Chrissie Houston whose language group is Pitjantjatjara from the Western Desert region in the north-west of South Australia, noted that while ‘this is great distance from the River Murray, the Western Desert People connected with Indigenous people across the continent through storylines and trade routes in much the same way as the early Europeans who settled along the Murray.’ As well as showing respect for the Murray people, her statement acknowledges the importance of exchange, through trade and story, in maintaining Indigenous cultures. For her ‘Federation was just a word, actions are more impressive, we must get it right for future generations’(Weaving the Murray, 2002 p22) For these artists the health of the river was integrally connected to the maintenance of their culture.
While the terms of the project clearly offered the participants a range of opportunities to develop their own interests, for Rhonda, Nici and Chrissie, the compelling reason was the opportunity to keep their Indigenous stories and culture alive through connecting with country and exchanging stories with other Indigenous communities For them, the Federation of Australia in 1901 signified loss of culture rather than connection, and the opportunity to re-create these connections was more important than creating a lasting artwork. For the non-Indigenous artists the creation of a meaningful artwork was the key priority. This difference in emphasis could explain some of the stresses that later developed as we struggled to complete the work within an unrealistically tight time frame. However at the beginning we seemed united in our desire to find a way of telling this story of loss in a work that celebrated connection.
Details of the subjugation of Indigenous Australians over the last two centuries are only now widely acknowledged in white Australia. Evidence of the violence done to Indigenous people over vast tracts of land have often vanished or been ignored. Re-thinking and re-writing this history has resulted in the so-called ‘history wars’ a series of bitter debates amongst historians, still current, about the nature of admissible evidence and the purposes of history as a discipline, neatly summed up in the slogans, the ‘black armband’ and the ‘white blindfold’ view of history. (Manne, 2003)
As signalled by the quotation beginning this paper, the idea that you can’t understand the present without remembering the past became a guiding principle for the Weaving the Murray team. This meant researching the past history of the Murray River and its symbolic role in the process of Federation, but also understanding the meaning of the river for Indigenous and settler communities, through researching their stories and textile traditions.
In our design concept we stated:
‘The Murray River itself is an actual and symbolic link between the States…The need to balance and manage the tensions arising from competing needs and interests was a major impetus for Federation.
Through our research and the stories we collect through community consultation we will develop a design that maps the changing relationship of people to the River. We envisage an installation of woven objects that symbolically map the differences and connections between communities based on objects and materials associated with River use.’(Weaving the Murray Design Submission, 2001)