Posted to the Ethnos Project by on August 10th, 2011

An excerpt from the Final Report of the Trust & Technology Project (2004-2006)

Project Outline:

The Trust & Technology (T&T) Project is an ARC Linkage project, with a partnership between Caulfield School of Information Technology, Monash University, Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University, the Public Record Office of Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust Inc., the Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce, and the Australian Society of Archivists Indigenous Issues Special Interest Group.

The focus of the project is on enabling Koorie communities to archive oral memory, and to engage with existing government and institutional archives on their terms.

Summary of Outcomes

Koorie people involved in this research have told us that they want to:

  • preserve and use all forms of Koorie knowledge,
  • challenge and limit the ongoing potency which archives carry in the lives of many Koorie people,
  • recover from archives knowledge which is relevant to understanding their identities, cultures and experiences.

This report identifies seven research outcomes which support the above aspirations. We have called the first two of these foundations, as they are a platform for much of what follows and highlight the need for a transformation of Australian society’s evidence and memory frameworks. The next three outcomes apply these foundational principles to three challenges which emerged from the research as key archival needs of Koorie communities. The final two outcomes reflect on this project as an encounter between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems and consider the implications for communities, researchers and educators.

The following pages summarise these seven outcomes and identify the directions and actions which Koorie communities, the archives sector and other parties should pursue towards implementation.

Outcome 1: Koorie knowledge
All sources of Koorie knowledge – stories shared within families, audio-recorded histories, government and other organisational records – are highly valued by Koorie people wanting to understand their identity and history. We need to take on board a conceptualisation of Koorie knowledge which:

  • overcomes the preferencing of Western expressions of memory and evidence over Koorie ones.
  • recognises and supports the interplay between difference sources of Koorie knowledge, in particular that knowledge can be recovered from archival sources and reincorporated into oral memory.

Outcome 2: Koorie rights
Koorie people are currently afforded few rights over that part of their knowledge which is in archival institutions. If we accept that archives contain Koorie knowledge, we need to find ways to give effect to Koorie rights over this knowledge. In doing so we should recognise the particular claims of Koorie people which arise from the part archival records have played in their dispossession and in the recovery of identity.

Outcome 3: New approaches to rights and responsibilities in Koorie knowledge
The current Australian legal framework presents a number of obstacles to the realisation of Koorie rights in archival records, as proposed in outcome 2. We consider how the archives community could use a participant model to realign its principles and practices to give effect to Koorie rights in archival records. Alongside these policy initiatives there are also a number of legal strategies which could be pursued to give Koorie people greater rights over their knowledge.

Outcome 4: A holistic, community-based approach to Koorie archives
Koorie knowledge cannot be made to adhere to the usual institutional/sectoral boundaries of archival programs. Holistic, community-based approaches would bring together, physically or virtually, all archives of a community, regardless of their source or form, and would model community perspectives on the interconnectedness of Western and Indigenous knowledge traditions.

Outcome 5: Setting the Record Straight
Koorie people express a strong desire to challenge the contents of ‘official’ records by recording their own narratives and perspectives alongside them. International human rights principles and the experiences of other post-colonial, post-surveillance societies support this notion as an important means of acknowledging and limiting the ongoing potency of records which have been the tools and products of dispossession and control. A system for setting the record straight – a Koorie Annotation System – is proposed.

Outcome 6: Researching together: rethinking the relationship between academia and Koorie communities.
University-based researchers need to overhaul research methods which position Indigenous (and other) communities as the subjects of research, and to pursue a participatory model of community-based research. This outcome presents lessons learned from this project about the colonisation of Koorie knowledge and the entanglement of knowledge systems. The principles of community-based participatory action research require promotion among consumers of research.

Outcome 7: Education and Training for Professional Practice and Scholarship
Recordkeeping educators along with leading employers and professional associations, need to incorporate the new directions proposed in this report into foundational professional education and ongoing professional development.

Introducing the Trust and Technology Project

Participant 35, Stage 1
“I know when I pass on the knowledge of the stories of my grandmother to children, when I work in classes like high school classes, it makes me proud of my grandmother and it makes people understand what my grandmother went through. So all the shame my grandmother could have felt, I’m helping fix that so nobody else gets the shame. … It doesn’t give Nan back anything but it doesn’t take anything off Nan. But it makes it not happen again to any other person who’s around. It makes people understand what has gone on.”

