Charlie Dennison, Toomelah, 1938. Photo: Supplied by family  

Reviving the stories of Indigenous Australians

The Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography is uncovering stories from the past to share the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Megan Dingwall writes. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware this article contains images and the names of deceased persons. 

In the early 1950s, Charlie Dennison was identified as “Australia’s oldest Aboriginal”. By then the Gomeroi man was more than 100 years old. Newspapers and magazines wrote about how he’d spent his life working on stations in New South Wales, lost his sight in one eye in an accident, and had given up riding horses only a few years earlier. 

A little while later he was back in the news, this time because of his wish to see Queen Elizabeth II during her 1954 tour. And in September 1956 it was reported he had died, aged 110.  

That might have been all we’d ever know about Dennison, if not for an initiative of The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB).

In 2020, Dennison was added to the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography (IADB). Dennison’s entry, written by his great-granddaughter Jodi Haines, is a favourite of Dr Malcolm Allbrook’s, Managing Editor of the ADB at the ANU National Centre of Biography. 

“If you only look at the newspapers or the archives, you don't actually learn very much about him,” Allbrook says.  

“What he is remembered for is that he was an incredible horse whisperer. He was really good with horses and breaking in horses, and he had tremendous cultural knowledge. 

“His memory went right back to colonial times, so he remembered how to do things like make bark canoes and the details of his culture, and Jodi, being a family member, was able to call on all that knowledge.” 

Untold stories 

Before the IADB project was launched in 2017, there were 13,000 entries in the ADB, of which only 200 were about Indigenous Australians.  

Associate Professor Shino Konishi, a Yawuru woman and historian at the Australian Catholic University, says the ADB editorial board had long recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were underrepresented. She is leading the IADB project, which received funding from the Australian Research Council in 2020.  The project’s initial goal is to create 190 new entries to reach a total of 400 biographies, which would mean Indigenous people were proportionately represented. But the aim is not just to produce a critical mass of stories, Konishi says.  

“The Indigenous Working Party, which commissions the entries and authors, also seeks to include the kinds of individual stories which reflect different parts of our history.  

“This includes how people, especially women, made lives for themselves and their families in the face of marginalisation and racism wrought by colonisation, and those who rallied against oppression as influential community figures, or through their own talents and excellence in a range of fields. 

“Some of our biographies explore individuals who continued to practice culture, and those who worked to maintain cultural practices and languages, which have survived or are being revived through their records. Hopefully the new biographies we produce will broaden and deepen readers' understandings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history.” 

That history includes people such as Turandurey, a Wiradjuri woman who guided New South Wales Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell on an 1836 expedition to explore the Darling and Murray rivers while carrying her daughter, Ballandella.   

Or Boandik woman Annie Brice, who was born in about 1849 at an Aboriginal camp near Penola Station in South Australia. She was taught to read and write by Saint Mary MacKillop and later went on to work as a domestic servant.  “She didn't achieve anything great in the European world,” Allbrook says of Brice. “But she’s remembered incredibly fondly by her community for being a strong woman who remembered her culture and who fought for the interests of her children.” 

Revisiting the past 

So far, 41 entries have been published in the IADB. But telling the stories of the past is not without its challenges. Many of the subjects died more than 100 years ago. Information is scant. Dates are vague. And what little detail there is often doesn’t paint the full picture.    

"A lot of biography traditionally relies on the written word; the documents and archives of history,” Allbrook says. “Aboriginal people didn't appear much in the archives, or if they did, it was in a negative light, such as reports of appearances before court, or being in the welfare system. So very negative and incomplete snapshots of life. 

“That means we have to look beyond the written record and that's why we involve family and community in these biographies, because they remember these people, and can speak about their whole lives, what they were like as people and why they are important.” 

The IADB project has also involved setting up new processes to identify people to be included and revising existing entries of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Allbrook says some of the biographies were not adequate. While some need only small revisions, others are being rewritten entirely.  “The Australian Dictionary of Biography is 60 years old and so some of the biographies written in the mid-1960s were really out of date, they just read like old-fashioned pieces.”  

Two biographies being rewritten are those of Arabanoo and Bennelong, Aboriginal leaders captured in 1788 and 1789 respectively on the order of then Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip. The original entries were written by Australian novelist Eleanor Dark and published in 1966.  

“They are famous figures, but their biographies read badly in this day and age,” Allbrook says. “We’re looking forward to publishing a new biography of Bennelong because he has so been often portrayed as a tragic figure. But the more we learn about him, the more we find that he wasn't a tragic figure at all. He was a powerful figure and highly respected in his community.” 

We have neglected the stories of a large part of Australian society.

The revised entries will be published on the site, but the original biographies won’t be lost, says ADB General Editor Professor Melanie Nolan. They will also be available to read online, “like a time capsule”. After all, they too are part of history. 

“The perspective we have today is different from the late 1950s and early 1960s. It's not that the past is wrong. But now, we have a critical mass of historians, of amateur and family history, and a whole groundswell of research and interest. We ask very different questions now than were asked in the past. 

“People will be able to go and look at the old entries and ask the questions: ‘Why did people write articles as they did in the 1960s? How could you write an article on Bennelong like you've written there and how is it different from this article that's written here? Also, how would it be different in the future?’ Because we have certainly not got an objective or perfect or final view of what the biographical essay of an individual will be.” 

A mirror to society  

The online biographies will be published in a standalone volume, but the project has already had a larger legacy by establishing working parties and increasing Indigenous representation on the editorial board. The researchers hope these initiatives will increase the ongoing quality of biographies about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.   

“As history changes or questions change, the ADB itself needs to be changed,” Nolan says.  

“We have neglected the stories of a large part of Australian society. The ADB has the selection principle of ‘representative’ and ‘significant’, but we've also got the view that we should be able to hold the ADB as a mirror to Australian society and everybody in society should be able to recognise themselves in the history that we're writing.” 

Allbrook says one of the most satisfying parts of the project has been to share stories of people who were not necessarily great and powerful but were meaningful to their own families and communities. 

“This project is helping bring back people from oblivion. They’ve disappeared from the historical record in many ways, but this project is helping to make them visible again.”