How to read Aboriginal archives

My blog post about including interpretation of original material and records relating to Aboriginal people, culture and history into information literacy education

Because accessing and utilising information is a necessity to personal empowerment and social inclusion and because of the current mass proliferation of information and the abundance of information available, there has been a drive from libraries, especially academic libraries and information services to assist their users become information literate to better find, evaluate and use information. This is usually done by information services hosting and providing training and workshops with the aim increasing participants’ information literacy skills.

In Australia, these types of programs are usually based on Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework which presents six standards which underpin information literacy acquisition, understanding and application by an individual. In the tertiary educational context, these programs are usually aimed at new students to show them how identify their information needs, for example what their assessment question is asking them, how to develop a search strategy for those needs, what resources they can use to search for the information they need, what resources are considered reputable, how to note take and cite these sources. Also, there are programs are aimed at students of a certain discipline to show them what databases and journals related to their discipline are available to them and how to fully utilise them for their studies.

I suggest that information literacy workshops aimed at history, Indigenous studies, and journalism students as well as many other students, incorporate a discussion on historical context around the original material and records in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) institutions that relate to Aboriginal people, culture and history as part of their information literacy education as these sources are considered primary and reputable. This discussion will aim to help students critically engage with this material by assisting them understand that most of Indigenous material in GLAM collections was recorded by European colonisers and as such has a Eurocentric bias and lacks an Indigenous perspective which can mean these sources may intentionally or unintentionally misinterpret, omit and/or distort aspects of  Aboriginal people, culture or history. This discussion will also put material into its historical context, describing concepts like scientific racism, so students can for example, understand that material created right up to the 1970s were based in a time where major anthropological thought considered First Nations cultures and people as savage and primitive.

Additionally, this discussion will engage students to question the intention of the material. For example, government records are considered to be by many as objective, but they were created with intention. These intentions include justifying mass displacement and more governmental control over First Nations people. Furthermore, secondary sources also need to be questioned as most these interpretations have been done by non Indigenous people which has subsequently continued the lack of Indigenous perspectives and voices in history.

In addition to this, this discussion will ask students to critically examine GLAM institutions as many people, including students see GLAM institutions as sources of authority and places of neutral facts. However,  these institutions have historically privileged certain voices (chapter 11) and have been exclusionary of many other voices, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. This has proliferated and continued a one-sided history which has aided the colonial agenda and has contributed to a social hierarchy and the dehumanisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Because these institutions and people that work within them decide what to collect and preserve based what they believe would be valuable to future generations and  that their concept of value is heavily influenced by the dominant oppressive culture, then they cannot be places of complete neutrality. This is something that many students who would potentially use these institutions do not consider.

This is not to have students not use the original material and records in GLAM institutions that relates to Aboriginal people, culture and history, but to critically engage with this material, which includes questioning it. Like, who created it, why was it made, why was it collected and why was it preserved? And to examine any invisibilities or lack of voices in the dialogue, particularly first hand accounts from First Nations people.

I believe by doing this we are helping students become more information literate particularly in regards to standard 3 The information literate person critically evaluates information and standard 6 The information literate person uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information of the Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework.

By Nathan Sentance

The need for reclassification of First Nations original material in memory institutions.

Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) organisations have in many ways failed to correctly classify First Nations material, particularly original material in their collections. This is the result of the classificatory structures being used, such as the Dewey Decimal System or subject thesauri, by GLAM organisations were developed based on the epistemology systems of the dominant culture, which in the case of most colonised countries, is one of white Judeo-Christian. As a consequence, there is a marginalisation and a failure to incorporate concepts and epistemology outside the dominant culture, including First Nations knowledge frameworks (Olson, 1998).

This is because most of First Nations cultural material in collections was either recorded or collected by Europeans (Thorpe & Byrne, 2014). And since entering GLAM collections, has only been intended to be accessed by non-Indigenous people to research First Nations culture (Koch, 2010).