Participant 71, Stage 1
“Once again all I can remember is in my early childhood being on the reservation visiting, my grandmother’s sister or auntie … I can remember playing but not a great deal. But it makes me think back and I feel sad. I feel sad because that’s lost. I’ve really done a full one hundred percent swing from growing up in a white society, my mother protecting us, and getting into [university] and from there I just did this full swing and come back round to the point where I am. I’m learning all the time and I’m still searching, although I feel comfortable in my skin now.”

Trust and Technology has its origins in a desire to build trust and understanding between the archives community and Koorie communities. It is based on a recognition that Koorie communities rely on sources of knowledge and methods of transmission that differ greatly from the knowledge frameworks of the wider community. The project’s goal has been to understand the implications for archives of this fundamental difference in knowledge systems, and to enable the development of alternative systems and services which reflect the priorities of Koorie communities.

The project was the vision of Jim Berg, Chief Executive Officer of the Koorie Heritage Trust from 1985 to 2003. In 2002 Mr Berg approached the Public Record Office Victoria and Monash University with the proposal for a research project which applied the perspectives of Koorie communities, recordkeeping practitioners and researchers to the challenge of developing trusted archival systems for Indigenous oral memory. This idea formed the basis of a successful Australian Research Council Linkage project: Trust and Technology: Building an archival system for Indigenous oral memory. Industry partners were the Public Record Office Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust Inc, the Australian Society of Archivists Indigenous Issues Special Interest Group and the Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce. Monash University was represented through the Caulfield School of Information Technology and the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies. The project commenced in late 2003.

The project’s aims, as expressed in the funding application to the Australian Research Council, were:

  • To explore what the emphasis of Indigenous people on oral memory implies for the provision of archival services to this group.
  • To examine how trust is engendered within Indigenous groups in terms of key issues such as authenticity, intellectual property and access to archives.
  • To investigate how well government and other archival services, as these are presently constituted, meet the needs of Indigenous people for access to oral memory by investigating current service models and institutional perspectives.
  • To model Indigenous community-oriented archival services.
  • To examine how archival techniques and information technology can be used to build trusted archival systems to support archival services that meet the needs of Indigenous people.
  • To build a prototype preservation and access system which will demonstrate how the needs of Indigenous communities might be met.

Setting the scene: orality, text and trust

Participant 15, Stage 1
“Our ties are traditionally to the land but we can’t, in a lot of instances, say that we know the traditional stories associated with that land. But we know in our own hearts that those stories are there …”

Participant 48, Stage 1
“My grandmother was basically telling me things like where my grandfather came from, where she was born under an old oak tree on Moonaculla Mission. It still stands there to this day. It was a big thing for me to go there and say, “This is where my grandmother was born under this tree”. I have a lot of pride. Anything to do with my family makes me proud to know they actually went through these hard times and dealt with these things that I’ve never known myself. It’s a story I should be proud of and pass on to the next generation when I have children.”

Participant 10, Stage 1
“But part of [name]’s storytelling is about the stolen generation and life on missions. So that’s been important and is important because I found during the course of that research we were able to access a heap of files from the old Native Affairs Department in Perth which contradicted a lot of the oral history stories that [name] had gathered together from his family. And that leaves some serious question marks about who’s telling the truth or which version you go with. And I guess because of my own background I tended to go with the oral history version.”

Storytelling lies at the heart of Koorie knowledge within communities. By storytelling we are emphasising the sharing of narrative histories. Storytelling is the art of portraying in words, images and sounds what has happened in real or super-real events. This project recognises that there exists a basic human communication that comes from a fundamental desire, or even need, to tell each other what happened (secular and religious, real and imaginary) through the most expressive and immediate means possible: dramatic storytelling. Storytelling in our project is never juxtaposed against real history, rather it is accepted as a form of the latter.

