Australia’s first Indigenous writer, David Unaipon (1872-1967) made a commitment to sharing his stories with non-Aboriginal people. Did he hope that they would be valued as part of our country’s cultural expression? Since his time Aboriginal myths and stories have been widely adopted and adapted, often without reference to their origins or history. Homer and Shakespeare are no longer around to defend their work, but Aboriginal people are alive and outspoken about how they are depicted on the page, stage and on the screen.
How, if ever, asks Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison, can Aboriginal themes be ‘used’ by others in a way that is acceptable to Aboriginal people? How can non-Aboriginal people learn to interpret themes, and indeed, what are Aboriginal themes? Who can give permission and who can refuse? What about our shared experiences and common history, do we not all have the rights to that?
Harrison treads her way through the challenging issues of exploitation, referencing, literary fraud, blacked-up actors and community ownership. Sharing our history and stories is essential, she writes, for the health of Aboriginal culture. Bur first we must acknowledge who is in control.