However, now, more and more First Nations people want to access this material to reconnect or revitalise their culture and language, research their family history, or to know more about their communities (Thorpe & Galassi, 2014). However, the failure to only classify cultural materials through Western systems has affected the discoverability of cultural heritage for First Nations people (Russell, 2005)

Furthermore, because current classification practices do not incorporate First Nations epistemology, they may be less useful in terms of culture revitalisation. Additionally, First Nations cultural heritage may organised and arranged in a way that is culturally inappropriate (McKemmish et al, 2011).

Based on years of experience being First Nations people working in GLAM with a focus on facilitating access for First Nations communities to the cultural material in collections and years of experience cataloguing and classifying material, this post will discuss the how First Nations cultural heritage is currently classified and arranged and issues related to that. 

Classification by discipline

Most classification systems, such as Dewey Decimal, divides material by subject such as art, science, sport etc. (Satija, 2013). There are many reasons these classifications could be inadequate to First Nations material. Firstly, much of First Nations knowledge does not fit in traditional Western disciplines (Watson, 2014). As Watson (2014) notes, First Nations knowledges were very holistic and theology, environmental sustainability, art, science, philosophy, technology and ethics were all connected. As consequence, manifestations of First Nations knowledges can easily get mischaracterised. For instance, the shark masks from the Torres Strait are aesthetically pleasing and used for dance and therefore a book relating to them could easily be categorised as an art book or a dance book. However, this may not be the discipline First Nation people may search under to access the aforementioned book. Ceremony or philosophy may be the more likely categorisation used by First Nations people.

In some cases this mischaracterisation may be offensive. For example, occasionally in Dewey, Aboriginal creation stories come under 398.2049915 Aboriginal myths and legends. Conversely, Christian creation stories are not classified as Christian myths and legends. Aboriginal culture is a living culture and many Aboriginal people believe their creation story, just as Christians do, as fact.


Current classification systems centre colonial locations rather than Nation group

Provenance, either in terms of who collected the material or by material’s geographical location is occasionally how First Nations cultural heritage, particularly cultural objects, are arranged in collections (Bennett, et al, 2017). However, this heavily hinders discoverability for many First Nations people trying to access their own cultural heritage.

For example, if all First Nations material from Melbourne is classified together this presents a problem as Melbourne and surrounding areas are home to 5 different language groups of the Kulin nation (Victoria University, 2017). Therefore, if a member of the Wurundjeri community of the Kulin nation wanted to access their own cultural heritage they may have to go through a lot of unrelated Melbourne material to find material that relates to their culture. Thus, creating more work which could be a barrier to access.

Additionally, if physically searching through First Nations cultural material from Melbourne, a Wurundjeri community member may come across cultural material from a different language group or material that is considered men’s or women’s business, that because of cultural protocols, they are not meant to see. This could cause distress or vicarious trauma (Arnold-de Simine, 2013).  

Current classification misclassify and/or simplify First Nations cultural heritage

Another method to arrange and classify cultural material, particularly in museums, is by type. For example, tools together and weapons together (Johnson & Horgan, 1979). Within these categorisations is sub-categorisations. For instance, within the category weaponry there might a subcategory of boomerangs (Bennett, et al, 2017).

This has implications toward research and cultural revitalisation as well. For instance, many records of First Nations cultural objects have limited metadata and because of this, the classification and categorisation maybe some of the only contextual information available (Gilman, 2006). Thus, leading to people who access the collections accepting the misclassification as fact which can lead to a proliferation of misinformation.

A famous example of is the “Sydney boomerang”. According to Florek’s (2012) research, the Gadigal people of Coastal Sydney did not use boomerangs before invasion. They more likely used wooden swords and adopted the boomerang in the early 1900s. However, internationally there are collections that contain “Sydney boomerangs” (British Museum, 2017). This continuation of the “Sydney boomerang” emanates from its original classification by anthropologists and GLAM professionals.

