The two worlds of the Wiradjuri people

17 August 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
On her first night in Wiradjuri country in 1981, Gaynor Macdonald sat by a fire on Erambie reserve near the town of Cowra in central New South Wales. Monk, a musician and activist, played his guitar while others quizzed the young anthropologist on why she was there and asked if she had links to ASIO.

“I had stepped into a very different world. Only much later did people tell me they didn’t expect me to stay,” she writes at the beginning of a book that draws on her 40 years’ work with the Wiradjuri people. 

A senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Sydney, Gaynor Macdonald has distilled her research into a long manuscript titled Promises and Lies: Wiradjuri Experiences of Australian Modernity and Citizenship.

The book, which covers the Wiradjuri since colonisation, is “an historicised analysis of the present – an analysis of contemporary issues explored by looking at their past” rather than a history, she said in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

Macdonald continues in her introduction: “Much of the leadership behind Aboriginal advances in Sydney through the 1970s – important initiatives with national influence: the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Murawina Aboriginal Pre-school – involved Wiradjuri people who had grown up on Erambie.”

But she saw firsthand how optimism gave way to disillusion in the following decade. In 1990 her friend Monk asked her to visit him to say goodbye before she went overseas. He had nothing to live for any more and had decided to drink himself to death.

“The setbacks of the 1980s and 1990s were yet another wave in a history of alternating trauma and energy. This book seeks to shed light on an insidious historical pattern,” she writes.

Creative resistance and failed policies

Macdonald’s career began with an undergraduate degree at Latrobe University and her first field work was in the Torres Strait Islands, where she “was struck by the way in which local white people talked about the islanders as if they had lost all their traditions. They were seen by locals as just poor blacks living on these remote islands.

“In a short time I learnt so much about their lives, their genealogies, their marriages and all kinds of things. They were what an anthropologist might call traditional people, but then there were trappings like Christianity.

“I thought, there’s two different worlds here – what the white fellas thought was going on and how the Islanders were actually living and thinking about themselves. I started asking myself the question, so what’s going on in NSW, my own state, where cultural differences were also denied?”

Macdonald has mostly worked on Wiradjuri country since then, based at times in Cowra and travelling across the vast area that is home to about 12,000 Wiradjuri people.

The book she has just completed is based on her own field work, settlers’ diaries and letters, the work of early anthropologists and more recent historians. Although she has published many articles about aspects of Wiradjuri experience, this work spans the entire 200-plus years of their colonisation. A separate work examines life before that tumultuous event.

“These are big complex stories,” she said. “If you write parts of stories they become decontexualised and that’s not helpful for the general reader and it’s not helpful for Aboriginal readers either.

“So I wanted to situate the Wiradjuri story within British colonialism, within the story of modernity, the culture of the British that they brought to Australia, and show how that has impacted on the lives of Wiradjuri people, but also how they responded.

“I have been working with people in central NSW who, when I started my fieldwork, were believed not to be real Aborigines, who were believed not to exist, even by anthropologists. There was still the idea that Aboriginal people were exotic people who only lived in remote Australia.”

Macdonald wants to show how the Wiradjuri people’s “creative resistance to being turned into white fellas” has sustained their sense of themselves as Aboriginal through colonisation, massacres, smallpox, working for pastoralists, living on reserves and in towns, management by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board, land rights struggles, and so on.

She asks: “Why did they – even with this history of engagement with white fellas for so long, and this ability to control their own lives and meaning – start to experience so much unbelievable stress from the 1980s, as was happening in the rest of Australia?”

That led her to examine the impact of what have been seen as beneficial policies, such as self-determination, on people’s daily lives and to realise “this was crippling them in a way that no earlier policies had ever done”.

Macdonald claims there has never been a study of the Aboriginal economy.  Calling people hunters and gatherers, as many anthropologists have, assumes they don’t have an economic system and is “primitivising”, she said. Understanding the Wiradjuri economic system is necessary to appreciate their political and social values as well as their capacity to adapt over time. 

