An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Sydney Social Justice Network’s inaugural PhD conference in November 2013.

Talking Indigenous politics: The impact of teaching Indigenous history

Ben Kelly, University of New South Wales

Most of us who teach in the field of Indigenous Australian Studies believe that we are in some way contributing towards social justice for Indigenous peoples. Whether we imagine we are fostering reconciliation, preparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous professionals to enter into and improve organisations that work with Indigenous peoples, decolonising minds, or something else, there is a common sense that we are contributing to a more just society. This concern with social justice is what ultimately separates Indigenous Australian Studies from its roots in Anthropology.

Within the field of Indigenous Australian Studies, the dominant political position holds that true social justice for Indigenous peoples requires some form of self-determination (Nakata et al. 2012). Many episodes of history demonstrate the injustice of denying Indigenous self-determination, and courses on Indigenous Australian history—and the experience of colonisation in particular—are among the most consistent elements of curricula of Indigenous Australian Studies programs at Australian universities.

Indigenous leaders have been calling for self-determination since at least the 1920s.

As the work of John Maynard (2007) demonstrates, Indigenous leaders have been calling for self-determination since at least the 1920s. Indigenous self-determination means Indigenous-specific rights to autonomy. This sentiment is echoed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations 2007). Article 3 states specifically that ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’. In simple terms, self-determination refers to the right of Indigenous peoples to indefinitely maintain their existence as distinct peoples.

While Indigenous Australians, like Indigenous peoples globally, have long pressed for self-determination, research finds widespread opposition to Indigenous self-determination among non-Indigenous Australians (Augoustinos, Tuffin & Every 2005; Augoustinos, Tuffin & Rapley 1999; Dunn et al. 2004; Irving Saulwick & Associates 2000; Moran 2009; Newspoll Market Research 2000; Tuffin 2008). This opposition is most commonly justified with reference to a historical narrative that places the injustices of colonisation as isolated incidents ‘in the past’ that are of no legitimate relevance to the contemporary politics of Indigenous affairs. In research conducted for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Irving Saulwick and Associates (2000) found that focus group participants did not acknowledge a relationship between Australian history and the contemporary problems faced by Indigenous peoples, and were overwhelmingly opposed to any special rights or funding for Indigenous Australians. Interviewees in Anthony Moran’s (2009) study of ‘ordinary’ Australian attitudes towards Aboriginal people also consistently denied the relevance of historical injustice in their discussions of ‘the Aboriginal situation’, and expressed considerable hostility to any perceived ‘special benefits’ for Indigenous Australians. Newspoll (2000) found that a majority of 1,300 survey respondents believed that Indigenous Australians are to blame for their own ‘disadvantage’ and that the past practices of non-Indigenous Australians are irrelevant.

This research suggests that when the majority of non-Indigenous Australians talk about Indigenous Australian politics they express opposition to Indigenous self-determination and assimilationist attitudes that are justified with reference to selective accounts of Australian history and a denial of the contingency of the present on the past. In this article I discuss the results of a study that set out to explore how non-Indigenous Australians talk about Indigenous politics when they have a more balanced knowledge of Australian history and recognise the contingency of the present on the past. The purpose of the study was to gain some insight into how the teaching of Indigenous Australian history contributes to the development of non-Indigenous students’ political reasoning, especially in relation to Indigenous self-determination.


The view that promoting a more widespread understanding of Indigenous Australian history will lead to a more just relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is common in the field of Indigenous Australian Studies and among related social justice advocates. It has been endorsed by organisations such as the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (Berwick 2010), in publications by teachers of Indigenous Studies (Gunstone 2008; Keenan 2009) and in the recommendations of widely read reports such as the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991, vol. 5), the Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (2000) and the Bringing them Home report (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997).

Participants held the historically unenlightened majority responsible for injustices.