As can be seen, current classification of First Nations material can and does have devastating effects and consequences. To diminish these effects and improve classification in the future, this post recommends that GLAM institutions implement the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information Resource Network (ATSILIRN) protocols, particularly protocol 5.2 which recommends GLAM organisations “Promote appropriate changes to standard descriptive tools and metadata schemas with the aim of retrospectively re-cataloguing items recorded with unsuitable subject headings” and protocol 5.3 “Improve access by the introduction of classificatory systems which describe items by their geographic, language and cultural
Identifiers” (ATSILIRN, 2012). To implement fully, GLAM organisations need to work closely with First Nations people and communities to ensure that any new classification schemas and retroactive reclassification does not repeat the mistakes of the past and also ensures First Knowledge epistemology is incorporated.

Museums Galleries Australia Indigenous Roadmap Project

This post recommends GLAM institutions familiarise themselves with the issues outlined in the issues paper, particularly those addressing the right of self-determination of First Nations peoples around the globe. Both the resources recommended also reflect article 31 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.”

By Nathan Sentance


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network. (2012).
The protocols. Retrieved from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information
and Resource Network:
Olson, H A. 1998. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing
Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library Trends
47(2): 233-255.
Satija, M. P. (2013). The theory and practice of the dewey decimal classification system. Thorpe, K., & Byrne, A. (2014). Indigenous voices in the State Library of NSW. Library History Forum, SLNSW, 18-19 November 2014 75th Anniversary of the NSW Library Act 1939.
Sydney. Retrieved from
Thorpe, K., & Galassi, M. (2014). Rediscovering Indigenous Languages: The role and impact of libraries and archives in cultural revitalisation. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 45(2), 81-100
Webster, K. and Doyle, A. (2008) ‘Don’t class me in antiquities!: Giving voice to Native American materials’ in Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, pp. 189-198.
Martin Nakata, Alex Byrne, Vicky Nakata & Gabrielle Gardiner (2005)
‘Libraries, Indigenous Australians and a Developing Protocols Strategy for the Library
and Information Sector’, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36:2, 185-199, DOI:
Martin, G. (1995) ‘Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’ First Roundtable on Library and Archives Collections and Services of Relevance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, 4 May 1995
Bibliotecas indígenas en Australia y Nueva Zelanda: Una revisión bibliográfica (I don’t speak Spanish but am hoping to glean a few good resources from this)

Barnhardt, R. and Kawagley, A. O. (2005) Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Alaska Native Ways of Knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 36:1, pp. 8-23.

5 things more sacred than Cook Statues that are under threat

There has been a recent push during the debate of the merit of public monuments of colonisers and invaders  to place statues of Cook more than 100 years old on the National Heritage List which automatically means they will be guarded by strict laws which could see vandals caught attacking  statues of Captain James Cook facing hefty fines and up to seven years in jail 

In response I have written a list of things that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture that currently under threat and are absolutely more sacred than a monument of James Cook.

  1. Awabakal Butterfly Cave

The cave has been said to have been meeting place for a Awabakal women for 4000-6000  years (way older than 100 years) and because of the caves’ meaning and its  importance for cultural knowledge transference and gatherings, it is considered very sacred. As such, it has been listed as Protected Aboriginal site by the NSW government in 2013.

However, the site is currently threat by a new housing development located 20 metres from a sacred cave. As well as endangering the structural integrity of the site, this development threatens the privacy Awabakal women need when visiting the site. This is already worsens a pre-existing issue as the site is on “private property” meaning the women have to ask permission to meet at the site.

Considering this, shouldn’t protecting the Awabakal cave from corporate interests be a higher priority than graffiti on an inaccurate statue?

2. takayna/Tarkine

Also, known as Arthur Pieman Conservation Area, this site is an area of great significance for Tasmania’s Aboriginal community and is also heritage listed. However, the current Tasmania state government wants to extend its recreational access to the site, which includes 4wd access.  This has concerned the local Aboriginal community members as such vehicles can vandalise the landscape.

When considering how much knowledge is embedded in the landscape, any destruction can cause insurmountable loss of culture and history. Why isn’t this vandalism as heavily discussed, especially when it involves the rewriting of thousands of years of history?

