Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Have you ever returned to a town where you grew up as a lad? Have you been struck by how much your memory fails to tally with the town in its grown-up state? Dean Ashenden visits Tennant Creek, fifty years after his last sojourn there. While the town has been transformed, its silence about the past is mostly intact. He sets out to understand how the story of ‘relations between two racial groups within a single field of life’ has been told and not told, in this town and across the nation.
Part One: Constructing the Silence takes as its anchor points the years 1860, 1901, 1933, 1958, and 1967. Part Two: The Struggle to Dismantle the Silence has focus points 1971, 1985, 1992, 2000, and 2005. There is an Afterword and the usual Notes, Bibliography and Index.
I suppose it was inevitable that Part One should be the more interesting. This section begins with the personal stuff: the author photographing markers representing the graves of white pioneers. No blacks were ever recorded. He then leads off with a curious statement:
I left Tennant Creek in 1955, aged thirteen. I had never been back and never wanted to go back. In fact, I’d wanted to not go back. I didn’t like it when we lived there and ached to leave (4).
An unusual statement from an authority on the place. The story then sweeps along with a typical tale of the escapades of a young boy. The aboriginal children, as playmates and as Mission Children, figure clearly in this tale of a childhood. But these were not Tennant Creek’s stories:
I learned “that the struggles over whether and how to tell Tennant Creek’s story were for a century and a half Australia’s struggles writ small, and intense. I found that among the protagonists were several of Australia’s intellectual luminaries and that not once but twice poor beaten-down smashed-up Tennant Creek had managed to make it onto the national stage, not in a starring role but a big enough part to earn a place in the credits” (11).
Norman Tindale’s map, produced in 1920, asserted that in Australia in 1788 there existed a social order of elaborate scale. There among a multitude of tribes nestled Tennant Creek. The book then details black-white interrelationships with the blacks overshadowed by the white minority. This was the origin of the ‘great Australian silence’, a tacit agreement that what was done was done. Records of violence were destroyed; cover-ups and whitewashes were commonplace. This was the period when two of the luminaries referred to earlier, Frank Gillen and Baldwin Spencer, made their names in the not-yet-accepted study of palaeontology. Much of Chapter Two provides fascinating pen pictures of these two pioneers.
Unfortunately, this chapter introduces a series of insights into the work of men, all white, who studied the aboriginal tribes. Next comes Bill Stanner who devoted much of his life to the welfare of the aborigines, then Adolphus Peter Elkin, who was given a ship that was being scuttled beneath him by political forces.
The book wanders through the times of mission control with highlights being the work of Mary Ward at Banka Banka station, but intervention came from Canberra and much good work was destroyed. The book considers the assimilationist policies of Paul Hasluck and spends much time on personages like Whitlam, Keating and Howard. By now, the book tells the tired story of political control and Tennant Creek falls into the shade. The author attempts to redress this situation but it is far too late.
The book has sufficient differences to make it stand out from the herd.
By Dean Ashenden
$34.99; 336 pp