By Jennifer Ellis
After spending weeks stressing about how I would spend my first summer as a graduate student, I ended up with several options that I thought were reasonable and would lead me in a fruitful direction. These plans included myriad internships for grassroots organizations in San Francisco, a volunteering opportunity with a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Ecuador, and spending time trying to hone in on a research topic for my upcoming thesis. I spoke with my advisor, who upon first hearing these options told me that any of them would be fine; however, she boldly instead encouraged me to begin trying to travel to Australia for the summer. After all, Australia is where I want to ultimately conduct research and I had yet to visit the country. This suggestion both terrified and excited me and served as the impetus for my maiden voyage down under.
Because of this conversation with my advisor, I applied for funding from several university sources at William & Mary and was fortunate enough to be selected for a Summer Research Grant from the Reves Center. This funding has directly contributed to the costs of traveling to and staying in Australia for two weeks this summer. My research circumstances are highly unique because I have yet to narrow my research focus for my thesis and later dissertation. That being said, I made it my goal to use this trip to Australia as a careful preliminary trip that would work as the foundation for my future research ideas.
In planning this excursion, I wanted to make sure I visited the National Archives of Australia in the nation’s capital, Canberra. Additionally, I wanted to explore different museum exhibits that focus on Aboriginal communities. This meant I would be traveling to Sydney, in addition to Canberra. Furthermore, I planned to attend cultural events led by Aboriginal groups and peoples who work to strengthen awareness about indigenous rights in the country.
My first stop on the Australian journey was in Sydney. Between walking, at times aimlessly, through the many neighborhoods of Sydney, one of my initial significant academic stops was a guided walking tour of the central business district (CBD). Notably, the guide leading this tour made several mentions of European history of the city while always underscoring that this was only part of the story; tens of thousands of years of continuous history of the Aboriginal peoples inhabiting the land is frequently ignored or glossed over. This is significant to my research as “Aboriginal rights in Australia” is the guiding frame of my academic interests in the locale. Hearing white Australians consistently and pointedly explaining the Aboriginal ties to ownership of the land and historical narrative was a surprising yet enlightening aspect of my trip.
In a more general sense, the fact that tourism agencies and other popular places of interaction were openly contributing to an almost apologist narrative of white/non-white Australian relations suggests to me that understanding the mainstream efforts to include Aboriginal groups in the greater Australian cultural landscape is a possible route for my research explorations.
The subsequent stop on my trip in Sydney was the Australian Museum. This museum is the first public museum in Australia. Additionally, the museum serves as a natural history museum of sorts. My interest at the museum was the indigenous exhibit, which broadly discussed the presence of Aborigines in Australia but discussed in more detail the Gadigal people of the Eora nation from the Sydney basin. Through videos, photos, and the inclusion of Aboriginal artifacts (used with permission from the Eora nation) a non-white Australian perspective became clearer.
Finally, on one of my final days in Sydney, I was able to meet a Yuin Aboriginal elder for a tour of Guriwal (now known as La Perouse). The elder explained his family’s origins in the region, connecting his people to the broader Aboriginal history of Australia. He had tools from his family as well as vast knowledge of the local ecology, which he shared with me. This experience was particularly helpful for developing my understanding of the non-white Australian perspective that has been overshadowed for centuries.