3. Piliga Forest – Biliga

Up to 850 coal seam gas wells are planned by Santos across the Pilliga – threatening to industrialise this habitat refuge. This has major effects to endangered wildlife of the area, including nationally-listed and critically endangered Bibil (Box-Gum Woodland) as well as local water, affecting its drink-ability. This also affects Local Aboriginal knowledge transference as much of Gomeroi/Gamilaraay culture relates to the rivers and the land.


Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula, on the mid-west coast of Western Australia is a not just a significant to Australian culture and history, it’s significant to world history as this site is home to over a million petroglyphs (rock art). Some of which, are among the oldest petroglyphs in the world (around 45,000 years old). Their depictions include animals that no longer exist and human faces (most likely one of the  earliest depictions of a human face in the world)

However, Murujuga is under threat from industrial expansion. This includes mining and a chemical plant. It’s feared that the pollution involved in this industrialization can negatively affect Murujuga.

If we are worried about the erasure of history that can be caused vandalising a statue , surely we need to worry about anything that could affect a site with 45,000 years history and heritage.

5. Our Children.

Our children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are our future, however a 14 year boy can get murdered and the perpetrator only gets three years in prison. This is in the same country where a vandal of a colonial statue can get seven years in jail.

In addition to this, Indigenous Australians account for less than 3 per cent of Australia’s national population, but they make up more than half of all children in juvenile detention. And as seen with what was reported in Don Dale, Indigenous children can be the subject of major human rights abuses once incarnated. Furthermore, Aboriginal deaths in custody is still a prevalent still an issue in this country, and the one the affects our younger generation.

Additionally, it’s been 25 years since the Bringing Them Report and 9 years since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids are still being removed from their families at an alarming rate.  Nationally, Indigenous children are nine times more likely to be removed than non-Indigenous kids.

Lastly, this disenfranchising, dehumanising and disadvantaging of our children, has led to high rates of Indigenous youth suicide.

Considering all of the above, we need to reframe the reverence we give to colonial statues and colonial paper. They’re not the only sources of culture or history. In many cases, the Aboriginal sites I have mentioned (along with many I didn’t mention) have more cultural information embedded in them and tell us more about ourselves than a colonial statue ever could. Instead of celebrating these statues, we should be proud of the heritage that surrounds many of the sites around this nation, celebrate their connection to the oldest living culture in the world  and protect them.

The outrage people exhibited at vandalism of monuments is offensive when thinking what those monuments mean to First Nations people. Especially, when our youth are today still affected by dehumanisation that comes with the white washing of history in which these statues contribute to.

Why isn’t there national outrage when a murder of a 14 year old boy is only considered dangerous driving.
By Nathan Sentance




Reframing community consultation

Many cultural institutions undertake community consultation when working on exhibitions, services, collections or research projects that relate to First Nations people or culture.   However, there have been discussions around the use of the terms “community consultation” or “community engagement”  and the processes they entail.

An issue that I have with the use of community consultation is that in many cases it is not a collaborative process and for the most part it is about seeking approval rather than receiving input. Usually, an organisation or person has an idea than does consultation, but the trajectory of the project rarely changes based on community feedback. Aspects of the project may change, but not significant aspects, especially in regards to outcomes. This type of consultation could be considered what Poka Laenui refers to as “surface accommodation”  where  the incorporation of cultural protocols or First Nations Knowledge in the project is at a very shallow level to give the appearance of Indigenous ownership.

That being said, there are many occasions where First Nations cultural knowledge is needed and integral part of a cultural institutions’ project. For example, you might want to add videos of Elders’ stories to your gallery or collection to form a stronger narrative. However, you got to ask if this is a reciprocal relationship or just taking. Does this have a community benefit?

Many times organisations think their projects’ outcomes have self evident benefits such as if you are recording Elders’ stories, means your organisation can preserve the story for future generations.  However, that is something you think the community wants and not something they asked for. There is a big difference between the two.  The former is a continuation of the paternalistic thinking that does not recognise First Nations peoples’ agency.