Stories are powerful. The courage of the telling, and the richness of the content, can move people and communities to rethink their identities, and the meanings and values they assign to their lives. Stories are a fundamental method used by marginalized groups around the world in their efforts to reclaim their history and culture, and assert their place in the world. (Dale, 2002)

Prior to invasion Koorie cultures were predominantly oral. Stories, and the protocols, places, roles and rituals which supported their transmission, were the foundation for maintaining relationships, conveying communities’ laws and codes of behaviour, teaching children. It is generally recognised, and clearly evident in this study, that despite the impact of colonisation and of efforts to extinguish Indigenous culture, Koorie people continue to express their knowledge and experiences orally to a significant extent. Furthermore there is a substantial body of traditional Indigenous knowledge extant amongst contemporary Koorie people. This is in the context of a wider society whose systems for making and keeping laws, conveying information, understanding and transmitting its history, doing business of almost any kind depends on written documents; an environment in which the term ‘oral record’ is contentious or even contradictory. We note here that as this research has progressed we have found the dichotomy of oral versus textual increasingly problematic. We have grappled with the intersection of written history and oral memory – the way in which written sources are often based on orality and modern orality is itself saturated with writing. We note also that the World Wide Web has drawn Western society away from text-based communications. Nevertheless, fundamental differences between Western and Koorie frameworks of evidence and memory are at the heart of this project.

Australian Indigenous narratives and archival discourse

Participant 64, Stage 1
“We used to have one person, actually my brother-in-law, used to call us in every night and sit us down and tell us stories that were handed on through his side. He’d only tell us half and we’ve have to come back the next night to hear the rest. … That’s the sort of thing he’d talk to us about, the bush, the dilligar was the one we had to worry about and not to go off into the bush and get lost, to know our ways and where to go. And we learnt that pretty good because we grew up in the bush and knew all the markings that we were taught. And even on the beaches, how to look at rocks in certain ways that the elders ahead of us would have left for us to follow. … Even with the water, we did have stories about the water but it wasn’t frightening, it was just to say how we were part of that water. Like we used to walk right out on the sand banks two or three miles out into the sea just on the sand banks back in those days. So we weren’t frightened because that’s where we come from.”

Participant 32, Stage 1
“By then… Koorie College was happening. The world had changed and people were starting to tell stories where they didn’t told stories before. And then all these things came out, all the wealth of information. And yes, of course then people really started talking about their lives and we all started telling each other our stories.”

Participant 32, Stage 1
“I got my file from the orphanage. The letters my grandmother had written. The letters people who used to take me out for the weekends had written to me. All those letters. Fortunately I got them with the names on them about fifteen years ago from Ballarat and I knew who they all were. But when [my sister] got them everything’s crossed out. I know that I used to go to a Reverend and his wife. Why didn’t they put me there?”

Participant 45, Stage 1
“An integral part of Aboriginal culture is stories, is your language. I can remember my great-grandmother telling me stories about not being allowed to speak the language. Hiding under the kitchen table on the mission with hessian bags around, so the manager couldn’t see the candle while they were being taught.”

Participant 17, Stage 1
“I do know that a lot of our mob went over to look in [the archives in] Adelaide. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and upsets when they found out they weren’t who they were supposed to be or their parents weren’t who they were supposed to be. It causes a lot of heartache sometimes.”

Participant 50, Stage 1
“maybe some of the elders that have been entrusted with some of these stories might feel that the technology of trying to record them in such a way might make them feel inferior in a way, because they’ve been entrusted with these stories. If they feel the role has been taken from them by just putting it on a recording and pressing ‘play’ whenever, then you’ve lost the context of how it is being delivered. The facial expressions of an elder, the voice and tone. Every time they tell the story it is not told in exactly the same way. They’ve got a lot of feeling behind different words, they can obviously pass it on to their children.”

The year 2007 represented a remarkable milestone in Indigenous Australian history; ten years since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home Report, forty years since the ‘Vote Yes’ referendum and fifty years since the first National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Commemoration (NAIDOC). These three events highlight, each in a different way, the significance of historical narratives, written and spoken, to Indigenous people. In 2008 the national parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations has powerfully illustrated that understandings of the past – the narratives that are told and written, and the manner in which they are conveyed – profoundly shape a community’s identity and aspirations and provide a mandate for action, in this instance around issues of Indigenous wellbeing. Indeed the metaphor of ‘turning a new page in Australia’s history’ was used repeatedly in the apology itself and in commentary on it.