In this study I conducted two focus group discussions, recruiting fourteen non-Indigenous students who had recently passed a general education course on Indigenous Australian history from 1788 to the present. This course was collaboratively taught by several of my Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues at the University of New South Wales. The course focused on the various attempts of colonial, state and other non-Indigenous authorities to control and/or eliminate Indigeneity, as well as Indigenous strategies to survive, subvert and resist such measures. The impact of colonisation on Indigenous people and the effects of government policies were key themes of the course. Focus group discussion was prompted by common statements relating to Indigenous affairs, which were printed on cards and presented to participants in a random order. Some of the statements were in relation to the contingency of the present on the past, for example ‘the problems faced by Aboriginal Australians today are a direct result of colonisation’ or ‘Aboriginal Australians have nobody but themselves to blame for the challenges they face’. Others were in relation to Indigenous self-determination, for example ‘Aboriginal Australians have a right to control and direct the government policies and services that directly target them’. As moderator of the discussions, I did not participate except to ensure each statement was discussed and that all participants had a chance to contribute.


The first observation that arose from my analysis of the discussion transcripts was the consistency with which participants divided up and categorised Australian society. They posited a fundamental division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The possibility of Indigenous self-determination logically requires that Indigenous peoples be identifiable as a distinct population. Participants emphasised the difference of Indigenous peoples and presented it as morally inviolable. They tended to do this as part of an argument that put limits on the state’s legitimacy to govern Indigenous peoples. For example, in response to a statement that Indigenous Australians have a right to their own system of political representation, Siobhan (all participant names are pseudonyms) argued:

Definitely they should have a separate system because they’re […] different, we’re not the same. To integrate the two, it’s just, they, they’re too different. And like, their culture is just as valid as White, ultimately like White culture. So therefore they deserve their own parliament just as much as European Australians do …

For Siobhan and others in the discussions, the Indigenous right to political self-representation, such as that outlined in Article 18 of the UNDRIP (UN 2007), is justified with reference to irreconcilable differences between the cultures of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. For Siobhan, this meant that Indigenous political representation became an entirely ‘separate system’ including ‘their own parliament’, while for others it meant that Indigenous political representation ‘wouldn’t work’ either with or within dominant settler Australian institutions.

Participants in both focus groups were also consistent in the way they divided the non-Indigenous population of Australian society into categories of ‘the historically enlightened’ and ‘the historically unenlightened’. They placed themselves within the former category—those who know the true history of Australia—and the majority of non-Indigenous Australians in the latter. They held the historically unenlightened majority responsible for the ongoing marginalisation of Indigenous peoples. For example, Gareth argued:

I definitely agree with this statement [that the problems faced by Aboriginal Australians today are a direct result of colonisation] and I believe that Europe went through a phase where it believed it had to get out and conquer, capture the world and reap its wealth, because if they didn’t someone else was going to, and there was little thought put into the effects that it would have had on the Indigenous populations of world. … if people don’t want to recognise it and they just wish to gloss over or see it as a blemish in history, then the issues we face today that are a direct result of this will just continue for I don’t know how long.

From this perspective, competition between European powers was the fundamental cause of colonisation, and the consequences of colonisation for Indigenous peoples were unintended. This is moral argument in which problematic non-Indigenous beliefs and thought processes are held up as the ultimate source of injustice. European powers colonised others because they believed they had to. The consequences of those actions for Indigenous peoples occurred because little thought was given to their circumstances. The challenges faced by Indigenous peoples today are due to people who don’t want to recognise the contingency of the present on the past. The real ‘evils’ within this moral regime are ignorance and carelessness.

Governmental expertise has been ‘out sourced’ from the state to the market.