Engagement needs to mutual benefits. 

Another issue I have with the way consultation is conducted is that relationship aspects of it are rarely maintained. Organisations or individuals seek First Nations communities or community members for a certain project but after the project, the organisation or individual seldom contact that community group again until the next time they need their approval or knowledge. Rarely do Elders get invited to the organisation for a cup of tea without an agenda.

Lastly, cultural practitioners and knowledge holders need to fairly compensated when being consulted for projects. No other consultants are asked to give advice or input for free. Payment for consultation helps demonstrate that your organisation values First Nations cultural knowledge.

In summary, most First Nations community engagement is better than none. Nevertheless, when engaging and consulting with community, reciprocity and empowerment need to be at the forefront. Ways of thinking may be challenged, but that is important. Projects need to have flexibility and fluidity to allow First Nations knowledge and ideas to be properly incorporated which leads to the project being more collaborative.

by Nathan Sentance

Judy Watson – Defying Empire

The following blog looks at Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s artwork, the gulf in Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia

Archives and records are powerful tools in regards to informing the memory, identity and narrative of this nation, but historically these sources have been exclusionary of many voices, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. As such, archives and records have been a tool to tell only one side of history or in many cases rewriting history.

For example, South African archivist Verne Harris, often talks about if we were to only rely on South African government records to tell the story of Apartheid, we would never know the extent of the oppression  and atrocities. Additionally, Worimi archivist Kirsten Thorpe talks about how many Aboriginal people would access missionary records about themselves or family members would state how the records were inaccurate , however these records are what people use to write and tell history.

Because of this, archives and records can be seen as tools of oppression so it’s interesting Judy uses these tools to tell a story of Aboriginal massacres.

This leads to an interesting statement on one of the sheets on the artwork.

The fact that the sources are open access and not restricted means that they are publicly accessible. If that’s the case, then why is this information not well known? Why are people are people shocked when I tell them about the stories, like the ones that lie within Judy’s work?

In addition to this, it needs to be considered why Uncles and Auntys stories are considered heresay, but these massacres that are documented are contested.  It is a contradiction that is at the heart of current debates around history.

Another aspect of the work is the fact that it is in an X formation of the artwork. This has multiple connotations. Firstly, the idea of X marks the spot which connects the massacre to place, reaffirming that these atrocities happened at a time and place. They are real.

Furthermore, the X has a loaded meaning in regards to archives as one of the first Aboriginal contributions to archives was the signing their name for blankets and because many Aboriginal people were not literate in the Western context they would sign their name with an “X” This speaks to the anonymity of Aboriginal people in records. Especially when discussing Aboriginal people in massacres, as while the perpetrators are maybe named in records, the Aboriginal people were rarely documented. Instead, records and reports would just contain statements like “14 Aborigines killed”

In summary, this artwork speaks to the many ways  colonisation reinforces itself through archives and records, but exhibits the contradiction of  the history  debates. Maybe it takes a work like Judy’s to create this discussion. Additionally maybe it is also needed to ensure that this information that is publicly available actually enters public consciousness.

By Nathan Sentance




Fear of being an outsider

My blog post about my fear of speaking out and how public gas-lighting of racial experiences can affect young POC 

When I was younger, often, I was confronted with racism and ignorance of schoolmates and schoolmate’s parents and then stuck in a conundrum, speak up and risk creating an uncomfortable environment and become an outsider or bite my tongue and have the shame of not standing up for my people, my brothers and sisters and myself.

One example of this was with football. My teenage football team had a cool little Koori crew of 5 Aboriginal players. One of these players, who was much darker than the rest of us, was called “boonga” and “coon”. My fellow teammates treated this like they were his nicknames or that they were terms of endearment. He, like the rest of Koori crew treated this like it was no big deal and that it didn’t bother us, but I know for a fact that it bothered me and probably the others too.