The apology has also renewed national attention on the 1997 Bringing Them Home report. The report devoted a chapter to the role which records and recordkeeping institutions should play in supporting family and community reunions and the reclamation of personal and community identity. Significant to this project, three of many imperatives highlighted by the report were:

  • The need for Indigenous Australians to reclaim identity by knowing their family background and reconnecting with the places and cultures of their people. This is an issue relevant not only to members of the Stolen Generations, but also to many other Indigenous people who have lost connection with their family and/or community.
  • Telling the stories of post-colonisation experience, in particular of separation, within Indigenous communities and beyond to the wider Australian community as a means of honouring the experiences of these generations of Indigenous Australians and as a means of ensuring their place within Australia’s history and memory.
  • In the longer term, the need for Indigenous communities to control their own historical documentation.

These points are made in several places throughout Bringing Them Home. In explaining its purpose the Inquiry states ‘The truth is that the past is very much with us today, in the continuing devastation of the lives of Indigenous Australians. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation.’ (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Australia), 1997, p. [3]) These Bringing Them Home findings resonate with the recommendations of the 1991 ‘Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’.

Over the last decade government archival institutions and other record holders such as religious organisations have responded with a range of initiatives to provide better access to records and better services to Indigenous people seeking information. These have included the establishment of indexes to help Indigenous people find records about themselves or family members, agreements with Indigenous communities regarding access and related services, efforts to employ Indigenous people or appoint them to advisory or governing bodies, exhibitions, guides to relevant records and scholarships to train Indigenous recordkeepers.

Although the Bringing Them Home report was the stimulus for extensive efforts at many levels of Australian life to create and support opportunities for reconciliation and redress, an apology to members of the ‘Stolen Generations’ was one of several recommendations which were not implemented in the first decade since the report’s release. On the whole, the third of the above records-related objectives – Indigenous community control of their historical documentation – is in this category. The obstacles to realising this recommendation are practical as well as philosophical, however a renewed national energy for reconciliation may be conducive to exploring the legal, policy and archival challenges further in the near future. This research points to this third Bringing Them Home recommendation as central to future frameworks for Koorie archiving.

Within Koorie communities private expressions of identity and pride have always existed, however the decline of external threats to Indigenous cultures and the fear of child removal have allowed a more free public expression of Koorie experiences and cultures beyond Koorie communities. It seems likely that the 2008 apology and an associated shift in national sentiment will heighten the determination and sense of urgency amongst many to ensure that the post-invasion experiences of previous generations are remembered and honoured and that knowledge of pre-invasion cultures is maintained and recovered as far as possible.

In Victoria the establishment of the Koorie Heritage Trust in 1985 was, in part, an expression by Koorie people that mainstream cultural institutions had failed them. Through one of its founders, Jim Berg, the Trust established close links with the Public Record Office Victoria and the Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce, itself established in response to Bringing Them Home. In 2006 the Taskforce released ‘wilam naling…knowing who you are…’ (Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce, 2006) a report to the Victorian government which examined progress in relation to the access to records recommendations of Bringing Them Homeand which recommended a new framework for access to records relevant to the Stolen Generations.

In 2006 the ‘Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act’ 2006 was passed by the Victorian Parliament. It includes recognition of the ‘distinct cultural rights’ of Indigenous people. It is one of a number of local and international rights statements which express a commitment to Indigenous communities maintaining their distinct identities and cultures. The 2007 United Nations ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’ declares that Indigenous peoples:

  • have the right of self-determination and can choose their political status and the way they want to develop. (article 3)
  • have the right to keep and develop their distinct characteristics and systems of law. They also have the right, if they want, to take part in the life of the rest of the country. (article 4)
  • shall be free from cultural genocide. Governments shall prevent: actions which take away their distinct cultures and identities; the taking of their land and resources; their removal from their land; measures of assimilation; propaganda against them. (article 7)
  • have the right to their distinct identities. This includes the right to identify themselves as indigenous. (article 8 )

Other rights statements which are part of the landscape for this report are:

  • The United Nations Human Rights Council’s ‘Updated Set of principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity’ [pdf] which codify, amongst other key rights, the right for individuals and communities to know the truth about past events, and have been formulated with post-colonial and post-trauma societies in mind. The original Joinet Principles were adopted by the UNHRC in 1997 and were reviewed and extended in 2005 by Orentlicher to become the Joinet-Orentlicher principles.
  • The Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights which provide for the ownership and control of Indigenous heritage, including ‘documentation of Indigenous peoples’ heritage in all forms of media’ – ‘Our Culture Our Future: A Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights’ (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1999.
  • The 2003/05 World Summits on the Information Society formulated the goal of a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’ and recognised the need to pay attention to the ‘special situation of indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their heritage and their cultural legacy’ – ‘Tunis Commitment’(Geneva 2003 – Tunis 2005).

As Indigenous and settler communities in various countries and regions have jointly reflected on their engagement with archives, there has been a growing recognition that Western archival methods reflect and reinforce a privileging of settler/colonist voices and narratives – often although not always expressed in written form – over Indigenous ones. Further, the conventional positioning of individuals as the subjects of the archive has had a particularly disempowering effect on Indigenous people whose lives have been so extensively documented in archives, often for the purposes of surveillance, control and dispossession.

This has been a component of a broader professional discourse over recent decades which has began to recognise the nature of records as tools of institutional or national systems of remembering and forgetting or as the product, in some instances, of surveillance and control. Archival institutions are beginning to take on board the need to ensure that their frameworks and services do not continue this system for Indigenous people.

Alongside these developments recordkeepers have begun applying digital information technologies to a range of scenarios, including projects to establish digital and federated repositories. Recordkeepers recognise, but are only just beginning to explore in detail, the capacity of digital information technologies to not only enhance accessibility of archives, but also to support new relationships between archival services providers and their clients.

In this context the Trust and Technology research project has sought to understand the priorities of Koorie communities in relation to their own knowledge, and to consider new archival systems and services which embrace Koorie frameworks of knowledge, memory and evidence.


There were three distinct stages to the research. Stage one was a user needs study of Koorie expectations and experiences which involved interviews with 72 Indigenous people (most of these people identified with a Koorie community whilst a small number identified with other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities). Interviews, which lasted on average 70 minutes, covered issues including storytelling and story recording, trust and authenticity in oral and written records, trusted custodians for recorded stories, control, ownership, access, privacy and experiences of using existing archival services. Purposive sampling was used to identify potential participants. A Community Advisor, Diane Singh – an Elder and known to many in Koorie communities – was appointed to the project team and used her networks and contacts to identify and approach potential participants. Interviews were conducted in participants’ homes, places of work or study and at regional Aboriginal Co-operatives (Co-ops). An initial semi-structured interview schedule was piloted and modified to refine the clarity and flow of the questions. Interviews were audio-recorded and subsequently transcribed. The user needs study was based on an interpretivist research methodology. The researchers were concerned to understand the viewpoints of a range of people and the meanings they drew from their experiences. Particular attention was given to patterns of consensus or shared meanings and to points of dissonance.

Stage two involved a case study evaluating the services provided to Koorie people by two organisations: the Public Record Office Victoria and the Koorie Heritage Trust. Researchers used the themes arising from stage one to develop a set of scenarios about the services provided by the two organisations. These scenarios were used instead of questions to elicit input from the participants in stage two. A total of 22 people participated in individual interviews and/or focus groups. Nine of these were Indigenous clients of one or both of the archival services involved, seven were in roles of supporting clients using archival services and six were in management or coordination positions with the two services. Most interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed. The Co-MAP process modelling and analysis method was used to model the interactions and information flows between clients, communities, mediators and organisations and to understand relationships between the goals and priorities of the various actors.

Stage three further developed one of the key outcomes of the earlier stages; the need expressed for a means of commenting on or contesting the version of events portrayed by records in archives. This has been called a Koorie Annotation System. This is a variation of the project’s original intention of prototyping a system for archiving Koorie oral memory. This change of focus was made in response to the outcomes of stages one and two, in particular the high level of interest on the part of many interviewees in a means of challenging the contents of ‘official’ archives. Stage three developed a specification for an annotation system. In addition to the understandings gained from the first two stages, stage three involved a small reference group of Koorie community members, who participated in two workshops to develop and test the requirements of a Koorie Annotation System.

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