‘They are burning with a desire for justice’: Rachel Perkins on Australia’s genocidal past

In a new SBS series, Perkins shares her own family’s history to expose how the country and its institutions have whitewashed the frontier wars

Until recently, film-maker Rachel Perkins had never heard the recording of her late Arrernte grandmother, Hetti, speaking about the massacre of her family. Police had shot them at Blackfellows Bones, north-east of Alice Springs, in the late 19th century.

But her father, the late Indigenous activist Charles Perkins, had told her about the slaughter. Hettie’s mother had been spared, but her neck was chained for another purpose. “My great-grandmother had been raped and chained to a tree,” Perkins says. “So, I knew that [much].”

It was only when making her ambitious new SBS series about Australia’s frontier wars, The Australian Wars, that Perkins sought out the 1970s recording. She heard the voice of her grandmother: “My mother say when they come and killed all them natives, my mother’s mob, they shot them there at Mount Riddock, and they brought my mother and my aunty there, in jail.”

No one knows exactly how many Arrernte people were killed in that massacre. “We’ll never know,” Perkins says. More of the film-maker’s ancestors, members of the Kalkdaoon people from Queensland’s Mount Isa region, were killed around the same time, coming under the immense firepower of police in a defensive position now known as Battle Mountain at Cloncurry.

In Perkins’ series, which premieres on 21 September, she forensically sweeps across the written, oral, physical and scientific evidence of Indigenous massacres which took place over about 140 years across the continent.

She calls for the First Nations people who died in these conflicts – as well as colonists who were killed – to be acknowledged by the country, and for their deaths to be officially recognised by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. To date, the institution has resisted memorialising the wars between Aboriginal people and settlers at the heart of nationhood.

Perkins, who directed landmark Indigenous screen stories such as Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now and Total Control, had long resisted making a series about Australia’s frontier wars, which continue to be mapped by Guardian Australia and the University of Newcastle. She knew it would require years of sifting through violent colonial history that affected her own family; emotional scarring would be unavoidable.

Overcoming this psychological barrier, she presents interviews on camera with Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, and cultural knowledge keepers, interspersed with actors’ recreations of frontier slaughter and interviews with Indigenous survivors, who express their ongoing trauma.

Descendants of Aboriginal people killed were very willing to talk on camera because they were “burning with a desire for justice”, Perkins says, quoting anthropologist Prof Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Iman people who is also interviewed in the documentary.

Rachel Perkins walks through grassland under a blue sky. She is wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a blue shirt and is holding a film slate in one hand
Rachel Perkins says Australia must confront its ‘skeletons in the closet’. Photograph: Dylan River

Perkins says it is “essential” that Australians confront the truth of the frontier wars: “You look at other countries and the way that they’ve dealt with their past, whether it be South Africa, Germany, to a lesser degree the United States, Canada – all of these places have, in some ways, come to terms with the history … it’s essential [in order to] become a sophisticated country that can look at the skeletons in its closet and then move on and learn from history.”

The series alleges that former New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie “sanitised the violence” perpetrated against Indigenous people. Sandy Hamilton, a descendant of a member of the 46th regiment, which carried out Macquarie’s orders in the Appin massacre of 1816, tells Perkins there has been “whitewashing” and a cover-up of the frontier wars to “not blemish the great Australian story”.

In the opening episode, Perkins takes Dharawal elder Glenda Chalker and her granddaughter Kiahni Chalker – who are descendants of those killed at Appin – into a National Museum of Australia facility. The body parts of more than 400 Indigenous people are kept there, awaiting repatriation to country. Three boxes containing “evidence of military warfare” are presented to the two Dharawal women – including the skull of an unidentified woman decapitated in the raid by the colonial militia.

In the room, fighting back tears, Chalker says: “Macquarie’s orders were women and children were to be buried where they lay, and yet they decapitated at least this one woman, that we know of. She could be so closely related, we don’t know.”

In the second episode, entirely devoted to Tasmania’s black war, historians demolish governor George Arthur’s “humanitarian” reputation, by showing how his declaration of martial law across the island led to genocide; how he treated Indigenous people as a foreign enemy, and called on all able-bodied colonist men to fight them, while amplifying the deaths of only the white people to fuel the colonists’ outrage.

Rachel Perkins is looking at archive materials in a dark room
Rachel Perkins examines a government proclamation board: a propaganda tool and relic of the warfare in Tasmania. Photograph: Dylan River

In the final episode, Perkins tells the story of the formation of the native police corps: a paramilitary force that ordered many Indigenous people to fight and kill other Indigenous people. Archaeologist Dr Heather Burke estimates in the documentary that 150 native police camps across Queensland alone were responsible for the deaths of about 72,000 Indigenous people.

Perkins questions the director of the Australian War Memorial, Matt Anderson, about why the memorial largely fails to acknowledge the frontier wars. Anderson cites the War Memorial Act to explain its purpose, and argues the memorial’s historians “could find no evidence that military forces raised in Australia engaged in frontier violence and frontier conflicts”.

Although she challenges Anderson in the documentary, Perkins says: “Under their very strict, narrow view of military forces that must be raised in Australia, in some ways they are correct. You have to understand that very odd nuance.”

Perkins says the Australian War Memorial has good permanent exhibitions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have served for Australia in international conflicts. But, she says, in 80 years there has never been an Aboriginal person on its board.

“I don’t really want to attack the War Memorial, because it’s a place that’s very important for very good reason to Australians,” Perkins says. “Many Aboriginal people have people in their family who have served, lost their lives in the defence of the country, so I don’t want to denigrate that institution and I don’t want this series to be weaponised against them.”

Conversely, Perkins notes there are some Aboriginal people who may not want the frontier wars memorialised at the Australian War Memorial, either because it is an institution that has never had an Aboriginal person on its board, or because the institution is part of the colonial structure.

“But as an Aboriginal person I find it really deeply hurtful that it is not recognised there, and that’s just my personal view … for me, I find it a great omission.”

  • The Australian Wars premieres on SBS on 21 September


Steve Dow

The GuardianTramp

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