However, we never said anything. I think this was not just to avoid conflict, but to ensure that we didn’t miss out on the camaraderie of being in a team. All the Koori crew saw how Anthony Mundine and Timana Tahu were perceived and talked about after they stood up against racism (this is way before what happened to Adam Goodes). They were called divisive, whingers, buzzkills and were generally hated by the people around me.  I didn’t want that for myself.

Thinking about this in retrospect, I realise while my teammates might have thought they were saying “boonga” and “coon” as terms of endearment, I think what they were subtlety saying to me and the rest of the Koori crew is “you may be part of the team, but in our eyes, you are still not of one of us”.

So, I should have spoken up, I was outsider to them either way.  But recently, hearing Heritier Lumumba experiences with racism within the Collingwood football club reminded me of the pervasiveness of white supremacy and the reaction to him talking about these experiences demonstrates how forcefully white supremacy will protect itself. When Heritier Lumumba and other high profile POC speak out against racism, it inspires the generation next, however if these experiences keep getting publicly dismissed, it can cause fear in younger POC of condemnation and isolation if they speak out about their own experiences. But then, maybe , that is why its done.


by Nathan Sentance

Silencing history?

My brief blog post on the removal of monuments of controversial figures. Written for the Aus Glam Blog Club Aug theme of Silence  

The removal of statues of racists or statues that represent racism and slavery in the United States, has created discussion in this land mass around our own statues of invaders and colonists, who to many are symbols of colonisation and genocide. This  discussion has caused some Australian commentators to defend the statues as part of history and stating that their removal would be silencing, erasing and/or rewriting history.

However, as we know these statues are of part the creation and reinforcement of a historical and cultural narrative that portrays men like Macquarie, Cook, Brisbane, etc as heroic and admirable. And, if you consider these men’s involvement in the massacres, land theft and oppression then aren’t the presence of these statues rewriting history?

As Beasley notes, claims of revisionism are not new. Ever since the 1970s, when there was the call to include the many parts of First Nations history that were left out of mainstream historical discourse, historians have avoided or contested anything that tarnishes the mythology of colonisers and invaders.

Consequently, the mythology attached to these monuments continues and is one that vindicates their lives and helps those prosper now on the back of their land theft and violence feel less guilty or even proud. The existence of this hero mythology heavily depends on the avoidance or denial of First Nations history. Particularly, when that history intersects with invaders.

Another argument against the removal of statues is that they can help tell the dark history of these men. As one commentator wrote “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it” However, for all the statues and things named after Governor Lachlan Macquarie, people are very unaware of his involvement in the Appin Massacre.

The statues rarely do anything than glorify these men and therefore their actions. They were not built to be conversation starters or to be cautionary tales of white supremacy. In fact, they do the opposite.

Another argument against their removal is that they are sacred. I personally find that offensive. Many statues of Cox, Cook, Macquarie, Philip, etc were built in our lifetime or in the last 100 years, but they represent an attempt to destroy 65-80,000 year culture and they are placed on stolen sacred lands. As result, their existence in public spaces are evasive reminders of invasion and genocide. Not just a symbol saying “we won”, but an unavoidable symbol saying “we won! In your face”

As for the argument that removing statues is erasing history, that is ludicrous. Men like Phillip and Cook are some the most written  about people in Australian history. The removal of one monument, would not cause everyone to suddenly forget about Cook, especially, when there are hundreds of books and papers focused on him.

As you can see, while people see removing the statues of people such as Macquarie and Cox as revisionism, the statues themselves are revisionism. A continuation of the history of Australia being controlled by certain few and omitting many voices, particularly First Nations voices.  Similar to what has happened in historic collections in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. However, in those collections we can address the biases in history by what we collect now and how we present material, allowing historical pluralism.

I do not believe statues of Cook or Phillip, or Macquarie have much capacity for pluralism. As such, we need to question their purpose, especially in public spaces.

By Nathan Sentance


Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People

My blog post about the need to centre First Nations Voices in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) collections.

