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HomeVolume 27Undoing the ‘great Australian silence’

Undoing the ‘great Australian silence’


As a boy in the early 1950s, Dean Ashenden lived in Tennant Creek in a white world. He cannot recall ever having spoken to an Aboriginal person while he was there, apart from three boys who went to his school, sons of the night soil collector and his Aboriginal wife. They were the only Aboriginal people who lived in town. The rest lived at the Phillip Creek mission 50 kilometres to the east but came in for Saturday night pictures, sitting on benches reserved for them. There was an annual sports day they attended – on the other side of the dusty clearing.

Ashenden can recall sometimes noticing old Aboriginal men sitting on the footpath outside the general store where his mother worked (his father was head teacher at the school). More intriguingly, a family group once stayed a while amongst the spinifex that he could see from his family’s back fence.

He was 13 years old when he left and never went back. In fact he actively wanted to never go back, despite the freedom and adventures of his boyhood there. He got this antipathy for the place, he surmises, from his mother, who was never happy there, loathing the heat and dust, and missing her family and the green Adelaide Hills she came from.

His awareness of what his family’s experience of Tennant Creek meant, of how deaf and blind they’d been to the significance of the divided world they lived in, of their acceptance of its silenced story, began to change at university in the 1960s, during the rise of the Aboriginal rights movement. But it took him until his ‘grey nomad’ years to go beyond reading and actually travel back to that place where he had, as he now understood, lived in a ‘full-on policed and regulated apartheid regime.’ Without knowing it, he had been living at the frontier but that’s ‘the place all of Australia has been at one time or another.’

He wanted to find out about the black and white relations of the town, as they were and as they’d become, but his road trip from Melbourne up through South Australia opened up another strand to his inquiry. He began to notice the extraordinary silence in the historic markers and information panels along the way about what had actually happened in Australia, a continent occupied by Aboriginal people with their own system of land ownership that we Europeans took for ourselves, to their enormous detriment. In rare instances where Aboriginal people were publicly acknowledged, he found the focus was on their traditions. There was simply no mention of the ways that their Country had been taken from them, ruthlessly, often violently, nor of the ways they had fought back. So what was this story we were telling about ourselves with this resounding silence at its heart? How had it come into being? 

Answering these questions is what Telling Tennant’s Story is about, with its subtitle ‘The strange career of the great Australian silence’, making clear its emphasis. What we get is not a revised history of the town, although there are plenty of building blocks that would contribute to such a process. Rather the town is taken as a microcosm of a larger country-wide process, and Ashenden sets out to explore the many ways that the one-sided, seemingly coherent narrative of the Australian Nation was constructed, a story of triumph and progress, and the erasures that allowed it to stand.

This story may be coming under pressure now, with Ashenden’s book making its own forceful contribution, but there’s a good long way to go. If we, here in Mparntwe Alice Springs, take stock of the way the story of our town is told in our public places, it is clear that we are actively perpetuating the silence about our past, continuing to assert the old stories of pioneering triumphs. Examples that spring immediately to mind are the John McDouall Stuart statue and the failure to respond to the grievance that it has caused, and the Town Council’s recent backdown over the renaming of Willshire Street.

There have been some attempts to inject greater cultural balance into the public space, with artworks that pay respect to Aboriginal presence and values: The Gathering Garden at the Civic Centre; the moth shade structures in Todd Mall; the Yeperenye mural on Gregory Terrace; and the several murals around the CBD commissioned from locally practising Aboriginal artists.

Nowhere though has there been any attempt to directly address the foundational stories of the town in a way that recognises, or sufficiently recognises (thinking of the Coles mural, above), that these are Aboriginal stories too, including stories of dispossession, oppression, racism and violence. And this silence is reflected in the supporting documents. The Town Council’s Public Art Masterplan characterises the town’s past as constituting ‘stories of early exploration, settlement, Afghan cameleers and the pastoral industry.’ Its Reconciliation Action Plan refers to Aboriginal ‘histories’ – though not shared histories – and nowhere does it commit to any kind of process that would address or mark those histories.

Hence the great relevance of Ashenden’s book to any of us here wanting to think about and do something to redress this state of affairs.

Ashenden is an academic and his exploration, despite its seeds in a road trip and his three return visits to Tennant, takes place mainly in the archives and the library. He charts the way the ‘great Australian silence’ – the cut-through phrase formulated by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner in his 1968 Boyer Lectures – has been constructed and occasionally disrupted, increasingly so now, in the disciplines of anthropology and history as well as in the legal system. He writes clearly and accessibly and the interested general reader will be readily absorbed by this fascinating intellectual history. Where relevant he breaks out from it, to give some account of what was happening on the ground, including through vignettes and conversations drawn from his visits to Tennant and to the long abandoned mission at Phillip Creek.

A reservation that I had as I read was Ashenden’s failure to chart the Aboriginal thinking that broke into the silence along the way. He acknowledges it, for instance with the 1963 Yolgnu Bark Petition and its use of a language of rights, including recognition of prior ownership and sovereignty; and particularly when he arrives at Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, he writes of ‘the sheer intellectual horsepower’ of people like the Dodsons, Marcia Langton, Lowitja O’Donoghue, Noel Pearson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, but the only contribution to ideas that he specifies is Pearson’s later thinking on passive welfare. This does seem to be its own kind of silence. 

Because of my interest in the public space, which I have written about often in the pages of the Alice Springs News, I was particularly interested in what he has to say about how present-day Jurnkkurakurr Tennant Creek represents its past: at the time of his writing at least the silence was being staunchly maintained, notwithstanding, in his view, the presence of the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre, where the Warumungu story stays not only separate but behind the fence or indoors. (The artists of the Tennant Creek Brio – among them, Joseph Williams and Fabian Brown pictured above – who likely came to the fore after Ashenden’s last visit, are doing their bit to change that, taking their bold stories nation-wide.)

In an Afterword Ashenden considers some of what must be done to get behind truth-telling about Australia’s history, as called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It includes a list of don’ts based on what Tennant has thus far failed to do (and in which they are no different from Alice Springs). Broadening out to the national sphere, I am with him completely in his argument for the Australian War Memorial to take on the story of the frontier wars, which claimed more Australian lives – he quotes an estimated 66,000 in Queensland alone – than Australia lost in World War I (around 63,000), and almost double the Australian losses of World War II.

Successive governments have made the AWM ‘the St Peter’s of the national religion’, he writes. It has to be the place for telling a fuller truth about our history. Trying to fob off this responsibility  ‘would leave Australia’s apex institution of memory and identity telling a fundamentally misleading and untruthful story.’ In the local context, I think we would do well to bear this in mind in relation to the intensifying war memorabilia colonising Anzac Hill – Untyeyetwelye, sacred to Arrernte people – with not a whisper about those lost on our own frontier. 


Photo at top: Tennant Creek’s Old Telegraph Station, the work of white men who ‘came and did not go away again’, although they were occupying Warumungu land. Source: Tourism NT.

Author photo, source: The Conversation.


Telling Tennant’s Story: The strange career of the great Australian silence

By Dean Ashenden

Black Inc, 2022


Some related reading:

Learning to have ears

Street names, statues: why change matters

For Country, for Nation: compels, moves, without digging deep

Recognising the forgotten wars, necessary for peace

To die for country

Telling the stories of war: we could do so much better

Culture: Alice sells itself short

Big beautiful monoculture



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