To prompt discussion on differing interpretations of Australian history I presented participants with simple printed statements representing opposing sides of the Australian ‘history wars’. For example, the statement ‘Australian history is a story of invasion rather than settlement’ was used to reflect the perspective of historians such as Henry Reynolds. Reynolds’s (2006) research details the violence and conflict that occurred when Indigenous Australians resisted the British invasion and occupation of their territories. Keith Windschuttle (2002), on the other hand, argues that episodes of frontier violence were isolated incidents that have been greatly exaggerated by ‘orthodox historians’ and do not represent Indigenous resistance to invasion. For Windschuttle, ‘orthodox historians’, including Reynolds, have ‘fabricated’ history to serve progressive agendas in contemporary Indigenous politics. To represent a historical perspective that deemphasises the contemporary relevance of colonial injustice I presented participants with printed statements such as ‘the colonisation of Australia is a thing of the past’. When presented with such statements, all participants either made or agreed with arguments that blamed the current marginalisation of Indigenous people on historically unenlightened non-Indigenous Australians. They were enacting a form of what Anthony Moran (1998, 2002a, 2002b, 2005) has called ‘indigenising settler nationalism’. Moran (2002a, 2002b) argues that competing forms of nationalism—such as those of the historically enlightened and unenlightened described by the participants—are united by their commitment to stabilising and legitimising the dominant place of non-Indigenous settlers in the Australian nation.

Moran (2002a, 2002b) draws a distinction between ‘assimilationist’ and ‘indigenising’ forms of Australian nationalism, with a focus on the anxieties provoked by the ‘superior moral claim’ of Indigenous peoples to the continent of Australia. Assimilationist and indigenising nationalisms order the past differently, drawing out different emphases and implications for the present. They are different ways of understanding reality with implications for ‘what should be done’ to make Indigenous-settler relations better (Moran 2002a, p. 681). Both nationalisms are forms of ‘settler nationalism’—a form of nationalism specific to (post)colonised nations where non-Indigenous settlers have become the dominant majority (Moran 2002b).

In Moran’s formulations, indigenising nationalism, which emerged in the second half of the 20th century, recognises the historical injustices inflicted by settlers on Indigenous peoples and seeks to make the nation legitimate by achieving social justice for Indigenous peoples and constructing a central place for Indigenous culture within nationalist ideology (Moran 2002b). Assimilationist nationalism, on the other hand, seeks to emphasise and celebrate the achievements of settler colonial nation-building and to downplay the ‘blemishes’ of past injustice and their relevance to contemporary Indigenous-settler relations. Ghassan Hage (1998, 2003) makes a similar argument, using the terms ‘white multiculturalists’ or (with some irony) ‘good white nationalists’ to describe indigenising nationalists and ‘white nationalists’ or ‘evil white nationalists’ to describe assimilationist nationalists. All participants in the focus group discussions were eager to present themselves as ‘good white nationalists’.


As good white nationalists, participants looked for arguments that allowed for both Indigenous rights to self-determination and the stabilisation and legitimatisation of their own dominant place as non-Indigenous settlers in the Australian nation. In both focus groups, participants did so by emphasising the self-governmental expertise of Indigenous Australians. Self-determination was most commonly advocated by participants as a practical solution to the government of Indigenous peoples. This is consistent with neoliberal political rationality as analysed by Nikolas Rose (1993, 1999) and other scholars of the Foucauldian tradition (see Cruickshank 1996; Howard-Wagner 2007; Miller & Rose 1992).

The ascendency of neoliberal political rationality since the late 20th century has been marked by the ‘out sourcing’ of governmental expertise from the state to the market. In a variety of domains, from the provision of employment programs to the operation of correctional facilities, much governmental expertise is now located within a market governed by the rationalities of competition, accountability and consumer demand (Rose 1993, p. 285). Employing an argument of practicality, participants advocated what Rose (1996, p. 41) would call a process of ‘de-governmentalizing the state and de-statizing practices of government’ in relation to Indigenous affairs, by insisting on the authority of Indigenous expertise to manage Indigenous affairs independently of the state.

This language of practicality was most frequently articulated in conjunction with a narrative of non-Indigenous failure to effectively govern Indigenous affairs, as expressed in the following extract:

[Alice] There have been examples where we have placed policies that we think are good on them and it’s been disastrous, like the welfare policy in the Northern Territory. Like, I know there were communities that said ‘we don’t want this,’ but they said it’s your right to have, and it kind of ruined a whole community to be dependent on welfare—

[Bill, interjecting]—It’s just logical, like, the Indigenous affairs officer should be Indigenous, the education minister should have a background in education … I think all ministries should have experience in what they are doing. If you’re going to have an Indigenous affairs minister then logically you would have an Indigenous person.

