Shepparton’s La Trobe University hosted a panel discussion on Thursday evening with authors from the recently released book Black, White and Exempt: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives under Exemption. La Trobe adjunct senior research fellow Lucinda Aberdeen co-edited the book with La Trobe associate professor Jennifer Jones, and said it brought to light important, littleknown stories from the period of exemption in Australia.
The only Aboriginal people who were granted exemptions had to ‘‘behave like normal white citizens’’ — or risked ending up back on reserves. “The real legacy that’s come from this is a loss of cultural identity,” Dr Aberdeen said. “Most people know about the Stolen Generation, but this was equally insidious.”
While numbers varied across states and were difficult to measure, at least 4000 people were granted an exemption until the certificate was scrapped. “They couldn’t associate with family, they lost their cultural heritage, it came at terrible price,” Dr Aberdeen said. “For some people it meant freedoms if you had your certificate, but people were arrested for talking in their own language, it was the more repressive side of assimilation.”
Dr Aberdeen said the book had emerged from a 2018 Shepparton symposium funded by the university, that resulted in the collaborative design of a logo with art students from GOTAFE. “Presentations were given there, and Aboriginal Studies Press agreed to put it into a volume,” she said. The initiative originally came from two Elders, Shepparton based Wemba Wemba woman Aunty Kella, and Queensland based Aunty Judi Wickers.
Both of the Elders’ grandfathers were granted certificates of exemption between the 1920s and 1940s, and wouldn’t speak their language around their children or grandchildren for fear of the penal consequences. “There’s a sadness to some people because it means languages weren’t handed on,” Dr Aberdeen said. “But we thought — wouldn’t it be interesting to find out the similarities and differences between the two grandfathers.”
With 11 contributors — five of them First Nations writers — the book spans the ‘‘personal and painful stories’’ uncovered in archives, with family narratives and lived experiences of the process. “Years later you get policies to celebrate Aboriginal heritage, but it’s been taken from them,” Dr Aberdeen said. “It shows their resilience how they negotiated to protect it … First Nations people are sick of this deficit narrative about history.”
While the sense of loss is strong, Dr Aberdeen said the book emphasised the ‘‘resourcefulness’’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who fought for their culture. “Aunty Kella and Judi feel strongly this history needs to see the light of day, it needs to be aired so people can feel reconnected with culture — understand what has been taken but what can be recovered too.”
● The book is available to purchase online via Aboriginal Studies Press at https://shop.aiatsis.gov.au/products/black-white-and-exempt?_pos=1&_sid=c932ca08e&_ss=r With 11 contributors — five of them First Nations writers — the book spans the ‘‘personal and painful stories’’ uncovered in archives, with family narratives and lived experiences of the process.
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