Some of her work is a critique of anthropology as romanticising and racist. “This is going to leave me open to a lot of criticism but that’s fine. I’m old enough in my career to be a bit braver than I was when I was younger,” she said.   

“One of the most important experiences of my academic career”

In February 2018, wanting a critical eye on her work, Macdonald became the first scholar to engage in SSSHARC’s Ultimate Peer Review. In this program Sydney University scholars invite a “brilliant and relevant” international authority to act as critical “opponent” and help them reach the full potential of a landmark work of research.

She invited Professor Sylvie Poirier, an eminent Canadian anthropologist at Laval University in Quebec who has also worked with the Kukatja people of the Australian Western Desert, to review her manuscript. She did not know Poirier well but admired her work and knew that she understood the lives of rural and urban Indigenous people.

Dr Gaynor Macdonald (left) and Professor Sylvie Poirier at the Ultimate Peer Review of manuscript Promises and Lies

Dr Gaynor Macdonald (left) and Professor Sylvie Poirier at the Ultimate Peer Review. Photo credit: Dr Gaynor Macdonald. 

Poirier read the draft manuscript and wrote an “outstanding" detailed review, which the two discussed during her week in Sydney. Poirier presented her commentary in conversation with Macdonald at a 90-minute public event chaired by Professor Emeritus Diane Austin-Broos. Macdonald invited colleagues and Wiradjuri representatives to listen and join the conversation.

Poirier also gave a Sydney Ideas lecture on “Engaged anthropology, collaborative research and the Atikamekw First Nation” and with Macdonald conducted a higher degree masterclass on “Engaged Research: working collaboratively with First Nations people”.

The Ultimate Peer Review was “one of the most important experiences of my academic career”, Macdonald wrote in her report to SSSHARC. Throughout her respectful review, Poirier asked questions and pushed her to think more about aspects of her work, especially the Wiradjuri ontology or system of relationships. She suggested, for example, expanding the argument that “demand sharing” is central to their allocative economy to include other forms of reciprocity – sharing of ritual knowledge, and exchanges with ancestors and the land. 

Macdonald said the ontological dimension of Wiradjuri people’s lives was central to her work and this was valuable advice. “A lot of my work is about personhood, how people think about themselves as persons within a cultural context, and how something like a colonial situation puts a great deal of pressure on people’s ability to be the person they know they should be.

“Sylvie was right that I could have brought it out more, and I have in a lot of the rewriting.”

At the time of the Ultimate Peer Review, Macdonald was caring full-time for her husband, who had advanced dementia and died at home in November 2018. Finding there was nobody to teach her how to look after him, she set up a website called Dementia Reframed. She gives advice and workshops for carers as well as occasional seminars at the university. The two parts of her work fit together because of her interest in personhood.

“For me dementia is always a relationship. There is no way you can think about living with dementia from an individualistic point of view because somebody with dementia will always share their lives with another person, but that person is completely ignored in contemporary support structures.”

With her commitment to engaged research, she said she has been fortunate to have support from well-educated, critical-thinking Wiradjuri people. Asked if there was any criticism of her as a white woman writing Wiradjuri history, she said: “This is my book, my story about what I’ve learnt about them and I make that very clear. I am not wanting to speak on behalf of Wiradjuri people. But in a sense, I am trying to encourage them.

“They might not all like me writing it but I hope they will want to draw on it. Sometimes you write because you want to challenge other people. If they want to write their own story and it contradicts mine, then a lot of growth and learning will come out of that.”

Her ultimate aim is for a “decolonised anthropology” that supports decolonisation. She writes: “Recognition must start with the Wiradjuri as a sovereign people, with the right to their own law; to treaties that govern the use of their country; and to restitution of a healthy, viable economy.” 

Sylvie Poirier’s Ultimate Peer Review of Gaynor Macdonald’s manuscript Promises and Lies was held at the Law School, University of Sydney on February 13, 2018.   

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

Related articles