihilation of a people and culture. We should acknowledge that profoundly racist, imperial attitudes caused this. Blandowski, for example, recorded this observation during excursions he made in the region and around the same time he created the engraving of Hanging Rock:

The natives, however, of this, as of every other settled part of Australia, are fast disappearing before the rapid encroachments of the white man; in perfect accordance with the universal law which governs civilization wherever the white man has planted its flag, sweeping the backward races from the face of the earth.

The Miranda Must Go campaign is concerned with envisaging ways Australian’s might feel the gravity of,  and take vigilant responsibility for, a violent past that led to real losses of lives, land and culture in the region of Hanging Rock (and all across Australia) that continue to have consequences to this day. To contest the obsession with white vanishing myths and counter historical ignorance, we must attend to these actual “disappearances” and their causes. It is very much our history to learn and to share with others. By making a commitment to self-education and reflection we can begin to apprehend the extent of our colonial privilege and embark on the hard work of decolonising ourselves and our institutions.

Amy Spiers, January 2018

Reading List

In the spirit of self-education and taking responsibility for our history below is an assorted reading list with relevant resources on decolonisation, white vanishing, anti-racism, memory work, commemoration and Australian history:

Links

Books and Articles

  • Bain Attwood. The Good Country: The Djadja Wurrung, the Settlers and the Protectors. Monash University Publishing, 2017.
  • Tony Birch. “Come See the Giant Koala”. Meanjin, no. 3 (1999): 60.
  • Tony Birch. “’The invisible fire’: Indigenous sovereignty, history and responsibility”. In Sovereign Subject: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 105-17. Allen & Unwin, 2007.
  • James K. Boyce. 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia. Black Inc, 2013.
  • Richard Broome. Aboriginal Victorians: A History since 1800. Allen & Unwin, 2005.
  • Clare Land. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. Zed Books, 2015.
  • Henry Reynolds. Forgotten War. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2013.
  • Elspeth Tilley. White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-in-the-Bush Myth. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012.
  • Chilla Bulbeck. “Aborigines, Memorials and the History of the Frontier.” Australian Historical Studies 24, no. 96 (1991): 168-78.
  • Chris Healy. Forgetting Aborigines. University of New South Wales Press, 2008.
  • Sarah Maddison. Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia. Allen & Unwin, 2011.

Get in touch via mirandamustgo@gmail.com to suggest other readings.

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