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Ancestors’ Words: Project looks at historical Nyungar writings

Media release

A new project led by Curtin University researchers, in collaboration with the Nyungar community, aims to produce the first account of writing by Nyungar people held in the Western Australian archives and covering the period from 1860 to 1960.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Anna Haebich, of the School of Media, Culture and the Creative Arts, said the State’s collection held a treasury of knowledge about writing by Nyungar people. This knowledge had been passed down in oral history, but was not widely known.

“Looking at the period from 1860 to 1960, the project’s significance lies in uncovering seemingly hidden knowledge about activism by Nyungar people which has been silenced in the past,” Professor Haebich said.

“Working closely with the Nyungar leaders to bring the letters to the community and the writers’ families, we hope to transform this writing into invaluable cultural heritage for the emerging Nyungar nation.”

The Ancestors’ Words project aims to develop an ethical model for research in the Nyungar community. The research team will work in close partnership with a Nyungar working group, members of which include Nyungar elders and representatives from community organisations.

Professor Marion Kickett, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin and a member of the working group, said the project would showcase the significance of the past writings by Nyungar people.

“This project will highlight many stories of dispossessions, intelligence and an enduring resilience that sustained many and deposed others; these tales of survival are a valuable legacy,” Professor Kickett said.

Mr Kyle Morrison, Artistic Director of the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, is another member of the working group. He said the research project could also provide possibilities to engage Nyungar youth in new, creative projects.

“The letters are performative in nature and a cross-generational symposium would be a perfect way to skill share and workshop a variety of performance ideas and outcomes,” Mr Morrison said.

Research for the project, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), will be carried out by Curtin University, Deakin University and Colgate University in New York. Researchers include project leader Professor Haebich, Dr Elfie Shiosaki of Curtin’s Centre for Human Rights Education, Colgate University’s Professor Ellen Percy Kraly, and Deakin’s Dr Tiffany Shellam. The State Records Office of Western Australia and the State Library of Western Australia are providing valuable support.

ARC funding commences in January 2016.