I used to discuss missionaries’ papers and their usefulness in regards to First Nations family history as part of my work. Unfortunately, this usually lead to me discussing the missionaries themselves. This was hard to avoid as the collection would be named after missionary and the descriptive information available mostly related to them.  But, I hated it. Mainly, because it centred a non-Indigenous person in a story about First Nations people. This is common as much of the First Nations cultural material in GLAM collections originates from non-Indigenous people who recorded or collected (probably stole) First Nations culture.

As result, there are shields in collections that their records state ‘maker unknown” but clearly articulate that it is part of the “Smith” collection or photos of First Nations community members in collections that have insufficient title “Aboriginal woman & Aboriginal boy” but the metadata clearly states creator “Thomas Smith” or manuscripts in collections titled the “Awabakal language by Thomas Smith”. All of these examples decentre First Nations people. They also imply that First Nations knowledge or culture doesn’t exist until it gets white acknowledgement. That our culture, like our land, needs to be “discovered”. Furthermore, it doesn’t recognise First Nations people as creators of culture and history or as knowledge holders, but rather gives them the roles of subjects.

This still continues today. You often see non-Indigenous researchers who are researching First Nations culture being solely credited on the research output and only acknowledging and/or thanking the community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from. Whereas, the First Nations community and knowledge holders should be credited as co-authors of the output and should have have their names listed before the non-Indigenous researcher.

Also in art, there are many non-Indigenous artists who use their art to highlight contemporary issues of racism and colonisation faced by First Nations people. However,  often their creative output again solely credits them as the creator. Additionally, their art can centre a non-Indigenous person in a discussion of First Nations issues and could take up space that a First Nations voice could fill.

Both of these examples lead to the continuation of GLAM collections being filled with White voices on First Nations culture. There are other ramifications to this as well, such as access. For instance, I heard stories of people trying to access photos of their family members in collections but can’t because of copyright restrictions.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, we should minimise White voices in regards to First Nations culture whenever possible. If a boomerang is on display, then the inscription below it should focus on the community it came from and cultural information around it, not the non-Indigenous person who donated it to the collection.

 To compliment that, we also try to work with First Nations communities and add more cultural information to our catalogues and records. One of the reasons we centre non-Indigenous people in discussions about First Nations cultural heritage material is because it is the only information we have available. Adding more cultural information to our records would rectify this. 

Also, we should respect Indigenous intellectually property. When a non-Indigenous person deposits First Nations cultural heritage into our collections, we should ensure community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from are also are acknowledged as copyright holders and as such have a say in the access conditions of the material.

Digitally rearrange collections. While, it may be chaotic to physically divide and disperse the “Smith collection”, we may be able to do so in digital spaces. In these spaces, we may be able to organise and classify material by the First Nations community it comes from and by digitally removing  First Nations material from the “Smith collection” we decentre “Smith” from this First Nations story. Additionally, in digital spaces we can prioritise cultural information above information relating to provenance in the metadata. 

Lastly, have your collection development or acquisitions policy prioritise First Nations cultural heritage material created by First Nations people. 

In summary, many of us are aware of the Eurocentric bias in GLAM institutions, but we got to be aware how current practices contribute to that bias. Centring the non-Indigenous person who wrote, painted, photographed, collected, etc First Nations cultural heritage material does contribute to the devaluing of First Nations voices takes away their agency and places First Nations people and their cultures as subjects and that is why we need to work to prevent this from continuing. 

By Nathan Sentance

My Blog about Identity

The following post focuses the construction of Aboriginal identity and the effects that can have

This month’s GLAM Blog Club Theme is identity so I thought I would write about my own identity being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man and the construction of Aboriginal identity by colonisers. This topic was been discussed a lot recently, particularly in these two IndigenousX Guardian articles 1, 2 as well as Dr Bronwyn Carlson’s book the Politics of Identity and Dr Anita Heiss’ book Am I Black Enough for You.  There is also this Canadian First Nations perspective article titled Looking white and being Aboriginal

I remember when I was young saying to someone that I wanted to be Matty Bowen because like him, I was short, fast and Aboriginal. The response I got from this person was I can’t be like Matty because I’m not really Aboriginal like him. This was the first time in my life, I realised that people may not see me as Aboriginal and even though I grew up never thinking I was anything but Wiradjuri, that others may question my identity.