Despite exposure to the concept of rights, participants did not draw on this concept at all.

The failure of state expertise in governing Indigenous affairs in Alice’s account is demonstrated by its failure to promote conditions in which Indigenous individuals can develop their innate potential for autonomy—a central function of government in liberal societies (Hindess 1996, pp. 69–72). It constructs ‘welfarism’ as problematic. Yet, it does not blame Aboriginal communities as having failed, but government as having failed via the imposition of policies on Indigenous communities. Bill further develops Alice’s suggestion that ‘Indigenous people knew better’ into an argument that constructs Indigeneity as equivalent to occupational experience. This argument privileges situated Indigenous knowledge as essential to expertise in governing Indigenous affairs.

The argument about Indigenous expertise in self-government arose spontaneously at several points in both focus group discussions. Allora perhaps put the logic most succinctly: ‘they know what it’s really like to be them’. Indigenous self-governmental expertise consistently came up alongside arguments that emphasised Indigenous difference and the failure of the state to effectively manage Indigenous affairs. Although the Indigenous history course they had passed had included material on human rights and Indigenous rights and the concept of rights was raised on some of the printed political statements that prompted discussion in the focus groups, participants did not draw on the language or logic of rights. Instead—in both groups—participants collaboratively developed an argument that Indigenous self-determination is a practical solution to the efficient government of Indigenous Australian peoples.


Having recently passed a university course on Indigenous Australian history from 1788 to present, the participants in this study did draw on historical narratives in order to defend Indigenous self-determination. However, despite exposure to the concept of rights, participants did not draw on this concept at all. Instead they engaged in a process of indigenising settler nationalism, leaving the legitimacy and dominance of the non-Indigenous nation unchallenged by imaginatively separating Indigenous and non-Indigenous fields of power. They argued that the historical and contemporary marginalisation of Indigenous Australians is the result of problematic non-Indigenous beliefs and the governmental policies that arise from them. These problematic beliefs were attributed to a dominant category of non-Indigenous Australians who were historically unenlightened and morally culpable for their wilful ignorance. Thus, participants were able to quarantine themselves, as historically enlightened non-Indigenous members of a settler-colonial nation, from any moral anxiety provoked by questions about the marginalisation and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples.

From a social justice perspective, this kind of indigenising nationalist approach to Indigenous affairs is problematic. As well as relying on an exaggerated difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, it implicitly makes the Indigenous right to self-determination contingent on the ability of Indigenous polities to ‘get results’ in solving problems that are still diagnosed by the non-Indigenous nation. Developing students’ ability to recognise and articulate Indigenous self-determination as a social justice end in itself requires more than teaching the history of the invasion, marginalisation and resistance of Indigenous peoples. The moral and philosophical questions that arise in the politics of Indigenous affairs are not easy, especially for settler Australians who are (consciously or not) invested in the ongoing occupation and use of Indigenous country. A deeper engagement with such questions requires a longer course of study.

As well as a general understanding of Indigenous Australian history, students require the opportunity to develop their understanding of Indigenous worldviews, the legacy of colonial ideas and political frameworks, and the limitations of current ways of thinking about Indigenous politics. No one-semester course can achieve all of that. The majority of students we encounter in Indigenous Australian Studies at university enrol in our courses as free electives rather than as part of a major or minor. This limits the potential reach of the field’s social justice aim of cultivating graduates who are better able to analyse, discuss and productively engage with the politics of Indigenous Australian affairs. Educators outside the field of Indigenous Australian Studies who share this aim can contribute by encouraging their students—particularly those undertaking programs in social science and political studies—to take up a major or minor in Indigenous Australian Studies alongside their primary course of study.


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Ben Kelly is a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney and a Lecturer of Indigenous Studies at UNSW Australia.