Being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man

Since colonisers arrived to this land mass they later titled “Australia” , they have defined who we are and what we do, identifying us as “Aboriginal” or “native” or later “Indigenous” among other terms. These terms were used to define us, not just as different, but to define us as inferior. Later, when colonisers starting pushing the assimilation agenda to fix what they called the “Aborigine problem” they continued to define and categorise us by either tribal or non-tribal, which later informed the blood quantum definitions and categorisation of us. That is when terms like “half-caste” and “quarter-caste”  started being applied to people.

This is not in the past, the media continues to proliferate and reinforce White created definitions of who we are and what we do. Now the definition is one of drunk criminals rather than savage natives, however both definitions achieve the same thing,  to characterise us as inferior as well as to dehumanise us.  There’s also the famous example of andrew bolt in the herald sun explaining who he thought was more Aboriginal based on what they looked like.

GLAMR institutions even play a part is this with their exhibitions that are curated by White people having simplified portrayals of First Nations peoples. Many exhibitions only tell stories of First Nations people as sad victims or as magical beings. This can create or fortify binary ideas on who First Nations people are.

This is why it upsets me when after I identify myself as Wiradjuri,  people say “you don’t look Aboriginal”; “you can’t be much Aboriginal” or “what percentage are you?” because it continues to reinforce  binary definitions of who First Nations people are. Definitions which have had very little input from First Nations people themselves.

This questioning or denial of my identity as a Wiradjuri man because of my fair skin may derive from the fact much of White society wants to deny and ignore how destructive colonisation has been on First Nations people. As Nayuka Gorrie points out “There are violent reasons many of us have fair skin” Acknowledging this may come with a guilt many people do not want to face.

Occasionally, this denial of First Nations peoples’ identity is done to derail discussions about racism. If you dismiss their identity, you can also discuss dismiss their experiences.

White created definitions of who First Nations people are extend beyond skin colour. Recently, talking with a Gamilaroi artist friend of mine, we were talking about his work, which very influenced by Tolkien and Gaiman and that it does not fit the mould of what is deemed Aboriginal art by mainstream society. As result, he is not considered an Aboriginal artist.  However, I argue, that because his art is influenced by his life as a Gamilaroi man, then it is Aboriginal art.

Fair skin privilege

I think it should be acknowledged while I identify As a Wiradjuri man, I do benefit from fair skin or “white-passing” privilege. I do not cop racist slurs from strangers (except that one time someone mistook me for being of Asian descent). I usually get to tell the story of myself rather than other people imposing a story on me based on the way I look. If people never met certain family members of mine, I could tell them that I’m white and they’d would not think otherwise. These benefits gain me access to elements of society that my darker skin brothers and sisters can not.

That being said…

Many fair skinned First Nations people are still affected by ongoing institutional racism and colonisation.  Our socio-economic statuses are still affected by dispossession, land theft and imposing of European customs and the dismissal of our own. Many fair skinned First Nations people also experience intergenerational trauma caused by the nation’s previous assimilation policies.

Furthermore, as Bennett notes in her study, while fair skinned First Nations people do not often experience obvious racism, they can experience micro aggressions such as people telling them that they speak well, not like other Aboriginal people or that they receive free houses. These experiences of racism along with a refusal of light skinned First Nations people’s identity can negatively affect their mental health and lead to severe depression and anxiety.


Identity is tricky for most people however it makes matters harder when imposed on you are stereotypes about who you are and what that entails. We should work to allow First Nations and other minorities to be able to define themselves.

I will end this post by adding link to a poem by Steven Oliver. The poem starts around the 50 second mark]

By Nathan Sentance